How I Try to Mentally Unblock Myself

It’s Tuesday at 3 PM. I have a few hours of good work left, but get stuck on something pretty basic. Without thinking, I flit around on the internet for a little while doing fruitless research or goof off or grab a snack, and then return to the problem at hand ten minutes later. I then proceed to fix it in two minutes.

Did it really take me twelve minutes to fix it, or could I have fixed it more quickly by taking the right approach?

I find being able to unblock myself important because I work fairly independently. Bouncing ideas off of others is useful, but perhaps no one else is not around or it would be pretty distracting to bother them. Obviously, it’s important not to overlook coworkers or experts who might know the answer to the question I’m having. These strategies also help others become unblocked.

(Most of the examples and fixes here apply to software development, but they could also apply to business strategy or other domains. I had a subset of this post in The 20% Difference post, but I thought there were more strategies than I outlined there.

Unblocking Myself

One of the most helpful things to think about is: can I clearly state the exact problem I am having? If it’s an error code or a specific condition, at least realizing this can provide me with concrete information to think about or to search for an answer for. Which of these would be more useful:

  • some pages are not being served correctly versus
  • when we access HTTPS pages in the production environment, they are not being served correctly by our application

Ambiguity in my wording points to things that I need to understand better to be able to solve the problem effectively.

Writing in plain English what the problem is will either point to a lack of knowledge of what the problem is, or another set of search terms or things to think about. If I lack knowledge of what the exact problem is, sometimes inspecting the logs or tinkering around to see if I can get more information or a different failure helps me to clarify what the issue is.

Another example is getting more fine-grained to increase motivation:

  • revise website versus
  • improve home page by adding two testimonials I have in my email inbox (and so on)

I think the second one is more actionable. So if I am getting hung up, breaking up the problem can be pretty useful.

They Want the Report in Green!

I find it hard to get motivated to start when I don’t fully understand the intent for something. In this case, I try to think through who might need this feature, and if I still can’t figure it out, I ask a stakeholder. Generally I trust my gut on this. There are times when the person who wanted the feature did not think through everything, or the system can already do what they need it to do. Or sometimes the feature request itself is vague, and needs to be clarified, at least on my end.

Punt for Prosperity

Do I need to solve the “problem” under consideration right now, or could it be deferred and worked on as part of another task? Perhaps it’s just worth finishing what I am working on and polishing the edge cases later. This allows me to deliver any value more quickly. Especially if I don’t know if my general approach will even work, getting bogged down in the small details is a good way to lose motivation. Maybe this is a good time to write a note to revisit the problem or reach out to someone asynchronously to get clarification.

Zooming Out and Zoning Out

Often I take a step back to unblock myself. Are there other things on my mind right now that are causing me to be unable to focus? Maybe I am hungry or worried about something coming up soon or work that is unfinished on another project. In this case, basic journaling can point out where I am blocked and allow me to address it or realize that I can safely ignore the issue for now.

At other times it is best to just take a dedicated and perhaps timeboxed break. When I look back after mindlessly wasting an hour on the internet, I often ask myself, if I could have gone for a walk outside or meditated or read a book instead, would this have been better for me? Usually the answer is yes. So when I realize that I would like to take a break, if I can channel that break energy into something either mildly productive or totally relaxing and fun, then it’s a small win.

How do you mentally unblock yourself?

I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s experiences with getting over small humps.

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