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How to Get Started When You Just Can’t Get Started

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Cracking an egg into a bowl is a two-step process. First there’s the careful strike onto the countertop. You want to crack it just enough to enable the second step.

The second step is to pull the cracked egg apart. You put your fingertips along the jagged edges of the crack and gently pull, trying to release the yolk and white cleanly into the bowl.

You cannot pull apart an uncracked egg, because it’s smooth and edgeless. The whole point of the first step is to change the egg into the kind of egg you can pull apart, by giving it a place for your fingertips to go.

You’re probably already very good at these two steps, but there are more after that. Depending on what sort of egg-related project you’ve taken on here, each subsequent step will require its own skills and types of effort. For one thing, you need to get the shell to the trash or compost bucket without leaving a line of egg white on the counter — a skill in itself. Scrambling the egg requires you to get a good, tight circular motion going, while deftly pulling down the unbeaten yellow from the edges, perhaps turning the bowl with one hand as you whisk with the other. Meanwhile you’ve already turned on the pan to the right setting for scrambled eggs, and you’ve done this at the right time so that the pan doesn’t overheat but is also ready when the eggs are.

Not made by a 5-year-old

As complex as this process sounds when described, none of these steps are very cognitively demanding to an experienced adult. Your hands can probably dance smoothly from one to the next, even while talking to someone or listening to an audiobook.

But that’s only because you’ve done this before. Your five-year old might find the same set of steps to be exceedingly fussy and complex. Even if they’re eager to try making an omelet, they’ll need a fair amount of instructional preamble and live coaching.

Cracking the egg is the step most likely to go well. Little kids know how to break things, and they can quickly learn how to break it just a bit but not too much. Even with proper guidance, however, the rest of the above culinary slalom will be hard for them to pull off. Things will likely go wrong somewhere, and you may have to take remedial action: fishing shell fragments out of the bowl, sopping up egg white from the counter or floor, or perhaps even starting over with a new egg. There may be tears.

Why We Don’t “Just Get Started”

However old you are, it’s hard doing anything when it’s as unfamiliar, complex, and finnicky to you as making an omelet is to a kindergartener. Many of the items on our grownup to-do lists can feel exactly like that if we don’t have much experience with them. If you haven’t bought a car before, it’s hard to know where to start, and how to make sure you do well. Same with hosting an event, planning a presentation, or getting your photos organized. These tasks may be straightforward for the pros, but you’re not a pro. For the beginner, they’re daunting, opaque, and full of pitfalls.

These tasks are the kind you feel you have have to “tackle” rather than just do — such as “organize the garage” or “start a website for the woodworking business.” They do need to be done, but you have to figure out what they even are before you can do them. From the outside they seem to have a lot of moving parts, and you won’t know what those parts are until you’re in the middle of juggling them, perhaps with a smoking pan on the element and egg white running down your forearm.

Me addressing a website issue

One understandable response to these sorts of tasks is to wait, at least for now. Maybe you can learn more about it first. You can talk to so-and-so about it when you get a chance, which might make it finally feel startable. There are certainly enough other, more familiar tasks to do in the meantime.

Before you know it, you’re actively procrastinating — your reasons for delaying no longer convince even you. This is where a well-meaning friend might say, “Just get started!” And they’re right to — tasks get psychologically much easier once you start them.

But you already know you should get started. Getting started is exactly what you don’t know how to do. The project has no clear edges to grasp, no entrance point. It is an uncracked egg.

Don’t Get Started, Crack the Egg

Instead of telling yourself to “get started,” which is precisely what you don’t know how to do, you can just focus on breaking the task’s outer seal, which is what makes it so smooth and difficult to grip. In other words, you can crack the egg, so that it no longer appears to the mind as an opaque, unified object with no obvious way in.

Just like with a real egg, you only have to damage the task’s exterior a little bit in order to transform it, to make it ready for step two, and it doesn’t particularly matter where on its surface you do that. As soon as the egg is cracked, it becomes a different object — one that tells you what to do with it.

A task, humbled

How would one crack the egg of “clean up the garage,” for example? Well, you could go around the garage with a trash bag, and pick out anything that’s clearly garbage. This is perhaps not what a professional garage organizer would do, but it doesn’t matter. By the time you’re ten minutes past this arbitrary entry point, it will already be clearer how to continue with the whole job. You’ve seen the guts of the task, you have some idea of what sorts of things have to be done, and you’ve done one of them. It’s not so daunting now.

What about organizing the photos? If you were going to properly “get started,” you might assume you first have to design a top-down system for organizing the photos (by date? Subject? A tagging system?) before you can even begin to gather them and put them in the right folders. Maybe you feel you should do some web research on photo organization systems so that you don’t screw up this all-important first step.

About ready to think about getting started

Instead, you could forget all that and just crack the egg: find some photos on your computer, make a few folders for the different types of pictures you see there, and sort a good handful of them until you feel like you’ve done something.

Then schedule a longer session to simply continue from where you were, in whatever direction seems appropriate. With only this arbitrary beginning, you’ve made a viable entrance point into the task, and you can return through the same route. The next steps don’t have to be pulled out of thin air.

Cracking the egg might not sound that different from “getting started,” but the psychological difference is immense. Getting started implies you know what you’re doing — what you should do first, second, third, and so on. But usually you don’t, so you need something to do, now, that any untrained, underconfident normal person can do — like damaging any part of a thin outer shell.

When the scolding part of my mind urges me to “tackle” something, or “just get started” on it, those phrases remind me that I can just crack the egg. Just damage the thing. After that, it can no longer keep you out, because now you have a good and obvious place to put in your fingertips and pull.

***

Photos by Laura Goodsell, Emma Houghton, John Torcasio, Fernando Andrade, and Cesar Carlevarino

{ 34 Comments }

Jason GL August 23, 2022 at 6:12 pm

This was useful, thanks!

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Calen Horton August 24, 2022 at 5:51 am

David,

This is a brilliant piece. I love your egg analogy, but beyond that, I’m glad that you managed to eloquently point out such a subtle concept. A lot of people go through life treating actions as holistic wholes without realizing that they are actually comprised of smaller parts, and it is possible to get lost in the space between those fractional pieces of action.

I’m reminded of the centipede analogy. A centipede can move all hundred legs just fine, thank you, until you ask him how he does it.

There are a lot of things that people perceive as seamless wholes that have internal dynamics that can break down. And once they’ve broken down you realize just how complex they are. For example, when your ability to say “no” to an addictive behavior breaks down, it is difficult to figure out exactly where in your soul to look in order to find the mechanism that repeatedly leads you to betray yourself.

Another one that I found particularly meaningful – some psychological research is uncovering relationships between anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure, in depression) and attention. I don’t think people have charted the exact mechanisms yet. One of my running theories, however, is that depression has an “attention capturing” effect that repeatedly yanks a person’s attention inward and blocks them from attending to outside details long enough to even begin to feel pleasure from them.

I know, however, that those examples are mostly tangential to your discussion. I love how you applied the bigger idea to productivity with the idea of “cracking” action by starting somewhere, anywhere. I think your post here is as close to a perfect description of both the problem and solution as I’ve ever seen. I hope that others find it useful as well.

C

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David Cain August 24, 2022 at 9:39 am

I believe the psychology field will learn a TON about the origins of various conditions when they are able to reliably teach people strong attentional skills (such as the skills involved in mindfulness. The stronger your attentional skills, the more you can see the granular causes and effects that make up the overall mechanism.

I have seen, for example, the EXACT MOMENT my feelings are impacted by something someone says, or something I witness. If people could reliably see those moments with clarity, they would gain a much greater understanding of how their minds and emotions operate — which would be in turn be extremely valuable information to a therapist.

Here’s how I think that works. The stronger your mindfulness at any given moment, the greater the resolution with which you can see life. You see everything in very fine, moment-to-moment arisings, rather than big clunky conceptual chunks, and so it’s much easier to move through life. When someone says something that upsets you, it doesn’t create a “bad day” or even a “bad mood,” it stays small and high-resolution — a comment uttered, a pang of emotion felt. Then you’re aware of the experience *as a sensory experience*, rather than a story, and can make choices from there. When you can engage with life on a much more granular level than usual, it’s easier to do what makes sense, instead of colliding with and bouncing off the big chunky things life would otherwise seem to be. I have no idea if I’m getting this analogy across, but it is so clear to me.

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Ecoteri August 24, 2022 at 4:27 pm

@Calen, thank you for your thoughtful response. I found David’s post to be surprisingly powerful (so much so that I shared the concept with my son this morning as we were driving together, and he, too, thought it made a lot of sense. He tends to be frozen and unable to get started, David’s explanation about the smooth shell just totally nailed it for him. Here is hoping). When we got back from driving and I read your addition, the depression idea and the addiction idea both really resonate.

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Vincent August 24, 2022 at 5:55 am

I wanted to leave a comment to your last twenty articles, but I didn’t know what to say. Today I decided to just crack the egg :)
I will take this secret with me and finish many tasks. Thank you, David.

{ Reply }

David Cain August 24, 2022 at 9:39 am

Thanks, and good luck Vincent!

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Steven Goolian August 24, 2022 at 6:01 am

Hi David,
I like the analogy. As in making an omelet, one must be prepared to break a few eggs along the learning process, which represents momentum. Though small, this first step is essential to overcoming inertia. Procrastination is beguiling, as it works on the back burner of my resolve, until it builds to a slow rolling boil. At some point, that discouraging “not yet” voice becomes “Yes, now!” And I’m off and running. Thanks for the brain food. Time to stop procrastinating and get on with my day.

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Vicki Atkins August 24, 2022 at 7:09 am

I agree with Carlen above. This is brilliant and a spot on depiction of the mechanics of this idea.
I will be sending this to my stepdaughter who just moved away for college and is about to face many new tasks without the familiar supports of her family. I hope she makes time to read it, its invaluable!
Thank you once again for shining a light on our inner workings. I have been a subscriber for many years now because your essays always touch a truth point in me. I appreciate your thoughts and ideas and I am so happy that you continue to publish for the greater good of your readers!

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Jenni August 24, 2022 at 7:58 am

I love the breakdown: it is easy enough for us simpletons.
Everything else that I wanted to say has been more than adequately stated by comments above mine.
Thanks so much for sharing your brilliance with the world!

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Susie August 24, 2022 at 8:11 am

It would have been more helpful if the examples weren’t of things that are just time consuming but easy to figure out, like cleaning a garage or organizing photos. What about the things we have NO CLUE about how to do?

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David Cain August 24, 2022 at 9:41 am

Can you give an example of one of these tasks? I think it’s probably pretty rare that we truly have no clue about how to crack the task open a bit.

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Scott August 24, 2022 at 8:52 pm

This comes up all the time in computer programming. You learn as you do and sometimes you find yourself down a false path and then you just have to go back and start over from scratch. That’s part of figuring it out.

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Chloe-Ann August 24, 2022 at 8:38 am

I love this!! Focus on cracking the egg!! Thank you for sharing this brain trick!!

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Cara Vogl August 24, 2022 at 8:42 am

Woooo you were in my head at exactly the right moment on this one, David!(in my case, the current ‘uncracked egg’ is giving up my Montreal apartment and moving to Mexico (in 5 weeks… because procrastination)!

{ Reply }

Vicki August 24, 2022 at 8:53 am

Excellent read. The idea that you must “get started” by knowing ahead of time all the steps for organizing a task is so often the sticking point. I have a relative who has this problem and his life has become so disorganized that he seems “frozen” to do even basic tasks in maintaining his home and personal effects. I’d send him your post but he would misread my intent. Somewhere in his life, “shame” has emerged as his response to criticism of his procrastination.

{ Reply }

David Cain August 24, 2022 at 9:45 am

I resonate with a lot of those feelings — the shame and the frozenness. Getting professional help is probably a good idea, but it will have to ultimately be on his own initiative.

{ Reply }

Alice August 24, 2022 at 10:05 am

Apropos of nothing, going around with a trash bag is step 1 of organizer Dana K. White’s system. Clearly you are a natural. That’s how she helps people get started who feel paralyzed. There is a problem with people who feel resistance to even an easy, obvious step like that though and that’s how hoarders are born. They don’t want to crack the egg and I wonder why.

{ Reply }

Karen August 24, 2022 at 11:27 am

This is beautiful. Your writing is clean. It clarifies. Makes simple the things that we make hard. I’m not a writer, but I find your writing very satisfying.
Every time I read something of yours, I want to immediately consume everything you have ever published. But alas, I don’t have the attention span to do so. So when your material crosses my path and I take the time to take it in, I am transported, if only briefly, to a place of hope and delight.
Please keep bringing to us, your wisdom and gift of sharing it. And I will seek to follow.
Thank you David.

{ Reply }

Karen, again August 24, 2022 at 11:44 am

I posted at 11:27 am today and then read all the other comments.
Wow. Thank you to everyone in this discussion. So much insight. It brings me comfort to hear from others that experience life as I do. Of course, we know we are not alone, but what are the chances that we, in our circles, are surrounded by people who do and think as we do? Therein lies the source of shame, discouragement, and negative self-talk. I’m so glad for this community of folks who are seeking to understand self and others. This allows us to be more gracious with ourselves and each other.

{ Reply }

Kaz August 30, 2022 at 7:13 pm

Very good point Karen, and I agree – it’s so nice to see that other people are struggling with the same things as us (well, it’s not nice that they are struggling, but that the experience is far more universal than we first thought, and thus, lessening the shame/ discouragement/ negative self talk, as you mentioned)!

{ Reply }

Kharmin J August 24, 2022 at 12:27 pm

As others have said – THANK YOU, David!!! <3

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Giovanni Tertulli August 25, 2022 at 1:55 am

I love this kind of posts. Especially reading them over breakfast. They are the perfect reminder of how to approach whatever work task I am to face, especially now that I have a new long-term plan to structure and don’t know exactly how to get started…I’ll just crack the egg, and go on from there!

{ Reply }

David Smith August 25, 2022 at 4:29 am

‘A task, humbled’ Excellent.
I am reading this just on the other side of this challenge, not that I have it all figured out, but I can see it more clearly now. I have decades of experience with the “…wait, just for now..” and the rabbit hole of learning and talking and delaying and so on.
Thanks for the excellent metaphor. I will keep that image in front of me as I tackle the next challenges.

David

{ Reply }

Rosie August 25, 2022 at 10:04 am

Love this piece, David. You’ve given hope to a virtuoso procrastinator. ‘Just damage the thing’ – so empowering!

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Al Mazzoni August 26, 2022 at 5:24 am

This story is excellent! I can totally relate to the difficulties of getting started. I am an inventor so it’s very difficult for me to take the plunge and start. I would much rather live inside my head where I think it’s safe but it really isn’t. I can talk myself out of anything very easily when it comes to getting started. I love the “cracking the egg” analogy. Who cares if you make a little mess anyway? Fear stops us all the time but as soon as you crack that egg, it gets pushed aside a little bit and your momentum slowly gets replaced with confidence.

{ Reply }

Kathy August 28, 2022 at 10:49 am

I’m adding the shorthand phrase “just crack the egg” to my vocabulary–I see how useful it will be when I’m waffling about starting something I don’t fully understand how to complete!

Thank you for all your thought-provoking posts.

{ Reply }

Terence Wall August 30, 2022 at 12:15 pm

Thanks as always, David.

I too like the egg-cracking analogy but to the true procrastinator it presents another problem – they know in advance that once it’s cracked it has to be used immediately, so they are aware that they are committing to completing the task. Hence, they might not crack it.

But every task, or project, has those two old accountancy favourites: fixed costs and variable costs, in these cases time.

The fixed costs are all the things you have to do before you can “get started” on the real activity. Trying to think out the full set of activities in advance is a huge fixed upfront cost, either in the garage or the photo-sorting example. So, too tough to start today, then. Maybe tomorrow.

But the real downside of this approach, even if you force yourself to do it, is that it doesn’t work. As has been said “battle plans survive until first contact with the enemy”.

So, the best approach is the 10-minute trial. What could you do without a fixed plan in such a short time? Well, you could pick just one box out of the many in the garage and sort the contents as you wish: dump, regular use, occasional use, give away, sell, sentimental (my dad’s broken screwdriver), or whatever categories you decide. Or look at one folder of holiday photos from years ago and move them to different and properly labelled folders: best few (usually people), keep (usually views), delete.

Ten minutes after starting you’ve finished, and the best part is you have already started to create your eventual ideal final environment. In other words, the fixed cost, in advance, burden has been replaced by the first, variable cost and satisfying piece of constructive activity and your plan has evolved naturally from that for the next ten minute blitz.

Chances are, that could be straight away.

I just don’t understand how you knew that those two projects are first and second on my “do this sometime” list, but thanks for getting me to work out how to start!

{ Reply }

Neil Hocking September 5, 2022 at 2:18 am

David, you have now officially become my daily morning read. As well as following your advice myself, I am now firing off links to friends and family members. My daughter was having a back to school meltdown last night. I WhatsApp’d her a link to your advice for overwhelmed people. Despite teen accusations of me trying to brainwash her and being an agent of the evil education system, she went off to school no problem this morning. I have a feeling she might have had a sneaky peek. Now, my personal crack the egg example is with gardening. I am a bewildered novice and have been banned from looking after the house plants. So, I just planted a rhubarb in a random bit of dirt and pruned the apple tree. Both are coming along fine.

{ Reply }

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Pipsterate September 11, 2022 at 1:51 pm

Good stuff, although I often get stuck at an even earlier stage, which I like to call “Wash The Pan.”

{ Reply }

Alex O'Donahue September 16, 2022 at 2:34 pm

This post is brilliant! Can’t tell you how much this helps my mind. I panic when I “have to get started”, but once ‘in’, I can keep going. You are an incredible thinker & writer!

{ Reply }

seo September 22, 2022 at 4:26 am

Amazing!!

{ Reply }

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