This is part of my series on Mental Models about Productivity

Sometimes I feel stuck while working on a new project (for work) and feel uncertain of what to do. This creates a vague sense of unease, and a flurry of questions fly through my head: What should I do? Where do I even start?

If unchecked, these questions advance to their inevitable destination:
Why does this always happen to me? How can I escape this discomfort?

My natural inclination is to seek solace with a “quick” diversion: check Twitter, watch YouTube, peruse the news, organize my office, browse Goodreads’ booklists, or traipse through, looking at books and physics toys. Getting distracted is my superpower!

But I learned the hard way that distraction is a dragon that devours my time. The more time it consumes, the more my anxiety jar fills with marbles.

And telling myself, Just don’t get distracted! Just power through! doesn’t work because it fails to address my discomfort and its underlying cause.

The solution is to walk through these five steps:

  1. I acknowledge that I’m uncomfortable because I lack vital information.
  2. I accept that I am responsible for sussing-out this information.
  3. I accept that this will take time, and I may need to talk to key people that I don’t know well.
  4. I trust my boss* to give me time to track down answers, introduce me to people, and offer support when I’m blocked.
  5. I create a list of questions and then go find their answers.

Sounds easy, at least in theory, right?

But, working through the five steps is emotionally taxing. Accepting responsibility for gathering critical details is scary: What if the project cannot be completed in the manner, or timeframe, my boss expects?

Uncovering unknowns, and unknown unknowns, leaves me feeling exhausted. Figuring out which people have the specifics, and getting the runaround, is draining. For large projects, it feels like an endless spiral of dependencies.

But going through the five steps is the best way to get unstuck and make progress on new projects. It’s the only way I’ve found to stave off the dragon of distraction. And it prevents marbles from cascading into my anxiety jar.

So, try it out: next time you feel stuck or uncertain about a new project, walk through the 5 steps. Make a list of questions you have. Do this, and you’ll feel less stress.

Be well, my friend.

* If your boss is unreasonable, it’s time to find a new job.