How to Start When You Are Putting Something Off

My 20 minute strategy to start on that big scary project that you’ve been putting off

Ever had something really important and high-level project you have been putting off for weeks?

It happened to one of my coaching students when she was gunning for a leadership level job. She hit some progress — she was offered a partial promotion. And told to write her own job description for the role.

Hurrah!! Wahoo!!… Except….

Eep. Freeze! Impostor syndrome moment. Blank page meltdown.

She sat with the task, knowing she had to sit down and write it, feeling guiltier as time went on.

You’ve been there too, right? When the thing you knew you should sit down and do but you were putting it off? The thing that was big and open-ended — the thing that you knew would make a big difference in achieving your high level goals?

hot to get started on the project you have been putting off

You’d try to carve out the time to do it, but there never seemed to be that big chunk. (You knew that secretly when you did have time you would put it off because it scared you.)

It’s a particular kind of procrastination. It’s the normal, “creative block”procrastination, supercharged by an extra dose of ‘this is important because my future is on the line…. AND I’m feeling ‘imposter syndrome’ kind of procrastination.

I’ve been there too.

I’m a designer so I’m no stranger to that good ol’ creative block thing. In the process of founding two creative businesses, I’ve had to face that second type a lot.

If you’re facing a creative block, I recommend books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and Danielle Krysa’s Creative Block. (Bonus, they’re also both beautiful to look at and touch too.)

But for that very special brand of future-focused imposter syndrome-fueled procrastination, I have a special trick up my sleeve to share with you.

My secret?

I never create anything.

No, it’s true.

As a creative, I try never to create anything from scratch. And as a coach of creative women in design, that’s what I teach my clients to do.

Instead? I collect, and then I edit.

In doing so, it never feels like I’ve created anything, so I manage to sidestep that nasty inner critic. There’s never any point that feels like I’m sitting down to that horrifyingly blank page. My inner critic gets fooled. It never gets its trigger that it’s time to come out and play (and shut down my progress.)

What do I use this on?

Everything. This blog post. My sales pages. The design of my programs. Even planning my vacations.

We use it to develop career visions in my Next Level program. It’s the foundation of the Cover Letter Mad Libs my coaching students use.

Pretty much everything.

Want my secret ninja trick?

Here’s my 20 minute strategy for getting started when you’ve been putting off that big thing you’re afraid of. So that thing you’ve been putting off has been created, without ever telling your critic that you’re creating.

Step 1:

Make a Bucket

When I have a big open ended task to do I start by creating something to collect the pieces. I’ll create a file on my computer or a physical space in my office to ‘collect’ the pieces — like an Evernote file I’ve had for more than a year collecting ideas and thoughts for a future book I want to write, entitled “Risk Book,” or a collection of inspiration images and ideas for a painting series I’d like to do, or a set of ideas for future resources I’d like to create on the wall of my office.

Sometimes you need to create a little more structure. So sometimes I think about the kinds of things I might need to “collect” in order to make the thing I’m making. So for the student I mentioned, we had her write down “Responsibilities,” “Qualifications,” and “Results Achieved”, then start dropping thoughts and ideas in.

Here’s the ‘buckets’ I created for this blog post:

20 minute strategy to get started when you are putting something off

Step 2:

Collect the Pieces

The next step is to start collecting the pieces. I like to do this over a period of time because then it doesn’t feel like I ever sat down to ‘write’ or ‘create.’ Then, I paste it up on the wall. Or collect post-it note ‘aha’s that come up over the course of my day.

how to get started when you are putting something off- how I use my walls

And this is why I often do this physically — so I can see the problem and be mulling on it subconsciously while I go about my day-to-day. When asked by a consultant for my requirements for my contact management system, I pasted a page on the wall and wrote ‘CRM Needs’ on it. As needs occurred to me or challenges came up in my day-to-day, I jotted them in. I did the same for my marketing plan.

Occasionally, if I feel I need a big boost of ideas, I’ll take a tip from my friend Sarah Kathleen Peck, and set the clock for a (slightly obscene) short amount of time and give myself an assignment.

“Two minutes to brainstorm all the things perfectionism can hold you back on. Go.”

Or I’ll give myself 20 minutes to google with an open question like ‘what are better questions to ask in an informational interview.’

The point is to use the exercise to focus my mind on the question and reveal what I already know and dump it out of my brain.

Step 3:

Organize and Expand the Pieces (if necessary)

Once I have the pieces, if necessary, I’ll look at what I collected and drop it into ‘sub-buckets.’ I’ll look at the ideas I’ve brainstormed for a blog post and start to organize them into headings. I’ll often use somewhat arbitrary structures of ‘sub-buckets’, like, if this marketing plan had 3 big pillars, what would they be?

When formalizing my coaching methodology after a year of working with students, I started with a ‘collection’ of coaching tools, processes and key moments I’d had with my clients. Ideas I had “collected” through timed sessions looking through old coaching materials, and ‘ahas’ I’d had in the six weeks I was working on this project.

how I use my walls to get started on the big project when I am putting it off

Once I have the pieces “dropped in” I’ll expand them. Have 3 bullet points under the ‘how to’ section of a blog post? I’ll challenge myself to turn each into two paragraphs apiece.

Sound a little arbitrary? It is.

There’s something about that approach that discharges the inner critic. It feels that we can’t just write any blog post on dealing with creative block, we need to write the best possible blog post in’ frickin’ ever, like Pulitzer Prize-winning blog post on dealing with creative blocks. So it will cause us to agonize over finding the perfect structure. Writing the perfect sentence. Making the perfect transition.

I call BS.

Not everything has to fit. It’s ok for some of the ideas to go in the ‘someday, maybe’ pile and get recycled for the future. I file them away in an appropriate bucket, or just trust that if they were good enough ideas, they’ll re-emerge when I need them.

Not everything has to sound pretty. It just has to do the job so it looks more or less, like a …..


Because the next step is:

Step 4:

Edit Your Draft

Magic! You now have a draft to edit.

This is why I love this process, because as a ‘reforming perfectionist’, I’m not a great writer.

I’d rather write a ‘good to ok’ blog post on dealing with creative blocks, and then edit it into a great blog post. And I suspect you would rather edit a blog post, or a job description, or a cover letter, or your artists’ statement, or your vacation plan, or your material palette than create it too.

And if it hasn’t been clear — I like to do each of these steps one at a time and then do other stuff in between. I may start my collection one week, collect for the next two, edit the following week and then print out a draft and leave it on my desk. The next morning I envision myself as a big boss reviewing what her underling has put together for her, and I feel a little badass and in charge.

Or I may do it over the course of a day or two.

It aids me in my successful Thelma and Louise-style evasion of the inner critic, but I think it does something else too. It aids me in leveraging my subconscious mind to do the work and to collect the pieces for me. It’s like giving my inner wise woman a special drop site to drop off the goods while no one’s watching.

Well, that was a lot of crime TV analogies there, but you get the picture.

Use this method to sidestep your inner critic and you’ll find that you’re getting big scary things done more often in 20 minutes or less.

(If you are still dealing with that nasty inner critic, head over to this article to get it in check.)

And your inner critic will never know how you did it.

Ready to stop putting off the really important stuff and sidestep your inner critic? Watch my short brain bucket video, so when you feel stuck, you can take 20 minutes and get back on track.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.