17 January 2024

I’ve noticed that sometimes when I get stuck on something, it’s because I’m trying to force thoughts to be complete.

When I’m procrastinating, I can usually bring myself to start thinking about the thing, but then all the issues and complications get kicked up, it throws me off, and I don’t end up with any idea of what to do. The problem is I subconsciously don’t recognise the incomplete thought—the process of figuring out what to do—as valid, so I don’t hold onto it. Every time I think about it, I have to start again from scratch. Of course, you know it, I invariably do this over and over again, never properly finishing the thread and getting unstuck.

I’ve found that the way out is, very simply, to have some trick to catch incomplete stuff. As paraphrased from the gtd podcast:

Dave E: But when I’m processing my pile of stuff, what do I do with the stuff I don’t know where to put?
David A: Just have a pile for stuff you don’t know where to put.

Dave was stuck with the idea that uncertainty and incompleteness aren’t allowed. He was trying to do two things at once: organise his stuff according to what he thought of it, AND decide what he thought of it. Now, he can paradoxically step outside the problem. “Uncategorised” is now a category.

It’s so obvious it’s actually funny to be reminded of it. (Dave’s response was laughter.) I still have to remind myself all the time. Do I have a stuck task “do X” on my to-do list? The task is now “figure out how to do X.” Or “decide if I even want to do X.” The output is just a note on my phone with my thoughts. Again, you step back and turn “clarify the task” into a task.

It can feel a bit like falling back onto an algorithm. The natural, intuitive approach to “do X” isn’t working, so you say, “well, how do I do things? I guess maybe I research a few ways of doing it, write them down, decide on pros and cons, then pick one and try it. So I guess I just apply that general formula to ‘X’.” You just go a bit robot mode and treat it like any other placeholder objective. In return, you get way more comfortable pausing and picking up incomplete stuff, and less likely to get stuck.

I think this a thing on a very subconscious level too. I think this is part of what you do in breath-focusing meditation: you’re acknowledging all the incomplete, unresolved stuff in your mind, and you’re realising that, yep, I’m still breathing; even though my mind is grasping to resolve everything before the next breath, I will make many more, and things will still be incomplete. Without keeping this in mind, sometimes I will be literally unaware of something until I’m done with it. I won’t pay any attention to the specific sounds I’m making, or the silences, as I speak: I’m focused on getting the words out. It sometimes feels like I start running a program and only get back control when it’s finished.