Unless you’ve really annoyed a government, major corporation, or super villain, you’re almost certainly your own worst enemy. You procrastinate, not because some evil genius has devoted every waking minute to distracting you from your important tasks, but because you’re human. The only demons keeping you awake at night are your own.
But just like with any enemies, there are ways to fight yourself. You can overcome mental blocks and get your important work done. You just need to learn how.
In this tutorial, I'll identify six causes of mental blocks. I'll also share some techniques for how to get rid of a mental block.
What Is a Mental Block?
It can be hard to come up with a mental block definition, but generally speaking a mental block is any psychological obstacle you put in your own way, almost always subconsciously. The classic example is writer’s block, where, no matter how hard you try to write something, you just can’t get good words down on the page. You can sit and stare at a blank screen for as long as you like, but the words just won’t come. You want to write them and you might even have an idea of what you want to say, but you just can’t get it to work.
There are dozens of different mental blocks and they can come from hundreds of different sources. Fear of failure, fear of success, depression, hunger, and the like can all cause you to get in your own way.
Mental blocks, as soon as you recognise them, are actually quite easy to deal with. It’s realising that you've got one that’s the hard part. If you’re here, you’re probably ready to get started so let’s dig in.
Here are some common causes of mental block as well as some tips for getting past mental blocks:
1. Writer’s Block
As I said above, writer’s block is one of the most common mental blocks. One of the problems with it is that the harder you try to force good words to come, the less likely it is to happen. Your frustration just puts your mental state more and more at odds with the flow state you’re trying to achieve.
Now while I’m calling it writer’s block and talking about it a little bit from my perspective as a writer, it’s certainly not unique to writers. It’s the exact same mental block when you can’t find the right words for an email, draw a total blank when you try to put together a PowerPoint, or just can’t seem to close a sale.
How to Deal With Writer’s Block
The good news about writer’s block is there are plenty of simple strategies to tackle writer’s (or coder’s or presenter’s or designer’s or salesperson’s) block. Try a few of them and see which works for you.
- Step away and do something else. The simplest way to deal with writer’s block is to stop banging your head against the wall. Step away for an hour or two. Either go outside for a walk or do some other non-creative task like replying to emails or updating your accounts. Then, in a little while, you can go back to writing (or whatever) and approach it with fresh eyes. You’d be amazed at how well this works.
- Do it badly first. Writer’s block often stems from wanting to do something perfectly the first time, but when you think about it, that’s kind of insane. I didn’t write this (exceptional) article that you’re reading in one go. I did one draft, revised it, then submitted it to my editor who made yet more revisions. That means it took three passes from two people before it was in the state you see it now. If you’re struggling to get something done, try thinking of it as a first draft. Don’t worry about how good what you’re doing is, just get something, anything, done.
Procrastination is the worst. I’m sure you’ve had it where, no matter how hard you try to get work done, you just can’t stop yourself mindlessly flicking through Facebook or watching “just one more” YouTube video. Researchers estimate that the average office worker spends two hours a day procrastinating.
How to Deal With Procrastination
The two best solutions I’ve found for motivating yourself are:
- using the Pomodoro method
- blocking all distractions so you’ve no other option but to work
With the Pomodoro method you set a timer for 25 minutes and work until it rings. When it rings you stop, take a five-minute break, and then start the timer again. After you’ve gone through four 25-minute work periods, you take a longer, 15-minute break; that’s one cycle. To learn more about the Pomodoro method, study this guide:
The great thing about the Pomodoro method is you don’t have to motivate yourself to work for hours. You just have to set a timer and say, “Okay, for the next 25 minutes, I’m not looking at Facebook, I’m working. And then I can look at Facebook.” It really works and my only thing to add to it is, if you’re still procrastinating, shorten the work period even more: do 20 minutes of work and take a ten-minute break. You’ll often find you get into the work and start skipping breaks.
The other great option is to just make procrastination impossible. I use the Mac app Focus to block distracting apps and websites. I've got it set up so I can’t turn it off for an hour once I turn it on. You can also disconnect your computer from the internet or uninstall distracting apps. Give it a try. And if you’re really serious, combine it with the Pomodoro method.
3. Misplaced Priorities
I’m currently working with a startup and one thing we’ve very deliberately not done is design our logo. Why? Because at this early stage it’s completely unimportant. We need a working service a lot more than nice-looking office stationery. But here’s the thing, the first move a lot of startups make is to spend time designing a sick professional logo. They’ll have meetings, consult designers, and go through dozens of revisions to have a perfect logo… for a product that doesn’t exist yet.
So think about it, are any of your priorities misplaced right now? Are you spending too much time working on fun, easy projects but avoiding the high paying hard ones? Are you pouring all your effort into rearranging your workspace rather than getting the work done?
How to Deal With Misplaced Priorities
Misplaced priorities tend to happen when people haven’t seriously thought about what their priorities are. In that situation, most people just default to doing the simplest, easiest task that’s ahead of them. Startups know they’ll need a logo at some point, so why not do it now? There are pretty clearly defined steps to design one where as developing your product is scary and hard.
From this then, it follows that the best way to deal with misplaced priorities is to actually think about them. To look at all the things you’re trying to accomplish in the next few months or years and work out what you need to do to achieve them. In short, to set goals for both you and your business.
We’ve already looked at goal setting in depth, so go check out our tutorial on it:
4. Ignoring the Important
The Eisenhower Matrix classifies tasks into quadrants based on two axes: importance and urgency.
- Quadrant One is tasks that are both important and urgent. These are things like impending deadlines, important sales opportunities, and crises.
- Quadrant Two is tasks that are important, but not urgent. These are things like maintaining healthy business relationships, long term planning, and product development.
- Quadrant Three is tasks that are unimportant, but urgent. Think things like the constant stream of emails piling into your inbox, meetings, random interruptions, and anything else that screams “DEAL WITH ME NOW!”
- Quadrant Four is tasks that are unimportant and not urgent. They don’t really exist in businesses, but are where a lot of pleasant personal stuff happens (like watching movies or Netflix).
Just looking over the Decision Matrix, you should very quickly start to see the problem with this mental block. Tasks in Quadrant Two are what make up most of the things you need to do to succeed in life or business. They don’t have to be dealt with right now, but if you neglect them now you’ll suffer down the line. Tasks in Quadrant Three are things that demand to be dealt with immediately, but don’t add any long-term value to what you’re doing.
If you spend all your day answering unimportant emails rather than building your business, then you’re probably guilty of ignoring the important for the urgent.
How to Deal With Ignoring the Urgent
In describing the mental block above, I’ve actually already given you the solution: use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to analyse how you spend your time. This is especially important to do if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or wonder how you can work all day and get nothing done. It’s super common for people to get caught up tackling Quadrant Three tasks when they really should be focusing on Quadrant Two.
Once you’re aware of your problem, the hard work begins in trying to fix it. Start by asking yourself every time something comes up what quadrant it falls into. If it’s not One or Two, ignore it.
Now, there'll obviously be some limit on the amount of Quadrant Three tasks you can ignore. And some things that are commonly called Quadrant Three, like answering emails, might actually be Quadrant One. Ignoring all emails and meetings is foolish, but eliminating the time-wasting ones so you can actually get work done on Quadrant Two tasks is the way to success.
The perfect is the enemy of the good and perfectionism is a major mental block that disguises itself as a positive quality. Who doesn’t want to write the perfect sales email or create the perfect product?
Here’s the thing though. Making something perfect, really ironing out every flaw, and getting everything just so takes an incredible amount of time. It takes so much time, in fact, that I can count on one hand the amount of truly perfect products I’ve ever experienced.
Getting something to really good—say, 95% of perfect—takes a lot less time. Sure, there’ll still be one or two little niggles, but for the most part what you’ll end up with is identical to the perfect book or product. You’ll know the niggles are there, but most people just won’t notice.
Perfectionism often comes from fear of failure. People are scared to put what they’ve been working on out in the world and get feedback. No matter how good it is, there'll always be some haters. It’s easier just to point out the few flaws yourself and insist on fixing them before releasing it.
If you’re still working on the copy for your website three weeks later or your presentation is on its 15th revision, then you’re probably guilty of perfectionism. Most failed writers I know failed because their perfectionism caused them to miss deadlines.
How to Deal With Perfectionism
Perfectionism is a hard one to deal with because “good enough” is such a hard target to define. An article written for the New Yorker goes through many more revisions than this one will. For a New Yorker article that’s normal, but for one of our articles that would be ridiculous. There are of course things I could word slightly better in this article, but really, would another five revisions have improved things so much that you got a totally different message?
And that’s really the crux of dealing with perfectionism. Whenever you find yourself spending more and more time polishing the details step back and ask yourself if what you’re doing is materially improving things. If it’s just making things tidier or prettier, then ask why you’re spending time on them. There’s a good chance it’s because you’re scared to ship.
While this is a tricky situation, it does mean there’s really only one solution. As soon as you realise you’re being a perfectionist, close your eyes, pull the trigger, and just call what you’re working on done. Publish it, send the email, give the presentation, and see what happens. It'll probably be a lot better received than you feared.
You've just learned how to get over a mental block. We've provided you with a mental block definition as well as some steps for getting past mental blocks.
What we’ve looked at today are only a small selection of the ways we can get in our own way. I deliberately chose a cross section of common mental blocks so you could see the variety of strategies available to tackle them. Really, it all comes down to the same thing:
- Step back and honestly look at what you’re doing.
- Put some structure or rules in place that minimise the impact of your mental block.
You can apply that to any mental block you have. Just honestly analyse your actions and feelings, and then come up with a way to make it so they can’t affect your work. Why not take the first steps towards getting past mental blocks today?
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in September of 2018. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.