5 Tactics to Use When You Are Really Stuck

The following blog post was originally posted to LinkedIn on 30 April 2014.

We all get stuck from time to time. A mental block, a change in plans or the proverbial brick wall. Dealing with such impasses is challenging and can create periods of stress and low productivity. They are nothing to be ashamed of and in fact we often find that when we overcome these sorts of issues we are rewarded with valuable skills and experience that benefit us from that point on.

In this post I’d like to share a few methods I use that can help you deal with these sorts of scenarios. Not all are applicable on every occasion, but hopefully there are at least a couple that can be applied to a particular situation.

1. Retreat, regroup and redeploy

The first option is to set the issue aside and return to it another day. Sometimes a short break to clear your mind can help. Sometimes you might need to sleep on it. The aim is to give your mind chance to discard the irrelevant information that can cloud your thought processes and to give yourself chance to organise what is relevant.

Our subconscious is also a great help if we can give it enough time to work on an issue. How often have you come up with a solution to something in the middle of the night or whilst you were having a shower.

Giving ourselves permission to come back and resolve our problems later can pay dividends.

2. Get some help

As the saying goes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Getting help and advice from others is a great way to tackle a blockage. Everyone has their own unique perspective on the world and their own set of experiences. So whether you are collaborating, asking questions of a mentor or on an Internet forum, there are opportunities to identify new approaches or at least new questions to ask in order to tackle an issue.

Having someone to discuss an issue with needn’t even require that the other party has a particularly deep understanding of the issue. Many great steps forward have occurred when an approach from one field has been applied to another. In fact it can even be that the other party has no real understanding of what you are telling them at all.

For example have you ever been describing an issue to someone where you had a sudden realisation and were able to resolve it yourself without there ever being any real discussion? It can be surprising how many issues can be resolved once you speak aloud and just have someone there as a sounding board

Of course even in this highly connected world there are times when you can’t speak to anyone at all. In these situations you can still try to make some progress by using a bit of imagination. Try describing the issue out loud. Pretend there is someone to speak to and see if you can get the same sounding board effect mentioned above. You can also try imagining that you are speaking to someone in particular about the issue. It doesn’t matter if they are real, alive or dead - as long as you have some sense of who they are. Then try to imagine how they might approach the issue and what sort of things they might suggest if they were discussing it with you. It might sound a little crazy at first but it can work surprisingly well.

  1. Temporary ignorance

The basic premise of this method is that things always seem easier in hindsight. The approach is therefore to ignore the issue for a while. Make an assumption about how the resolution might look and work forward from that point. After a while you might see other links back to what you have done successfully earlier on that allow you to piece together a solution from what is effectively the other side of the wall. Problems are sometimes a bit like safes - easier to open from the inside than the outside.

Of course care must be taken not to progress too far before ensuring a solution can be found. Time that you spend moving forward beyond the issue may be wasted to some extent. Partially wasted if your assumed resolution does not quite match the way the actual one eventually looks & works and wholly wasted if you are still unable to find a workable resolution.

4. Redefine the problem

Sometimes you might not be able to solve a specific issue, but you might be able to solve a different issue that might allow you to then move forward. This could be as simple as relaxing some of the constraints around the original issue through to finding an entirely different approach to meet the overall goal.

For example let’s say my new large sofa has arrived and I discover it is too big to get through the door of my lounge and I really need to get it in as three of my friends are coming round in a little while to watch the big game on the television. I have no other furniture for everyone to sit on and no time to buy any other furniture so I need to get it into the room somehow.

Relaxing the constraints might consist of just trying to get some of the sofa through the door at a time. Perhaps after taking off any packaging and cushions the sofa frame will then fit thought the door or maybe I could just use the cushions on the floor for the one evening?

A fundamentally different approach might be to focus on watching the match on the television rather than getting something to sit on into the room. Perhaps the television could be moved into the next room (where the sofa is stuck) or maybe we could all go to watch the match at the bar round the corner instead?

Sometimes you will also find that you can iterate on a redefined issue and solution. Perhaps you are looking for a 99.9% effective solution. Well if your first solution is 95% effective and allows you to make limited progress and your next iteration is 96% effective, what are the chances that over your next dozen iterations you’ll be able to keep moving forward and eventually make your goal? I’d say pretty good and the fact is that with every improvement you gain more expertise and experience that you can bring to bear on the issue.

So remember, if you can’t fix it try and redefine it to something you can fix.

5. Do nothing

I’ve always been someone who has to try and improve and fix things, but one of my managers introduced me to the idea that sometimes the best course of action is to ignore the issue and do nothing. I personally find this really hard, but I do recognise the rationale behind it.

Sometimes issues are quite simply not worth the effort of overcoming them. This could be viewed not only in terms of time and financial cost, but also in terms of staff morale and sanity. Consider if the effort that could be expended (keeping in mind you probably don’t actually know exactly how much it will take) will match the benefit of resolving the issue/the consequences of not solving the issue?

Walking away rarely feels good, but you can always take solace in the fact that it was a good decision and you can focus your efforts on finding solutions to more worthy issues.


So those are my five tactics for when I get really stuck. They work well for me and I hope they will do the same for you.

Do you have any good examples of how one of these approaches helped you get unstuck or do you have any other methods you use when you’re stuck? If you do please leave a comment on this post….

Author: Stephen Millard
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