3 Ways Life Gets Jammed Up & How to Fix ‘Em
by Dan Walsh
How I identify and resolve sticky situations.
I optimize for a living. I optimize at the office and I optimize at home. Marketing is optimization. Quantified health is optimization. I even optimize my commute to work and my wardrobe. Maybe I should say “I optimize for life.” It’s a primary lens through which I view the world. In a way everything becomes an optimization problem to me.
I’ve also started about a million-and-one personal projects that never worked out for some reason or another. Either they fizzled out or something got in the way. Maybe they just mysteriously never seemed to get anywhere. They didn’t fail, exactly, they just never really happened.
As a result of my constant eye toward optimization and junkyard of personal projects, I’ve developed a skill for identifying where things get jammed up. This includes projects at work, personal endeavors, goals, dreams, whatever. Unfailingly, when something gets stuck it falls into one of three categories: control, resource, or emotional.
Important things get jammed up all the time. Personal projects, work project, goals, dreams… pretty much everything that’s important will get jammed somehow, at some point. There are ways to resolve these jams, but we have to know what they look like first.
The Big Three Jams
1. Control Jams
Control jams happen when I have to wait on another person, event, or system before I can move forward. These are common, but the least problematic of the three. Control jams are frustrating because I don’t have autonomy anymore, ie “the ball is in their court” and because it feels like a delay. Things aren’t moving at my speed, they’re moving at someone else’s speed. The real danger is that you have to rely on an external entity to keep the momentum going. They might hold onto my project for too long and all progress will be lost.
If we adapt it a bit, Newton’s first law of motion can apply to projects too: “A project in motion tends to stay in motion, a project at rest tends to stay at rest.” It’s insanely hard to get a project moving again once it has stalled out. Usually it doesn’t happen. Control jams also increase the likelihood that a project or goal gets forgotten. All that initial hard work is completely wasted if the project stalls out and never goes anywhere.
2. Resource Jams
Resource jams occur when I just don’t have enough time or money to get something accomplished. Specifically, they occur when the next step requires more resources than the last step. Whereas control jams typically make a project wither and die, resource jams bring your dreams to a hard stop. Not being able to afford the next step is essentially a brick wall.
Projects require more resources as they grow. Ideas are fast and free – they usually occur in a flash of insight. The next step is pretty cheap too: spend a few minutes scribbling notes on the back of a napkin. Let’s assume the idea is internet related. We’d have to buy a website next, which costs about $12 and maybe 15 minutes to find a good domain. So far so good, most people could get this far. But then I have to build the website, which can cost $100 (minimum) and weeks of effort. Then I have to promote the site and turn the whole thing into a success, which is potentially infinite work. Most people stall out somewhere after the whole napkin scribbling – which is why it’s a cliche. I’ve stalled out SO MANY TIMES after the napkin scribbles, and it’s all because I didn’t have the time or money to take the idea to the next step.
Businesses hit resource jams all the time. That’s why they get loans from banks, or why startups raise venture funding. They don’t have enough of their own resources to take the project to the next step.
3. Emotional Jams
Emotional jams are the most complex and difficult of the three. Which is why I saved them for last. Emotional jams usually get labeled as “procrastination” and they happen when emotions get in the way. Fear of failure, fear of success, and fear of the unknown are the usual suspects. Failure is painful. Success comes with the baggage of responsibility and commitment. The unknown is, well, unknown. Instinctually, humans don’t like murky water, dark caves, dense jungles, and… ambiguous effort. Who knows what could be lurking in there!
The funny thing with emotional jams is that they originate from different emotions, but all end up labeled as the same disease: procrastination. Fear of failure is very different than fear of success. It’s hard to solve “procrastination”. It’s much easier to resolve emotional issues around failure.
Fear of success, failure, and the unknown are typical labels. In my experience these emotions are less visceral than fear. It’s more like an “avoidance” of these things because they seem overwhelming or because doing other stuff is just easier. It’s easier to watch tv or check my inbox because there’s no emotional baggage attached. Working on something important always has emotional baggage.
Jams will happen. They are like the Maginot Line: it’s possible to protect against one threat, on one side, but the invasion will just happen somewhere else. The point is not to prevent them, the point is to recognize them when they occur and find ways to resolve them. Everything worth doing will get jammed up. The important stuff in life isn’t easy.
Solutions for Control Jams
1. Keep good notes. Before I hand off a project I write down what I will need to do next, once the project is finally back in my control. This helps me quickly pick up where I left off.
2. Maintain responsibility. I’ve made the mistake of abdicating responsibility to someone else too many times in the past. Just because it’s someone else’s turn (co-worker, lawyer, whoever) doesn’t mean they care. It doesn’t mean they’ll get it done when it’s supposed to get done. “I’m waiting on so-and-so” or “so-and-so never got back to me” aren’t valid excuses for letting a project potentially die.
3. Pay for faster service. A clunky laptop or a slow internet connection can be the death of a project simply because working on it accumulates too much frustration over time. If it’s possible (and makes sense) to acquire a quicker turn-around-time, then I go for it. This could be hardware upgrades or even expedited shipping. Sometimes it’s worth the extra cash to keep momentum high and frustrations low.
Solutions for Resource Jams
1. Exchange time and money. If I have money and need more time, then I buy some help. If I have time, but no money, then I hustle. This seems obvious but it’s easy to forget.
2. Invest in more resources. If I don’t have time OR money, then I can’t barter my way out of a corner. Instead, I focus the limited resources I have into a way that will make MORE resources. It’s like compound interest, but it also applies to time. The options are: invest time to get more time, time to get more money, money to get more time, or money to get more money. A baker might have to stop baking for a day so he can go to the bank and get a small business loan, but it’s the highest leverage thing he can possibly do. Stepping back from the project to make a better system will make all time in the future worth more time. 60 minutes this week could be worth 70 next week. Thats more than an extra hour everyday.
3. Break the project into smaller steps. This will spread out the resource cost. Writing a novel is costly. I can’t take a whole year off from work to write full time. Hell, even trying to work a 4-hour writing session into my weekend is impossible. But I can spend 20 minutes everyday. I can find that time.
Solutions for Emotional Jams
1. Assess goals and motivations. Most procrastination is tied to inauthentic goals. If I only want to publish a novel for the accolade and prestige – not because I like to tell stories or write – then I’ll never make it. I’ll put it off perpetually. This sounds strange, but it’s completely worth giving up on goals if I discover that my motivations aren’t genuine.
2. Outsource and delegate. If I have the resources, then I delegate someone else to care about the problem that I just can’t care enough to do.
3. Increase output volume. Writing more stories, painting more pictures, going on more dates, and leading more presentations takes the pressure to win off of any one instance. The individual efforts just don’t matter as much if there’s another opportunity to try again tomorrow. I try to focus on my body of work instead of on a single instance of it.
4. Create burner projects. Sometimes I get hung up on a project because I’m too attached to it. I don’t want to screw it up because it’s important. I usually resolve this by increasing output, but in situations where that doesn’t work I create a “burner project”. It’s something similar to the special project, but in a form that I don’t care too much about. If I had an idea for a short story but didn’t want to ruin the twist, then I’d come up with a burner story idea and practice with that. I don’t care too much about this new idea, so it’s ok if it crashes and burns.
5. Embrace the unknown. It’s much easier to move forward if I know what the next step is. That’s why progress in videogames is so easy: the next step is always very clearly laid out. There is no deliberation or doubt about what to do next. If I don’t know the next step, then the next step is to figure out the next step!
It’s easy to get jammed up and focus on the lack of progress that results. But dwelling on this frustration won’t help the project move forward. If I take a step back and identify where and how something is getting jammed up I can usually create a resolution for it and finally move forward.
One step back, two steps forward.