Why You Stay Stuck (And 5 Fast Ways to Get Unstuck Today)

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 22, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

You’ve been there. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, your InBox is open, more emails are arriving, your screen shows a half-finished proposal, there’s a stack of business cards on your desk you meant to do something with, somewhere on your desk is a To-Do list that’s so long it’s a bit of a joke — you’re stuck.

You have indecision. And you hate it.

In his book “Learned Optimism”, Martin Seligman defines the state of “stuck”, or helplessness as being personal (it’s my fault), pervasive (the program is all around me), and permanent (it’s not going away). No wonder it’s so yucky and hopeless feeling.

You know you should do something, but for the life of you nothing happens.

Here’s the deal.

First, you’re human. And it’s natural to worry (you have a very developed sympathetic nervous system always anxiously waiting to pull the fire alarm.)

Second, beating yourself up about being stuck gets you, well, more stuck.

It’s like the Marshall Goldsmith book title: What got you here won’t get you there. You need a change.

“People say I’m indecisive, but I don’t know about that.” – George Bush


There are lots of reasons why your brain is full of glue and progress is stymied. You might have competing priorities — all good, all take lots of effort — so you do nothing.

I experience this every Friday when I create my Flight Plan (I show you how the Flight Plan works in this post) for the coming week. I want to work on the new book, improve my website, create a new system for tracking sales, AND learn how to do Facebook advertising. Good luck with that.

It ain’t going to happen. Narrow the list, pick one, break it down, start small.

You might be experiencing what psychologists call “confirmation bias” — you notice information consistent with your original hypothesis. So, if you think you’re overwhelmed, guess what? That’s what you’ll notice. Feel like work is unfair? Bob doesn’t pull his weight? Your boss is insensitive? You are lacking the skills/experience/moxie you need? Yup, that’s what you’ll get.

Here are five guaranteed ways to get unstuck. And here’s the deal. All of them work and they work better if you do all of them. This will make more sense when you see what they are, but each one tackles a part of the problem. Confused? Read on (you’re going to like these).


I was winter camping in the Rocky mountains last week with my youngest daughter’s grade 12 class. On our third day, we completed a four-hour snowshoe trek that was hard work through deep snow with lots on climbing. It was a grunt.

It had been a great day, we found our route, made the distance, and now were wet, cold, hungry and back at camp. This is not the time to be idle.

I’ve been here before, sometimes at high altitude when the stakes are even higher, and it can be a dangerous time if you neglect the basics.

Very quickly we needed to get the stove fired up to make lots of hot liquids, get into dry clothes, eat some easy, high energy foods, and bring our energy levels up again.

In willpower studies by Roy Baumaster, Professor of Psychology at Florida State, a small drink of fruit juice made all the difference between bad and good decision making and between quitting and sticking to it. We think our sophisticated mind can overcome anything, but, just like you car, it won’t run on an empty tank, or flat tires.

If you’re stuck is could be you haven’t eaten for two hours, haven’t moved from your chair, been staring at the same report (or email) – you’re stuck because you’ve neglected the basics. Start with that.

“Indecision is often worse than wrong action.” – Henry Ford


The anecdote to a “stuck” mind is a good question. A stuck mind lives in a cognitive loop. And it sounds something like this:

“I should really get this done.”

“Yeah, but I just don’t have the energy for it right now.”

“It’s feeling impossible.”

“I should really get this done.”

Not good. Instead, ask a better question — one designed to shake you out of your negative looping and into possibility. Here are my favourites:

“What is one thing I can do right now that will move me forward (even in a tiny way)?”

“What can I defer to later to make my list shorter and take the pressure off?”

“Who can help me right now?”

Or even this one:

“What can I complete in the next 20 minutes that will at least make me feel I’m making progress?”

Don’t dismiss this one—even small progress trumps wasting time in negative looping.


Sitting anchors your emotional state.

It’s no different than (for some of us) the smell of curry, the feel of sand under your feet, or lacing up your runners. When you experience the sense (touch, smell, sight, taste, hearing) it triggers an emotional state. It’s called anchoring and you’re experiencing it right now. One simple way to get unstuck is to break your current anchored state and physically move. A quick walk around the block is a good place to start.

“All truly great thoughts  are conceived while walking.” —  Nietzsche

Most afternoons, in our office, Sarah and I head out the door for a walk. We often start with what’s going on in our lives outside of work and then, as we finish our loop, talk a bit about work. It’s amazing how 10 minutes of light physical exercise can change our results when we return.

If you haven’t already watched it – treat yourself to the 21 minute TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy (23Million already have) – it’s a brilliant synopsis of the power of movement and poses.

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It’s impossible to know how the water feels without dipping a toe in it. In their third book, Decisive, the Heath brothers introduce the concept of ooching, or “small experiments to test one’s hypothesis.”

When you’re stuck you might be operating from poor information. It could sound like this:

“That looks difficult – I’ve never written a query letter before.”

“I hate cold calling – they probably don’t want to hear from me.”

“I don’t want to tell him why I’m so mad. It could backfire.”

By ooching forward with small experiments you’re guaranteed to advance on your results (it reminds me of the old joke “Even if you fall flat on your face, you’ve still moved ahead six feet.”)

I needed to create a web site, earlier this month for our new speaker development program, called Business Of Speaking School 15 (BOSS15). No one was crying out for the site (yet), I needed to get started, and I feared procrastination would win out. So I ooched it forward.

I first took 10 minutes to list everything I wanted on the site.

Next, I pulled the bios and testimonials we would use.

And on I went, two or three times a day picking away at the next piece. After four days I had enough to send to our designer and, presto, two days later we had a site. That was two weeks ago and that site has already had over 2,000 visitors and generated over $30,000 in sales. Ooching 1, procrastination 0.


Awareness is the start of any change. You want to save more money, lose weight, earn more, save your marriage—you have to start with awareness of your current reality. Awareness should also be at the end of change.

Awareness is the start of any change—it should also be at the end.

When I was teaching my daughters about saving money I also taught them how to read the little, folded bank book they start children with. I wanted to them to recognize their progress, even if they had only deposited $10 their grandmother gave them for their birthday. To this day I notice they check the tiny wins on their bank balance after every deposit.

You might not be slamming it in sales – but you made three calls. The proposal is still only half done – but you got the budget finished. Your office is still a mess – but you scanned that stack of business cards and someone is updating your list.

Notice tiny wins. Cross the task off your list. Smile and slap yourself on your back. Be a bit of a cheerleader for yourself. That’s progress.


There you go. Sorry — bit of long post, but this is a favourite topic for me and I wanted to give you all five strategies I use daily to keep getting huge results.

Please do this for me.

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