Part of the reason I know that ActionAlly is the right project for me right now is because I’m not just excited about the product itself, I’m excited about the whole industry. Few things excite me more than helping people take action.
As a result I’ve been thinking about ways I can contribute more broadly than just creating ActionAlly—that’s why I’ve been writing more than ever. About a month ago, another idea came to mind: a podcast called Into the Action where I’ll interview creators and go deep into the workflows, habits and mindsets that allow them to do their best work.
There was one problem: I’d never, ever done a podcast before. I’d never really even interviewed someone before. The idea of spending an hour one-on-one with someone I respected to ask them questions that would later be broadcasted to anyone and everyone… it was pretty scary and outside my comfort zone.
Despite all that, tomorrow I’ll be releasing the very first episode of Into the Action. So how did I overcome my fear and lack of experience? How did I bring an idea to life when I had no idea what I was doing?
I Simply Went Cliff-by-Cliff
What’s the next small action you can take that will commit you one step further?
That’s a cliff. It’s a bit scary but all it takes is one small jump and suddenly there’s no turning back.
The easiest example is buying a domain name for a project. Once you buy the name, you are slightly more committed to that idea. All projects are lined with cliffs to jump and there are many you can conquer that are even more powerful.
With ActionAlly, the most important cliff was emailing my first guest, Jenny Blake. The task itself was easy but once finished I was now committed to at least recording the episode.
After I recorded our interview, I shared my first public announcement of the podcast’s existance—a small cliff that now committed me to posting the finalized episode.
Cliff-jumping is important when working on a project that scares you because it allows you to slowly commit to it more and more. You don’t get overwhelmed up front but once you’ve jumped, there’s no way back.
Instead of thinking about the complete end result, think about your progress in terms of these small, no-turning-back commitments—especially if you’re feeling any kind of fear.
What’s a small action you can take that will commit you to just one step forward along your project’s path?
2 More Bonus Tips
Besides cliff-jumping, there are 2 more important reasons I was able to start a podcast even though it scared me.
1. I Was Working on Something I Genuinely Thought Would be Awesome
“If you’re not working on your best idea right now, you’re doing it wrong.” – David Heinemeier Hansson, 37Signals
I’m not sure the benchmark of your “best” idea is necessarily the most helpful when choosing what to work on but the point is you don’t have to work on the first idea you think is half-decent—hold out for something that really fires you up.
When you work on something you’re excited about and genuinely feel will be awesome, the motivation to get working and continue through the rough spots comes naturally.
On the other hand, if you’re working on something only because you think there may be a market out there or for some other external reason you’ll find that when things get tough your motivation to continue suddenly evaporates.
2. I Pushed My Edge and Asked for Help
The truth is my first email to Jenny wasn’t just asking her to be on the episode. Actually, I asked her for help.
You see, this was new territory for me. Being willing to step outside my comfort zne was a critical part of success but even more important was finding someone else who could help me navigate the new waters.
Jenny helped me so much as I planned the logistics of hosting a podcast as well as what it really takes to bring out the best in a guest. Things would have been a lot more difficult without her help.
Do Projects that Scare You
Chances are the biggest opportunities are going to come in the form of projects that scare you, at least a little.
Make the most of them by choosing the ones you really care about, being willing to push your edge while asking for help and by cliff-jumping along the way to slowly commit yourself more and more overtime.
What’s your next cliff?
Into the Action with Jenny Blake is Going Live Tomorrow!
I’m really excited to be publishing the very first episode of Into the Action tomorrow—our first guest is the amazing Jenny Blake herself!
We go deep into how she works and I’d hate for you to miss it! Sign-up below and you’ll get an email as soon as it’s live.
You’re excited about a new project and start planning it out in your head. You feel pretty confident but there are a few parts that seem difficult or push your comfort zone.
Somehow it’s those parts, the tough ones, that your mind locks onto and refuses to let go. You become a deer in the headlights – you see what’s coming and feel completely stuck.
I’ve been there and discovered a way out.
I experienced this enormously as I developed ActionAlly – it was the first app I’ve ever built for OSX and I had no clue how to get started. Even once I began, every time I was making progress I’d get stuck trying to do something that should have been simple.
It turned out that being repeatedly stuck was actually an incredible opportunity: I had to find a strategy to make progress despite rarely knowing how to do what I wanted to do.
The solution I found is so insanely simple but really was primarily responsible for the rapid progress I made (building my first OS X app alone in just 6 weeks).
QTAs: What they are and how to use them.
Here’s what I did:
I always kept my notebook by my side as I worked. Anytime I encountered a problem that was freezing me up, I would write it down in the form of a question.
“How do I detect when a user has been inactive?”
“How do I know when the computer has woken up from being a sleep?”
“How do I capture and respond to key presses?”
I had question after question and instead of letting them clog up my brain, I would get them all out in the form of Questions To Answer (QTAs).
At first, this was just a cute little thing I was giving a try but pretty soon I realized it was the secret weapon that was allowing things to continue forward so smoothly. Now it’s been several months and I’ve been using the same technique across all the work I do from programming to design to writing.
Here’s a complete breakdown of QTAs, why they’re so powerful and how to use them in your work:
QTAs Shine Light on the Phantoms So You Don’t Quit Before You Start
Normally when we have challenges that are holding us back, we just let them float around in our brains making us feel crappy and “demotivated”. It’s rare to take the time to shine a light on them and see what they’re made of.
Some very general examples of these sorts of challenges might be:
“I don’t think I have time to write a book – I’m already so busy with my work and the kids.”
“I’m not well connected enough to start a podcast people would want to listen to.”
“I want to build a website but I don’t even understand how the process works.”
These are the sorts of phantom thoughts that hover in your brain and prevent you from even having the confidence to get started – but the truth is that they have no substance.
Watch this – the power of a question mark is incredible:
If you just rewrite each of those sentences in the form of a question – either on your computer or on paper – and re-read them a few times, the weight will start to lift. Those phantoms begin to evaporate.
“How can I write a book even though I’m already busy with work and the kids?”
“Do I know enough people to host an interesting podcast?“
“How can I understand the process of how building a website works?”
A period feels like the end, like a blocked wall. A question mark creates the expectation for an answer and invites you to keep thinking and making progress.
QTAs Prevent You from Becoming a Deer in the Headlights and Help You Define the Problem
The truth is, those questions still suck. A QTA needs to be specific. That way, when you find an answer, you’ve made real progress that builds your momentum.
Before you wrote those problems down, they were amorphous blobs holding you back. Now you can see them for what they are and it’s time to mold them into something more defined and useful.
If you’re trying to figure out how to write a book even though you’re busy with work and the kids you may be able to ask these more specific questions:
“How can I go to sleep earlier so that I have 20 minutes to write in the morning before everyone wakes up?”
“How can I make my office more quiet so I’m able to focus even as the kids are playing?”
“What app can I use to write from my phone during my commute?”
These are questions that, once solved, give you real action steps to move forward with. You’ve gone from not even being able to imagine starting to being a few google searches away from real progress, all by asking the right questions.
QTAs Allow You to Cope with Uncertainty and Make Progress Elsewhere
Now, you should just keep writing down every problem you can in the form of a question until you have all the problems you’re aware of outside of your brain. This is such a relieving process because once you see that there is a limited set of things to figure out, your goal suddenly feels a lot more approachable.
You think, “Woah, I just need to figure these questions out – that’s it!
Even better, having the full list in front of you allows you to see that you don’t need to answer all – or even most – of them to get started.
You can ask see the lay of the land and focus on the single major issue holding you back. Just answer that one question and you’ve made massive progress.
Let’s say you started with: “Do I know enough people to start an interesting podcast?” and refined that into: “What can I do to meet people that would be good guests on my podcast?”
Then, you continued turning all your challenges starting a podcast into questions.
“What equipment do I need to record a high-quality podcast?”
“How do I find listeners?”
“How can I figure out a theme that attracts people?”
“How can I structure an episode to keep readers interested?”
“Who can I get to do a first experimental episode with me?”
Looking at this list, you start to see a clear progression. 1) Focus on finding a theme 2) Focus on a structure 3) Focus on a first guest 4) Focus on equipment 5) Find listeners
The uncertainty of Step 3 was preventing you from getting to Step 1 but once you have all the issues externalized as a QTA, you can manage that uncertainty and make progress anyway.
QTAs Engage Your Brain Even When You’re Not Working
Here’s the icing on the cake:
Have you ever been facing a problem that seems impossible to resolve? You’re getting tired but forcing yourself to keep working just a bit more in hopes that you’ll get things figured out. Finally you decide to get some sleep and the next morning something funny happens:
The answer suddenly seems obvious!
Turns out, your brain was working on it all night as you slept and had the solution ready for you the next day.
What I love about QTAs is that this happens all the time.
When a phantom problem is trapped inside you, it grinds your brain to a halt. When you turn it into a QTA, the exact opposite happens. Not only do you start making progress on your single focus but in addition your brain starts going to work on the other questions without you realizing it.
I love reviewing my old QTA lists and seeing that I’d found answers to a ton of questions without even realizing it.
QTAs put more of your brain power at work for you.
Here’s How You Can Start Using QTAs Right Now
I initially started my list of QTAs in the notebook I take with me everywhere but as I started using them more, I moved to Evernote.
You can use whatever you like – a notebook, Evernote, Trello – anything that nicely stores a list will work. Create a list there called ‘QTAs’.
Now, no matter what you’re working on or want to be working on you can probably think of some challenges ahead that are preventing you from getting started or at the very least needlessly sucking up some of your valuable brain power.
Turn each of those issues into a specific question that, when answered, will resolve the issue.
Remember that these shouldn’t be broad! They will probably start with something like:
* “How can I…?”
* “How do I…?”
* “What do I need to…?”
* “Where can I find…?”
When it comes to QTAs, be careful of “Why?” questions. In this context, “Why?” tends to examine the problem without providing a solution. Asking why can make you feel like a victim instead of inspiring you to forge ahead.
Let’t take our earlier examples and ask them in the form of “Why?”
“Why don’t I have enough time to work on my book and take care of the kids?”
“Why aren’t I well-connected enough to start a podcast?”
These may be valuable questions to ask and answer but in the context of QTAs, they’re best to avoid.
Once you’ve got your list started (it’s never finished because you’re constantly clearing your mind by turning phantom problems into QTAs) go through your list and think about what question is really holding you back right now.
Identify the issue that once resolved will make all the others easier or get you to the next check-point in your project. When you’ve got it, ignore all the others and focus 100% on figuring that out.
I told you it was simple!
That’s really all there is to QTAs. Here it is one more time:
Turn your problems into specific, actionable questions
Review your list of questions and identify the one that the primary bottle-neck for your project
When I’m at my best, I like to imagine myself as a freight train barreling down the tracks.
My destination is clear, my path is laid-out and forged in front of me.
My engines are roaring and the momentum of my progress is driving me forward at all costs.
I imagine encountering a set-back. I see it there in front of me on the tracks and watch as me-the-freight-train absolutely obliterates it into dust.
The freight train can’t be stopped.
Be the freight train.
Here’s what it takes.
Lay the Tracks
Without tracks, a freight train has too much friction to get started. If it is moving, it’s directionless and out of control.
On tracks the story is completely different. It glides towards it’s destination steadily and consistently.
To be the freight train, we need to lay the tracks and we need to do it before we expect to build momentum – it’s the tracks that allow the momentum.
Laying the tracks means having a clear vision of where you’re going and what it takes to get there.
Lay the tracks for your productivity and success by developing clarity for what is most important to accomplish today, this week and beyond.
Lay the tracks by predicting what obstacles may be ahead. Plan around the ones you can and prepare mentally for the ones you need to trek through.
Lay the tracks by creating a work environment that fits your needs, building efficient workflows and investing in quality tools you need.
It may seem like laying tracks is a lot of work but the tracks are what allow you to make the most of the effort you put in, build momentum and go fast.
Fire Up Your Engine
Freight trains start slow, building up speed and momentum over time. The first step isn’t to cruise – the first step is firing up the engine.
When you first start your work, you can’t expect to instantly be in a flow state. Your intention should simply be to begin the process of getting into flow with your work.
Get the first coal on your engine’s fire. Do the first thing you can to get your pistons moving.
Imagine the beating chug of the train as more fuel is added and the steady build up as it sets off. Feel that in your actions. Feel that it’s uncomfortable at first but steadily gets easier, natural and more fun as you go.
Feel how the tracks you laid are guiding you forward – there is no other path. Every small task, every small victory is another coal on your fire, burning and propelling you forward.
Suddenly it’s getting harder and harder to stop.
The Momentum Surges You Forward
Once your engines are roaring you can’t be stopped. Feel the weight of your progress behind you pushing you up the hills and surging you down them.
Up until this point, it’s taken effort and energy to get going but now you just go with the flow for as long as it will take you.
Looking at the trail of smoke behind you, at how far you’ve come, is just another reminder of what you’re capable of.
Maybe you feel a slight tension about something you’re not quite sure about – it’s a low-hanging branch in your path 100 yards ahead. But you’re a god damn freight train!
Keep going. Blast through.
Pulling into the Station
At some point you’re ready to rest. Maybe you’ve traveled through all the tracks you’ve laid ahead. Maybe you’ve encountered an obstacle that will require some new tracks to get around.
Instead of stopping right where you are and clogging up the tracks, pull in to a station. Come to a conscious stop.
Be aware of why you stopped (you could even write it down). That’ll help you lay the tracks you need to keep going later. Give your engines the rest they need.
Unlike a freight train, our momentum is lost slowly. It’ll be waiting there tomorrow and we’ll be back at, cruising onwards.
Sometimes, even doing the things we want and love to do can be hard.
You get to a difficult section of your book that you’re just not sure about, a client’s request has you stumped or a guitar riff has your fingers jammed up.
I’ve experienced this a lot lately. ActionAlly is the first desktop application I’ve ever built which means I’ve been dealing with huge frustrations all day, every day for 4 months.
The truth is that no matter what you’re doing and no matter how bad you want it, you will hit moments of massive challenge where it feels like you can’t make one inch of progress.
I’ve put a major focus on learning how to get through these periods of frustration because they are the moments that determine how far you ultimately go.
If you consistently push through difficulty, your success is inevitable.
To get started, let’s take a look at the most powerful weapon in my arsenal.
The Two-Question, Frustration-Chopping Machete of Doom
When I was developing ActionAlly I’d often get stuck for hours on something that seemed like it should be simple. It would drive me absolutely crazy. I’d get annoyed, frustrated and wouldn’t want to keep going.
It felt like vines were grasping me from all sides and I couldn’t break free.
Then I’d take out my Two-Question, Frustration-Chopping Machete of Doom to cut through and keep going.
The good news is that you don’t need swordsmanship training to put this to use. All you need to do is ask yourself two questions.
Question 1: Is it humanly possible for this to be achieved by anyone?
Sometimes, when trying something difficult, it feels physically impossible for it to be achieved even when that’s clearly not the case.
For example with ActionAlly I would find other OSX Applications that achieved the same effect I was attempting. I still didn’t know how to do it, but I knew it could be done.
If you are learning guitar or piano but struggling with a particular section of a piece, try this:
Search for the name of the song you’re learning followed by “6 year old”.
Chances are you’ll find a YouTube video of a kid playing the exact same piece you’re telling yourself your hands are too small for. It can be done. Keep going.
The first question roots you into the reality that what you’re doing is possible.
Question 2: Is it inevitable that I’ll figure this out within a week if I just refuse to give up?
The second question puts you face to face with the fact that you have the choice to push past frustration.
Some things take minutes to figure out, some take hours or days. Most individual points of frustration do not take more than a week to resolve so it’s important to remind yourself that you will achieve your goal in a finite amount of time if you give it your sustained attention.
If you can’t confidently say yes and you think you may be stuck on that same issue for a week or more, this question is still valuable to you.
It means you need something more.
What to do when you’re really, totally, hopelessly stuck.
1. Get help
Ask a friend who’s better than you to take a look at the challenge you’re facing. Find an online forum that discusses those issues and ask them what they suggest.
And don’t just stop at one! You know the answer won’t come quick on your own so you may as well put out as many requests and feelers as possible, then start letting those answers all come in as you make progress elsewhere.
2. Break things down
Chances are, what seems to be a single problem is actually 3-4 all at once. If you break what’s happening into components, you’ll have a much easier time at tackling each specific piece.
You’ll often have to challenge yourself here because we develop distorted impressions of what it is that we’re trying to accomplish and what it takes to get there.
If you’re trying to pull off a new break-dancing move you may start by saying, “I’m so frustrated, I just can’t stick this move.”
That’s an easy place to get stuck because looking at it from the perspective of “the move” doesn’t clearly define what’s not working.
Once you break it down to the specific points of failure, you’ll be able to realize you’re just not flexible enough in your wrists yet and you need to pull your legs over a bit faster (I admit, break-dancing isn’t my thing, but it seemed like a fitting example).
3. Change absolutely anything
Sometimes you need to try something not because you think it might lead you directly to a solution but just because once you start trying new things, more possibilities come to mind. You see what’s happening from a new perspective.
I can’t emphasize this enough.
When I have code that isn’t working and I just can’t figure out why, I stop trying to directly resolve the issue and do things that I know won’t work but may reveal new information. I start to just play around and see how that shakes things up to reveal something new.
When You Can Push Past Frustration You Can Accomplish Anything
I promise you that’s true.
How often do you hear people saying things like:
– “I tried developing a website but I’m just not smart enough.”
– “I started writing a book but it’s just not my thing.”
– “I can’t paint, I really don’t have the patience.”
What they’re actually saying is, “I tried but I got too frustrated to keep going.”
That doesn’t have to be you.
Use the Two-Question, Frustration-Chopping Machete of Doom to slice through the frustrating moments. When you’re still stuck ask for help, break things down or change absolutely anything.
You’ll realize that frustration is a temporary state you occasionally find yourself in and slip your way out of – it’s not worth giving up the things you care most about for.
If you’re stuck in the vines of frustration with something right now, ask for help below in the comments and we’ll do what we can to get you out!
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The sun was setting as my girlfriend and I drove along the mountainous coast of Barcelona.
Something about cruising along those curves always brings out the best conversations and on this particular day we were talking about a project she’d been thinking about but hadn’t started.
As we were chatting she said, “The thing is, I don’t know the best way to get started. Do I just search on Google? Should I get a book? Find YouTube tutorials?”
I could tell from the way she was speaking that, like many of us, she had some anxiety around the idea of “getting started”. She wanted to start the right way and choose the best first move.
That desire to start-off right often puts us in the position of asking, “How do I get started?” over and over. It can go on every single day for weeks or months without ever actually moving forward.
In that moment talking with my girlfriend I realized that asking “How do I get started?” is itself the first step. Before you ever do anything you have to ask that important question.
If you’ve been asking “How do I get started?”, you’re already on the right track. You’ve already done Step 1.
Now, you need to focus on not getting stuck there and moving on to Step 2.
Good News: Step 2 is Just as Easy!
Since you’ve already done Step 1 (asking how to get started) it’s time for Step 2. And guess what, it’s not as complicated as you think.
Like my girlfriend, a few answers probably come to mind when you ask, “How do I get started?”. In fact, the problem is probably that there’s more than one and you’re not sure which to move forward with.
Most of us get stuck at Step 2 because we’re not sure which option to pick but there’s an simple process you can use to keep moving forward:
Write down all the possible ways to move forward
Set a timer for 15 minutes and start the first one
When the timer goes off ask yourself how you feel. If you feel good, continue doing what you’re doing. If not, try the next option path forward on your list.
The purpose of this process is to break you out of that endless-“How do I start?”-cycle. And it works.
Instead of spending 2 months being unsure what to do, you’ll spend an hour and half trying 6 different approaches and getting real feedback about what feels right for you.
Here’s an Example: Say Hi to Bill
Let’s imagine Bill (he’s not real). He wants to start writing fiction but has absolutely no background in it whatsoever. In fact, he always got bad grades in writing as a kid so it feels weird and non-sensical that he has dreams of writing now.
He’s been wanting to write for months but just doesn’t know how or where to begin. He’s come across articles about the work process of some of his favorite authors but they all seem to contradict each other so he doesn’t know what he should do. Even worse, he gets anxiety thinking about how they work because it just reminds him of how much better they are. All of it just has him feeling locked-up and stuck.
Luckily, Bill read this post, decided “What the hell.” and just wrote down a list of some different ways he could get started. It looked like this:
Write character backgrounds to have a pool of characters to work with
Write short-stories to learn how to structure stories
Research a period of time that’s interesting to me and build a story around that research
Brainstorm 1-sentence book concept ideas
Learn more about book writing strategies by reading books and blogs
These were all possible ways to move forward that Bill had thought about in the past but because he wasn’t sure which to do and because they all felt a bit daunting, he just stagnated by not doing any of them.
Now, though, he went through the list thinking about what it would look like to do each of those for just 15 minutes.
He set a timer and got started on the first one and in 15 minutes came up with 4 characters, writing about where they were from, struggles they were facing, their strengths, their relationships. He struggled through the first 2 but was actually feeling pretty good by the fourth. He could imagine a story might emerge as he continued to write about these characters.
Now feeling like he had a bit of momentum, he tried his second option and tried to write 3 very, very short-stories in 5 minutes each. He knew even if they were in horrible, it would all be over in 15 minutes anyway.
What happened instead is that by the third story, he was feeling excited and inspired. The timer went off but he just kept writing. Maybe the writing wasn’t as great as the authors he looked up to but the point is he broke through Step 2 and started making real progress.
Be like Bill
Bill said, “What the hell, I’ll just give this a try.”
Be like Bill and give it a try yourself. Instead of staying stuck trying to find the best way to start, just give each possible way to start 15 minutes to see which works for you.
If you’re not sure what that looks for your specific case, just post a comment below and we’ll help out!