This is from the fifth issue of my “weekly” newsletter on Developers and Depression.
I started this newsletter seven weeks ago with a goal to ship an edition every weekend. I told myself that even if it was just a couple hundred words and a handful of links, momentum was more important than perfection. And four weeks in a row, I shipped.
But then I spent a week at Twilio HQ in SF and was busy morning ‘til night. I flew back to Chicago late on a Friday, then rolled right into a 24 hour hackathon twelve hours later. I tried to squeeze out a newsletter in-between helping folks with their hacks, but I had set the bar too high.
The topic was going to be how to set your first appointment with a mental health professional, but I had a lot to say on the topic and started writing (what’s currently) a 1400 word blog post. In my mind, that post needed to be finished, edited and published before I could send the newsletter. It was the most effort required for a D&D newsletter so far, and it was during the week when I had the least amount of free time and the fewest mental cycles to spare.
“No big deal though. I’ll miss a newsletter here and there. I’ll get back on the horse next weekend.”
Next weekend was a long 4th of July weekend. I totally had time over those three days, but I had developed a mental block. Thinking about opening Sublime and finishing that post caused me anxiety. After a few days, thinking being stuck compounded the anxiety. Every time I had a few spare minutes I found something else to do. I convinced myself that it was more important to rest, recuperate, and spend time with the family.
Once I had missed two weekends, missing the third was easy.
I don’t intend this story as an apology. I don’t think any of you feel swindled for not getting your money’s worth out this free “weekly” newsletter. Ten years ago I would have seen this as something worthy of embarrassment — as if a slipped deadline was indicative of a character flaw. But I’ve come to realize that for most people — especially those afflicted by some kind of mental illness — getting stuck is more the norm than the exception.
So the next time you get stuck, know that it’s not just you. Know that the important thing isn’t that you got stuck, but that you figured out a way to get unstuck. Here’s what’s worked for me this week:
1. Identify the blocker.
I finally had say, “I know I’m capable of shipping a newsletter, but there’s something else is going on here that’s keeping me from doing that which I’ve already done several times before. What’s different?”
2. Focus on the small thing that actually happened instead of extrapolating into doom and gloom.
Unhappy thoughts started to creep in over the last few weeks. Things like, “If I can’t ship a simple newsletter, I’ll never be able to write a book” and “Now those 500 subscribers are all going to realize how flaky I am.”
Getting stuck doesn’t mean I’m lazy. It doesn’t mean I’m unreliable. It doesn’t mean I’m damned to a lifetime of failure and unrealized potential. What it does mean is that my brain got stuck in a negative feedback loop on a single task which stalled the creative process. That’s all.
3. Enlist accountability.
On Monday I sent my wife an email that said, “This post has become a mental blocker and I’ve lost momentum on the newsletter. I could use your help getting unstuck next weekend.” Just writing that down and admitting to someone else what was going on loosened anxiety’s grip. Her gentle nudges and intentionality about creating space for me to work on this thing is a big part of the reason why you’re reading it right now.
It’s dangerous to go alone.
4. Move the goalpost.
Three weeks ago, it was important to me to ship a post about setting your first appointment with a psych or therapist. And while I’d still like to do that, conditions have changed, and the new priority is finding the shortest path to regaining momentum. For me, that was writing about the topic freshest on my mind and starting on a new topic that didn’t have three weeks of anxiety built up around it. I’ll try the other thing again once I’ve got wind back in my sails.
5. Ship something.