What To Do When You Feel Stuck

by Amanda Linehan on June 29, 2009

in Best Of

I can't walk on this floor!  It's a quicksand!

Creative Commons License photo credit: tanakawho

“Every event in life can be causing only one of two things. Either it is good for you, or it is bringing up what you need to look at in order to create good for you.” – Deepak Chopra

When you feel “stuck,” the first thing you want to do is struggle.  Flailing about, throwing your weight around, trying harder and harder, pushing against the resistance you feel.  Only these things don’t get you unstuck.  In fact, they tend to make you sink deeper into whatever problem you are trying to solve.

From time to time we all have problems that seem to take on a life of their own.  We try to solve them, but the solution doesn’t come easy.  We try harder to solve the problem, but the harder we try, the more we feel like we are getting no where.  This is feeling stuck.


Think of it like quicksand.  (I’ve never actually been in quicksand, but I do watch Man vs. Wild. ;) ) If you step into quicksand you start to sink.  When you start to sink, you begin to panic.  When you begin to panic, you start to struggle against the quicksand, trying to pull yourself out of it, but by doing that, you only sink deeper.

It’s only when you stop, and (according to Bear Grylls) try to increase the amount of body surface that is touching the quicksand (by laying as much of yourself flat as you can) that you can get out of the quicksand.  But, this method is not at all your first instinct.  It requires slowing down, assessing the situation and then using your brain, not your muscles, to get you out.

Getting Un-Stuck

When you feel stuck, follow these steps for optimal problem solving:

Stop – A really simple first step.  When you notice that you are “sinking,” stop struggling immediately.  You don’t want to sink any further.

Define the problem – This may seem unnecessary or a waste of time, but knowing exactly what the problem is helps us take the correct action.  Also, sometimes there is a problem behind the problem.  You need to know which one to work on first, but also which one is the “root” problem.

Focus on the present – Don’t worry about things that have already past, for instance, what you “should have done” to avoid the problem.  It may be true, but at this point, it’s not helpful to dwell on it.  Once you are unstuck, you can go back and reflect on patterns and behavior that lead to the problem, but in the heat of the moment, it’s not something to focus on.  If you are stuck in quicksand don’t worry about the wrong turn you took that lead you there, focus on getting out.

Focus on solutions – Focusing on solutions will lead you toward a solution.  Focusing on the problem will lead you back to the problem.  Solutions energize you.

What can I do next? – Every huge problem or task is simply a series of small steps.  Figure out which small step you need to take next.  Size honestly doesn’t matter here.  Even the smallest step forward will count.  Keep asking yourself “What can I do next?” until you are done.  Moving forward steadily (not necessarily quickly) will eventually get you to your solution.

Getting Myself Un-Stuck

When I had finished school several years ago and was looking for a job, after a few months I really began to feel stuck.  I wasn’t finding any jobs that really appealed to me, and the jobs I interviewed for felt all wrong.  I felt that I was looking in all the wrong places and the more I looked and applied, the farther away I felt from where I wanted to be.

When I finally took a moment to stop and assess where I was, I could see that I really had two problems that were getting in each others way. One was that I simply needed to be employed and earn money, so I could get an apartment and pay my bills.  That was the immediate problem.  But the other problem was that I was struggling with what I really wanted to do with my life.  What kind of career did I want to go into?  What was I passionate about?  What kind of life did I want to live?  This was the “root problem,” and it was getting in the way of my immediate one.

After I had teased those two problems out from one another, I could focus on present solutions to my immediate problem.  When I thought about what I needed most, I realized that I needed some sort of temporary job while I was still looking for something more permanent.  After I had done that I focused myself on looking for a job that would allow me to practice or develop some skill that I wanted, but that wasn’t perfect.

With my temporary job in place, I didn’t feel so pressured to find a job, and could be a bit more methodical in my search.  Also, I put my question of what made me really passionate off to the side, and worked on that separately from my immediate job search.

I was making this problem bigger than it was by struggling too much.  When I stepped back and looked at the problem as a series of steps, it seemed manageable, all of the sudden.  And, in the end, it turned out fine. :)

When you feel stuck, your problems tend to feel huge and unmanageable.  Taking some time to assess the situation and look at what small steps you need to take helps you feel capable of taking on the challenge.

Now, the next time you step in quicksand, you will know what to do.  ;)

What steps do you take to get yourself un-stuck?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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