How distracting yourself can get you unstuck


Sometimes we can find ourselves in a cycle that looks like this: We’re pushing and pushing to get something done, but it’s not working, no matter how hard we push.

Then we ask ourselves, “Why isn’t it working? What’s going wrong?”

Our minds start looking for what’s wrong and find that it’s all wrong. (If we look hard enough for something, we will definitely find it.) The project is wrong, the way we’re going about it is wrong, we are wrong. Our lives are wrong. Wrong! Where did it all go wrong?

We get discouraged with how wrong it all seems, and we think, “Well, maybe it’s my attitude. I just need to try harder.” So we push ourselves, and the whole cycle continues.

Western culture is in many ways a “push” culture, which values moving forward at all costs.

One thing that can result from too much pushing is a feeling of stuckness.

Ideally — when I’m really “on track” — I’ve noticed that I feel pulled toward what I want, not like I am pushing myself toward it.

This is not to undervalue “push” energy, as it’s certainly necessary sometimes (it’s just not a great way to live all the time).

A lot of what’s going on with pushing ourselves is that we’re pushing so hard we’re losing sight of why we’re doing something in the first place.

And that’s why — in addition to pulling back and gaining a broader perspective, which I wrote about in my last post — an important element to moving out of a feeling of stuckness can be shifting focus. Or, to put it another way, distracting yourself.

Yes — that means stepping away from what you’re trying (unsuccessfully) to do, and doing something else. Anything else. Resist the urge — for the moment — to try to “figure out” why things aren’t working, and just do something else.

This can work on the smaller scale or the larger scale.

On the small scale, it might look like calling it quits for the day with that chapter you’re wrestling with and attending to the email you’re feeling called to write to a friend.

On the large scale, it might look like putting the major project that’s feeling incredibly draining on hold for a month and immersing yourself in a “fun” project.

This happened for me years ago during grad school when I felt a lot of heaviness around my thesis material. At the end of a summer, when I had a brief break from course work, I found myself super-inspired by these little cat paintings I saw artists doing on a certain auction site at the time. And it occurred to me that — for fun — I could try to do a little cat painting of my own.

I did one late on a Friday night, painting into the wee hours, and it was so much fun I did another one, then listed them both on the site for very low prices. Just for the hell of it.

My sister called the next day — she was always checking on my listings back then, as we sold used clothing a lot — and said, “What are these paintings you have up? One has a bid on it!”

Yep, my little painting I’d done “just for fun” had a bid on it. Someone wanted to pay actual money for my little experiment.

This was the beginning of a period of a year or so where I made lots of little cat paintings and sold them. One ended up in a coffeehouse in Seattle. One ended up in the home of an octogenarian with six cats who lived in England. It was so much fun selling my little paintings and learning about my customers.

And what I discovered during this time was that part of the reason I’d gotten so stalled on my thesis material was that I’d lost touch with what had mattered to me about writing in the first place: it felt fun! I liked it!

I’d gotten locked into “serious grad student” mode and felt like my writing had to be big and important. I still struggled with those feelings (and sometimes do now), but doing my little paintings reminded me that there was much joy to be had from the small, the simple, the cute and the fun.

That thing I was truly seeking — connection with dear, kindred souls — was available to me by doing ordinary things with extraordinary care. (I wrapped my cat paintings in pretty tissue paper and tied them with ribbon and wrote personal notes to each of my customers. I loved responding to messages from my customers and hearing their stories about their cats.)


Anne Lamott tells a story in her book Traveling Mercies about her car breaking down when she and her son were on the way to visit a dying friend. When all was said and done, it turned out she wasn’t able to visit her friend until a few days later than she’d planned.

Somehow,  thanks to the “distraction” of the car situation and what it brought up for her, she was able to show up for her friend with more true presence. “I still did not know what was trying to distract me so it could get itself born,” she wrote, “but I felt happier than I had in a long time.”

Sometimes we need to distract ourselves so that we can get out of our own way.

I think this is what happened for me when I was drawn to making small, simple paintings of cats. I needed to get out of my own way.

Getting out of our own way in this sense is not the same thing as procrastination (though our culture — oh, our culture! — will try to convince us that it is, that there is nothing of value in ceasing to push.)

Challenge the culture. Allow your life to be a grand experiment that always leads you back to your core.

Need some support on your grand adventure? Through Feb. 29, my one-on-one coaching sessions and packages are at special prices, in honor of The Year of the Monkey. (Monkeys are a spirit animal for me — they are the guardians of fun and play, which my serious, driven side badly needs to stay connected with.) Find out more here

Above image is “Colour Tube” © Esra Paola Crugnale | Dreamstime Stock Photos

6 thoughts on “How distracting yourself can get you unstuck

  1. What a great reminder, Jill! At times I fall into the pattern of shoulding on myself (which is incredibly restricting), and I forget that what art is all about for me is the freedom and flow of the process, the unexpected places it takes me, and the pure joy of it. Thanks so much this article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad to hear the article resonated for you, Tanya! I love how you describe what art is all about for you — yes!! It’s easy to get away from our “why”, isn’t it, and so important to reconnect with it regularly. Thanks so much for reading! 🙂


  2. Yes yes yes! So often it’s when I “drop” a problem that a solution appears. Recently I did a whole series of exercises to try and brainstorm a title for my next book, but it just felt like I was getting nowhere so eventually I surrendered to the thought, “Maybe I’m not supposed to know the title yet.” Then the next morning I woke up and it dropped into my head. So thanks for the reminder that it’s okay to distract yourself and stop pushing so hard all the time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that is a great example with your book title, Caroline! I love the thought “Maybe I’m not supposed to know the title yet.” So often that’s the case — it’s just not quite time yet! We may be just about there (as you were) but we just can’t force it. So cool! Thanks, as always, for reading and sharing! 🙂


  3. I loved reading your cat painting story! Learning Tai Chi has taught me something about not pushing; I still find it incredibly hard {Tai Chi AND not pushing sometimes!} – as you say the culture regards not moving forward as ‘failure’ or ‘giving up’ and that can be a huge pressure – but I have also learned from it, and from my life generally, that the time I let go is usually the time the next right thing comes in, whether that’s information, a new perspective, fresh energy or whatever. It feels like a huge piece of this is developing your trust muscle enough to be able to just stop, and to accept that you aren’t always in charge and may not even be able to decide exactly when you will restart!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tara, I so agree that so much of this is about “developing your trust muscle” — love that way of putting it! — and that takes practice, for sure! I see this come up for people so frequently — “can I trust? is it okay to trust?” And that process of letting go can be such a layered one — and, like you said so well, it’s so often from that deep letting go that we can truly move on. So interesting that Tai Chi has taught you about not pushing — that makes sense! Thanks so much for sharing your insights! 🙂


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