silhouette of long-haired woman dancing on beach at sunset

Right now, I’m beginning—all right, planning to begin—several new projects. I’m going to launch a new fitness routine, declutter my closets, and start working with a new editor on my current book. It’s all hugely exciting, and I’m feeling so… stuck.

I don’t mean literally, of course. I’m physically free to start any of these projects at almost any moment. But my mind has been working overtime to convince me otherwise. I keep getting bogged down in what internet guru Zefrank calls “the terrible space between zero and one.” I know I want to do some awesome things—I can almost picture them finished—but I haven’t started yet. 

My friends, here be monsters.

Judging by my own experience and what I’ve heard from clients, most people’s fears rear up to their full height at the moment before starting a project—whether that means starting at the very beginning, starting again on the morning of a new day, or starting up after a lunch break. This is the point where many of us go into a dance scientists call the “approach-avoidance conflict.”

Lab rats do this dance when researchers offer them a treat in the very spot where they may also get a slight electric shock. Wanting the treat, but fearing the shock, the rats go forward, then backward, then forward, then backward—and then, overcome with anxiety, they stop and do something completely different, usually self-grooming. (This explains why, as I set out to write this newsletter, I suddenly realized that couldn’t possibly begin until I’d bleached my teeth.)

Most of us do some version of the approach-avoidance dance when we get a creative urge, and then contemplate the hard work involved, not to mention the possibility of failure. Yay, ouch! Yes, no! Go, stop! 

Dance, ratty, dance.

Most of us try to push past our ambivalence and simply make ourselves start, dammit! This doesn’t work—in fact, it can trigger massive anxiety attacks. Do you know why scientists create approach-avoidance situations for those poor little rats? TO TEST ANTI-ANXIETY MEDICATION. It’s the perfect way to make any critter anxious enough to show visible signs of needing psychopharmaceutical help.

I’ve used anti-anxiety medication to get me past stuckness. For instance, the first time I had to write a poem for school, when I was 15, I went into a week-long panic attack and had to be given Valium before I could slam out a mediocre sonnet. But I favor less chemical approaches now. Before we go drugging ourselves, we might try to stop the approach-avoidance dance by tinkering with the way we begin projects.

For instance, we can add positive experiences to the act of beginning. For example, I once helped a loved one write a Ph.D. dissertation by giving her foot rubs as she talked her way through a passage she was about to write. Once she came to associate the pleasure of a foot rub with starting a work session, she went from a major approach-avoidance dance to rapid forward progress.

To get past my current stuckness, I might download some new favorite songs to play when I start a workout. I could listen to an audiobook while I clean closets, or read passages from favorite authors to ease into a session of writing my own book. You can probably think of your own positive twists on beginning a task. If not, keep reading.

A second strategy is to shorten the time we commit to working. My clients push back hard when I suggest that they reduce the time of a work session. The more they’re stuck in the approach-avoidance dance, the bigger they think their forward steps should be. It makes a sort of sense: big hopes, big efforts. It seems as if this should work. But it doesn’t. 

Trust me on this: shortening work sessions relieves the pressure of the place between zero and one. It’s been shown to drop anxiety, which allows forward momentum to begin. And short work sessions, especially when the work is creative, have also been shown to increase productivity, not lower it. So, instead of an hour workout, today I’ll commit to ten minutes. While I’m at it, I’ll also give myself timed ten-minute sessions for decluttering and writing.

I’ve been working this way for decades, and I’ve noticed that one of two things always happens: 1) the shorter work session is less aversive to start, and once I get going find myself happily doing more; or 2) my project inches toward completion, ten minutes at a time. I have created many large things this way. It’s incredible how quickly small steps add up.

A final way to get beyond the approach-avoidance dance is to enlist support.

Approach-avoidance is a terrible dance to do alone. A partner, or a group of partners, can reduce our fear and tip the scales in favor of forward progress.

If you can get someone to actually, physically help you—for instance, hiring a cleaning service to begin decluttering your house—go for it. But often, the things we fear beginning are tasks we must do ourselves. This is where I put my faith in cheerleaders.

Having been the opposite of a cheerleader in high school, I never appreciated their awesome power until I read about a study where children in an Indian slum increased their test scores 20% after women were assigned to sit near them saying things like, “I’m sure you can figure this out! You’re doing a great job!”

See if you can find someone with whom to trade cheerleading—a family member, a friend, a pal online who’s starting a project similar to yours. It’s a free ticket out of the avoidance zone, and also strengthens relationships. WIN WIN!

These three strategies are my favorite ways to stop dithering and march forward into the projects I have planned. If you add rewards, minimize steps, and find cheerleaders, you too can skip those hours of fretting, tinkering, self-grooming, and otherwise frittering away your life in the space between zero and one. 

I’m sure you can figure this out! You’re doing a great job!

For my part, I pledge to log those workouts, finish my paintings, and make my book deadlines. And by the time I do, my brilliantly-bleached teeth will dazzle your eyes.