One of the most painful moments for any self-employed professional or creative is staring at a blank page or screen, trying to figure out where to begin a project. Robert M. Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, gave practical advice about this common dilemma: “Your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once… What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time.”

Where to start

Using the example of a writing project, Pirsig elaborated: “You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.”

For decades, I’ve been following a path like the one Pirsig recommended for projects that involved writing. But it turns out that Pirsig’s advice works for any type of project, not just when writing. Just substitute the word “do” for Pirsig’s word “say,” and you’ll begin to see how this can work.

Picture yourself with a marketing project on your goals list. Let’s say you want to use public speaking to promote your business this year. If you list what you think you need to do, it might look like this:

  1. Decide what to speak about.
  2. Write a speech outline.
  3. Craft a description of the speech.
  4. Write a brief bio.
  5. Identify some venues where it might be good to speak.
  6. Send a pitch email to some of those venues.
  7. Follow up with any venue who doesn’t respond.

But what if you can’t decide what to speak about? Because you listed that step as number 1, you might feel as if you can’t move forward on this project at all.

Forget about step number 1. Start in the middle. Instead, you could identify some venues where you might speak. That will get the project moving right away, and will likely lead to some ideas about what speech topics would be best.

What if the project you need to get started is launching your first website? You make a preliminary to-do list and it looks like this:

  1. Decide what type of site design to use.
  2. Outline what pages to have on the site.
  3. Draft some copy for each page.
  4. Locate a web designer.
  5. Discuss needs with the designer and provide the drafts.
  6. Review the designer’s prototypes and decide how to move forward.

If you don’t know how to decide what type of site design to use, you might feel completely stuck. But what if you forget about that for now, and outline the pages you want to have instead? Or, if that’s the step where you’re not sure what to do, pick just one page you know you’ll need — like a page that summarizes your services and products — and draft the copy for that one.

Or, if drafting even one page has you stymied, put steps 1 through 3 aside, and move forward on locating a web designer to work with. It’s a good bet that when you take some action toward finding the right web designer, you’ll start to have more ideas about what you want to see on your site.

It doesn’t matter what sort of project you have planned. It’s always possible to begin somewhere other than where you thought was the beginning. You can start in the middle. Or at the end. Or wherever in the project your monkey mind jumps to. By actually working on the project instead of simply thinking about it, you will make real progress on your project while also discovering questions, answers, and resources to take whatever the next step is.

To-do lists aren’t written in stone. In fact, sometimes it works to metaphorically throw a dart and begin with any step at all. You can’t get stuck at the beginning if the beginning isn’t where you start.

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