How to get stuck on purpose

Anti-flow as a creative skill, or, how to be a little annoyed

The shop doors are open wide and at the end of the day the people there gather around a bench to share their progress, discoveries, and challenges. The talk is a mix of jokes, stories, questions, weaving between discussion of craft, good books, upcoming events, and plans for future gatherings. Camaraderie, commiseration, good cheer. There’s no rush to leave. How go the projects on your workshop table? Did you find anything cool? Will you show me what you’re working on?

This week, I got stuck…

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Monday morning: I sit down with my coffee and bring up my list of shiny new tasks for the week, aligned like collector’s items on a shelf. I pick up the first one and anticipate getting into a challenging yet enjoyable state of flow as I work through programming steps. My brain is itching for the chemical rewards that come from orchestrating all my skills and experience in harmony to make steady and lively progress.

As I begin, I run into small problems. This is expected, but I feel like an agile swimmer as I navigate between identifying possible solutions, narrowing down ideas, and trying them out. Nothing slows me down for too long. And then, it’s time. My mouse hovers over the checkbox for a millisecond before I click it and unicorns literally fly across the screen of my to do list app. Ah, sweet doneness.

I’m able to maintain an engaging state of on the edges of control and flow because of my quick pace. The tasks are relatively easy, so I must move swiftly to stay within the right balance between boredom and anxiety. If I go slower, it will be too dull and I’ll just end up doing something else. If I go any faster, I’ll also stop enjoying it—I won’t feel confident that I’m not creating errors or doing a messy job, and it would be a sign I’m just trying to get the tasks over with. So I keep an steady, lively, and enjoyable pace, working in small cycles and with a lighthearted rhythm.

Wanting to get done with something isn’t a good reason to do it.
–John Gordon

➵ The rabbit hole

But… as in all good adventures, after the exposition comes the conflict. With each task I open, there’s a chance I’ll run into a wall. A rabbit hole. A missed exit, a wrong turn, a flat tire. I’ve been doing this long enough to know smooth sailing doesn’t last forever. When you take the chance to practice creativity, either as an explorer or a gardener, you’re moving on the cutting edge of what you know and what you don’t know, what is and what is becoming. And when you step into the unpredictable unknown like that, the Fates guarantee one thing: you’re going to get stuck.

We set out from the harbor without a single sea chart. We start out not knowing what direction we're heading in, and the small crew argues back and forth about where to go and what to do. Sometimes, we find ourselves adrift. Other times, we're buffeted by storms and end up becoming shipwrecked. Still others, we cry that we've discovered new land, but when we make for shore, we end up at a loss when we find that it was nothing but a tiny, barren island.

–Eiji Aonuma, Legend of Zelda series producer

So then it happened. In the middle of my happy, carefree flow state, I fell in the rabbit hole and couldn’t get out. I was investigating the cause of a software bug—something mundane and seemingly small (rabbit holes always appear tiny at first, until they unravel into a black hole consuming everything). I narrowed down the possible causes of the problem and set to work trying out ideas for solutions.

Usually when debugging a software problem, even when an idea doesn’t work there’s at least some progress in learning something new about the system that hints toward new ideas to try. In this case, not only was the problem not getting fixed, no new information was getting uncovered in my process of poking and prodding at the code. I arrived at a wall and was completely stuck—an all too familiar and annoying feeling.

➵ Who put this wall here?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Robert Frost, Mending Wall

When stuck at a wall, the reasons for why the wall is there vary endlessly and are not immediately obvious. Often it’s an external force, something in the nature of the materials you’re working with. The details in the physical or digital reality of the materials are tied up and complicated, difficult or impossible to unravel like a Gordian knot. Or, something you need is missing. The screw is stuck and you can’t get the cover off to do the repair. It’s the day of the party, you’re in the middle of mixing the cake, and you realize you’re out of baking powder. The code is old and has no tests, and every time you touch it, it falls apart. You’re late for work, and the car won’t start.

But more often the demoralizing truth is that the wall is there because we put it there ourselves. Why would we do such a thing? Again, the reasons for this are endless, but there are some common ones. Often it starts by trying to do too much at once, like trying to carry one too many boxes and watching them tumble down the stairs. Or it may be built from a patchwork of inaccurate but tightly held assumptions about the issue at hand that we desperately don’t want to re-examine for some hidden reason. Sometimes we secretly don’t want to get unstuck—getting unstuck means we’ll have to deal with the domino effect of other things that will need to be dealt with as a result of fixing the current issue.

That's where people get stuck. They think, “I need to make this change which means I'll need to make that change.” Just do it.

John Gordon

Whether you’re stuck due to internal or external forces, no book or website can provide an exact diagnosis and prescription. This is when you’re put to the test. The wall is there, and it’s up to you to decide how to respond.

➵ After the wall, the trap

When facing the wall, it’s time to be careful. In that moment, there is an extreme increased risk of getting even more stuck, or giving up altogether, by falling into what Robert Pirsig called a gumption trap.

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined “irreplaceable” assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm, and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things “gumption traps.”

-Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Getting stuck is so discouraging and beguiling, if you’re not careful you’ll end up approaching the problem in a way that only exacerbates the situation in your frustration. These potential traps will be different for each person and each project, but there are some common patterns—overwork, procrastination, perfectionism, all familiar forms of self-sabotage.

There are hundreds of kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

-Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

My default response to being stuck is stubbornness and obsession. The stuck problem sticks like a splinter—there is no peace until the stuckness is resolved, until the mind and the machine are at rest. It’s like ending a song on a dissonant chord with no resolution. On the one hand, this kind of persistence is a helpful skill for programming since difficult bugs requiring perseverance pop up all the time. On the other hand, it can become a gumption trap, draining my energy and keeping me working long past my energy has been used up. Like the goose in Untitled Goose Game, I might become obstinate and brain locked.

While I found plenty of energy to keep trying to solve the problem, it also put me in a rigid mindset not open to new information or slow-paced questions, which are both essential for getting unstuck. I was too in the weeds, unwilling to take a step back, take a walk, or talk to a co-conspirator to get some perspective. It also drained my energy for other important tasks, and led me to a bit of overworking and sacrificing time for rest and recovery, which further led to a negative cycle of more gumption draining in the days ahead.

This example is a common pattern I’ve noticed in my own experience, but depending on the project the opposite situation might emerge. I might be too quick to give up, too willing to walk away before I give it a solid try. The world of gumption traps is expansive, and the skills needed to identify and navigate around them are wide, varied, and often contradictory, as well. So what should we do when we’re facing the wall and a trap? Here come the magic words: it depends. Indeed, for everything that’s true about creativity, the opposite is also true.

➵ Anti-flow skills: get stuck on purpose

While it’s not possible to list every solution to every gumption trap, it may be possible to give the general mindset a name: anti-flow. You’re trying to flow in one direction, and the wall says, “Nope, can’t go this way.” Anti-flow means not insisting on your way and trying to punch through the wall, but rather willingly doing things that seem counterproductive to your original direction—going with the anti-flow.

The first skill of anti-flow is to not try to avoid getting stuck. Let it happen. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Creativity is brackish. What flows will also anti-flow. Yes, the ultimate goal is to get unstuck, but first you must eagerly get stuck. It’s time to see getting stuck as a good thing:

Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor to real understanding.

-Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

When we’re nimbly moving in one direction, we’re alert, aware, eyes wide open to the path ahead. When we get stuck, we have to become even more alert and open to new information. We come face to face with our assumptions, biases, and conceptual reductions of reality, which all must be re-examined if we’re going to get unstuck. Getting stuck is an opportunity to see reality more clearly.

If you concentrate on it, think about it, stay stuck on it for a long enough time, in time you will come to see the screw is less and less and object typical of a class and more an object unique in itself. Then with more concentration you will begin to see the screw as not even an object at all but as a collection of functions.

-Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is the difference between gumption and obstinancy. Being obstinate will only keep you exactly as stuck as you are now, or worse, because although it means you’re stubbornly committed to figuring out the problem, it also means you’re refusing to change your course of action or your assumptions. Having gumption looks similar—you’re persistently giving your energy and attention to solving the problem, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes, including completely tossing out your old assumptions, trying untested paths, and even taking a break. You’re willing to accept reality and look closely, to develop a deeper understanding of the collection of forces and materials at hand.

As frustrating as being stuck for a few days was, I did end up learning a lot more about the software I was working with when I finally found a solution. Getting stuck is a key moment where you can learn where your initial sketch can be refined, where you can make new discoveries within your initial pattern language, and find new centers that you never expected.

Another issue with avoiding stuckness is that easy, unhindered flow can be a bit addicting, and might become a delusion of progress distracting from meaningful progress:

Our motivation, focus, attention, and behavior, will naturally gravitate to the things that provide the richest sense of progress. This is the progress principle. The things that provide the richest sense of progress are often the default, well-established things that have in-built feedback loops that provide us with an immediate sense of progress. These default things may be getting in the way of meaningful progress. And this question of what meaningful progress is.

What is meaningful progress? Meaningful progress is that which brings us closer to future relevance. What is future relevance? That requires curiosity and empathy to answer.

–Dr. Jason Fox, The Ritual of Becoming

It’s not that difficult or effortful things are inherently more valuable than that which flows easily, it’s that avoiding stuckness may be creating a blindspot or be a form of stuckness of its own.

➵ Creative skills for getting unstuck

Once you’ve gotten stuck and accepted your situation, maybe even started to see the humor and enjoyment of it, you’ve already avoided the most dangerous gumption traps caused by impatience and obstinancy. At this point, you’re still stuck, but now you can properly attend to the task of getting unstuck through the skills of anti-flow. Again, it’s impossible to catalog every possible skill, tactic, or strategy you might employ here—this is at the heart of creative habits and practice—but there are some common skills I was reminded of this week when I was stuck:

  • Work with negative space. Instead of focusing on the wall, focus on all the open space on either side of the wall. Invert the questions you’re asking and the problems you’re solving. “When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.” –Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

  • Sit and stare. Literally just sit and stare at the wall. Don’t move. Be bored. Float in the stuckness and watch what happens rather than doing anything.

  • Drink coffee, take a nap, take a walk. Replenish your gumption. Don’t do anything just to be done with it. You’re stuck, so the goal isn’t to check off the to do list item, it’s to take care of your energy.

  • Shift gears, have a lot of things going. “Having a lot of different projects gives you work for different qualities of time. Plus, you’ll have other things to work on if you get stuck or bored (and that can give your mind time to unstick yourself).” –Aaron Swartz

  • Call your friends over. This week, I got unstuck by having a conversation with a colleague. They mentioned some small detail that gave me a tiny lead on a new string to pull to find new information. Eventually that got me unstuck.

  • Housekeeping. Slowly sort through the pieces of material and the information you know one piece at a time. Write down questions. Go over all the familiar things you think you know by heart, and look at them carefully. Start to see them freshly, organize them and dust them off. Something might appear.

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So that’s my tale of getting stuck this week. I’m still not sure I enjoy being stuck, but at least now I remember why I shouldn’t totally try to avoid it. Ah, well, we get to try again next week! Until then, my friends—show me what you’re working on, if you’re up for it. Are you stuck? What do you do when you get stuck? Any skills you’d add to the list of unsticking spells?

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