3 Ways to Get Unstuck


3 Ways to Get Unstuck - 3

“Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs.” — Malcolm S. Forbes

On our team at Microsoft, things move fast and we can’t afford to get stuck.  Being blocked on something is one thing, but feeling stuck is another.

When you feel stuck, it’s easy for your thought patterns to create a spiral down.  This is ineffective and it can be paralyzing.  The good news is, you can break the thought patterns, by asking yourself a different set of questions.

Here are some of the questions we regularly use:

  1. Ask “who would be doing what differently?”
  2. Ask “who is holding you back?”
  3. Ask “how?” not “why?”

1. Who would be doing what differently?
This is my favorite question.  This forces absolute clarity.  I use it whenever I feel stuck or when somebody brings me their challenges.  If you can figure out the action or behavior that you want to see, then you start to put your finger on who really needs to do what.  This makes it actionable and specific.  More importantly, this clarity helps you see your role in the situation and where you can focus your time and energy for results.

2. Ask “who is holding you back?”
One of my mentors is great at asking this question.  I’ve seen him in action.  What happens when he asks this question is somebody first gets a blank look … you know, that “deer in headlights” look.  Next, they start figuring out who to point their finger at.  What they start to realize quickly is that nobody is really holding them back.  They are holding themself back.  Often through either limiting assumptions or limiting thoughts.  They haven’t tested their results.  Often, they assume how people will react to their actions without testing their own actions.

Related to this, one of my managers always re-enforced, it’s faster to change yourself than other people, and I’m a beleiver that you have a lot of flexibility in that you can change your thinking, feeling, or doing, or you can change the situation by adapting yourself, adjusting the situation, or changing to a new situation.

3. Ask “how?” not “why?”
“Why me?” … “Why does this always happen to me?” … “Why are you late?” … all of these are “stuck” questions.  They go nowhere fast.  You either find a way to justify why it’s always you, or you end up in a debate whether and why somebody is always late.  Instead, switch to solution-focused questions, and ask “how?”  For example, “how can you show up on time?”  … “How can you avoid this in the future?”  Your brain likes to solve problems, but only if you frame the right question.  If you ask “why”, it’s a self-perpetuating spiral down.  To break the spiral, shift to “how.”

I’m not a fan of fancy.  I’m a fan of effective.  These techniques aren’t fancy, but they are incredibly effective.  You can use them anytime when you find yourself feeling stuck, or you’re in a situation that you want to be different.  The most important person in your life for changing your life is you.

Photo by Tiago Ribeiro.


  1. Excellent questions to ask in order to get unstuck. I’m certainly going to use these the next time I feel stuck!

  2. I like the 2nd question J.D. It reminds me of the classic Ayn Rand quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me. ”

    Each person is their own liberator or jailer.

  3. I like the “how” questions. They are active rather than passive. It’s sometimes so difficult though, getting unstuck and gaining clarity. It’s easier when you work with a team, I think, and harder when you’re by yourself.

  4. I learned early in the game that I had to change myself or my actions to get different results with three small children to care for get grow’d…I just wrote on a slip of paper on the refrigerator How can I eat what I need for me when my schedule is so chaotic right now….It is a good place to rest my eyes and take a deep breath before chowing down for success.

    Thank you JD, this was short, sweet and too the point – just right

  5. Hi J.D. –

    Your post gives us a great way to
    – pay attention to modeling someone inspirational
    – take responsibility for our own actions, and
    – pique our motivation.

    As the manager of my journey, I occasionally check in to learn whether I would be hired for fired. Definitely gets me going 🙂

  6. Hi J.D.,

    I like the part where you said, “it’s faster to change yourself than other people.” Once we realize this and make changes in our lives, we find those around us start changing too. It’s like they don’t want to be left behind. (or at least “some” don’t)

  7. It’s always about us isn’t it?! I don’t seem to be able to progress in a linear way though. Sometimes I’m on fire and other times running on the spot – always going forward and keeping an eye on the goal though:) Fab image there. Sometimes we do run up against brick walls!

  8. Brilliant advice and great questions to ask. It truly is only our responsibility to change our lives and when we truly embrace it, everything changes.

  9. @ Positively Present — It’s great how just the right questions, go a long way.

    @ Ryan — That’s a perfect quote. When I joined Microsoft, one of my mentors told me it’s better to ask for forgiveness, than ask for permission. It’s served me well.

    @ Vered — That’s actually a good point. At work, I bounce things off a team and mentors, at home, I bounce things off a sounding board of friends.

    @ Patricia — I like how you took action and re-framed your question. It has the instant impact of getting your brain on your side.

    @ Tara — Thank you!

    @ Kim — Owning our action is empowering and I’m a fan of empowerment. It also tees us up to choose our next best move or next best play for the situation. I like your “manager of my journey” metaphor.

    @ Barbara — You put into words a thought that was popping into my head over the last couple days … “they don’t want to be left behind.” I noticed lately how much that’s driving some people I know to change … it’s a reminder of “lead by example” and “follow the leader.”

    @ Cheryl — Thank you!

    @ Annabel — That’s the way to do it — eye on the goal and find a way foreword.

    @ Lana — Thank you. I find it inspiring when people make changes in their lives and set great examples. It’s a reminder of how powerful we are when we decide and take action.

    @ Phil — I’m a fan of sharing what works. On the job, I get a lot of training, a lot of practice, and a lot of learning from the school of hard knocks 😉

  10. Hi JD .. if it’s going to be – it’s up to me .. there can be no other answer .. so wash the glue away, brush the cobwebs out .. and DO ..

    It’s me .. and I love your questions – remember to ask ourselves all the time .. we can’t rest on our laurels .. we need to progress.

    Have a good weekend .. Hilary

  11. @ Hilary — That’s a gem of a saying and I like how it starts from the inside out. Doing builds momentum!

  12. Ha-ha! Oh, why must we suffer so for the inadequacies of the rest of the human race? Oh, wait… “…one of my managers always re-enforced, it’s faster to change yourself than other people.” Yes, indeed. And also, all to often I’m the one who *should* be doing the changes!

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