Where to start when you don't know where to start

where to start
“Trust that still small voice that says, “This might work and I’ll try it.” Diane Mariechild

So. You want to work on being more creative everyday. You want to establish a creative practice, you want to jump in on those projects you've been dreaming about. But you have no idea where to start. Should you take a class? Should you start a 30-day challenge? Should you ask your friend for help? Should you just start messing around and see what happens? The choices spin around in your mind and, day after day, you do nothing. It's too hard.

Starting is the hardest part of any project or practice. And when there is no clear starting point, it's even harder. Here are some ideas on identifying what exactly is making it so hard to get started, and what to do about it.

You're looking at the whole project at once

This is a problem that I have quite frequently. When I was helping my dad pack up his house to move, I was often paralysed by overwhelm and indecision. I looked out at the basement full of stuff and I just couldn't imagine how we would get it all into boxes and into the new place. Then my boyfriend came over and started methodically putting stuff into boxes. He didn't look at the whole basement, he just looked at the pile of stuff in front of him. Once that was dealt with, he looked at a new pile.

He often uses this as a metaphor for me when I'm feeling stuck in a project, and overwhelmed. He reminds me to take it one box at a time.

It's about narrowing your vision so that all you can see are small, manageable tasks. Even creative adventures like learning to draw can be broken down into small tasks so that you can focus on one thing at a time: 1. Get drawing book from library. 2. Read first chapter. 3. Do exercises. Try not to think about all the hundreds of ways you can learn drawing or even the end result of the whole project. Just think about the next thing on the list.

You don't know where the beginning is

Breaking a project down can seem impossible when you don't actually know what the first task would be - or even what the project is. For something you've never done before, or something you have no knowledge of, the starting point can be elusive. In this case, I've developed a technique that I call following bread crumbsLike Hansel and Gretel in the woods, you don't need to see the big picture to get moving on something new. You just need to choose a bread crumb and see where it leads you.

I learned to do this when I went to South America to learn traditional weaving techniques. I had this idea that I would go to small villages to learn from the women, but I had no clue how I might do that - all the research I did beforehand didn't turn up much. I decided to just go and see what I could find. I told everyone that I met what I was there to do and after a month of travel I finally met someone who knew someone who worked for an organization that worked with indigenous weavers. In a few more weeks I found myself sitting on a remote hillside, surrounded by sheep, with a tiny backstrap loom strapped to my waist.

When my stay in that village ended, I continued my strategy of talking to and asking people. Sometimes I didn't have a concrete idea on what to do or who to talk to, just an inkling - maybe I should walk down this street, or go into this store. Often these impulses paid off - like when I impulsively walked into a store and asked if they knew any weavers who could teach me. The man working there pointed at a woman and said, she can, and I ended up studying with her for almost a month.

The point is that you don't need to know what you're doing or have it all figured out. Try the first thing that pops into your head, no matter how silly it might seem. It will either get you closer to your goal, or it will give you another idea to try. Pretend you're a detective on the scent of some amazing discovery. Keep at it until you find what you're looking for. Sometimes when I think about something I'm starting, or even something I'm halfway through, I get hit with a giant "I don't know what to do!" I then use my gentlest inner voice to say, that's okay, you don't need to know right now. You'll figure it out.

"Everything is figure-outable." Marie Forleo

You're overwhelmed by too many options

This is often a fun problem to have. You have so many ideas and are excited about so many things that you can't possibly choose. Sometimes though, it can turn ugly.

I have a long list of things I want to make: ideas for more sculptures and prints, and a desire to start weaving again. Obviously I can't work on all of these at once, and usually just put them in some arbitrary order and get to them when I get to them. Last week I decided that it was time to start working on an idea for a lino print over a collage (sort of like these ones). I got everything out that I needed then realized that I was out of the tissue paper I wanted to use and would have to order it online. I needed it for the first step of the collage and I couldn't proceed without it. It was time to choose another item from the list but instead of calmly picking one, I became stressed, worrying that I wasn't choosing the right one.

My mind started to spin: since I have no shows coming up, why does it even matter what I choose? What's the point of any of it? I spun myself right up, until I felt anxious and depressed. After a few rough hours I was able to step back and think about what I needed to do to feel better. I realized that I really wanted to listen to the audiobook I had from the library - I figured it would soothe me. Then I thought about what I could work on while listening to the audiobook - something easy, that wouldn't require a lot of thought or effort. I decided to start gluing paper to Styrofoam balls to make a whole bunch of small eyeballs that I could put in a jar. That's what I did, for the next 3 hours, and it felt both soothing and productive.

When you feel like you have too many options, sometimes it's best to just let your emotions or energy levels decide for you. What feels best right now? Go with that.

You feel like you have no available options

This can happen when something is so big and scary that you don't even think you can do it. Starting my own business often feels that way to me. There are so many things I didn't know, so much that needs to be done, and I often just don't feel up to the task. What do I do? A combination of all three techniques I've already shared with you, plus one extra.

- I try to break it down into manageable pieces, focusing on what I can do today rather than everything that I want to do.

- I follow the bread crumbs. I try things and see what happens. When something doesn't work, I learn from it and try a different path. I let my tiny amount of knowledge and my intuition guide my actions.

- I start with the things that are easiest and most exciting and move on to the scarier things when I feel stronger.

And the one extra thing? I'm gentle with myself - or at least I try to be. When you're starting, when you don't know what you're doing, when you're scared and unsure, it's really easy for you to beat yourself up. To tell yourself that you should know more, that you should do more, be more. Beginnings are times that require extra softness and extra love for wherever we're at.

"You cannot know something before you know it." Elizabeth Gilbert

Here's a simple exercise you can do when you feel stuck in 'can't get started' mode:

- Grab a piece of cardboard, card stock, or thick paper. Grab a magazine or two. Or some fabric. Or an old map. Whatever you can find.

- Flip through the magazine or map and rip out an image that catches your eye, it could be anything at all. Glue it to your cardboard. Then find another image that somehow 'goes' with that image. Don't think about it too much. Rip it out, glue it down. The point isn't to do this nicely, or to make art. The point is to teach yourself that you are capable of figuring this out.

- Take stock of your two images. What else do they want? Do they want more images surrounding them, or do they need something else? Maybe they want to be painted on. Maybe they want to be ripped up and taped back together. Try something, anything. Then try something else: cutting, ripping, glueing, painting, scribbling - you might even try photocopying it and then glueing down pieces of the copy (this is a favourite trick of mine when I'm stuck). Take at least 5 more actions with this piece. Then put it away. Use the energy you just created to go start something you've been putting off.

What is your biggest obstacle when it comes to getting started? What projects are the hardest to start?