Getting started is the hardest part. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that step is often the hardest one to take.

Why? It usually comes down to one of three things:

  1. Lack of momentum—it’s physically difficult to get off the couch and get going.
  2. Lack of clarity—we’re not sure which direction we need to head in, so we’re hesitant to make progress in the wrong direction.
  3. Lack of conviction—we’re not even sure we want to move in the first place.

Let’s set aside the clarity and conviction for now and focus on the lack of momentum.

Anyone who has ever decided to get up earlier knows how comfortable the bed is in the morning. It’s warm. It’s cozy. And you need more sleep to perform your best later on, right?

When we’re not moving, intertia holds us back. Once we get going, inertia helps us keep going. So how do you get going when you’re stuck?

You need an icebreaker.

Icebreaker ships are designed with a hull that pushes through the ice and sweeps it aside before it can damage, trap, or even slow down the ship. Under normal operations, icebreakers sail through the ice with no loss of momentum. Once the ice is broken, the way is clear for others, whether it’s merchant ships, ferries, or a pod of more than 2,000 beluga whales.

Icebreaker questions serve the same purpose: use a simple question to break the ice and get the conversation started.

So how do you break the ice on a project and get the productivity started?

Identify the simplest task that can get you started.

Let’s say you need to give a presentation. You could break this project down into three tasks:

  1. Create slide deck.
  2. Rehearse presentation.
  3. Create handouts.

Here’s the problem. “Create slide deck” is a HUGE task—a project in itself! You need to research the topic, create an outline, and then you can sit down with Keynote and create the slides.

Oh! And you’ll need lots of images.

And one of those little clickers that hides in the palm of your hand.

Don’t worry about all that. Not yet. You’re succumbing to analysis paralysis.

Just pick a starting point.

What is the simplest action you can take to change the status of the project from Pending to In Progress?

How about starting the slide deck? Don’t worry about creating any of the slides, just create the file. Open Keynote, pick the default template, give it a name, and save it. That’s it. Don’t even browse the templates looking for the right one. You can change that later.

Once you take that one step, you don’t have to get started any more. You’ve already started. You have a place you can store those awesome images when you find them. You just need to work on it.

If you work on it enough, you will finish it.

When we haven’t gotten started yet, thinking about all the work that will be required to reach the final result can be outright intimidating. It scares a lot of people into never leaving the couch.

We break projects into tasks so they seem approachable. Divide and conquer. If a task still seems overwhelming, it may need to be broken down further. Make sure you identify the next action you need to take, not the next outcome you’ll pass along the way.

The next time you’re stuck on a project, identify the smallest, simplest action you can take. Break the ice and get under way.

Question: What’s the smallest unit of progress you could accomplish today? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.