Three Kinds of Stuck

Posted On: 2024-06-03

By Mark

The phrase "I'm stuck on this problem" can mean multiple different things, depending on what one precisely means by the word "stuck." In the vaguest sense, "stuck" means making no progress, but, from my own experience, I find there are (at least) three different ways of making no progress, each of which has its challenges and its own way of being overcome. I'll dig more into the details shortly, but, in general, I find the three kinds of stuck are "stuck in a box", "stuck with disappointments", and "stuck without control."

Stuck In A Box

Being "stuck in a box" happens when struggling to come up with new ideas. Ordinarily, relying on old/known strategies to solve new problems is useful, as it allows for quickly solving a large number of similar problems. When the known strategies prove fruitless, however, one needs to be able to try new ideas - and this first kind of "stuck" can rear its head when ideas are not forthcoming.

Solving this kind of "stuck" is actually pretty straightforward: one needs to seek out experiences that are wildly different from the current line of thought. The fastest (and often cheapest) way of doing that is to talk to someone else about the problem: the process of describing it so that another person can understand is itself sufficiently removed from continually ruminating on an issue that the mere act of talking can help*. Talking to someone insightful is additionally beneficial, as their perspective is often different/unique enough that it can become a new vantage point from which to see the problem (and thereby get out of the current box.)

Stuck With Disappointments

Being "stuck with disappointments" occurs when one has no problem generating ideas, but none of the ideas are likely to succeed. While this might not seem like being "stuck" at all - as there's always a new approach to try - looking at things from a higher level (ie. project management) reveals that no progress is being made despite continual effort.

When stuck with disappointments, there are two common but diametrically opposed approaches to getting "unstuck". The first approach is often called "fail faster": minimize investment in each individual approach, and simply try to get as many approaches attempted in as short a timeframe as possible. This approach works by assuming that, given enough tries, eventually something will work out*. It's commonly used when the success criteria is vague, or depends on how something "feels".

The second approach to overcome being stuck with disappointments is to change the goal. Success can only happen when an attempt produces the desired outcome, so an unrealistic goal can make success impossible. To combat this, it can be useful to try reframing the goal, or being a bit more generous in the success criteria*. To use a software example, the goal "the program should never crash" might lead to endless disappointments, but changing the goal to "the user should never be disrupted by a program crash" is more lenient, while staying true to the spirit of the original goal.

Stuck Without Control

Being "stuck without control" is a bit harder to describe than the other two, in part because it's not necessarily something that everyone has experienced. Where the first was a lack of ideas and the second was a mismatch between the ideas and the goal, the third can perhaps be thought of as a mismatch between the ideas and the executor. When stuck without control, one has an idea that is reasonably likely to work, but any attempt to turn the idea into something concrete stalls out. No matter how much time or effort is invested, no actual progress is made*.

This third kind of stuck is particularly insidious because there are a lot of possible root causes. Sometimes it can be solved by lowering the stakes and intentionally failing (ie. writing a bad start to get past being unable to start writing at all.) Sometimes it's a symptom of fatigue/burnout, in which case the best approach is to stop attempting and just take time to recover. Sometimes it's completely unrelated to the task at hand, in which case the problem won't go away until the underlying issue is dealt with.

A Caveat

Although I framed each of these three kinds of "stuck" as having their own specific solutions, there is still quite a lot of room for overlap. For example, when stuck with disappointments, finding a new idea with a higher chance of success may be possible - so strategies for resolving "stuck in a box" can sometimes help. Similarly, underlying issues that make one "stuck without control" (ie. burnout) might disrupt idea generation as well, meaning it's possible to be stuck in multiple different ways simultaneously.


Despite that overlap, I think that this framing is useful. From personal experience, focusing on a specific kind of "stuck" gives me a starting point for finding solutions. Having specific categories also is useful when talking with others, and especially when asking for help: being able to differentiate between "I need new ideas to get me out of my own box" versus "I have plenty of ideas, but they are consistently failing" makes it far easier to seek out the specific kinds of help I've needed*. Hopefully this post has helped you as well.