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How To Be Productive + Avoid “Analysis Paralysis”

Cubicle Buddha
TypeScript nut + head writer at CubicleBuddha.com (other loves are cats, my wife, comic books, and VGs)
Originally published at cubiclebuddha.com on ・4 min read

You’re staring at the blank screen and you have no idea what to write. Or maybe you’re staring at a bug in some software you have to fix. Every career has these moments where you have no idea where to start. You’re overwhelmed by the options, and you’ve found yourself firmly in a state of “analysis paralysis.” So how do you get productive when you can’t even begin?

We’ll share a wonderful tip from a surprising place: Hollywood.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, and I often learn a lot from hearing about other careers. They call this “multidisciplinary learning.” It’s largely the reason why Leonardo DaVinci was so successful– he grabbed as much knowledge as he could from engineering, art, anatomy and more.

How Hollywood Deals With Writer’s Block

Today’s discovery came to me while listening to the podcast Armchair Expert, where Dax Shepard was interviewing Mike Schur (the show-runner and head writer of NBC’s hit comedy, “The Good Place”). Dax Shepard was shocked to discover that a writer is only allowed 3 days to write an entire episode, saying “[that’s] not a lot of time for writer’s block!”

Dax Shepard and Mike Schur then share their secret:

Dax Shepard: “My technique as a writer, to get over writer’s block is to give myself permission to write something shitty.”

“Don’t you think it’s own of the greatest assets you can have?”

Mike Schur: “Of course.”

Dax Shepard: “You become paralyzed with trying to write something perfect, and you’ll just never write.”

It turns out that there’s a term in Hollywood for this process of iterating: “The Vomit Draft.”

The Vomit Draft

The idea is that you just vomit something out. Maybe there are some good chunks in there (forgive me), but ultimately you are most likely going to throw away the whole draft.

So how does that even help?

Well, once you’ve started creating you have effectively removed the roadblocks. You have become un-paralyzed. Now you’re free to write a second draft that will almost certainly be better than the first. As I’ve heard it said before, “there’s only one direction to go from here: up!”

How To Apply It

So if you’re working on a software bug, make a guess about the cause the bug and investigate it even if it’s wildly wrong. Just by getting into the motion of investigating will help you find the real root cause sooner.

If you’re trying to write an email to your boss about a promotion… write a very bad one first. After you’re done, you’ll know what not to say. Just be sure to avoid adding an email address first so you don’t accidentally send it! We believe in impermanence, but some things are not as easily undone.

Those are just a few practical examples of how to get in the motion. What we’re really talking about here is iterating. You start small and you build on it. More importantly, don’t be afraid to chuck things out if they aren’t working. But you can’t throw away pages if you haven’t written any. So get started with something crappy!

Other Examples Of How Iterating Solves Quality And Productivity Problems

It’s clear that iteratively developing a product can help to refine the idea into it’s best version over time. Here are some other examples from other careers that prove that “vomit drafts” or prototypes can help immensely.

But What’s Worked For You?

I’d love to hear how you’re learning to overcome the paralysis that comes from a blank white canvas. How are you getting started?

Discussion (9)

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sebbdk profile image
Sebastian Vargr

Nice writeup, giving "permission to write something shitty" is really sound advice i think. :)

Code-wise writing something that work like shit is a good way to get a prototype you can refactor and fix into the ideal, rather than obsessing about details that might not end up mattering for the end product.

The trick is to make sure to that everyone involved knows that time for refactoring and fixing will be needed after.

Otherwise it can be problematic..

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cubiclebuddha profile image
Cubicle Buddha Author

I totally agree. I have an article in my queue about creating a culture of refactoring so people “are always refactoring.”

But yea, good point about putting bad code in that doesn’t get refactored. I guess if you know your team isn’t into refactoring, you can refactor it yourself before you ever commit it to Github?

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calier profile image
Calie Rushton

The vomit draft is how I start 99% of everything I write!! Good tips.

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cubiclebuddha profile image
Cubicle Buddha Author

Haha thank you so much. I write about this stuff because I struggle a lot with procrastination myself. Right now I’m procrastinating on sleeping by “checking up on email and dev.to” haha

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calier profile image
Calie Rushton

same :)

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dvddpl profile image
Davide de Paolis

Vomit Draft : awesome catchy concept. Love it!

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cubiclebuddha profile image
Cubicle Buddha Author

Yea it struck me as soon as I heard it. Thank you so much for the comment @dvddpl :)

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rennjay profile image
rennjay soterio

Thank you for the vomit draft. It helps a lot

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cubiclebuddha profile image
Cubicle Buddha Author • Edited

Glad to hear it. CubicleBuddha.com is all about learning to fail fast so you can get happy! 😍