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The Time Warp Scenario: How to Get Unstuck On Big Projects

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Whether you're planning a unit or prepping to lead PD or preparing for a job interview or writing a book proposal or drafting a speech, if you're like me, you'll inevitably run into moments where you get stuck.

What I'm talking about are those times when the internal dialogue is like this:

“AHHHH! I'M GOING TO FAIL! I CAN'T DO THIS! TOO MUCH TO DO! TOO MANY DUMB IDEAS! I'M AN IDIOT! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? WHY AM I EVEN TRYING! THIS IS GOING TO BE THE WORST THING A PERSON HAS EVER MADE. AH!”

What I've found, having done every single project on the list at the start of this article, and some of them dozens of times, and having run into these moments of intense self-doubt every single time, is that the best thing to fix them is to ask myself one question:

If I had to complete this by tomorrow, what would it look like?*

Or, more elaborately:

Let's say someone showed up to my room with a time warp gun, shot it at me, and I was teleported to the hour before this thing was due. An hour before the speech, an hour before the PD starts, an hour before the lesson begins, an hour before the proposal is due.

What would I do?

And what this tends to do is it gets me talking through the thing in a very rough draft, low-standards, “done is better than perfect” way.

  • All right, so in this PD I basically want to accomplish X. And so here are some questions I might ask to get groups discussing toward X, and here are a few studies I would share, and here's a text I'd use to model a text-based lesson…
  • Okay, so this book is about Y, and I want the book to help, and the basic things that you need to keep in mind if you're struggling with Y are A, B, C, and D. Oh, and also E. And so these would be my chapters, and I'd organize them like this.

Neil Strauss puts it like this: “The key is temporarily dropping your standards.”** The problem that a lot of us face when we sit down to big projects, especially ones that will be judged by other people, is we think, “Okay, this has to be perfect, this has to be awesome.”

But when you put yourself in the time warp scenario, you end up totally blowing past that because it's not possible. And so you come up with a solution that could, if you woke up tomorrow and it was the day the thing was due, work. It wouldn't be perfect, but it'd help.

And that's what all the things we're trying to make ought to do anyways. They ought to help.

And so now, with the outline of the thing, with its gist established, you can get that first crappy draft on paper, and you can keep building it out from there.

And when you again get stuck, put yourself in the time warp scenario.


*Thank you to Steven Isbister, a friend of mine who first asked me this question years ago when I was just starting out as a speaker.

**Thank you to Tim Ferriss, whose interview with Strauss that includes these words is recorded in his wonderful Tools of Titans. This book is like going into a museum where the exhibits are the most valuable tidbits from dozens of the world's most productive lives.


Note from Dave: If you're feeling stuck in general, you might appreciate the 10-day mini-course I'm creating on prioritization. (More information here.) Its structure is simple: 10 video lessons with 10 reflective application prompts, all around the theme of prioritizing. How do we build flourishing careers when there is too much to do in so little time? How do we optimally promote the long-term flourishing of students without driving ourselves bonkers or burning ourselves out in the process? 

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