feeling stuck on a project

Feeling Stuck on a Project?Escape from the Dark Forest!

Céline is working on an autobiographical audio story about how she turned her life upside-down in order to care for two baby wild boars on her father’s remote farm in Germany. She’d written a really powerful Story Madlib (a story structure tool I talk about in episode 4 of the Out on the Wire podcast) where she created parallels between her own decision-making vis a vis the boars to her father’s reckless behavior, which had always stood between them.

“Céline is determined to never let anybody get too close to her, especially her father, who somehow always ends up hurting her. But then during a visit to her father’s farm, an orphan wild baby boar, named Gustav, decides to adopt Celine as his replacement mom…Like everybody else, she knows from the beginning that raising a male wild boar is a stupid and possibly dangerous idea, but she can’t help it.”

The idea was heartfelt, original, and profound. It had also landed Céline deep in the Dark (German) Forest (both literally and metaphorically).

OMG, I would seriously consider throwing over my whole life for a little guy like this, too. Esp when feeling stuck on a project.

OMG, I would seriously consider throwing over my whole life for a little guy like this, too.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Dark Forest, the scary, discouraging place we often get trapped in when we’re feeling stuck on a project— particularly in the middle of big, ambitious creative projects. And I talked a lot about the value of having a plan, how that can help you keep moving forward.

And a plan that breaks down your work into doable, understandable pieces is super important. But a plan that gets you sitting day after day and staring at your notes as they become increasingly incomprehensible is not a plan you’ll follow for long.

Céline is a member of the Out on the Wire Working Group, the online platform associated with the Out on the Wire podcast for workshopping our stories. But after being a constant presence in the group for a month, she’d disappeared. I was riveted by her story; I noticed her absence. But I had a feeling I knew what was going on: The Dark Forest had closed in on her.

My producer Benjamin Frisch and I just finished an episode of the podcast on the Dark Forest last week. We were looking for a way to do a Workshop Episode that would really get at the heart of what it felt like, and how to get out. So we decided to call Céline.

The secret of getting out of the Forest isn’t “doing the work,” it’s a Focus Session.

Sure enough, Céline was trapped in the Forest. She was feeling stuck on her project and tied to her original idea, and it was sinking her. She had lost her initial excitement about the idea. I think, in fact, she was in danger of actually abandoning her project.

Which would have been a shame. Her interest in the subject of wild boars, which are in crisis in Germany, only grew stronger with every passing day—every time she read a new report or found a new organization devoted to them. But because her original idea centered on her relationship with her father, the time she spent investigating the larger issues made her feel like she was in some way betraying her story. Meanwhile, her father wouldn’t be caught on tape and she hated how her own diary audio sounded.

Yes, this new story concept meant she’d need to work up the courage to interview scientists and other experts, local hunters who might see her as critical. Strangers. But the burst of energy she felt from realizing that she was not wrong, that she knew in her gut what her story should really be—that will sustain her as she tries new things.

She left the conversation feeling really good about her work, and so her story is that much closer to actually existing in the world. Which is good for all of us. It’s a story I want to hear, and, believe me, you do too.

The actual German forest with the actual German boars.

The actual German forest with the actual German boars. Not as scary as in my imagination…

So many times in my life, I’ve had this experience: I’m feeling stuck on a project, creative or otherwise, and the knowledge required to make the next step is in me, somewhere, I know it is. I can feel it in there, trying to get out. But I just can’t grasp it.

The second I sit down with someone to talk it through (usually Matt Madden, my husband and fellow cartoonist, but not always), that knowledge starts to bubble up. I talk through what I’m thinking, what I’m struggling with, and before I know it, I’ve got clarity. Often, I don’t even really need advice at all. I just need to put myself in a situation where I need to clearly explain my problem to someone else.

I don’t mean to say I’ve got the whole thing (whatever it is) written, but I’ve unwound some complicated relationship between characters, I’ve spotted the flaw in my logic, I’ve figured out how to say something subtle…I know what I need to do next. Which is to write.

And then that’s what I do, instead of just sitting there staring at my screen for hours, days, or weeks when I’m feeling stuck on a project and waiting for luck to come my way.

This is a Focus Session.

This is not just having coffee. It’s not support. It’s a system for feedback and collaborative improvement. It’s reliable, it’s repeatable. I don’t wait for inspiration or luck. I hate waiting for luck. Luck is always late.

If you’re feeling stuck on a project, or trapped in the Dark Forest, try a Focus Session, and see if you can’t build a catapult to help you escape.

How to do it:

  1. Assess your collaborator. Find someone who is willing to spend an hour imaginatively entering fully into your project. That means someone who knows how to listen, who can be attentive to you and to details, and who is open enough to go where you want to go.
  2. Set the stage, part 1: Ask for a specific amount of time. It’s a lot easier to say yes to “Can I bend your ear for an hour” than “I really need your help on this project I’m stuck on”. That can feel overwhelming.
  3. Set the stage, part 2: Decide what kind of feedback you want. Do you just want someone to listen? Do you want to get their take on what you’re trying to communicate? Do you want to brainstorm new ideas? Give your collaborator the worksheet (download below) and discuss your expectations before you start.
  4. Meet in person, or at least over a video call (not only audio. You want to be able to read their face). And ideally, make it a bit fun. Make lunch or invite them out. Buy them coffee at a favorite place, or have a glass of wine.
  5. RECORD! Record the whole conversation on a pocket recorder, and then listen back the the tap again later to take notes and extract more ideas from the session.

escape header-FB

You can hear our actual Focus Session with Céline in our workshop episode 7.5.

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Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Darrell on December 14, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    I really needed to hear this right now. Great tips! Thanks!

  2. Jessica Abel on December 14, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks, Darrell, glad it helped!

  3. Michelle on March 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Hey Jessica, great insights. Question: how do I download worksheets you publish with your articles if I’m already a member of the group? Surely I don’t sign up again?

    My apologies in advance if you’ve explained this before. I’m coming back to the group after being inactive for a while.


  4. Jessica Abel on March 29, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    As long as you use the same email, just put that in again, and you’ll get whatever resource you want, without being signed up multiple times. It will look like you’re signing up again, but you’re not!

  5. MacKenzie Whyte on July 28, 2016 at 11:58 am

    This email is really timely.

    I am working on a Needs Assessment right now at my day job. The project has become too big. It was a community consultation and once I started gathering information I was hit with all these side issues related to the topic. Normally I would just say these issues are out of scope of this project; but they are important issues people have risked their livelihoods and access to services to reveal. So there is tremendous pressure on me to correctly document everything and make recommendations in such a way to ensure they are followed up on. Everybody is expecting me to perform a miracle with this report and it is overwhelming.

    Right now I am lost in the Dark Forest and this idea was like being given a compass. Thank you so much Jessica.

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