Startup paralysis

That feeling when you don’t know how to move forward. When you have a lot you could do, but you don’t know what to do next. It can last a day or it can last months — it’s startup paralysis.

It’s like standing on the edge of a swimming pool, ready to dive in, but instead just waiting.

Making yourself busy, keeping yourself occupied with jobs that should be done. The website needs updating — cool. This new feature needs testing — no problem. The plants need watering — I’m on it. It’s fine because you’re busy except it’s not. It’s not fine at all and you know it.

There’s an underlying feeling that you should be doing more — I don’t mean more tasks, but more impactful things. And this is a reminder to myself (and maybe a hand full other people that happen to read this post on the internet) why it’s harmful and hopefully help us to get over it.

There are ALWAYS things that should be done

The dangerous thing about startups is that there’s always stuff that needs doing — and sometimes they are big and important. And this includes everyone — whether you’re leading the support team, acquiring customers or developing the product. Everything is a work in progress and most things could be better but you’re navigating uncertainty to find the best way. (I’m not saying this isn’t the case for everyone working for larger companies too but I think it’s amplified in startups because there are fewer boundaries that define your job and role).

So the problem is that startup paralysis can never end. It can go on for months at a time. And it’s frustrating and makes you forget why you even care about what you do.

You’re letting the company down

At the company where I work, my job is ‘Operations Director’ so it is kind of my job to do these tasks. But it reality, I’m not doing what I was hired for unless I am having the biggest impact on growth for the company at this very moment in time. Anything that isn’t is using up scarce resources.

Sometimes it’s because you’re scared to make a decision or sometimes it’s because there’s a haze around that stops you being able to identify what’s important right now. But for whatever reason, the resulting paralysis affects the company. And I get it, the job of a startups is to navigate uncertainty and it’s hard. But that makes it even more important for you to always strive for progress.

The answer might be simpler than you think. It may just be identifying what you don’t know, and how to find this out. It might be talking to a customer, user or advisor.

You’re letting yourself down

There are two main effects of startup paralysis that I think will resonate:

Firstly, you’re not growing and developing as much as you could be. There’s no real end goal to what you’re working on day-to-day so it’s difficult to tell if you’re achieving anything at all. It’s hard to make progress if you have no measure by which to improve.

Secondly, there is the frustration — an underlying feeling that you have more to give but somehow you can’t. You’re paralysed. This is highly detrimental to your own peace of mind and motivation to continue in your work.

The cure

I am a firm believer in small wins. Small wins are reinforcing mechanisms -they build momentum and pave the way towards higher goals. So the cure is simpler and smaller than you think.

Let’s do this…

Firstly admit that you’re paralysed — it’s okay, it happens to a lot of people. Talk to someone about it — a friend, sibling, colleague or mentor.

And secondly, use small wins to propel yourself into motion — I really like James Clear’s blogpost about starting before you feel ready. He writes;

If you’re working on something important, then you’ll never feel ready. A side effect of doing challenging work is that you’re pulled by excitement and pushed by confusion at the same time.
You’re bound to feel uncertain, unprepared, and unqualified. But let me assure you of this: what you have right now is enough. You can plan, delay, and revise all you want, but trust me, what you have now is enough to start.

It sounds too simple but that’s the beauty of it. You can do it right now.

Here are a few resources I find helpful — I hope you do too. Let me know if you have any and feel free to share this post with someone that you think is experiencing startup paralysis.


The book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares is a really useful book for identifying what acquisition channels are important to focus on right now

James Clear’s blog is excellent for productivity, habit-building and life tips.

Ze Frank’s video below is 3 minutes of relief for when you’re stuck in a rut.

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking


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