When you fear the blank slate

The beginning is the hardest part.

In theory, I adore a fresh start, a clean slate, when I have abundant options ahead of me and no mistakes behind me, yet. I’m an INFP, and—true to type—I get so excited about the idea of what could happen next.

In practice, the blank slate paralyzes me. The potential may be exciting, but the decisions freak me out.

My family moved last week. It’s been a good week—I really love our new place. It felt like home, immediately. As far as I can tell, all six of us are happy and settling in.

But change is stressful, even when it’s good change. And the most exhausting thing about this move has been the blank canvas of an empty house. (Okay, the most exhausting thing might have been the fourteen and counting “last trips” to clear out the old house, but I digress.)

All this potential is kind of fun … but the blank cabinets are overwhelming, because each blank space requires a decision. I can handle putting the silverware away, and the soup bowls, and the ibuprofen, and picture books. But first I have to decide where they belong. That’s the tough part.

I would always rather be in the middle of a great book than having to decide what book to read next, or in the middle of a training plan instead of staring at the start date on the calendar, or in the middle of my bullet journal than staring down page 1.

I know it’s not just me: When writing, Hemingway was a firm believer in avoiding the dreaded beginning at any cost. (“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”) My kids are full of complaint about how unreasonable their homework is, before they begin; two minutes in they usually say it’s not that bad after all.

And the #1 email we get from customers after they receive a new reading journal kit in the mail is some version of I’m paralyzed by the empty pages—how do I start? (Luckily, we have answers for that: watch our short free video, take this longer course if you need to; and—most importantly—decide it’s okay to screw it up, and commit to learning by doing.) But the fact that so many readers ask the question—and specifically use the word “paralyzed”—tells me I’m in good company.

From where I sit, I can see boxes and boxes and boxes. It’s a little daunting. Okay—more than a little. But I’m telling myself that if I can conquer a blank reading journal, or a blank bookshelf, and decide for myself—on a regular basis—what book to read next, it’s not too much of a stretch to figure out the rest of the house. And the process is pretty similar to setting up that journal, or filling up that bookshelf.

My first step is to gather information. This could look like watching a short video on how to set up a new reading journal, or assessing my TBR stack, or—as on a recent Saturday afternoon—reading every single kitchen organization article on The Kitchn. (Favorite tip I put into practice immediately: right here.) Step two, if needed: do a deeper dive for more info. Recruit a friend to help, or at least share her sources.

And the all-important step 3, which used to never occur to me and now comes pretty naturally: start. Just begin, even if you suspect you’re doing it—whatever it is—very, very badly. (Anne Lamott has some choice words on this phenomenon.) In life as in writing, it’s easier to edit the worst first draft than face the blank page.

Do you suffer from beginner’s paralysis? How do you get over it? And if you have any great tips for organizing kitchens, bathrooms, reading journals, or anything else that you at first found completely paralyzing, please share in comments.

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  1. Makala says:

    I am fixing to graduate from highschool . It feels as if my whole life around the corner is a blank slate . I’m terrified at the prospect and yet still somewhat excited . I really get what Anne is saying about wanting to be in the middle of something rather than the beginning or end . If anyone has any helpful hints or pieces of advice on starting a totally new chapter in your life please tell me !

    • Heather Braun says:

      Hi, Makala. My advice to you is: Do what you love. Whether you are looking for a job or heading for more school, choose something that excites you, something that would be fun to do or to study. Yes, we often have to take a job that isn’t fun but only pays the bills. You can still find time to do “your thing” and figure out who you are and what makes you tick.

    • Melanie says:

      Oooo, read the book The Defining Decade by Meg Jay. It focuses on people in their twenties, and while I’m assuming you haven’t hit age 20 yet, reading this book now will give you some great advice on how to make the most of your twenties. One of the author’s big points is to get started. Build identity capital. Even if you end up changing your major or breaking up with the person you thought was the love of your life, putting yourself in a position to get good life/career/relationship experience is almost always better than sitting around trying to think your way out of the problem.

    • Michelle says:

      Makala, I agree fully with the advice “do what you love”. I would also offer “you are not what you do” (i.e. job). Sometimes your job simply pays the bills, but is not what feeds your soul. As long as it isn’t ‘soul-sucking’, that’s okay. There are many ways to get both and feel fulfilled through volunteer work, evening and weekend hobby, community involvement, etc. You have many other avenues to explore, express, and share whatever your passion may be.

  2. This is lovely advice. Thanks for including those links to the organization advice on The Kitchn — we’ve lived in our home for a little over a year now but the cupboards are still a complete mess. Also, congrats on completing your move!

  3. So many writers love drafting. Not me! The something from nothing phase is just plain hard. I play tricks with myself: I’m not writing a whole book, just a couple pages or a scene.

    Here’s to an easy transition for your family!

  4. Rachel says:

    We moved this summer and I know your pain. My mom was and is a great motivator. When facing a daunting task (unpacking, laundry, dishes, etc) just set a timer for 15 minutes. That’s all you have to do. But usually when you get started and that timer ends you are on a roll and just keep chugging. I cannot tell you how often I set a timer for myself.

    • Kate says:

      I do the same thing. There are some tasks so daunting and dreaded that you know it could take hours or days to truly complete. I even put things like “file for 30 minutes” on my to-do list for the day. If I put “file” I’ll never be satisfied because it’s never complete. That time limit gives me satisfaction that the task I set for myself has been conquered, even if the whole project isn’t.

  5. Cami says:

    I love a blank slate. I’m great at starting projects and I love the satisfaction of finishing. The time in between, not so much.

  6. Oh I feel your pain. We recently downsized from a much larger home to a home half the size which was a fixer upper. We fully renovated it and then had the daunting task of reducing all of our memories and stuff of 32 years of marriage and two grown children in order to fit in the house. Our “extra” boxes filled the garage and the dining room to the ceiling. It took my breath away. I just started with one box and kept going. Also- if you happen to put your things away in a spot that isn’t working for you, just move it. It’s ok to change your mind. Be proud of what you have already accomplished and enjoy your new home!

    • Margie Gordon says:

      I’m doing that now. My husband passed three years ago and I am moving from a large home in Lexington, KY back to St Louis where my family lives. We were married for 34 years. Lots of tears in getting this home ready to sell and in starting new life. But lots of excitement, too. The key is: Keep moving and keep your eye on the excitement in the future.

  7. Marissa says:

    I think Step 2: “invite a friend over” is key to setting up a new kitchen. I’ve done it for other people and other people have done it for me. When you are facing decision fatigue, let them be in charge and pick the “obvious” place your silverware and Pyrex should go, and then know you’ll probably make some tweaks 6 months down the line. Good luck to you! Fresh starts are exciting and exhausting!

  8. Meghan says:

    My husband is military, and we move *a lot*. Like, more even than most of our fellow service friends (my not-quite-4-yo has lived in 5 houses). I’ve learned three major things over the last 12.5 years about moving:
    1. If you don’t do it right away, you never will (bite the bullet and hang pictures as soon as everything’s unpacked)
    2. If you can’t face finding a home for something, just get rid of it (I always designate the very first emptied box as the Goodwill box for this reason)
    3. There really is no best/perfect place. That said, you probably won’t move things to a new place after you decide (this may only apply to folks who move every 1-2 years — ymmv if you’re in a house for longer!).

    For the kitchen, the #1 most helpful thing ever for me is post-its. I stick them on all the cabinets, step back, see what I think, move them around as the cabinets start to fill up. It helps me know what I need to find space for and helps me remember what I decided to put where!

    Good luck, and enjoy the new digs!

    • Michelle says:

      So funny – I thought I came up with the idea of using Post-its for cabinet organization!! My husband is Air Force and that is key to getting the kitchen unloaded quick. Bonus – I rarely ever move anything.

  9. Sarah Bowden says:

    I have used that diagram of where to put things in the kitchen in the last 2 places we have lived. As much as the kitchen allowed. It came in very handy

  10. Jo says:

    This is so me! Not the moving part, we’ve been in our small house 37 years. The decision-making part like deciding the next book to read (or two, i usually have a fiction and a nonfiction going) or weeding my closet, fabric & craft supplies.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m moving next weekend. I keep looking at the real estate listing photos and trying to plot out where all my stuff is going to go. When I ask my husband for ideas, he says he wants to, “wait until we get in there.” But I fear that decision fatigue will set in quickly when I’m already tired and stressed from the chaos of moving. Glad to hear I’m not the only one! Good luck in settling into your new home!

  12. Beth Weber says:

    I have been associated with military my whole life- grew up in, served in and now married to an active duty member. We will be married 9 years in May and will have our 6th move in August.

    Moving is the norm for us so I worry what will happen when we eventually settle down in one location. For me the key is going through your stuff and not move anything unnecessary. About six months out I start purging and donating. Secondly, I agree with Meghan kitchen and bedrooms are the priority. Fortunately my husband is a master mover and a tremendous help. We unpack most boxes the first day and have the house setup with pictures on the wall within a week. We don’t have time to linger as we need to make it a home quickly. While hard work, it allows us to feel more settled in the long run.

  13. Carolyn Neiman says:

    As for organizing kitchens, choose to place items at “the point of first use.” Plates, etc. between the dishwasher and table. Silverware drawer, the same. Napkins in the silverware drawer and placemats in the drawer beneath it. If you are right handed, put your most used tools, pots, and pans to the right of your stove.
    Glasses can go either near the sink, or the refrigerator, hopefully convenient to both as well as the dishwasher.
    Less frequently used casseroles go on top shelves.
    If you have a pantry, organize it! If not, dedicate a cabinet to staples.
    Kitchen towels near the sink.
    I have moved a number of times and always use this method suggested by my mother. My sister and I can always find things in one another’s kitchen.

  14. Jana Botkin says:

    Just unload box after box, shoving things anywhere (within the right room, of course). Then you’ll have something to fix later, either as mini projects or in little bites as you use various areas. It is always easier to fix things than to do them right the first time (contrary to the old maxim that is the reverse of that, which was written by a perfectionist and is a paralyzing way to live).

    And just stack the pictures along the walls of the rooms where they belong. Take your time hanging pictures – they don’t affect day-to-day living.

  15. Tara says:

    Oh, yes, I definitely suffer from both “beginner’s paralysis” and decision fatigue! Starting a Bullet Journal for the first time seemed exciting…until it was frightening. I can totally relate!

  16. Paula says:

    Designing Your Life is a great read by two Stanford professors, about applying design approaches, i.e. Imaging different options, trying out prototypes, etc. Great for young people trying to decide what to do with their lives, or older folks making a transition. Might even work to imagine different alternate visions for how you could use a new house?

    Unpacking also gives you a chance to focus on identifying what you really love, what brings you joy, and letting go of the rest…

    A famous haiku, “Barn burnt… now I can see the moon.”

  17. Amy says:

    As a “recovering” perfectionist, I ADORE the idea of a blank slate…until I have to mar it’s emptiness by actually putting something on it. 🙁 My mental workaround is to put things in their most logical place for right now, knowing that I will do a full re-organize in about 4-6 months, once I have worked in that space enough. (I’m looking at you, kitchen!)

    On another note, those last trips! On our last move, we had at least 14, it seems! Best of luck with your unpacking. 🙂

  18. Sarah Oliver Wofford says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! I’m right there with you, Anne!

    We are actually moving right now too! We have found a perfect home for us here in Danville and the movers come tomorrow. My husband is working so I am going to be on my own until the kids get home tomorrow…which means I will be the one figuring out where *everything* goes!!!!! Yikes! I may be looking up some kitchen ideas, as you mentioned…that room is going to be my first priority tomorrow!

    Anyhow, thinking of you friend! Good luck with your unpacking and wish me luck with mine!

  19. Having moved 9 times in our marriage, I know unpacking can be daunting. I always set up my kitchen first, after beds. My husband isn’t much for unpacking the useful things. He likes to unpack the pictures first thing and ask where to hang this picture, or that painting, before we even have the furniture arranged in the room. I guess maybe he doesn’t like a blank slate, or blank walls. I tell him to wait a day or two until we know where the lamps and furniture goes, as this will determine the placement of the paintings, but it is hard for him. To him a home has something on the walls.

  20. Jamie says:

    I have five books that I’ve been waiting and pining for sitting before me. They ALL CAME IN at the same time to the library. Which one? Which one? I want to open all of them and read them all at the same time. Decisions, decisions.

  21. Maryalene says:

    I used to be paralyzed by beginnings, but I’ve messed them up so many times now, they no longer phase me. When I was younger it felt very important to get everything “right.” Now, I’m more inclined to believe we have less control than we think. That makes it easier to dive into something new.

  22. AR says:

    This is so true and I can really relate to the irrational fear. Thanks for writing such an honest post, makes me feel like my fears are not too crazy!

  23. Shelley says:

    My husband was in the Navy for 23 years. At one point, we moved thirteen times in sixteen years. Yes, there were some moves so short that I left many boxes packed in the garage. However, over time, I came to realize that before I could make a house a home it needed to be familiar. It need to feel comfortable. I needed it to be like an old friend. I always started by placing my furniture in the same layout as the previous home. Then I worked on organizing drawers and closets (often following the layout of the previous house). As I continued to unpack and settle in I found myself feeling comfortable. It seemed like it was always easier to make changes in a comfortable space with a layout of furniture was familiar than in a new and blank space. It seemed like when I did make a change from the previous layout it was usually a good change that felt comfortable and beneficial. Enjoy your new home!
    PS I found putting a home together is often like putting a puzzle together. Put things that fit together. If you find a space that nothing seems to “fit” leave it blank and move onto another space that you can put piece together.

  24. I am your friend on the “other”side. I love to plan, have moved some times. I make charts for the rooms, have it ready so it is just to place everything. But and there is a big but, i begin in so many places and see something and go on in that place instead, so after a day i have gone from things orderly in their boxes and there is caos all around. My key word is enthusiasm, that is for my part my biggest advantage, but it is also my worst advantage. I have during time started to ask myself can i say yes or no. And then when i start i don’t feel the importance of taking a time out just go along until i am ready to go to bed for a week. So different we can be and so good that we are different persons that we are able to face problems together

  25. Hi Anne,

    Your post really got me thinking. For me, I feel like it’s one of those things that when you’re in one stage, you wish you were in the other. I remember being at the beginning of my freelance writing journey and wanting so badly to get to that point where I had a steady stream of clients and my days would be filled with work. Now, I’m there, and I miss those beginning days when everything was still so new and unexpected! I think this is why I constantly start new things. I get a bit tired once I’m in the middle of things, and love the fresh start of new things. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s definitely thought-provoking for the day!

    Have fun filling up your new home with new memories!

  26. Louise says:

    I so relate to this with books, which is why despite being a fast reader I really don’t get through very many! I always like to have a chunk of time where I can really get into it for a hour or so, but so often I choose to do other things first. It’s funny that I procrastinate on something that I really enjoy!

  27. June says:

    We just moved long-distance for the first time since college, and I just started blogging. The blank slate: so terrifying. Feeling not quite sure how to be whatever it is we need to be, and totally afraid to fail – at building relationships and blogging. But thanks for the encouragement to just start. I need that today!

  28. Becky says:

    My boss used to call this “paralysis by overanalysis.” I realize that I often feel this, but I’m really no nearer to fixing it, though at least I have some awareness about it now!

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