Its all in the mind

8 minute read

(Warning : I just started typing this post because the title popped into my head, so what follows might seem like a lot of rambling.)

No matter how much we talk about talent, opportunities, and other things we can blame on, making things happen basically boils down to one thing - it's all in the mind. And of course, you need to put in some effort too, but that again is derived from your mindset.

For example, I have a few problems that I chronically face:

  1. If I have an idea or come across something interesting or even start on a new project at work, I tend to have a lot of enthusiasm at first but soon forget it later in the drudgery of everyday life, and especially so when it comes to personal projects.

  2. I tend to get worked up on deadlines and schedules without actually paying attention to the work.

  3. I am constantly worried about not following up on things and not being organized.

About six months ago, I started following the 'Getting Things Done' (GTD) philosophy and it has helped me improve a lot w.r.t. these problems. This helped me concentrate on actions and not only on problems. As and when you keep showing up and doing things, you'll see the progress yourself and you'll be a happier person. That reminds me of this LifeHack article: "All you need is the willingness to take the next most obvious step - then repeat the process again and again, regardless of how you feel. Try it.Happiness comes from seeing the results of your efforts. You don’t need it before you start."

The gist of GTD is to concentrate only on the next physical action and let other things take care of itself. This helped me deal with the second problem.

When it comes to problem 3, I'm way more organized now, to the point, where I think my actual talent (or the lack of it) and the willingness to put in effort are the barriers. I hope Knuth's philosophy of being at the bottom of things will help me here.

These three problems are similar in the sense that they tend towards one point - it's all in the mind. To alleviate it, I applied the GTD approach.

Similarly, if you're worried about what kind of raise you're going to get this year, etc., then stop worrying. There is no use of worrying over things that you can't control. You can't control the traffic on the road, so if you need to reach a place on time, just leave early and the rest will take care of itself.

If you've been sweating it out for the past couple of hours trying to fix a bug and you're not making any headway, then it is important to switch to a different problem and then come back later. You'll come back with a fresh perspective, fresh energy and fresh ideas on what to look out for and may be the things you've overlooked previously might be the actual problem. This is also important because it helps you to always keep moving forward, one way or another, and you don't get stuck in one project and don't move in other projects (and by project, I mean the GTD meaning of 'project').

There has been many a time when I've gotten frustrated and feel like just banging my head on the keyboard. This is where I take a step back, relax and say to myself 'CUT to the G' (yes, that's a phrase I coined for myself):

  1. Concentrate
  2. Understand
  3. Think
  4. Get Things Done

Each of these steps is important in its own way, but I personally underestimate the value of the second step. Knowing what you're exactly doing is a critical nature of a programmer especially because only you would know how the system exactly works and nobody else would look at it, everyone else is just a end user.

Step 4 is eventually what gets you moving, but Steps 2 and 3 are equally important. As Abraham Lincoln once said "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my axe." And to get to this stage, you need to do Step 1 which boils down to one thing - It's all in the mind. That's why it's so hard.


  1. Related reading: 'Leadership - Some Random Thoughts' by Lawrence Rabiner.

  2. That doesn't mean to say that you/I can achieve anything and everything, it's just that you need to get over the mindblocks to do even the simple things that you are capable of achieving.


Chris Brogan... says:

It's great to do this kind of mental work, and to take stark looks at yourself. I'd offer that you could alter your statement to say, "The BEGINNING is all in my head." The work comes out of what you do next.

This is a wonderful start to a road of discovery that doesn't end, but certainly morphs.

Belmeera says:

I very much agree with what you've penned down , but the last line is the catch ... " Its all in the mind .. thats why its so hard " I have felt many a times the enthusiasm on projects dying down after a period "when i think" they have become routine

Supreeth says:

Very much agree. Getting things done in an appropriate way is all you need to survive anywhere in any capacity. Once your focus is on this rest will follow eventually.

Abhijit Nadgouda says:

I try to remind myself of why I started doing something when I start losing interest. That helps in getting the motivation back. Sometimes it is difficult to realise the loss of interest. One of my symptoms is I avoid thinking about it by thinking about other things :-)

Sunil Jagadish says:

"If you’ve been sweating it out for the past couple of hours trying to fix a bug and you’re not making any headway, then it is important to switch to a different problem and then come back later. You’ll come back with a fresh perspective, fresh energy and fresh ideas on what to look out for and may be the things you’ve overlooked previously might be the actual problem. "

I completely agree with this. This has happened many times with me. A small break at the right time will GTD.

Srikanth Thunga says:

for me, even GTD started with a lot of enthu but ended up in the drudgery of everyday life :))

Sreenivas says:

Good post. I am reading "One minute to Myself" which is helping deal with similar problems.

Ajay Matharu says:


Another great article, being a devloper everyone feels like banging his/her head at some point of time being frustrated and I think being in that condition reading your article will help getting back on track.


Karthik says:

Hi Swaroop,
I guess I wrote a similar article on problem solving

Would be great if you could read and send in your comments as well.

Plus I guess the below article which I found on the internet would certainly be very relevant.

Mastering the art of walking on water

EVER COME across people who seem to be supremely in control of their lives and don't bat an eyelid when trouble or setbacks hit them? One can only wonder and admire their stoicism. They seem to have honed this ability to a fine art. Well, here's an inside look at the secret of their success.

Perceptions matter

For veteran problem solvers, any problem is not worth the effort of losing sleep. They are confident that every problem has a lifespan. So they spend the better part of their time looking for solutions rather than giving in to waves of anxious fretting.


Some of us seem genetically programmed to compartmentalise and categorise things and some of us aren't. But what most expert problem solvers acquire and master is the art of recognising the minor hassles from the major ones. They know what to worry about and what to take coolly either way they face the issue head on and take them on without breaking step. For major hassles, the ace up their sleeves is to stay emotionally detached from the issue and carrying on as if nothing has happened. They typically either sleep over the problem or let the problem itself work its way out.

Independence of thought?

People who have been independent all their lives are accustomed to making their own decisions. They also learn to depend on their judgement and develop the knack of solving troublesome issues on their own. They learn to trust and depend on themselves as the ultimate source of happiness.

Dealing with the overwhelm factor

The unruffled sort also knows about the lifecycle of a problem - the calm, the bloom, and the bursting of the bubble. Every problem or issue when it strikes you is new and seems impossible to face. This makes it easy to let it overwhelm you. Instead of giving in, deal with the problem in small bits. This minimises knee-jerk reactions and avoids short-term patches to problems.

Looking within

Veteran problem solvers know that attaining nirvana is an ongoing journey! They learn from history and past mistakes.

Moving on

Although it may sound cold-blooded, that's the way life is lived. You move on. The smart ones condition themselves to switch over and make new beginnings as soon as recovery time permits them.

Reclaim life

Problem solvers are aware of how traps are laid and stay away from the bait - the deadly three - denial, rebound and depression. Practice keeping them at bay, whenever you feel any residual feelings such as anger, hurt, resentment or depression. Work at accepting the situation, and treat them as natural reactions in the process of healing.