Cracking an egg into a bowl is a two-step process. First there’s the careful strike onto the countertop. You want to crack it just enough to enable the second step.
The second step is to pull the cracked egg apart. You put your fingertips along the jagged edges of the crack and gently pull, trying to release the yolk and white cleanly into the bowl.
You cannot pull apart an uncracked egg, because it’s smooth and edgeless. The whole point of the first step is to change the egg into the kind of egg you can pull apart, by giving it a place for your fingertips to go.
You’re probably already very good at these two steps, but there are more after that. Depending on what sort of egg-related project you’ve taken on here, each subsequent step will require its own skills and types of effort. For one thing, you need to get the shell to the trash or compost bucket without leaving a line of egg white on the counter — a skill in itself. Scrambling the egg requires you to get a good, tight circular motion going, while deftly pulling down the unbeaten yellow from the edges, perhaps turning the bowl with one hand as you whisk with the other. Meanwhile you’ve already turned on the pan to the right setting for scrambled eggs, and you’ve done this at the right time so that the pan doesn’t overheat but is also ready when the eggs are.
As complex as this process sounds when described, none of these steps are very cognitively demanding to an experienced adult. Your hands can probably dance smoothly from one to the next, even while talking to someone or listening to an audiobook.
But that’s only because you’ve done this before. Your five-year old might find the same set of steps to be exceedingly fussy and complex. Even if they’re eager to try making an omelet, they’ll need a fair amount of instructional preamble and live coaching.
Cracking the egg is the step most likely to go well. Little kids know how to break things, and they can quickly learn how to break it just a bit but not too much. Even with proper guidance, however, the rest of the above culinary slalom will be hard for them to pull off. Things will likely go wrong somewhere, and you may have to take remedial action: fishing shell fragments out of the bowl, sopping up egg white from the counter or floor, or perhaps even starting over with a new egg. There may be tears.
Why We Don’t “Just Get Started”
However old you are, it’s hard doing anything when it’s as unfamiliar, complex, and finnicky to you as making an omelet is to a kindergartener. Many of the items on our grownup to-do lists can feel exactly like that if we don’t have much experience with them. If you haven’t bought a car before, it’s hard to know where to start, and how to make sure you do well. Same with hosting an event, planning a presentation, or getting your photos organized. These tasks may be straightforward for the pros, but you’re not a pro. For the beginner, they’re daunting, opaque, and full of pitfalls.
These tasks are the kind you feel you have have to “tackle” rather than just do — such as “organize the garage” or “start a website for the woodworking business.” They do need to be done, but you have to figure out what they even are before you can do them. From the outside they seem to have a lot of moving parts, and you won’t know what those parts are until you’re in the middle of juggling them, perhaps with a smoking pan on the element and egg white running down your forearm.
One understandable response to these sorts of tasks is to wait, at least for now. Maybe you can learn more about it first. You can talk to so-and-so about it when you get a chance, which might make it finally feel startable. There are certainly enough other, more familiar tasks to do in the meantime.
Before you know it, you’re actively procrastinating — your reasons for delaying no longer convince even you. This is where a well-meaning friend might say, “Just get started!” And they’re right to — tasks get psychologically much easier once you start them.
But you already know you should get started. Getting started is exactly what you don’t know how to do. The project has no clear edges to grasp, no entrance point. It is an uncracked egg.
Don’t Get Started, Crack the Egg
Instead of telling yourself to “get started,” which is precisely what you don’t know how to do, you can just focus on breaking the task’s outer seal, which is what makes it so smooth and difficult to grip. In other words, you can crack the egg, so that it no longer appears to the mind as an opaque, unified object with no obvious way in.
Just like with a real egg, you only have to damage the task’s exterior a little bit in order to transform it, to make it ready for step two, and it doesn’t particularly matter where on its surface you do that. As soon as the egg is cracked, it becomes a different object — one that tells you what to do with it.
How would one crack the egg of “clean up the garage,” for example? Well, you could go around the garage with a trash bag, and pick out anything that’s clearly garbage. This is perhaps not what a professional garage organizer would do, but it doesn’t matter. By the time you’re ten minutes past this arbitrary entry point, it will already be clearer how to continue with the whole job. You’ve seen the guts of the task, you have some idea of what sorts of things have to be done, and you’ve done one of them. It’s not so daunting now.
What about organizing the photos? If you were going to properly “get started,” you might assume you first have to design a top-down system for organizing the photos (by date? Subject? A tagging system?) before you can even begin to gather them and put them in the right folders. Maybe you feel you should do some web research on photo organization systems so that you don’t screw up this all-important first step.
Instead, you could forget all that and just crack the egg: find some photos on your computer, make a few folders for the different types of pictures you see there, and sort a good handful of them until you feel like you’ve done something.
Then schedule a longer session to simply continue from where you were, in whatever direction seems appropriate. With only this arbitrary beginning, you’ve made a viable entrance point into the task, and you can return through the same route. The next steps don’t have to be pulled out of thin air.
Cracking the egg might not sound that different from “getting started,” but the psychological difference is immense. Getting started implies you know what you’re doing — what you should do first, second, third, and so on. But usually you don’t, so you need something to do, now, that any untrained, underconfident normal person can do — like damaging any part of a thin outer shell.
When the scolding part of my mind urges me to “tackle” something, or “just get started” on it, those phrases remind me that I can just crack the egg. Just damage the thing. After that, it can no longer keep you out, because now you have a good and obvious place to put in your fingertips and pull.