A creative block can be frustrating and for some – career damaging.
People often say to me when I tell them what I do, “That’s so nice that you get to do something creative every day!” Sure, some days are great, but coming up with fresh ideas regularly isn’t easy. It’s plain hard work.
No matter what line of work you’re in, they all require a little creative thinking, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself running into a wall.
We’ve all been there. Staring at a blank screen or page for what feels like hours and making no progress. You know what you want and need to do, but your brain is stubbornly refusing to do anything besides wonder why your inspiration has gone on holiday. (Confession: I sat here doing just that for about 20 minutes when I started this post).
The dreaded creative block. Everybody gets them!
So, how do you beat them?
Here’s a few ways to help you break through the block and get your creativity flowing again.
Giving up can help you get started.
All of us get stuck at one time or another when we are faced with the task of consistent project innovation and change. Trying to write a new draft, design a new website,or re-imagine a new layout for a room can quickly transform from a dream job into a nightmarish challenge if we’re not careful.
A common problem that causes creative blocks is that becoming too focused on an idea that actually ends up keeping others from breaking through. You often fail to see other alternatives once an idea has taken root.
For example, look at the image to the right – do you see an old or young woman? Now, look again.
You should see a young woman and an old woman.
William Ely Hill’s “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” is a famous optical illusion that pretty much sums up my point. If you look at this figure and choose to see an old woman (without considering any other options) you’ll never see the young woman.
The same applies to creative blocks. Sometimes you have an idea that ends up blocking any others from breaking through.”Don’t give up” is a sound piece of advice when working on a project, but all the discipline in world won’t get you anywhere if you’re burnt out creatively.
If you’ve made a few attempts using your tried-and-true strategies and are still coming up empty, you might want to try giving up. Just for the time being.
Stop wasting your time and energy on something that’s clearly not working. All you’re doing is ramping up your stress levels and wasting your resources on unfruitful effort. Give yourself some creative distance from your work in order to allow yourself the time to recharge and get inspired.
I like to step away from my work when I run into a creative block. Here’s some suggestions:
- Stop working and do something else. Read a book for a couple of minutes, draw something that has nothing to do with your work, or take a few moments to write down some non-work related thoughts.
- Take a walk. Go grab a cup of coffee if you can’t leave your office, or get outside in the fresh air for a quick stroll around the block.
- Move locations. Working in the same place every day can cause ideas to dwindle. Maybe there’s not enough stimulation or there’s too much distraction. Woody Allen liked hot showers, I like getting out of the office (or sometimes my flat) and working at a cafe.
Accept that there’s a creative process.
One important thing when it comes to doing high-quality and innovative work is to remember that it’s not always about productivity, time-management, and discipline. Planning your day within in an inch of its life can end up being counter-productive. When you don’t leave yourself the freedom to work, it’s hard to get anything done.
Look at it this way, everyone has a process for coming up with ideas, and it’s important to pay attention to what helps you get started. If list making and task-oriented methods are causing a creative dry-spell, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Giving your mind the freedom to relax and wander is an essential part of creativity. So, consider what helps you hit upon those “Aha!” moments in life and at work.
For example, I like to write down the main topic of whatever I’m writing about, do my research, take a few notes, and then stare out the window until I’m ready to start. There’s always a lot of stuff going on in my head, so I find a quiet moment like this (especially when I am having trouble) usually helps me find the focus I need before I get to work.
So, if you find a walk or a stretch is what you need to kick-start your brain – do it. Don’t treat it as a break, it’s part of your working process.
Skip the beginning. There’s no right way to do something.
It sounds crazy, but it works. When I was studying English Literature, I basically lived, breathed (and cried) academic papers. Writer’s block is a creative block, and I got it all the time when I was a student.
The worst part for me wasn’t finishing my essays, but starting them. I’d write and rewrite my introductory paragraph over and over. First, I’d write it out or type it up a hundred times…and inevitably trash it after reading it over. Sometimes, hours would go by. In the end, I set a time limit for myself and once I hit that threshold – I’d skip it.
I’d just move onto another section of my paper and start writing. Usually, a part that required less effort because I’d planned it out already, or just something that I found more stimulating to write about.
And, Open Sesame! My writer’s block would release its stranglehold on my brain.
If the first section of your task is tripping you up and delaying your progress, find another point in your project to work on that’s easier (or more interesting). It doesn’t have to necessarily make sense in relation to the final goal, it just has to get your mind moving again.
2 things creativity hates: perfectionism and pessimism.
Fear of failure and wanting to get things perfect on the first try can stop creativity in its tracks. It’s hard to take risks when we’re afraid of making mistakes. And it also can lead us to negatively assess our own abilities, which brings me to pessimism. Approaching a project with a mindset that focuses on everything that could go wrong (or has gone wrong), automatically sets us up for procrastination and makes us reluctant to keep trying.
A colleague recently mentioned that they found it interesting that Americans don’t view failure as a setback. I don’t necessarily think this is true in every case, but they made an important point about beating creative blocks. Don’t view mistakes or unexpected outcomes as a bad thing, but take them as challenges to keep trying. I think it’s okay to give up, as I said earlier, but always try again. Try again until you succeed and don’t be too tough on yourself if you don’t get it right the first time.
Learn to reframe your problem when you’re trying to push through a creative block:
- Set constraints for yourself. Limits can make it easier for you to come up with ideas.
- Talk to someone. Hearing your ideas out loud can help give you some fresh perspective and being able to bounce your ideas off someone else often reveals a solution.
- Ask yourself questions encourage a different approach. Interview yourself about the task as if you were someone who knows nothing about the topic.
- Break it down. Divide your task into smaller bite-size pieces. We have the tendency to see the big picture instead of the smaller steps that can get us there.
It’s important to remember that with some patience and practice, creativity is skill that everyone can develop and to a certain extent, learn over time. Maybe you won’t be the next Picasso or Steve Jobs, but think of it this way – Melville didn’t get his big break until after he died. So, there’s always hope!
How do you deal with creative blocks and what solutions have worked best for you?