Overcoming Creative Blocks
For a lot of people, the creative process sucks.
Especially if you’re not engaged in inspirational work on a regular basis, the idea of taking on a new project that requires any amount of inspiration can result in creative blocks that leave you going nowhere fast.
While people commonly associate this kind of mental block with artistic work like writing a novel or artmaking, it can happen when you’re trying to do basic things like drafting a personalized email or painting a picture.
This article is here to show you how to overcome those creative blocks, get unstuck, and get out of your rut.
Below, you’ll find four strategies to help you break your mental blocks.
Let’s jump right in.
What You Won’t See Here
A lot of articles covering mental blocks will talk to you about taking care of yourself. That’s all well and good, but most of the time, that advice isn’t actionable.
I want to give you some go-to strategies that you can use right now, so I’m going to skip the song-and-dance about mental health and personal wellbeing.
Get enough sleep, grab an espresso from the coffee shop if you need it, walk away from your computer screen now and again, and make sure that you have the mental willpower to take on a new perspective and put in some hard work.
And that’s enough about that.
Strategy #1: Divide and Conquer
A lot of people talk about getting the creative juices flowing. That is usually accompanied by a bunch of suggestions to help you overcome procrastination (get off social media, go for a walk, leave your comfort zone, etc.).
But none of that really addresses the problem, especially if your creative block is the result of what looks like an insurmountable task. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with creative endeavors, writing a long report for your boss or building a complete marketing strategy from scratch might be overwhelming.
One of the best ways to beat out your creative block in an instance like this is to divide and conquer. Break down a project into more manageable pieces and components, to figure out how all of it works.
Depending on the project, you can do this chronologically by trying to determine what tasks should be done first. For example, most visual artists like to work things up in layers. They’ll start with a sketch, then refine it before drawing thicker lines and, finally, adding color.
By breaking things down into bite-sized chunks that make up the larger whole, you can sidestep the part of your brain that shuts down when faced with paralyzing odds and start chipping away at the problem.
Here’s an example of what that might look like:
Quarterly Report for Work
- Need data (ask for help)
- Create outline
- Run outline by Dave
- Write the report (Jan has template)
- Pass around for feedback
- Edit final doc
Often, solving mental blocks isn’t about getting in touch with your creative self. It’s about figuring out how to work the problem and overcoming the obstacles that are standing in your way.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for self-discovery and getting enough sleep — but sometimes, those intangible approaches to getting motivated further complicate the problem.
Break the issue down. Divide first, then conquer.
Strategy #2: Borrow the Format
I’ve talked about templates pretty extensively on my blog from the perspective of efficiency, but they’re also fantastic motivators for overcoming creative blocks.
Templates are extremely effective here because many of the best creative works follow the same format or use a very similar structure. You’ve probably seen this in action pretty much everywhere — and not just in your work life.
In music, the infamous “Pachebel progression” comes from “Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbel. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’ve already heard it. It’s the graduation song.
But here’s the thing: Dozens and dozens of songs across multiple genres use the exact same chord sequence. And these aren’t obscure songs. Many, many, many of these songs are top-chart hits. Here’s a list. In fact, this kind of format adoption is common enough that it’s been parodied and ranted about for years.
It happens in writing and storytelling, too. It’s why you intuitively understand the broad strokes of a story even before you know all the details. Conversely, it’s also why you have a pretty good idea of what business documents like resumes or professional emails should look like.
Successful artists appropriate formats all the time. Using a predetermined format is a great way to unblock yourself because it takes a lot of the heavy lifting out of creativity and allows you to focus on creating your best work.
Especially if you’re creating internal documentation at work, don’t hesitate to find a similar document — especially one that was successful in the past — strip out its contents, and use the existing layout as a template.
It’s a quick and easy way to hit the ground running with your new project.
Strategy #3: Name Your Objectives
People hit a snag on their first draft of a creative project for all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes, it’s writer’s block or blank page syndrome. Other times, it’s perfectionism or fear that they’ll create the wrong thing. Say what you will, but your inner critic and personal self-doubt can be powerful demotivators.
If that’s you, try this first: Jot down your creative goal and some basic details before you get started.
Like the chronological outline above, it doesn’t have to be fancy or pretty, and you don’t have to take a lot of time with this. All you need to do is get your objective on the page, along with a couple of details, so that you have an idea of what you should be focusing on.
Here are a few examples to show you how this works.
I need to create:
A cover letter to that new job highlighting my skills.
- Worked telesales for leading brand
- Created $1m in revenue for company
- Promoted to sales lead within six months
V1 of the slide deck for work
- Need 10 slides
- Pull data from last year’s report
- Compare/contrast from last year
- Add next year projects (based on 10% annual increase)
Update email to boss
- Project delay due to shipping problem
- Back on track by Tuesday
- Focused on other areas while waiting for delivery
In every one of these examples, I’ve created a quick outline that explains why I’m creating something. Then, I can turn around and use the rest of my time to create a quick rough draft to get my thoughts on paper.
Strategy #4: Start Somewhere In the Middle
This is a trick that a lot of successful artists and creatives use, especially for projects with no defined starting point. It works just as well if you’re a budding cartoonist or if you need to come up with a merchandising strategy on the job.
The premise is simple: Start somewhere in the middle.
If you’re having trouble starting, don’t start at the beginning. Find a menial part of the project and build the project out from there.
As a writer, if I catch myself looking at a blank page or struggling with where I want to start, I find or create a subhead in the middle of the document and start from there.
This is a little trickier with some projects than with others, but it’s almost always doable.
If you need to build a new strategy, start in a place where you wouldn’t normally start. Assign team members in different areas, or list off goals and resources rather than writing about general concepts.
If you’re drawing a picture and you always start with the figure, draw the background first, or try something in a different medium.
The goal here isn’t to ignore or fail to deliver part of the project; it’s just to kick your brain into gear by doing things out of order or out of sequence until your creative juices start flowing. Many of the most reliable creatives are process-driven, but that comes with the downside of developing patterns and processes that become stale after a time.
Switching it up, changing things, can shake the cobwebs loose and help you get unstuck.
Bonus: Breaking Free With Brainstorming
The right solution to beat a creative block is a little different for everyone. I’ve used the tricks above, and I’ve been successful every time.
The other thing that I’ve found extremely useful is brainstorming. I’m not talking about brainstorming sessions where I sit in as part of a team and we all shout ideas at one another. I’m talking about asking someone’s opinion or stepping away from the desk while turning things over in my head.
Occasionally, I’ve worked with clients who need an outside opinion or who want a good sounding board. That’s a viable option if you have a trusted consultant or someone who can give you honest feedback.
Sometimes, you need a new perspective or a pair of fresh eyes to take a look at your project. If you’re still struggling to get unstuck, give that a try.
You might be surprised at your success.