How to finally defeat your creative blocks

A creative block can last for days, weeks, months… or even years. Somehow, something gets in the way of your creative ideas, solutions and spirit. If this is something you’re encountering, the first step to break the block is to better understand the block.

Why creative blocks happen

There are many reasons for creative blocks, including tragic events, negative self-talk, and personal problems. Even Beethoven had a very sparse creative output during the years in which he dealt with legal battles with his nephew in addition to increasingly ill health and deafness. If your reasons for the block stem from deeper issues like these, it won’t be resolved until the primary issue is resolved.

But some of the reasons can be simple to deal with. One example is “mental fixation” – a state of mind that’s too fixated on a specific detail of the work. What’s the first sentence you should write? Which headline should you use? Which symbols should you incorporate into the logo? While these are valid questions, fixating on them too early in the creative process can exhaust your energy and attention, leading you to miss the big picture. This fixation can happen strongly when you are presented with examples of finished work (such as a swipe file or inspiration board) and when you are given initial ideas to draw from.

Then, if you’re doing work in the presence of others, you might also be affected by performance anxiety. This is true whether they are supportive of your performance or not. While this tends to happen more with performers and athletes, most knowledge workers have had the occasional project manager, client, or director looking over their shoulder and inspiring anxiety.

Sometimes, we can also be distracted by chores left undone or other unfinished projects. Keeping these thoughts in your head as you do creative work can prevent you from reaching “flow” – the state of mind that gives you energized focus and complete immersion in the task at hand. In some ways, this flow state is the exact opposite of a block.

Given all these factors that might contribute to your creative block, how can you counteract them?

The advantages of stepping away

While breaking through your creative blocks isn’t a straightforward step-by-step process, there are many things you can do to get the process started:

Let “incubation” happen.

It’s easy to think that hammering away at the problem will eventually help us reach a breakthrough, but in most cases, switching it up with other activities or rest can be the more effective approach. This is because our relational memory – our ability to interrelate existing information – needs both sleep and a bit of time delay if we’re to use it to its fullest.

Maybe this is why it’s no surprise that many highly productive creative professionals suggest rest or time off as a way to break through creative blocks. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Brad Feld takes a week off the grid each quarter and comes back to work refreshed. Bestselling author Dan Brown does some offbeat things such as hang upside down and take hourly exercise breaks to combat writer’s block.

But you don’t have to do extreme things encourage incubation to happen. According to Sarah Foelske, creative director at Bruce Mau Design, a simple break can help you get creative ideas when you’re stuck and facing a tight deadline. In an interview with 99u, she said, “There’s usually a time in any project when a stuck moment happens, and I find that getting away from the computer and the busyness of the day is the most important part in successfully battling that. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes.”

Believe you are creative.

Sometimes, all it takes is to get unstuck is to believe in your own creativity. According to research published in the Academy of Management Journal, workers who believe they can be creative are more likely to display creative performance. In fact, they showed that it was a higher predictor of creativity than the belief that you are good at your job.

Deliberately cultivate creativity.

Finally, it’s important to make a habit of cultivating creativity, whether you’re working on a creative project or not. We’ve written about how to get creative ideas in the past, and that list would be a good place to start if you’re looking to add more creativity into your life.

Riding it out

Given the above information and examples, it’s best to develop a process for breaking out of creative blocks before they actually happen. Once you’re stuck, it may be more difficult for you to think of escape routes. If all else fails, you can just take a cue from illustrator Ashley Goldberg, who said “If it is a bigger creative block, I try to ride it out and just let it happen. I will still draw, but most pieces will end up in the trash, and that’s OK. I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.”

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.