Overcoming Creative Block

A couple of years ago, I was asked to contribute some advice for a post Alex Cornell was writing about overcoming creative block. I obliged, along with some others, and the post became a pretty big hit. Now, Cornell has just published a book of advice—updated and expanded—to help creative types get over their creative paralysis.

The advice comes from an array of creative professionals, including Christoph NiemannDebbie MillmanKhoi Vinh, Paula ScherExperimental JetsetProject ProjectsNicholas FeltonCatalog Tree and a host of others who one wouldn’t ever suspect of suffering from creative block. Perhaps that’s the point.

Below is my contribution to the book:

Get in the groove
What’s the problem? Being stuck can feel like being at a creative crossroads; you see the paths in front of you but don’t know which to choose. This kind of stuck has to do with fear. It’s about the fear of making the wrong decision, of leaving the ‘right’ path behind as you tread down the other. Robert Frost spoke of the ‘road less travelled’ and as creative professionals that’s often the one we seek. Our natural tendency is eschew the familiar in pursuit of the creative adventure. Sometimes though, the well-trodden path that is worn for a reason. Sometimes it’s the better choice. When you find yourself at these moments of indecision ask yourself, “Am I really stuck?” Sometimes we think were stuck (or we want to think we’re stuck) but we’re actually on track and just don’t know it. Some paths are inevitable. Remember, a rut is also a groove.

Get away
When fear isn’t the problem, clarity often is. The inability to make a decision usually has less to do with not knowing the answer and more to do with not knowing the question. This kind of being stuck is about not seeing the problem clearly. The best medicine for that is perspective. Perspective can be measured in units of time and distance. Getting a away from a problem helps provide a better view of it. Instead of flailing away at something you can’t really see, try doing something unrelated. Go to a museum, the gym or a movie. Inevitably, something in that other experience will present itself as the answer to the problem you’re trying to ignore. Remember to build in some ‘away time.’

Become awesome
While fear and lack of clarity can be powerful limiters, lack of confidence is both more common and more crippling. The only remedy for this is to become awesome. We all face problems to which the solutions are clear, but executing on them seems too hard. To get over that feeling work first on other, easier tasks. They don’t have to be related — doing some touch-up painting around the office, finishing a blog post or color-coding your library are all fine examples. Taking on a bunch of little things that you can do quickly (and well) will put you in the mindset of being able to accomplish things. Then when you come back to that insurmountable problem it’s simply the next task to check off the list. No more anxiety.