Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

7 Types of Creative Block (and What to Do About Them)

For a creative professional, a creative block isn’t just frustrating — it’s potentially career-damaging. When you rely on your creativity to pay the bills and build your reputation, you can’t afford to be short of ideas or the energy to put them into action.

But all creative blocks are not created equal. Different types of block require different solutions — something that’s easily forgotten when you’re feeling stuck. Here are seven of the most common types, and how to unblock them.

1. The mental block.

This is where you get trapped by your own thinking. You’re so locked into a familiar way of looking at the world that you fail to see other options. You make assumptions and approach a problem from a limiting premise. Or maybe your Inner Critic rears its head and stops you thinking straight.

Solution: You need to change your mind. Question your assumptions, ask yourself “What if…?”, and adopt different perspectives. Go somewhere new, or read/watch/listen to something new. Talk to people you can rely on to disagree with you, or offer an alternative point of view.

You may find creative thinking cards useful, such as Roger von Oech’s Whack Pack, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or IDEO’s Method Cards.

2. The emotional barrier.

Creativity can be intense. It’s not a comfortable pursuit. Faced with the unknown, you may be scared of what you’ll discover or reveal about yourself. Maybe your subject matter is painful, embarrassing or plain weird. Whatever – all of these fears and qualms are just different forms of Resistance, leading to procrastination.

Solution: You need to face the worst and come through the other side. There are plenty of things that can help — such as routine, commitment, and meditation. But ultimately you are going to have to endure the fear, pain, or other unpleasant emotions.

It’s like getting into a cold swimming pool — you can dive in head first, or inch your way in. Either way, it’s going to be bone-chillingly cold. But once you’ve got over the initial shock, done a few lengths, and got into the flow of it, you may be surprised to discover how invigorated you feel.

Faced with the unknown, you may be scared of what you’ll discover or reveal about yourself.

3. Work habits that don’t work.

Maybe there’s no great drama — you’re just trying to work in a way that isn’t compatible with your creative process. You work too early, too late, too long, or not long enough. You try to hard or not hard enough. You don’t have enough downtime or enough stimulation. Or maybe you haven’t set up systems to deal with mundane tasks – email, admin, accounting, etc – so they keep interfering with your real work.

Solution:

Step back and take a good look at how you’re working, and where the pain points are. If it’s email, learn a new system for dealing with email. If you don’t have enough energy, are you working at the right time of day? If you feel paralyzed by freedom, introduce more structure and order into your day. If you feel constrained by routine, find room for improvisation.

There are no hard-and-fast rules — the only standard is whether your work habits work for you. Look for the right balance of routines, systems, and spontaneity for your creativity to thrive.

4. Personal problems.

Creativity demands focus — and it’s hard to concentrate if you’re getting divorced/ dealing with toddlers/battling an addiction/falling out with your best friend/grieving someone special/moving house/locked in a dispute with a neighbor. If you’re lucky, you’ll only have to deal with this kind of thing one at a time — but troubles often come in twos or threes.

Solution: There are basically two ways to approach a personal problem that is interfering with your creative work — either solve the problem or find ways of coping until it passes.

For the first option you may need some specialist help, or support from friends or family. And it may be worth taking a short-term break from work in order to resolve the issue and free yourself up for the future.

In both cases, it helps if you can treat your work as a refuge — an oasis of control and creative satisfaction in the midst of the bad stuff. Use your creative rituals to set your problems aside and focus for an hour, or a few, each day. When your work is done, you may even find you see your personal situation with a fresh eye.

It helps if you can treat your work as a refuge – an oasis of control and creative satisfaction in the midst of the bad stuff.

5. Poverty.

I’m not just talking about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor, have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.

Solution: Like the last type of block, this one has two possible solutions: either save up the time/money/or other resources you need; or make a virtue of necessity and set yourself the creative challenge of achieving as much as possible within the constraints you have. If you’re doubtful about the latter option, consider the first and second Star Wars trilogies, and ask yourself whether more resources always equal more creativity!

6. Overwhelm.

Sometimes a block comes from having too much, not too little. You’ve taken on too many commitments, you have too many great ideas, or you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming demands and information. You feel paralyzed by options and obligations, or simply knackered from working too hard for too long.

Solution: It’s time to cut down. If you take on too many commitments, start saying ‘no’. If you have too many ideas, execute a few and put the rest in a folder labeled ‘backburner’. If you suffer from information overload, start blocking off downtime or focused worktime in your schedule (here are some tools that may help). Answer email at set times. Switch your phone off, or even leave it behind. The world won’t end. I promise.

Sometimes a block comes from having too much, not too little.

7. Communication breakdown.

Creative blocks can happen between people as well as between the ears. If you work in a team, tensions are inevitable, and can make it hard to do your best work — especially if you have one of those proverbial ‘difficult people’ in your working life.Sometimes you get blocked by phantoms — merely imagining your work being booed by audiences and mauled by the critics. And sometimes this happens for real and you have to deal with it.

It could just be a marketing problem — after years of plugging away at your art with a miniscule audience, you wonder why you bother. Or maybe you just don’t have a hotline to the people who matter in your field, so you struggle to land the right opportunities.

Solution:

This is where creativity blends into communication skills. You need to be adept at understanding and influencing the right people, however difficult or mystifying they may be. Which means beefing up your influencing, marketing, or networking skills. I don’t care if you’re shy (I was) or introverted (I am). If you want to succeed, you need to do this.

And sometimes it’s about accepting that you can’t please all the people all of the time, and growing a thicker skin for rejection and criticism. Show me a creative who’s never suffered a setback or a bad review, and you won’t be pointing at a superstar.

How Do You Deal with Creative Blocks?

Which type of block do you struggle with most often?

What solutions have worked for you?

More insights on: Creative Blocks

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
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