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Creative Blocks

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

Creative block is your worst enemy, and it can come from almost anywhere. We look at how to treat the problem areas, and get your ideas moving.


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?

Comments (87)
  • Pete R.

    I agree the 7th point most. Being social is as important as being focused on your skills. Become a T person, and you will find creativities in the field you’ve never imagined you would find.

  • Dan Peck

    You could try DigitalSilence Lite to help with the block – 3hrs without technology. Give yourself a break from emails/mobiles etc and allow your self to get creative.
    http://digitalsilence.wordpres

    or maybe a creative weekend – 3 days without technology
    http://digitalsilence.wordpres

  • Nicole Pyles

    I have dealt with the emotional one! When I was in my last year of college, I could not do anything creative — I ended up waiting it out instead of pushing it. It was better in the long run because I could maintain my focus and not jeapordize school. Having patience with yourself is most important no matter which one you are dealing with!

    http://theworldofmyimagination

  • Mark McGuinness

    I like that, having patience with yourself – not easily done, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, t-shaped creativity very relevant here. I assume you’ve seen David Armano’s classic post? http://www.mpdailyfix.com/we-n

  • Tracey G

    Excellent post, Mark. I have dealt with all of these at one time or another, and particularly number 6 about being overwhelmed by ideas. Training yourself to focus on one area is challenging but rewarding. 

  • sjc

    Gotta say, I LOVE the way Mark thinks. : >

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, not easy but definitely worth the effort.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Aw shucks. 🙂

  • TheBlackSheepRecords

    I guess it is really important to understand yourself and try and not push where it is really unnecessary and push where you will benefit most of it…obvious as it may seem this really works for me.

  • Karen

    Great post and good solutions. I’d add a special 8th block, it could fall under #3 but it’s such a specific pitfall.

    8. Social Media–Twitter, my Blog, and other Blogs
    It’s easy to let social media swallow up all your time.
    Solution: Discipline, a lot of discipline.
    Not something I have a lot of 😦

  • Wendy

    I heard from a very wise person that having a creative block is when you imagine you are at the end, but you are really just at the beginning of the process. Have patience to let things take their course.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, self-awareness is key – we all get stuck in different ways.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ha ha yes I can relate to that one. 😉

    Jocelyn wrote a post about some software that might help: http://the99percent.com/articl

  • Mark McGuinness

    A wise person indeed.

  • Pete R.

    Oh I have to read this. I remember the concept from a professor teaching in my master  degree Innovative Strategies classes. We need more of these type of people in the world.

  • Pat Branch

    My block issues probably stem from #6. I’ve taken on a bunch of projects
    and just need to get them finished so I can move onto bigger and better
    things.

  • Annie Sisk

    Excellent advice. A few clients recently have been dealing with creative blocks, and the distraction of “better” ideas. I told both “your real creative work comes *now* – when you finish the project first, then move on to the next thing.” It ain’t as sexy or exciting as the new idea – ’cause new ideas are so seductive with their energy and unlimited possibilities – but it’s the truth. Creative work is still *work.* 

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, it is indeed still work! On the upside, as Noel Coward liked to say, if you’re a creative, “work is more fun than fun”. 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    In that case you might find chapters 12 and 13 of my free Creative Blocks ebook helpful…

  • hugh garry

    Sometimes you have to out faith in your unconscious memory that is working away whilst you are in a creative block. As Eno said recently :

    “I think there are periods that, when you’re in them, seem desperately unfruitful, and you think, “Why am I doing this? I’m completely useless, and I’ve lost it all.” Then an idea finally strikes you, and you suddenly realise that you’ve been working on it for quite a long time but you weren’t aware of it. You’ve assembled all of the mental and physical tools you need to handle it in what seemed like a fallow period”.

    A creative pause is something you should build into your schedule…

    http://hughgarry.typepad.com/h

  • Jezhawk

    What a great little article and very appropriate since I’ve just come out the other side of the worst creative block I’ve had in a long time! It only lasted a week, but during the time I worried that I just wasn’t going to be able to do what I needed to do and became extremely frustrated and questioned why I even started designing in the first place (the usual!).

    I’ve now become quite familiar with these blocks, so this time when I saw it coming and was well and truly in the frustrated stage – I decided to go completely ‘hands off’ that particular project for the whole week. If an idea popped up I filed it away for later and didn’t stress about it, just carried on with other stuff. By the end of the week I could feel like my creativity meter was creeping back up to more normal levels and today – although I haven’t yet started the troublesome project itself, I’ve been able to work on other creative projects successfully.

    I think just giving ourselves time (if possible), to get through the creative low patches is so valuable, to stop pressuring the brain to come up with that great idea and give it time to evolve.

  • Jeffreywadegibbs

    Wonder about another kind of creative block–the kind where you’re depressed over trying to whore for the ‘market’ and proving that you are sellable. Depression from feeling like a useless commodity. What about that one? What about ‘You write incredibly well and tell a compelling story but unfortunately your story does not fit the markets needs’?

  • Beth

    How about just feeling plain old depressed?? I believe Artists, Dreamers, Creative people in general are more susceptible than most for falling into depression as the world just doesn’t mesh with our ideals, the world is very cruel and harsh as well as beautiful and sometimes it’s just so hard to cope.

  • Andrea

    Creativity is imagination that comes to life through a medium: i.e., visual art, music, etc. A true artist is compelled, he’s never limited nor taken away from his craft….

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