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How to overcome a creative block

Thought Leader: Rachel Botsman
March 7, 2023
Written by: Rachel Botsman

Here are my favourite ways get past the ‘OK Plateau’

Back when I was in art school, if you had asked me if I was someone who got creatively blocked, I would have said “no”. I proudly would have told you (in a rather annoying studentish way) that I was an ideas machine. Except I wasn’t. I was very good at coming up with concepts in the early stages. The process of creating something from nothing was and still is one of my greatest joys. I love making an idea manifest, regardless of its form. But it took me a long time to realize, I’m great at the start, okay in the middle, and rubbish at the end. My blocks are not in starting but in finishing.

When do you get creatively blocked? Understanding your relationship to this question can help you to rethink how you work and whom you work with. All creative people get stuck at some point or we hit the ‘OK plateau’ (it’s just good enough). So, what then?

What is a creative block?

When I hear the word block, I think of water, flow. Water that is not flowing. A dam in a river. A blocked-up pipe. A clogged drain full of rubbish. Something is jammed, blocking work or ideas (I’ll come back to the important difference) from happening. Here’s what we tend to experience:

·       We become absolute ninjas at procrastination.

·       We struggle to generate momentum and it feels flat.

·       We lack the energy or motivation to get the work (anything) done.

·       We generally feel frustrated and stuck

·       And the loud inner voice appears, questioning whether what we’re doing even matters.

Solving ‘work’ blocks versus ‘idea’ blocks

Too often we tend to think of creative blocks as idea blocks, but these are easier to solve. Coming back to the water metaphor. We just need to find ways to either create more channels or clear water.

Here are three of my favourite techniques:

1. Pretend: I picked this one up from the wonderful illustrator Marc Johns.  If your job is to be an architect, pretend you’re a chef. If you’re a writer, pretend you’re a plumber or gardener. How would these people look at the problem or idea you’re working on? Pretending is like Draino for idea unblocking.

2. Do something repetitive: Write down the problem you’re trying to solve. I mean write all the issues and possible directions until your mind is totally bored of thinking about the problem. Then go do something repetitive. Sweep up, walk, paint a fence, mow the lawn, chop a lot of vegetables, or play an instrument (Einstein famously got his breakthroughs in his violin ‘breaks’). It doesn’t matter! It’s not procrastination if you take the problem step beforehand.

3. The mash-up: As the saying goes, every idea is a remix (Do watch Kirby Ferguson’s brilliant documentary on this topic). Creation requires influence. It requires combining ideas (what is sometimes referred to as ‘Combinatorial Creativity’). So, when you’re stuck, mash-up! Open a random book, and just pluck out a sentence. Write a line down from a song. Just keep going with little bits of information and your mind will start connecting it back to your idea. It’s like adding lots of spices to a bland dish.

Why do creative blocks get a bad rap?

We need to rethink the idea that there is something wrong with creative blocks. When I’m in an idea block, I remind myself that my brain might just be taking a productive hiatus and mulling over something. Often, it’s in these liminal in-between spaces that really good ideas take form.

“When man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” wrote the poet John Keats about the greatest creative minds.

In this space Keats called negative capability’ lies a holding space – a resistance to jumping to conclusions about ideas we don’t yet fully understand.  It requires learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, and the unknown.

Work blocks vs. idea blocks

The real issue is not when we hit idea blocks but work blocks. The periods when you struggle to show up for weeks and lose your mojo to make, write, design, sing, paint, or whatever the work requires. There is no magic plug you can pull to let the thinking flow when you just don’t want to work. Becoming aware of when this work block happens is key.

To overcome creative work blocks partner with people who have a completely different relationship or rhythm to being blocked. They will help you show up. For example, because my work blocks happen at the end, I have to work with editors who love finessing the final word or producers who thrive on crossing the finish line.

I think the issue with creative blocks is the term itself. Most ideas are not created they are discovered through persistence over time. They are discovered by people who understand how they think and what they need to take those thoughts through the many, many phases that make an idea happen.


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