All artists experience creative blocks at some point. In fact, not having a creative block is more the exception than the rule—that certainly is the case for me. Getting into a creative flow state is a rather rare experience, and every time I do it feels like I got lucky and struck gold. But I do my creative work anyway, even on those days when the work product sucks, and it feels like I’m off my game.
And then there’s this special creature that every creative professional knows: Your inner critic. I have a lot to say about the inner critic, in fact, I want to write an entire piece about it at some point. Most of the time, we either unquestioningly take what the inner critic has to say at face value, or we demonize the inner critic and try to cast it aside. Neither approach will help you get your creative juices flowing. There’s a much wiser, more balanced, middle path to dealing with mental blocks.
Practical things you can do to overcome creative blocks
Here’s some specific, actionable things you can do when you feel creatively blocked. There’s two levels to this: the surface and the deep.
On the surface, it’s about techniques that can help you get your creative juices flowing: brainstorming exercises, freewriting, cross-thinking, going for a walk, and so on.
On the deep level, you go on a long journey to do deep inner work on your psyche and untangle your emotions. Oftentimes, it’s these deeper issues that really get in the way of our creative flow.
This is a writing exercise where you just write down whatever is on your mind, without editing or censoring yourself. Stream-of-consciousness writing can help you get out of your head and get some ideas down on paper.
Go for a walk
It’s amazing how helpful walking can be for getting unstuck creatively. Walking gets you out of your head and into your body. It helps clear your mind and gives you some distance from your work. It’s also a great way to get some exercise and fresh air. I live in the city, so I walk a lot, and it really helps me creatively. I prefer walks in the park, but even a 20-minute walk around the block can make a big difference.
Take a break
This one is easier said than done, because when you’re in the middle of a creative project, it’s hard to take a break. But it’s important to not become a slave to your work. If you’re feeling creatively stuck, sometimes the best thing you can do is to step away and let your subconscious mind take over.
August Kekulé, who came up with the theory of chemical structure, was day-dreaming in front of his fireplace when he had one of his most important creative breakthroughs of his life, which was related to the structure of the benzene molecule. It was a problem he’s been working on for quite a while already, but only after he stepped aside and got his mind off the matter would the solution come to him.
Stay engaged with your work
This might seem contradictory to what I just said, but sometimes the best thing you can do is to not yield. To keep pressing forward. Not with doggedly locked jacks, stress and tension, but with gentle, yet persistent strength.
This is how mountains are climbed. Not with one giant push, but with many small steps.
Put on a creative playlist
Music can help get your creative juices flowing. Make a playlist of songs that inspire you and put it on when you’re working.
Sometimes all you need is to get your hands moving and start making some marks. Doodle in a notebook or on a piece of paper. Draw a picture, or write a list of ideas. Just get something down.
Visit a coffee shop
Long before research has shown that the auditory environment in a coffee shop can actually foster creativity, creative greats like Pablo Picasso, Bob Dylan, or JK Rowling were working in coffee shops.
A 2019 study found that the level of ambient noise in a coffee shop (70 decibels) was just right for fostering creative thinking. The researchers believe this is because a moderate level of noise allows people to focus on their own thoughts, while still being aware of their surroundings.
So if you’ve been looking for an excuse a good reason to head to your favorite coffee shop, you’re most welcome. (But keep in mind that in order to get a good night’s sleep, it’s best not to drink coffee after noon.)
No excuses for procrastination
Never put things off. It’s much better work to do really shitty work in the moment, even if you don’t feel like it and the creative block you’re facing seems unconquerable, than to wait for the right moment. Seize the moment. Make time for what matters.
Practice proper self-care
If you don’t take care of yourself, it’ll be much harder to do creative work sustainably. Get enough regular, healthy sleep. Be physically active. Nurture your relationships, seek human connection with others, have conversations, share how you feel with others. Eat well. Step away from the computer screen and go for a walk in nature, without listening to anything or thinking about anything. Let your mind wander, be in its natural state for a while.
Build a brainstorming habit
Invest 10 minutes a day into brainstorming. Just ask yourself a question, or look at a problem or challenge, and then come up with potential answers. Make a list of ideas, and write down any idea that comes to mind, even the bad ones. In fact, don’t “filter” your ideas at all, don’t edit them. The point of this exercise is exactly to come up with as many ideas as possible, without evaluating or judging them at all, which is often what impedes creative thought.
Regain your focus
Maybe your problem is not that you don’t have enough ideas, maybe it’s that you have too many ideas. You can get stuck in analysis paralysis, overthinking and questioning your creative choices, never sure if you should pursue this creative idea or the other. If that’s the case, remind yourself that it’s better to press forward boldly, even if it means making mistakes, than to get caught up in a loop of doubt and not create anything at all.
The most difficult thing for creative professionals is making choices. Because that’s really what creativity is on some level: you choose what to do next. You choose what to add or what to remove. You choose which word to write next, or what color to use, or what brush, or which notes to play, or how you want your voice to sing.
The tough thing about this choosing is that you’ll always struggle with self-doubt. Is this good? Did I make the right choice? There’s no telling really, and so you have to somehow believe in your creative talent and learn from experience. But much of the time, blockages are really the result of you not believing in your choices.
Look at your best work
Have you ever done anything in the past that you like good enough? That you feel proud of? That makes you happy? If so, look at it. Enjoy it for a moment. Appreciate your own creation. Someone once said appreciation is the currency we pay the universe with, and if you appreciate the results of your own creative work, you’re more likely to get those creative juices flowing again.
Switch up your creative routine
If you often find yourself in a creative rut, maybe it’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Can you change your creative routine? Do you even have one? As a writer, it’s important to build a consistent writing habit for example.
Get out of your comfort zone
Most of the time when I’m creatively blocked, I’ve either spent too much time in my comfort zone, or I feel too overwhelmed by personal problems. And in fact, these two are much more interconnected than it might seem at first: because I move into (and then choose to stay in) my comfort zone mostly during those times in my life when my life’s a mess and I don’t want to, or feel unable to deal with my problems. I touch a bit more on this further down in the article, in the section Going deep: untangling your emotional world.
Keep a creative journal
A creative journal is another great way to build a creative habit that helps you overcome blockages and get ideas flowing more easily.
Keep it short, and simple. Get in the habit of writing down an idea every day. This can be something you can use in your work later. It can be something that feels too small to pursue in the moment, but that you might use in the future. Keeping a daily creative journal leads to two things: You’ll get used to being around your own ideas, and you’ll learn to appreciate them more.
Have a sketchbook
Sketching is a great way to jumpstart the creative part of your brain. In their paper Sketching and creative discovery, the researchers Verstijnen et al found that sketching can help unleash creative ideas and insights.
When you’re actively working in your sketchbook, you’re mostly focusing on making a good sketch, so you’re not overthinking things too much, and allowing ideas to just flow out. It’s a simpler form of unstructured creative expression.
Find inspiration in different fields. If you’re a writer who’s not into paintings, read up some on some paintings and see if that sparks an idea. Or stray even further: look at what mechanical engineers are excited about these days.
TED talks and YouTube are a great place to discover these random bits of interesting observations and insights that can help you gain a fresh perspective on your current challenge. Look at the brilliant ads account on Instagram, or browse through The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings), or head over to Pinterest and search for something you don’t know anything about.
Is there someone you can team up with, or ask for their opinion? Having a creative partner that you can bounce ideas around with, or who can work with you on a project can tremendously level up your work. It surely also can complicate things, especially if you have different perspectives and approaches, but if you can work your way through these differences, you could elevate your art to a level you couldn’t do on your own.
Talk with someone
If you’re feeling creatively stuck, talking to someone can help. Talk to a friend, colleague, or family member about your project. You might get some helpful feedback or just get some much-needed encouragement.
Clean your workplace
Some people work best in organized, clear surroundings, when everything is where it should be. I’m absolutely not that way—I function well in chaos. But if being well-organized, and having a tidy workspace matters to you, then it’s worth taking off time for your creative work to declutter your desk and create the surroundings which promote your unhindered creativity.
Go easy on yourself
Sometimes we get in our own way. If you’re excessively self-critical, you might have a personal reason to feel creatively stuck: you’re just too hard on yourself.
Instead of fumbling in the dark for ideas, thinking you’re not creative, you’re much better off asking yourself this one question: “What can I do?” Instead of looking for the “right” solution that might never come, you can instead just agree to do something, even if it’s not perfect.
This doesn’t mean you should lower your standards or pursue ideas you know are going to be terrible. But it means that as long as you do the best that you can, that’s good enough, even if the best you can do on this given day really sucks.
This is a point worth repeating, and thus I will: You can keep creating even in the midst of a creative block.
“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.” — Ashley Goldberg, visual artist & graphic designer
When you’re in a rut, keep working. There’s always something you can do. If you can’t come up with any good ideas, come up with bad ideas. Often you have to walk through the valley of bad ideas before you can reach the promised land of creative flow.
If your art is writing, and you’re stuck in a rut, try writing a passage from one of your favorite writers. It’s one of my favorite writing exercises, because you can do it in a few minutes, yet you learn a ton about it.
Going deep: Untangling your emotional world
What makes us creative is the feelings we carry within us. Ironically, it’s also our feelings that can block us creatively. Often it’s issues in the deeper layer of our psyche that prevent us from accessing our creative potential.
Oftentimes what blocks you creatively is deep-rooted within your psyche. It’s issues with low self-esteem, feeling unworthy or unloved, feeling powerlessness, or alone—these universal struggles we all fight deep in our heart. Whether you seek professional help, or explore this realm on your own, it’s within the depths of your soul where the biggest creative breakthroughs await you.
And then there’s a question that surprisingly few artists really ever explore in-depth: What does creativity mean to you? The answer to this often can lead to insights that help you understand yourself better, and gain clarity about the sources of your creative powers.
Break through your creative blocks
Every human being has great creative potential. Few ever access it. Creative blocks are part of this journey that you’re on, and the simple fact that you’ve made it this far—that you’re here now, reading these very words, is proof that you’re already on your way.
Put some of the advice I’ve shared with you to use and let me know how it goes. If you have questions, leave a comment below and I’ll gladly respond.