Break Your Routine to Combat Creative Block


“Creative block” is a term all too familiar to many of us working in creative professions. Unfortunately we tend to make the very easy and all too common mistake of convincing ourselves we’re not creative. If you’re an artist, designer, or similarly in a position of constant demand for the imagination, you’ve learned to rarely succumb to the ominous voice of self doubt – or at least that is what you like to tell people. The truth is humans are inherently creative and some of us are better at taking advantage of our creativity than others.

We’re professionals, right? We combat creative block all the time and we always come out on top, because we must.

Not so much.

In fact, because of our reliance on imagination and creative thought, we’re often the ones to take long walks with fear through the meandering landscapes that stage our dreams and aspirations, weeping and yelping, in search of help more often than one might think. That’s right, you’re not alone.

Having sat and had these conversations with my own thoughts, I’ve come to determine there are two primary aspects that make up creative block. The first is “mental block.” This is when you’re trapped in your own thoughts. The second, “emotional block.” This is when you’re faced with resistance and fear of personal revelation. One feeds off the other, and when added together, these two ingredients make for the absolute worst creative block.

Why is that? More importantly, what it is that we can do to help ourselves in moments of creative block?

Let’s start with mental block. Usually you’re tasked with a problem or challenge to solve or overcome. Big picture solutions require taking on hundreds, if not thousands, of tasks regularly. You immediately begin brainstorming ways to tackle a task at hand. As you think, you are forcing yourself to make decisions, often assuming the decisions you’re making are viable prospects in solving the bigger puzzle. To think requires decision, and decision comes with the potential for wrongdoing. This is the first barrier leading to creative block. We don’t like being wrong.

Decision making will always pose the threat of being wrong and therefore we find ourselves deciding in favor of the outcome that poses the least potential for it. When attempting to make a decision, we narrow our perspective until we’re comfortable with our approach to a solution.

We think long and hard about a task. We then make a decision. Sometimes it turns out the result requires little discomfort and pain. Congratulations, task complete! Now repeat for every task that stands in the way of attaining the solution you desire. It is here where we encounter the second barrier leading to creative block. We tend to dismantle from our memory the feelings and thoughts that were not apart of the successful completion of the previous task. Instead, we are bound to the thoughts and decisions that brought us comfort and praise. So we attack the next task with the preconceived notion of what will “work.” Now repeat again. And again. We repeat this process hundreds of times, for every task, feeling more and more confident and comfortable as we get closer and closer to our solution. We rely more and more on what we know will work.

In the end, we will be left with an extremely narrow perception of exactly what works. We will have a detailed and intimate understanding of the solution we’ve come to based on all the tasks we’ve successfully completed. However, it is at this point where we are most blind. It is at this point where we are least capable of challenging our thoughts and questioning our already proven success. This is where the creative mind likes to get comfortable. Enter emotional block.

Emotional block is when we are faced with the unknown and personal revelation. The unknown consists of ideas you’ve omitted or bypassed in your journey to your solution. In essence, the more tasks we tackled, the less we might explore. We fall into a trap that one might call the “comfort zone.” Over time we’re actually relying heavily on what we know will work for the benefit of not hurting our feelings and emotions.

Imagine for a moment you’re driving down the main road in your town or city. You know exactly where you want to go, what street name it is you’re looking for – for it is your task. This street, your destination, is at the end of the main road, running perpendicular. This street is the solution you’re trying to get to. Getting there is the task at hand.

As you drive down this main road, you might make the decision to take a left or right onto a side street. This decision could be made for a number of reasons. As you drive through these side streets you’ll see some some things, hear some things, and eventually make it to your destination – that street running perpendicular to the end of the main road. You’ll have completed the task. Onto the next task.

The next time you venture down the main road to get to the street, you might skip taking that right or left because it took too long, or there was construction, or you got a little bit lost and worried. Perhaps you’ll take another right or left, further down the road, closer to your destination. Or, some of us might skip side streets all together after few attempts. You can repeat this trip an infinite amount of times, only to find that the most certain way you’re going to get to your destination is by driving down this main road, never veering off its course, until you reach your destination. It will be quick, comfortable, uninterrupted and safe. The decision to stick to the main road until you reach your destination is based on the experience you had using the side streets. The more you explore these side streets, the more experience you gain. You’d be hard pressed to find a creative who doesn’t believe experience is valuable.

The problem is, experience requires us to face the unknown. It requires us to explore ideas rather than omit or bypass them as we do. This inevitably creates many more experiences of failure. We tend to want to resist the opportunity to fail, in fear of what it may bring us. We resist the side streets if we know the main road will do just fine. We have a tough time emotionally handling the experience of failure often because we experience it as little as possible.

When we’re experiencing creative block what we’re really experiencing is the inability for us to access the unexplored side streets in our imagination thanks to ourselves. The repetitive nature of our routines narrow perspective, builds emotional resistance and effectively convinces us to stay comfortable in what we know works.

There are those who will abide by this routine and continue to reach solutions that are good enough. But there are those who combat creative block because they must. If you’re the latter, what can you do to help combat creative block?

Break your routine.

It doesn’t have to be drastic. Say “yes” instead of “no.” Write with a pen instead of keyboard. Walk instead of driving. Cook instead of ordering. Go out instead of staying in. For every routine you have, there are an infinite amount of experiences you’re missing out on. These make up the side streets of your imagination. These broaden your perspective. These make you a better decision maker, more self-aware and, in the end, make you better suited to combat creative block. Sounds simple, right?

Start by trying to write an article on creative block…

Thoughts and comments for this are inspired by M. McGuinness’ article.