Stumbling Blocks and Obstacles: How to Overcome Creative Ruts
Strategies from creatives on how to get unstuck and move forward in your work.
How do you overcome creative block? It’s a simple question, but one that we wrestle with as creatives over and over again. Just when we think we’ve found the answer to move past a current rut, a new challenge arises. Feeling stuck happens to all of us—newly minted graduates, creatives early in their practice, mid-career practitioners, and seasoned pros.
Although I help creative professionals get unstuck frequently through my work as a career coach, I decided to turn to the internet for help answering this question: How do you overcome creative block? More specifically, I asked my Instagram followers, who generously shared practical tips, what helps them move forward, how to preemptively tackle getting stuck, and questions for further exploration when creative block strikes.
Preemptively write out your creative tasks.
Benjamin Welch (@benjaminwelch) shared a new approach he’s been trying, which he’s found helpful so far. “I write out my creative tasks, but do this the night before rather than the day of or right before I start. Then my only decision required is to check the list and start doing something on it. This way I’m not relying on my mood or inspiration to give me ideas and I don’t have to feel pressure to come up with something on the spot.” Instead, he looks at his list, picks something, and starts.
The idea that you shouldn’t wait for inspiration to arrive was echoed by Kara Gordon (@kayessgordon), who said, “I try to remember to not wait for inspiration to strike to make art. Not every mark or work needs to be precious. It’s about the process.”
Shake up your routine.
Multiple people embrace the philosophy that changing things up, literally, can be effective by giving you a break and allowing you to still engage your creativity, but perhaps in another way. Kara Gordon shared that letting go of her routine can also help her move forward, whether that means taking a different route to work, going to a museum, or meeting a friend she hasn’t seen in a while. “Seeing and experiencing something new can allow you to shake up the patterns in your brain.”
Michaela Fiasova (@michaelafiosova) often works on more than one project at a time so she can switch in between them, and when she’s at a standstill, she’ll sometimes watch YouTube videos about something completely unrelated to her project. Indhira Rojas (@redindhi) also takes this approach, switching to a completely different task or activity to clear the mind, even if it’s recreational, “in the hopes that a new insight arises that sparks a new wave of creativity.” For Danielle Evans (@marmaladebleue), the ultimate goal is having some kind of output to build momentum: “I swap disciplines. Sometimes output is output and that’s all that matters.”
Reconnect with your physical self.
One of the most suggested tactics for overcoming creative block was to do something physical, whether it’s as simple as a brisk walk outside as suggested by Nicole Jacek (@nicolejacek), or as involved as taking a long swim as Anne Stark Ditmeyer (@pretavoyager) does, “The swimming pool is one of the places where my best ideas come. They flow. It feels counterproductive to getting work done, but the key is unplugging from my computer and screens.”
Karoleen Decastro (@karoleend) likes to take her physical activity a step further and said that, “Mindful walks work wonders.” She might challenge herself to count ten blue things, nine red things, eight green things, and so on, until she feels grounded and open to her inner world. [Ed. Note: This approach sounds familiar.]
Regardless of how you get out of your head and into your body, making a physical change can help shift your perspective as Lys Hunter (@lyshunter) noted, “Sometimes you have to leave—leave the office, leave your house. Take a walk and try to think about a big world problem. Get out of your small problem.”
Stop resenting the ruts.
Wix VP of Design Hagit Kaufman (@hagitkaufman) has chosen to change her perspective on being in a rut. Instead, she sees it as an opportunity, “I used to hate it. These days I resent it less, because I now know that it always brings me to something or somewhere new. A new idea, a new way of thinking or something simpler, like putting two old things together in a new way.”
Payal Vaidya (@payalcv) also sees creative block as an opportunity rather than resenting it. She asks how she can look at it from a different perspective, or even try on different personas who might solve the problem from a new angle, “How might Paula Scher approach this or what would Debbie Millman ask?”
Commit to working through the block.
While the instinct might be to take a break and do something else, some individuals said they can find it helpful to stay put and work through their block. Kate Aldridge (@k8.aldridge) dives into the part of the project that she enjoys least, or that is the least creative, so it becomes more about production versus pressure to connect with her creativity. “I do the part I enjoy least, like editing, so that I can still have my hands on it to craft it without the pressure of wanting to be creative.”
For Kriz Bell (@krizbell), it’s about getting the not-so-exciting first draft of a project out of the way. “I start digging in and get the stick-flavored draft out of the way. And if I’m really blank I’ll go basic and dig into who, what, where, when, how. If you keep going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”
Identify the source of your block.
Sometimes when we experience creative block, it truly is about the project. As Karoleen Decastro noted, it can sometimes stem from fear or boredom about the work. If she can identify the source, she can be more specific about how to address it. Devin Kate Pope’s (@devinkatepope) advice builds on this approach and asks us to consider that what’s stumping us might not be about the work at all. She suggested using the HALT Method. “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired?” If yes, address it and then make another attempt to progress.
Ultimately, we will have many opportunities to come face to face with creative block over the course of our careers. Expecting it to be par for the course will help us accept that there’s nothing inherently wrong with us—we’re not broken or insufficient. We’re simply having a normal experience. Adjusting our expectations can be key as Indhira Rojas pointed out, especially when our creative block doesn’t dissipate overnight, “If the creative block is a long one, I let go of expectations for the project, give myself a break, relax, and try to gain perspective.”
Want more on overcoming creative block? Read “How to Overcome Creative Obstacles” by Mia Pinjuh.