It’s a nightmare scenario: There’s a problem, maybe it’s even a simple problem, but all of your usual methods fail you. You think back to similar situations and still draw a blank on how to fix the problem. You try to will yourself through the issue mentally, but you can’t and start to panic and feel stuck.
Your mouth goes dry and hands start sweating. You feel caught in some kind of feedback loop that begins affecting everything, especially your confidence and self-esteem. You’re too caught up in your panic to envision yourself ever being able to solve another problem or complete another task again. You can’t even come up with a viable solution for lunch. It feels big, but in short, you’re suffering from a creative block.
Creative block affects everyone
You don’t necessarily have to work in a typically “creative” field to experience it. After all, everyone uses creative tools.
Whether you’re an engineer looking for elegant solutions to mathematical problems or a customer service representative dealing with the complexities of human psychology, if you’re a human being trying to solve problems or communicate something, then creativity is an aspect of your work. Which means of course that when your creative faculties fail you, you have a stressful problem on your hands.
But a sense of creative fatigue is a problem that can be solved, even if it might not feel like it in the moment. And the first step to solve any problem (but especially this one), is understanding why it happens in the first place. Here are three major causes, which may feel familiar: mental blocks, emotional blocks, and obstacles beyond our control.
1. Mental blocks
Mental blocks are probably the easiest to understand since it’s usually how we experience a creative block in the first place, as a lack of ideas.
And it usually manifests as being stuck in a single perspective or not being able to see how things are connected. We feel trapped inside of our ideas and, relying on our mental acumen to get us out of a problem that we’ve thought our way into, we overthink ourselves deeper into the problem.
2. Emotional blocks
Emotional blocks are a little bit more difficult to spot because we often confuse them for mental blocks. But sometimes, and for a variety of reasons, we may actually not feel comfortable being creative.
After all, creativity can be scary. We often can’t articulate what’s happening while we’re in the midst of it, and instead have to put confidence in ourselves and our support systems and take a leap of faith into the unknown. That’s not something that’s always easy to do.
3. Obstacles beyond our control
A lack of resources is an example of something external that can block us. It’s hard to be creative when we’re short on time, capital, guidance, or equipment. Without the right resources, including a professional support network to give your work oversight and form, our thoughts and feelings can have little effect.
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5 tactics to break through creative block
Assess your block: Taking a moment to calm down and think about why you might be feeling a creative loss goes a long way in helping to solve your problem. It’s almost like diagnosing the problem so that you can develop a treatment.
Play your way out: Mental blocks are probably my own most common cause of creative fatigue. It feels like my thinking is caught in a loop, treading over the same ground over and over again. The thing to do is cut the loop. Introduce something new to focus your mind on to shake your old ways of thinking loose.
Musician and producer Brian Eno had a great method for dealing with this. He developed a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies, which simply give little suggestions to try in order to think of your project in a new way: “Do it backwards” or “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” Another, less involved way to get unstuck here is to use a prompt and think associatively. Open a book to a random word or phrase and think of how it applies to your work.
Clear your mind: Another way, which also helps with emotional blocks, is to go in the opposite direction and clear your mind completely. This can mean something like going for a run or meditating. Creativity can be scary, but it’s something that your brain is built for. If you can trick your rational mind into not thinking for a few minutes, sometimes that can act as a sort of intellectual and emotional reset.
Creativity can kind of be like diving into cold water. If you over think it, you’ll hesitate (read: procrastinate) all day, and the trick is to just stop thinking for a moment and dive right in.
Think strategically: Creativity isn’t something that you feel. It’s something you do. And it requires a lot of groundwork to remove obstacles before it can be done successfully. That includes the sometimes mundane tasks of building networks, scheduling enough time for projects, and allocating resources properly.
Be patient: Creativity also requires patience with yourself. Probably the most important key to overcome creative fatigue is not to beat yourself up over it. Feeling stuck isn’t a character flaw. It’s a universal experience. But through a lot of foundational work and a few extra steps, it’s something that can be overcome. Take a deep breath. This too shall pass.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Bookforum, Dublin Review of Books, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter here.
Image by Unstuck artist-in-residence Bridgette Zou (This Feels Nice Series, 2017, © Bridgette Zou)