5 Actionable Things You Can Do to Get Past a Creative Block

“[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

– David Brooks

Creativity is often described as if it were a magical and evasive apparition. As if it’s neither a skill that can be developed nor a goal that can be reached. Its evasiveness lends to its romanticism. And while the same amount of time and effort won’t always yield the same creative output, there are actionable things we can do to be more creative.

After I left my full-time job to pursue freelancing and putting up my own website, I grappled with finding a way to create something–anything. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I went through a lot of trial and error until I figured out five actionable steps that helped me get past a creative block. I hope you find these helpful!

1.) Stop telling yourself you’re lazy. (Maybe you’re just stuck.)

It’s both terrifying and amazing how much we live out what we tell ourselves. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I failed to put a dent in my to-do list for my blog, I told myself I was lazy. This later on trickled down to other aspects of my life. I became too lazy to work out, dress up, do my skincare routine, tidy my apartment, wake up early, brave the traffic, and even meet up with people I care about.

If you’re not putting a dent in a creative project, consider this: maybe you’re just stuck. This is a much healthier mindset, because you can then asses what is making you stuck—and you can experiment with proactive ways to get unstuck.

  • Maybe you feel stuck because the project is too big. You don’t know where to start. If so, you can outsource some parts of the projects. Or make a step-by-step execution plan: complete with timelines, Gantt charts, and checklists.
  • Maybe you don’t know have the necessary skills and knowledge. If so, you can do surveys, read books, engage in immersions and focus group discussions, join workshops, watch YouTube tutorials, or even ask help from friends who can teach you.

A simple paradigm shift can transform how you position yourself in relation to a daunting project. Your attitude transforms from being defeatist to proactive. (I blogged about how I got unstuck here.)

2.) Create a system that allows you to be all over the place.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggested that writing is more eavesdropping than inventing. “I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me.” Being too structured during the early stages of a creative project can feel stifling. I usually let myself go—scribbling notes in notebooks and apps, taking screenshots of pegs, keeping a Pinterest board, and even coming up with a Keynote presentation full of pegs. But there’s a huge downside of having notes and pegs in different places.

Once I’m ready to work, it suddenly feels like deja vu. “Wait a minute—I think I’ve already written this before!” “Where’s that photo I planned to use again? I wonder what file name I used. Or did I accidentally delete it?” The missing file can be as tiny as two lines scribbled on a crumpled receipt. But it gets in the way of my process because I obsess about how much time I’m wasting by redoing it.

The system that works best for me is simple: whatever I see or write that is remotely related to the project should be transferred to Evernote ASAP. Evernote works best for me, and it’s been the same platform I’ve been using ever since I was in high school. I think of it as an extension of my brain. If a see a quote or a word that sounds eerily familiar, chances are, I’ve encountered it before and stored it in my Evernote. I’m able to review years worth of memories and thought process that are related to that word or phrase. That way, when I sit down to write about it, I feel like I’m only assembling and editing thoughts—not conjuring something from nothing.

Brenda Ueland wrote, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten–happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.” By having one place that captures all my ideas and insights and everything and anything related to my project, I feel like a kid stringing beads together. The beads are already there. I’m not running around looking for the beads anymore.

But you don’t have to use Evernote. For some, it’s simply the native note app in their phone. Or a physical notebook. What’s important is to recognize that the initial stage of the creative process is always messy, so having one place that captures all your “mess” is absolutely essential.

3.) Honestly assess if you’re self-sabotaging.

But I chanced upon this quote from Seth Godin. He was asked, “Sometimes we work hard in the short term but fail to achieve our big-picture goals. How do you keep your short-term work aligned with your long-term objectives?” His reply:

“The reason you might be having trouble with your practice in the long run—if you were capable of building a practice in the short run—is nearly always because you are afraid. The fear, the resistance, is very insidious. It doesn’t leave a lot of fingerprints, but the person who manages to make a movie short that blows everyone away but can’t raise enough cash to make a feature film, the person who gets a little freelance work here and there but can’t figure out how to turn it into a full-time gig—that person is practicing self-sabotage. These people sabotage themselves because the alternative is to put themselves into the world as someone who knows what they are doing. They are afraid that if they do that, they will be seen as a fraud. It’s incredibly difficult to stand up at a board meeting or a conference or just in front of your peers and say, “I know how to do this. Here is my work. It took me a year. It’s great.” This is hard to do for two reasons: (1) it opens you to criticism, and (2) it puts you into the world as someone who knows what you are doing, which means tomorrow you also have to know what you are doing, and you have just signed up for a lifetime of knowing what you are doing. It’s much easier to whine and sabotage yourself and blame the client, the system, and the economy. This is what you hide from—the noise in your head that says you are not good enough, that says it is not perfect, that says it could have been better.”

I may have been self-sabotaging during my first few weeks of doing this full-time. Instead of getting to work, I was browsing LinkedIn for job openings I didn’t like in companies I was not interested in. I had an entire speech rehearsed for how I’d explain to people how I failed and ended up in a corporate job I didn’t like.

4.) Don’t (always) eat frogs for breakfast.

A common productivity tip is to eat frogs for breakfast. Gina Trapani from Fast Company explained, “Mark Twain famously said that if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. Your frog is your worst task, and you should do it first thing in the morning…Do your worst task first. By “worst” I mean “most important,” and by “most important” I mean the task you’re most likely to procrastinate on.”

I generally agree with this principle, but I also think that there are times when it’s perfectly alright (and even beneficial) to do the easier things first. Because maybe there’s a reason why you find those tasks easier—they’re your forte, your niche, and your specialty. Doing those things get you unstuck.

I wrote more about my experience with this here.

5.) Show up and commit to a routine that works for you.

In Harnessing the Power of Frequency, Gretchen Rubin wrote, “Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity…Frequency keeps the pressure off. If you’re producing just one page, one blog post, or one sketch a week, you expect it to be pretty darned good, and you start to fret about quality. I knew a writer who could hardly bring herself to write. When she did manage to keep herself in front of her laptop for a spate of work, she felt enormous pressure to be brilliant; she evaluated the product of each work session with an uneasy and highly critical eye. She hadn’t done much work, so what she did accomplish had to be extraordinarily good. Because I write every day, no one day’s work seems particularly important…My consequent lack of anxiety puts me in a more playful frame of mind and allows me to experiment and take risks. If something doesn’t work out, I have plenty of time to try a different approach.”

I only started to feel unstuck when I committed to writing something every day regardless of the quality of what I wrote. This was incredibly freeing, and it emphasizes the importance of routines and simply showing up.