You’ve been staring at the screen for thirty minutes, and yet achieved nothing. You’ve drawn a box, removed it, drawn it again, removed it again, and now you’re thinking about drawing it for the third time. The longer you stare at it, the fewer ideas you have about what to do with it, and the soft white glow of your computer screen is now gently sucking your soul out through your eyeballs. Congratulations my friend, you are suffering from creative block!
There’s a popular idea that any kind of creativity should be a great romantic endeavour where genius ideas simply come to you out of the blue. Unfortunately this concept is a) really worrying if you have to spend eight hours a day sat at a desk hoping for ideas from above during those specific core hours, and b) complete nonsense anyway. Master composer Tchaikovsky scoffed at the idea that one could be “not in the mood” to make anything that day, and artist Christoph Niemann agrees that sometimes you just have to keep putting out idea after idea until the good one shows up. But with deadlines calling, the pressure mounting, and that screen still draining your will to live, how do you make a breakthrough?
The key to progress during a mental block lies in breaking the spiral of it. The more you sit and stare blankly at the problem, the further down the hole you go, and it’s like they say: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. So try something different! Here’s a few ways of escaping the vortex.
Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, there’s a good chance that someone else has encountered it already, and might even have solved it. No one ever said that you had to have all the good ideas all by yourself! Take to the internet or bookshelf and start trawling, but be specific about your search terms. It’s easy to succumb to general browsing, and a good idea can come from anywhere, but one you’ve got the lay of the land try and collect just the results that relate to your specific project.
There are general sites like Creative Bloq that cater to multiple disciplines and it’s worth looking over all of them, not just your own. If you’re having trouble with the layout for a website, try looking at layouts from the world of print or graphics. A lot of general principles or trends can carry over from one speciality to another quite easily so you’ve got a lot more sources of inspiration than you might think. For web developers, sites like SiteInspire and Awwwards offer galleries of current web design trends, while places like CodePen feature a ’playground’ that allows you to see the coding work of other developers and also post your own for a bit of audience feedback. For graphic design, specialist websites like Creative Boom and The Design Blog are always a good place to start, but don’t discount the humble Pinterest either if you want to pick up on developing trends.
As my university tutor used to say; It’s not copying, it’s appropriation!
Move - Part 1
As in physically shift location. This one isn’t possible for everybody but if there’s somewhere else you can be while still working, go there; the cafeteria, another office room, the local library, the park. When I get stuck I leave my desk, take my shoes off, and go sit on the carpet by the printer with a notebook and pencil. Getting some physical distance from my main screen also gets me a bit of emotional distance from the desk-based frustration of the previous hour, and sometimes that relief is all it takes to think of some new angles of attack. I’ve had some great ideas by that printer. I’m pretty convinced that’s where they live now. If you can’t move to a different environment, maybe you can make the environment look different. Move a plant, open a window, stick a funny photo on your noticeboard, take a moment to tidy your desk.
Move - Part 2
As in move your body. Even if you can’t take your work with you, get out of your chair, and go for a brief stroll. Leave your office building (take the stairs if you can) and do a lap or two of the building, outside if possible. It needn’t take you more than five minutes, but studies have shown that the combo of fresh air and movement will improve your mood and sense of calm, which is a great start. It also gives you other things to look at and think about, allowing inspiration the chance to strike. If you’ve had a rough and fruitless morning, make a point of leaving your workspace during your lunch break and give yourself a chance to reset your brain.
This is a great one if you’re stuck for ideas. We do a lot of our work on screens these days, but this can lead to a level of disconnect with the ideas we’re dealing with as none of them actually exist in the physical world. Grounding yourself back in something tactile can be a big help. So if your digital workspace isn’t producing much work, start introducing things you can do with your hands. Grab a pencil and scrap paper and start to doodle and handwrite your notes. Build a small-scale model of your problem out of Lego or Blu-Tak, or construct it with some printer paper origami. Anything you can fiddle with may be helpful.
Do something else.
NOT FACEBOOK. Not Twitter either. In fact just don’t check your phone at all (nothing is happening, I promise you. All your friends are busy at work, having their own creative blocks). If you have a few jobs on your to-do list, and one of them has you stumped, switch over to one of the others for ten minutes. It’s just another way of getting a bit of distance between you and the initial problem, and the work you do on one may inform the work on the other. If you’re lucky enough to have a tea break coming up then you really can do something else - read a book or the news, visit a friend’s desk for a chat. Do something fun that’s not related to your project.
Talk it out
When you’re under pressure to finish a job that you feel is your sole responsibility, that sense of scrutiny and personal culpability can really get to you, especially if it comes on top other other life stresses or emotional difficulties. A bit of nervousness can be all it takes to can hamstring your ability to provide witty solutions. But a problem shared is a problem halved.
Resist the urge to feel like bringing someone else in on it is an admission of failure, but instead think of it as a collaboration! You’re not the only person in the room able to come up with creative ideas.
Find someone whose opinion you respect, explain you’re having concerns about your work, and ask them to glance over it or hash the problem out with you before you move forward with it. It may feel like a waste of valuable time, but the benefits of just five minutes spent bouncing ideas around with someone can pay back dividends.
If no one’s available, sneak off to the corridor and record yourself talking into your phone. You may look like a weirdo but many of us find it helpful to externalise problems by telling others about them. Simply talking a problem through can make it all seem a bit clearer.