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Last Updated on December 30, 2018

How to Be Creative When You’ve Hit a Creative Block

How to Be Creative When You’ve Hit a Creative Block

How do you think of creativity? Is it something that you are either born with or not? Does it mean that you are dominated by the right side of your brain? Is it a skill that can be taught? Or are you stuck with the amount of creativity you were born with?

The truth is, creativity is much more complicated than most of us think. And if you’re wondering how to be creative, you need to understand what blocks you from being more creative first.

Can You Think out of the Box?

Creativity is generally defined as the ability to “think outside the box”. Researcher Bob McKim came up with a simple way to determine someone’s creativity:[1]

First, he had them draw 30 circles on a piece of paper. He then gave them 1 minute to turn as many of those circles into recognizable objects as possible. A person might make one a smiley face, another a sun, a stop sign and so on.

    The idea here was that the more circles that you could use in just 1 minute, the more creative you were. Most people started hitting that creative wall after about 10-15 circles. After all, there are only so many commonly found round objects that you come across everyday.

    But the most creative people didn’t let that stop them, they started filling in the circles as snowmen (no one said you could only use one circle!), stop lights and even clock faces showing a different time in each clock. These where the people thinking outside the box!

    But the question remained, was this just a talent that was handed down through random genetics or was creativity something that could be taught and acquired?

    Luckily, later research involving FMRI studies gave us a much better understanding of what parts of the brain are involved in creativity, why creativity can become blocked and what we can do to break through that blockage.

    Getting over Different Causes of a Creative Block

    Whether it’s called creative block or writer’s block, it’s the same thing. You are tasked with some sort of creative project and you find yourself staring at a blank screen with no idea where to start.

    It always helps to know where the blockage comes from (it’s much easier to fix!) but many times we just don’t know why we have it. Here are some common causes:

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    1. Fear

    This is one of the most common causes of creative block. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough (impostor syndrome), comparing yourself to other’s in your field. These are all good ways to give yourself creative blocks!

    The good news is that all of these fears mean that you are growing in your craft. Just think about it for a minute, when you did your first job or got your first article published, what were you feeling then? I’ll bet it was a feeling of accomplishment along with pride! You probably weren’t comparing yourself to others who may have been more successful than you.

    So now look at your latest finished project, I’m betting that it’s of much higher quality than your first one. You’ve grown in your craft since that first experience, you now have higher expectations of yourself and it’s just human nature to compare ourselves with others.

    So don’t worry about it, just understand that these fears are natural and you can use them to motivate yourself to continue to grow in your craft.

    2. Catastrophizing

    “I’m never going to get this done in time”, “This is way too much work for one person”, “I’m not as good as I use to be, my best days are behind me”

    … These are all negative (read unhealthy) thoughts running through your head. And unfortunately your body follows what’s in your head.

    People who ride motorcycles understand this phenomenon because motorcycles “go where you look”. When turning on a motorcycle you always want to look past the curve. In other words, you need to keep your eye on a point beyond the curve that you want to reach. If you are looking straight ahead, you’ll end up driving strait through the curve and crashing.

    It’s the same with creativity, you need to look past the obstacles in your mind and focus on where you want to be. Wherever your mind is focused is where you’ll end up.

    Remind yourself that you’ve done projects like this before and have been successful. Look back at prior achievements, hang awards and certificates on your wall to remind you of past accomplishments. Remember, your body is going to go where your mind takes you.[2]

    3. Paralysis by Analysis

    This is a common one on especially big projects. There are generally a lot of things involved with a lot of moving parts that have to be synchronized. This is a “Where do I even start” situation. It is also common for both writers and artists to to suffer from this particular block.

    When starting a big project, prioritization is the key. Develop a timeline for the project that can both measure your progress and provide motivation to get things done.

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    If you’re a writer suffering from writer’s block, the hardest part of most projects is just getting started. You may have a topic in mind, but have no idea how you should write the introduction. This is an easy one to fix, write the article you want to write first and once that’s done you can go back and write the introduction. After all, it’s easier to introduce what an article is about after it is written!

    A similar trick is good to use if your an artist. First, just draw a random line on your canvas. Next, just stare at it, this is your starting point, your next step is to finish what you have begun.

    In both examples we’re just using little tricks to get us past the most difficult part of any project, the beginning.

    4. Lack of Motivation

    It doesn’t matter what you do or how much you love what you do, there will eventually come a time when your motivation starts to go down the drain. This can happen for a variety of reasons: your working atmosphere, coworkers, a bad boss or just a boring project.

    I have been an entrepreneur most of my life because I couldn’t stand the stifling atmosphere of corporate America. I love being an entrepreneur with all of the time and money advantages it brings, but I hate the accounting and taxes involved.

    Life is a trade off, and so it goes. You have to decide where your lack of motivation is coming from and what (if anything) you’re willing to do about it. If it’s a bad boss or coworker problem, freelance maybe a good option for you, just remember those other problems that come with it. If it’s a particularity boring project, you might just want to stick it out and ask for something more challenging next time.

    Finally, if your just burnt out, take a vacation. Even a stay-cation where you don’t even leave town but check into a resort for the weekend can help. Anything that will take you out of your normal routine will help.

    This guide will be helpful for you to stay motivated too:

    What Motivates You And How to Always Stay Motivated

    5. Too Many Distractions

    In today’s modern world, we have more distractions than ever. With rent, mortgage, taking care of the kids and a spouse, dealing with health problems — that’s just the normal stuff! Now add in Facebook, and other social media platforms as well as a phone you carry around with you so that people can get in touch with you 24 hours a day. It’s a wonder we get any work done at all!

    As a creative individual, we aren’t always the best at organizing our time. Our brains tend to be a little more free flowing which helps us to deal with problems as they come up.

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    Writing down and sticking to a schedule will help a lot with this issue. Decide that you are going to work on your project from 9am to noon without interruption. Then turn off your phone and do it. When noon rolls around, turn that phone back on and deal with all of the everyday issues that would have interrupted you while you were working.

    Here’s another guide to help you deal with distractions:

    Easily Distracted and Hard to Focus? Try Doing This

    5 Techniques to Work Through a Creative Block

    Earlier we went though some scenarios that are common causes of creative block along with solutions for each type. But a lot of times we no idea what’s causing our blockage. Even in those times, there are things you can do to get through your creative block:

    1. Do Things Backwards

    This is the most important way to be creative when you’ve hit a creative block.

    Start brushing your teeth with your non dominate hand, wear your watch upside down, carry your money in a money clip instead of a wallet (or visa versa), write backwards (Leonardo Da Vinci employed this technique). These things will not only break you out of your normal routine, thus giving you a new and different perspective.

    Studies have shown that the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres called the corpus callosum is bigger in creative people. By doing these things deliberately, you can actually increase the size of the corpus callosum, increasing your overall creativity.

    2. Let it Go

    This may seem counter intuitive but here’s the deal: All people in a creative field have been stuck at one time or another. Then in the middle of the night, or when you’re playing golf or at the movies, you’ll all of the sudden get that “eureka” moment. That moment when the answer just comes to you out of nowhere.

    Well, it really didn’t come out of nowhere, you had been working to solve the problem so intently and for so long that your brain got stuck in “the box”. This happens to everyone and it’s not something that we can consciously control.

    The only way to break out of this cycle is to stop thinking about it consciously and let our subconscious mind take over.

    3. Get Some Exercise

    This is another way to stop thinking about the problem and let the subconscious mind take over, but it has the added benefit of increasing blood flow to the brain. (Oh yeah, and it’s good for your heart too!).

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    Sometimes we forget that our minds and our bodies are connected[3] in ways we don’t realize.

    4. Be Willing to Change Your Perspective

    When I first started out in business and started to hire employees, I noticed a pattern that developed with all of them. They would all start out excited and eager to learn the job. I would train them as to how I wanted things done, as part of our service was to give every customer consistent experience.

    But after a few months, I noticed that they weren’t following the script. Each one was giving their own version of the store tour and our products. The worst part was that I would watch them do it and not say anything because while everyone would deviate from the script, they were small deviations.

    The end result was that there was no consistency for the client. I addressed it at meetings and was always met will nodding heads but their behavior never changed. I ended up calling a mentor of mine and telling him my issue. His advice to me was to change my perspective.

    This isn’t a matter of employee who aren’t doing their jobs right. This is a management issue (considering I was the management it didn’t feel too good). These seemingly insignificant deviations from the script affected both my livelihood and the livelihood of my employees.

    So at our next employee meeting, I explained that every one was expected to work off the same script and once again, I was met with nodding heads. The very next week, two employees got fired for deviating from the script and all of the sudden, compliance to my directive went to 100%.

    The entire situation was my fault for allowing it to begin with, but I needed someone else’s perspective to solve the problem. I was seeing the problem as employees not doing what they were suppose to be doing; and my mentor pointed out that the real problem was my management style.

    5. Always Carry a Notepad

    You never know when inspiration will strike, so always carry around a notepad to write down ideas.

    Now in this new digital world we live in, if you want to use the note feature on your phone, or record voice messages instead, then be my guest.

    The point here is to make a record of your ideas and inspiration, just relying on our memories almost never works and you’ll be much more productive with a record that you can go back at look at.

    The Bottom Line

    Creative ideas don’t come from an “eureka” moment, there’s a lot you can do to get over the creativity block and spark creativity. Figure out where your creativity block comes from and tackle the cause with my suggestions, soon you will find yourself getting the momentum to stay creative all the time.

    More Resources to Boost Your Creativity

    Featured photo credit: Bench Accounting via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    David Carpenter

    Lifelong entrepreneur and business owner helping others to realize the American Dream of business ownership

    How to Become a Successful Solopreneur and Thrive The Secrets of High Performing Teams: 9 Tips from Top Business Leaders 10 Essential Skills to Become a Successful Team Leader and Manager 10 Simple Yet Powerful Business Goals to Set This Year How to Write a Powerful Mission Statement for Your Business

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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