I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling. A deadline is looming; a client awaits. You know your brain has the capacity to dream up a beautiful solution to the problem you’re trying to solve, but it’s just. not. happening.
So what do you do? When a creative block lodges itself in your path, how do you smash down that wall to release your creative energy?
As a writer, I’ve felt the clammy claws of creative Dementors far too often (Harry Potter reference for those who are confused). On some days, it’s as if I’ve regressed to a two-digit IQ as I stare at a blank page or screen with open-mouthed wonder at my own sheer stupidity.
Here’s the thing to remember: You haven’t lost it. It will come back. It takes a lot of patience, some hard work, and a few key strategies, but you can get your creative mojo back.
A recent study by The Creative Group and AIGA found that the top creative obstacles for in-house creative professionals included tight deadlines (31 per cent), unwillingness of the company to take creative risks (30 per cent), and lack of project diversity (14 per cent). I would add “general brain failure” to the list, especially for those who are freelancing and in charge of their own creative process.
Let’s talk about some strategies that will help you carve a creative path forward when you’re stuck at a standstill. To start, I’ll outline ways to diagnose and recognize creative blocks, followed by some of my own strategies I use when I need an innovation reboot. Then, I’ll share some insights from other creative geniuses, including some of our own Shopify Partners.
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Defining the problem
I did some Internet scouring to find out what some of my creative icons do when they, inevitably, hit a wall.
Julie Zhao, the acclaimed product designer at Facebook, talks about what she calls ‘the Pit.’ It’s synonymous with the word discomfiture: confusion; embarrassment; frustration of hopes or plans. It doesn’t get much closer to accurate when trying to describe creative blocks.
“The last time I fell into the Pit was a week ago,” Julie writes.
Isn’t it comforting when your heroes are just as flawed as you are? She outlines two ways to get out of the Pit: to quit and start over (she doesn’t recommend this one), or to “wander through the dankness, tripping and stumbling in the dark until your feet strike something solid.”
While we’re going down this poetic road, I can’t help but include some insights from Elizabeth Gilbert — a journalist, author, and public speaker who positively oozes creativity.
“It’s just art. And as beautiful as art is, and as much as we love it, there is no such thing as an actual real-life Arts Emergency…you aren’t a heart surgeon. You aren’t in charge of the lives of twenty men on an oil rig. You aren’t performing roadside amputations in a war zone. You aren’t even driving a school bus. You’re just making art. Nothing real is at stake here. So just go make a pretty thing. Or make a clunky thing, or a tiny thing, or a big thing, or an ugly thing, or an experimental and wild thing. Doesn’t matter. Enjoy the making. Let it go. It’s merely art.”
I wouldn’t have been able to put it more beautifully if I tried. But these aren’t really concrete strategies — rather, they are ways of thinking about the problem so it doesn’t seem as scary.
So let’s talk tactics.
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My seven strategies for crushing creative blocks
Here is my list of the top seven things I do when faced with a blank canvas and nothing to fill it with (and these apply to designers, developers, marketers, and writers alike):
Simple, right? Move your damn body. Get up and walk around. Leave your house — find a new route around the block that forces you out of autopilot and gets your blood pumping. And hey, if you decide to implement a few Tony Robbins-style fist pumps, that works too. Physically taking up more space allows you to gain confidence in yourself and your abilities.
When I’m in the midst of a creative slump, you’ll often find me spread out on the floor. First of all, it’s cool and soothing. But secondly, seeing the world from a different perspective opens your mind up in different ways. It sounds bizarre, and you might get a few strange looks from your colleagues or significant other, but it’ll cause you to look at things from a different angle (both literally and figuratively).
2) Make time for passion projects
This one takes a bit more effort than simply going for a walk or crashing on the floor. Passion projects (something we at Shopify also affectionately refer to as ‘Side Hustle’) are something that you launch out of love, not necessarily because you’re being paid.
It’s the hobby you’ve always wanted to pursue, the novel you’ve been itching to write, the experiment you’ve been dreaming about. The thing no one has asked you to do, but that you can’t help but do.
There are plenty of examples of this — like the 100 Day Challenge, where you publicly share something you create each day for 100 days in a row, or setting personal goals for yourself that only YOU will know if you hit.
These creative challenges will force your brain to carve creative neural pathways each day, and keep you thinking outside the box, even when your job or everyday life doesn’t call for it.
3) Don’t give a f$#! about the first version
I say this as tastefully as possible. What I mean is, don’t be critical of the first draft. Don’t edit as you go; don’t self-censor. If it doesn’t feel right the first time around, immediately create a second version. Round two will feel a little bit better, and the third will feel even better than that.
This goes for writing, prototyping, doodling, anything. Let your ideas flow because eventually you’ll get it right. The road to creativity is rarely smooth or direct — useful to remember as you’re tearing your hair out after three crappy drafts.
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4) Be mindful of your ideal work environment, and recreate it
I’m an introvert. I do my best creative thinking and writing when I am alone. If I’m trying to collaborate with someone, and they are watching me type over my shoulder, my skills diminish to those of a toddler assembling their first sentence. If this is the case for you, make sure you retreat to a quiet, calm environment where no one is watching but your cat.
This may not be your ideal work environment, however some people thrive on the chaos of human bodies and ideas swirling around them. If so, use the buddy system. Ask someone nearby if you can bounce ideas off them. Pass along some really early iterations for feedback. Take yourself to a noisy cafe so you can thrive in the mayhem. Whatever traditionally works best for you, figure out how to recreate that.
5) Stop thinking about it
This is a two-pronged strategy. The first part involves a tip I’m sure you’ve heard many times before: walk away from the situation. Have a bath or a shower; focus on something else entirely, and when you decide to go back to the problem, you’ll be refreshed and relaxed. We all know that sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s worth a try.
Another way to stop thinking about it, is to stop thinking about anything at all. Meditate. Focus on your breathing. Practice mindfulness. There are some great apps out there to help with this, like Calm or Headspace. Train those brain muscles to hyper-focus on something, and you’ll find yourself less likely to be distracted later on, when you’re sitting in front of your computer.
6) Try something crazy
A few wildcard ideas to get your brain moving again:
- Interview someone and find out three new things about them. You never know what this knowledge might inspire. At the very least, it will force you out of your self-pitying, creativity-lacking bubble.
- Grab 10 objects from around your house or office. Random things; objects, food, books, whatever. Force yourself to find connections between them and create a narrative. Like the seven degrees of separation theory, except ten, and with inanimate objects. I challenge you to find a connection between your favourite bobblehead and the muddy doormat out back.
- Make the WORST POSSIBLE VERSION of what you’re trying to create. And then think of all the ways you could make it better. These will slooooowly help you build out a plan as to how you should tackle your troublesome task. If you avoid doing those bad things, then at least you’re on your way to ruling out some of the ways to do it.
7) Remember that you are a capable, creative human
Look back on previous client projects you’re proud of. Dig up former blog posts you crafted that received a positive response. You know who accomplished those things? You did. You are capable of creative successes. Don’t lose sight of that.
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Advice from our ecosystem
The above strategies have been super helpful in allowing me to get past creative blocks, but everyone is different. I reached out to some industry experts to find out what salient strategies they use to conquer their creative crises.
Seth Godin, Entrepreneur & Author of Seth’s Blog
“My method is: I deny that creative blocks exist."
I think what exists are a combination of bad habits and a difficulty in processing our fear. When you look at it that way, you're in a different situation.
Jeffrey Zeldman, Founder of studio.zeldman
“I handle creative block two ways: deflection and avoidance. Here’s how they both work:
Say I’m having trouble getting started on a design project. The few fragmentary design ideas I manage to come up with feel hack, uninspired, and off-brand. Most of the time, I’m not even able to come up with those uninspired bits. As a designer, I’ve got nothing. I’m creatively dead inside. So what do I do?
Many times, I tackle an unrelated creative project that uses a different part of my brain. Like a photography project. Or sketching. This is deflection. When one door won’t open, try another. When you’re getting nowhere with one creative task, try another. For me, it’s important that the alternate task is not professional or work-related. Switching from a design project I’m stuck on, to a writing project I’m stuck on would not help. Deflection is about allowing your creativity to flow without the pressure of deadlines, budgets, and client expectations.
Avoidance is even more relaxed: ride a bike, take a long walk, do an hour of yoga. During that time, your conscious mind will not think about the design project: it’s too busy getting the exercise right, people-watching, or avoiding angry motorists. But afterwards, you’ll suddenly feel inspired to tackle that design project afresh — and you may be surprised at the ideas you’ve hatched, unconsciously, while you were concentrating on your breathing.”
Arianne Foulks, Founder of Aeolidia
“When I feel blocked, I either power through and force myself to do bad work until it turns good, or I quit and do something else entirely until I feel more creative. For instance, if I don’t feel like working on a blog post, and I get stuck on the intro to it, I’ll write the middle first and then come back to the start when I’m done.
Sometimes I will write garbage placeholder notes for the intro, so I can just get started and clean it up later. I also find that I do better work when I'm in the right mood, so I will often switch activities entirely, and come back to the thing I'm blocked on, when I feel prepared to tackle it."
It's important to be able to tell whether you're refreshing your mind or giving in to procrastination, though!
Stephan Peralta, Founder & Creative Lead of Sovi Creative
“When I run into a creative block, I tend to put up an emotional barrier that prevents me from thinking rationally about my craft. Taking a five-minute break and stepping outside always brings me back to reality and the right state of mind. Once I’m back to my machine, I tend to overcome my creative block by visiting my five favorite inspiration sites:
Also, community is a huge help, whether its in-house with my team or connecting with other designers via meetings or events. It’s amazing how much a small conversation can have such a huge impact on my creative process the next day."
Ryan Foster, Founder of RyanFosterDesign
"Stop. Leave the office.Do something else. It'll be fine tomorrow!"
Kim Carruthers, founder of eChic
- “Write down what you are trying to achieve. Often it isn’t finding the solution that it is the issue, it is in defining the problem.
- Redefine the problem. What is the client really trying to achieve?
- Bounce the ideas around with others. Even if they have no clue expertise, their questions or offhand remarks sparks your solution.
- Think of 10 ways NOT to solve the problem. Often the seeds of success are hidden in there too.
- Clear your mind, whether it be silence, meditation, or yoga.
- Sleep on it.
- Take a shower. Sketch ideas on the wall with soap.
- Exercise. Especially outdoors.”
Johnny Helleland, founder of Motion-Effect
Being creative is an energy state of mind of being in flow.
"Sometimes this positive flow stops, which is pretty common and natural. Except it and accept it. To understand this is in fact important, because it creates less resistance. This in itself is my most important tip.”
Tom Gatenby, Creative Director & Owner of Squashed Pixel
"What helps our guys is if they're stuck and not quite feeling a design, they go and work on something completely different. Maybe a bit of print design or build work, something completely unrelated. Make a brew or go for a pint — inspiration always flows with a drink.”
Maggie Mae Moore, Identity & Web Designer for Aeolidia
“I will do something unrelated. Like straightening my work space or taking a little walk. I also keep LEGOS and crayons nearby.”
Erik Christensen, founder of Little Rocket
Begin anew with a fresh piece of paper and focus on the basic requirements.
"Similar results mean things are on the right track, and more often than not it results in clearer solutions. And gin. I usually take the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach to all things.”
Adam Erickson, Founder of Lemonade
“Step outside of the digital world for a bit. Go to a museum, page through art books or magazines. A lot of what we strive to create online has already been done in one form or another.”
Dan Conboy, Managing Director of Statement Ecommerce
"I find talking collaboratively with our team is invaluable. Just sharing a challenge and hearing the views of others can be enlightening; it can provide new angles and ways of thinking which, when combined with my own ideas, can lead to something really great."
… And finally, here’s a Twitter response that keeps it short, sweet, and practical:
@ShopifyPartners london park walks, nature documentaries, skateboard sessions & post rock music.— Mario Vassiliades (@mario_vass) September 14, 2016