5 creative blockers and how to break through them

The not-so-great thing about having the word "creative" in your job title is the pressure that comes with it. Because there, in your email signature, is the expectation that you’ll come up with something good.

The Oxford Dictionary defines creativity as "The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness." And never are you more aware of that weighty definition than when you're starting out on a new creative brief: a blank screen or piece of paper in front of you, a process to follow, and the knowledge that in a few days or weeks, you’ll have to fill those blanks with new, exciting, eye-catching ideas.

The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.

Oxford Dictionary

If your job description tasks you with coming up with imaginative ideas, concepts, projects or campaigns (big or small) on a regular basis, you’ll probably already have a process of some sort that works for you - and if you don’t, this is a good place to start.

Your way to finding those ideas might be different to mine, but one thing is universal: creative block. We’ve all hit that wall - when you can no longer tell if your ideas are any good, or if the sky’s even still blue. So  if that’s you right now, here’s what might be happening, and some ways to get going again.

1. You’re doing too much research right at the start

At the beginning of every brief, it’s always a good idea to do a bit of background research. At Distilled, we call it an ‘Inspiration doc’, or as I like to call it, ‘stuff other people have done well’. The idea is that we spend time looking at existing content to help kick-start our imaginations. This includes our own work, campaigns by other agencies or brands, or relevant articles and stories that got wide coverage, and hundreds of links, or thousands of shares.

But research is like tequila: good and bad ideas come from it, and it’s important to know when to stop. When you’re working on a particularly tricky brief, not only can research end up being an excellent way to procrastinate, it can also be a hindrance to creativity. At this stage of the creative process, what you need more than anything is an open mind. And by delving too much into everyone else’s successful ideas, you can end up filling your head with a list of “things that have been done” instead of opening it to “things that could be done”. Aside from anything else, comparing your yet-to-be-fully-formed-ideas to other people’s brilliantly realised work can result in your confidence taking a hit.

What to do instead

  • Do just enough research to familiarise yourself with the industry or wider topic areas. This will help steer you into areas that are relevant, give you a bit of perspective on themes that might resonate.
  • Don’t just focus your research on the most shared, successful content. Sometimes stuff that hasn’t done so well can be improved upon.
  • Set yourself a time limit for research, then get on with the hard bit. Once you’re informed and know your market, start finding your own ideas.

2. You’re working in isolation

Creative work is inherently personal. Even if the topic is a million miles away from your day-to-day life, these are still your brain’s ideas; this is your interpretation of the brief. And as with anything that’s a bit personal, sharing it with other people isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Then there’s the solitary element of creative work - the bit where it’s just you, burrowing into a post-it note filled tunnel, existing solely on chocolate biscuits and tea. If I’ve spent too long working on my own, that’s when I start getting blocks. I become convinced my ideas are either brilliant, or absolute duds. And at that point, the thought of running them past someone else, let alone a group of people, can seem like a scary prospect. What if they’re all rubbish? What if, after all this work, someone picks holes in everything? What if all you get are blank stares? Well, look - that’s the nature of creative work, and this might happen. But in reality, that’s the moment when you need other people’s opinions the most.

What to do instead

  • Ask for feedback little and often.  Instead of gathering your colleagues in one big meeting room, get into the habit of checking in regularly and having casual, quick chats about your ideas (and not just the good ones).
  • Get opinions from people you don’t work with. Sometimes the less connected someone is with your work or the client, the more useful their insights can be.
  • See what gets people talking. Which ideas make people share their own experiences? Which ones don’t?
  • Know what feedback is useful, and what to ignore. That little zing of excitement you feel for some ideas over others is your gut feeling. Don’t ignore it.

3. You’re stuck inside your own bubble

Routines are good, routines are healthy. Routines are extremely good at helping us catch our train to work in the morning. Alas, routines are not all that great at delivering brilliant creative ideas into our brains. Often you’re sitting at the same desk every day, and speaking to the same people, and following the same daily patterns, which means you’re always going to be drawing from the same selection of experiences. Except different experiences are what helps us make connections between separate ideas, which is the bit you need to nail to do truly creative work. This is the basic premise behind “cognitive diversity”, which says that in order to solve problems, you need to have a diverse selection of thoughts knocking around.

Our brains get easily distracted when we do one thing again and again. Just as it’s unhealthy to eat only one kind of food all the time, you shouldn’t have one kind of stimuli for your work.

Fast Company

What to do instead

  • Get into the habit of learning new things regularly. “Creativity requires drawing analogies between one body of knowledge and another” - what small thing can you do each day to learn something new?
  • Be constantly curious. If something piques your attention - whether it relates to the thing you’re working on, or not - dig around, find out a little bit more about it.
  • Shake up your daily routine however you can. Take a different route home from work. Swap desks for the day. Visit a museum at lunch. Try a new hobby. Listen to a podcast on a topic you know nothing about. Read a book or article about a topic entirely unrelated to your own life, written by people with different backgrounds to your own.

4. You need to do something else entirely

Finding that interesting connection between two or more seemingly unrelated topics is often the hardest part of creative work. It’s the bit where you’ve got a load of different, good ideas, but you’re missing the link; the thing that’ll make your idea better or more original than what’s already been done. It’s the hard bit. Your brain is consumed by the topic, you’ve exhausted every avenue. If what you’ve got is any good, shouldn’t there be a lightning bolt by now?

There’ve been times I’ve reached this point and assumed - wrongly - that this mental block, the inability to find The Interesting Link, is because I’m just not that good at my job. Then I get frustrated and sit there for hours trying to force it. The temptation is to keep going, to work on the problem even harder, to do more research, to draw more lines on the page, rack my brains until the answer comes. And usually, it doesn’t.

What to do instead

  • Step away from the computer. Literally. Get up, walk away from your desk, leave the office, borrow someone’s dog and go for a walk. Better yet, take a break overnight and come back to the problem tomorrow.
  • Give your mind a bit of space to relax. There’s a reason we get some of our best, strangest, and most random thoughts in the shower: it’s because we’re relaxed, which gives our brains the opportunity to think about other things.
  • Allow your mind to wander. Stop everything. Take a break. Stare out of the window on the way home, let yourself be distracted by the world. Speaking of which...

5. Your phone is face down on the table

Look, I’m sorry. I know it’s difficult. You love that thing. You hold it in your pocket as you walk, you need it - for Instagram, for emails, for asking your partner how their day’s going five minutes after you’ve both left the house. And you already know it’s a distraction because you’re an intelligent person and you’ve read all the articles about phones, probably on your phone, but we’ll ignore that. Which is why when you’re getting on with Important Creative Work, you put your phone face down on the table and leave it alone, right?

Unfortunately, that might not be enough. Recent research from the Harvard Business Review tested how much having a smartphone nearby affects our cognitive abilities. They found that ‘merely having [their] smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.” They found that even having your phone turned off on your desk can hinder our ability to learn and solve problems - which are two major factors that help make connections and do truly creative work.

What to do instead

  • Work in short bursts. Delve into a topic for 20 minutes or half an hour at a time (also known as the Pomodoro technique). If you get stuck, move on, or take a quick break.
  • Ideally, turn your phone off completely. Or put it on airplane mode while you’re working, and leave your phone either in your bag or in another room.
  • Use a productivity app. If the idea of going cold turkey turns you chilly, apps like Forest can help. Set the timer, and trees start growing - as long as you don’t use your phone.

Hopefully, this has given you a few pointers about what to do when you get creatively stuck. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that creative work is hard. Finding solutions to difficult problems is part of the process, and it happens to everyone. You’re definitely not on your own.

If you’ve got your own solutions to get through a creative block, I’d love to hear them. leave them in the comments below or come and say hi on Twitter.

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About the author
Jo Harris-Cooksley

Jo Harris-Cooksley

A self-confessed harasser of dogs, Londoner Jo has an impressive pre-Distilled remit. Having worked in online communities for the BBC and as Head of Editorial for a well-known (and very pink) travel brand, she lives and breaths grammar geekery and...   read more