4 steps to overcome creative block and get unstuck
When you're up against creative block, creating something new can feel impossible. Follow these four steps to get unstuck and start creating again.
When you’re a professional creator, running into creative blocks can feel demoralizing and frustrating. It’s hard to love what you do for a living when you’re struggling to create new art or content for your audience.
Maybe your creative process doesn’t seem to be working for you anymore. Or you’re dealing with self-doubt or imposter syndrome. Or facing down an external stressor.
Whatever the reason, even the most accomplished creators struggle with creative block sometimes. But they get past it — and you can, too.
How do you get unstuck and start creating again?
First, it can help to figure out why you’re feeling stuck. In this article, we’ll cover the most common causes of creative block. Then we’ll share four tried-and-true strategies to get you back on track, so you can start making things you and your audience love.
What causes creative block?
“Creative block” describes when a creator feels unable to make something new or continue working on a project.
Creative block can look different for different people. For many creators, it feels like there’s a barrier between them and their inner creativity. They can’t access the inspiration and ideas they need to continue creating.
And too often, the feeling sticks around for far too long. Shreya Doodles on Instagram illustrates this concept well:
Not all instances of creative block are created equal, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. To find the best strategies for getting unstuck, it helps to understand where that feeling is coming from.
Here are three of the most common causes of creative block.
1. External stressors
First and foremost, external stressors and events can hurt your creativity and productivity. You might have the most finessed creative process in the world, but some things are simply out of your control. (Like a global pandemic, for example.)
It’s true that trying times can inspire us to produce amazing creative work. And sharing your own trials and tribulations, like a failed product launch, can help others dealing with similar struggles.
But things can happen that throw you off your game. And often, you can’t control those things.
So, when you’re going through a hard time, focus on what you can control: How you treat yourself. Try to show yourself kindness and forgiveness. (We’ll share some tips for practicing self-compassion later on.)
And being kind to yourself isn’t just for extenuating circumstances. It’s something that you can practice every day, especially when you find yourself filled with self-doubt.
2. Self-doubt and perfectionism
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Self-doubt is the voice in the back of your mind telling you that you can’t do it. That you don’t have anything valuable to share, or that no one will take you seriously.
That voice is a liar — but it can be a very convincing one. When you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, self-doubt can seem more like a fact than a feeling, and it makes it hard to create work that you’re proud of (if you can create at all).
Plus, when you feel like nothing you create is good enough, you can end up fighting procrastination, overworking yourself, burning out, and feeling guilt or shame over not meeting your own extreme expectations. Struggling with perfectionism is a vicious cycle.
And when you’re too critical of yourself, it impedes your creative thinking on a neurological level.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin explains:
“We know a little about what’s happening when we’re being spontaneously creative or improvising. What you’re having is basically an increase in the internal generation of ideas.
There’s a decrease in a part of your brain that has to do with your inner critic — your filter system — that has to do with making sure that you conform to social norms. So you’re in a state of free flow.”
If self-criticism is causing a creative block, know that you’re not alone. Even the greatest wordsmiths have to overcome writer’s block from time to time.
Novelist and writing teacher Anne Lamott writes: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.”
Later on, we’ll share some tips to shift your mindset and overcome self-doubt. For now, let’s move on to the third common cause of creative block.
Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted to the point of burnout can have a negative impact on your work and your personal life:
91% of professionals say burnout impacts the quality of their work.
83% say burnout from work can negatively impact their personal relationships.
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
It’s no wonder that so many entrepreneurs end up dealing with that kind of exhaustion. One survey found that only 29% of small business owners feel they have a very healthy work/life balance, and 51% say they have trouble “switching off” from work during free time.
And just like perfectionism, burnout can become a cycle of frustration, overwork, and lack of sleep.
It’s hard to keep creating when you’re running on empty. If you’re teetering on the edge of burnout, some of the tips in the next section can help you prevent it. For even more strategies — including tips to recover if you’re already burnt out — check out this guide to avoiding burnout.
Now that you have an idea of what commonly causes creative block, let’s dive into some steps you can take to get unstuck.
4 steps to overcome creative block
Step #1: Determine where you’re getting stuck
We just went over what causes creative block on a macro level — but what if there’s a specific piece of your creative process that’s holding you back?
To get to the bottom of your creative block, Podia’s video content marketer, Ben Toalson, recommends asking yourself these four questions.
Is there something I don’t know?
Is there something I can’t do?
Is there something I don’t enjoy?
Has what I’m sharing or teaching already been said?
Is there something I don’t know? Are you missing a piece of knowledge or information that you need to finish your project? If you can, leave that piece blank and make yourself a note to come back to it later on.
Ben gives this (delicious) example:
“Maybe you want to make content that teaches someone how to prepare and cook a delicious orecchiette, but you don’t know how to pronounce it.
Buying the ingredients doesn’t require you to say it out loud, so stop sitting in your driveway practicing in the mirror and head out to the supermarket.”
Is there something I can’t do? Maybe you have the subject matter expertise, but there are parts of the creative process that you can’t quite figure out. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait to get started.
There are tons of free resources available for creators, whether you want to learn how to shoot high-quality video on your iPhone or need help creating graphics for your website. Podia’s creator resources are a great place to start.
If you have the budget, you can also hire someone to help you out. We’ll talk more about outsourcing in a bit.
Just like with question one, acknowledge that there’s a missing piece, put a plan in place for how you’ll learn or outsource the task, then keep moving forward with your project.
Is there something I don’t enjoy? Even when we love what we do, parts of the creative process can feel tedious. It’s okay not to like every aspect of your work.
When you run into a task you don’t enjoy, decide whether it’s worth pushing through and getting it done on your own or if you should delegate it. If you have the budget, hiring a freelancer or virtual assistant can help take those tasks off your plate.
Some of the most common tasks you can outsource include video and podcast editing, graphic design, web development, and accounting.
Has what I’m sharing or teaching already been done? This is where imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. When you see someone else creating awesome content in your niche, it can feel intimidating and demotivating.
But here’s the thing: You have a unique perspective, which in turn shapes how you teach others. Your personality, expertise, and unique outlook are all part of what makes you stand out from your competition.
And people want to see that real personality shine through. 86% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support.
Once you ask yourself these questions, you might be able to pinpoint exactly where you’re getting stuck and tackle that specific snag.
But what if you’re dealing with a bigger obstacle, like chronic procrastination or a lack of inspiration?
It’s time to reexamine your daily routine.
Step #2: Rethink your routine
But that much freedom can also pose some real challenges, especially if you’re a lifelong procrastinator like me.
As Stephen King so wisely put it, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” You want to get the work done, and you know exactly what you need to do — but it’s hard to get started or to stay focused.
On the other hand, if you’re a workaholic, having set hours can also make it hard to close your laptop at the end of the day. You end up working the kind of long hours that can lead to burnout.
So, how do you find the balance between freedom and productivity?
It might sound counterintuitive, but setting a routine can give you more flexibility to create and have a better work-life balance.
“In order to have a hustle-free life, you’ve got to have a sort of a disciplined life. You need to know what you want to do with your time, and you have to be intentional about it.”
(Looking for a platform that helps you grow your hustle-free business? Podia makes it easy for creators like Minessa to host, launch, and sell digital products from one platform. Sign up for a free 14-day trial.)
Even the most mundane habits can lead to amazing creative work. Notable artists and creators throughout history have said that daily rituals (and the self-discipline to follow them) are far more effective than waiting for inspiration to strike.
To begin creating a routine that works for you, set working hours for yourself — and don’t make them 14-hour days, five days a week.
Here’s why: Working more hours doesn’t always mean that more work gets done. Productivity plummets once we work more than 50 hours a week. And after working 55 or more hours, productivity drops so low that there’s no real benefit to working more.
Plus, long hours mean you’re less likely to get a good night’s sleep. 38.7% of side-hustlers still report giving up sleep to work on their businesses.
But sleep is a critical part of productivity and creative thinking:
Entrepreneurs who get less sleep struggle with mistakes and evaluating good vs. bad ideas.
People who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night for two consecutive days have decreased performance for six days afterward.
NREM sleep helps our brains restructure and reorganize information, while new ideas often emerge during REM sleep. Both of these processes are key aspects of creativity.
Taking good care of yourself can directly impact your mental and physical health. When you practice self-care, you’re setting yourself up for success and creating a lifestyle that lets you do your best work without sacrificing your happiness (or your sleep).
That means including breaks throughout your daily routine, too.
According to a 2014 review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, our brains keep working on a project while we’re taking a break from it. Stepping away from your computer screen or sketchbook can help you come back to the project later on with fresh eyes.
Another study found that taking short breaks in the afternoon increases engagement at work.
You might find yourself deviating from your new routine, and that’s okay. It takes more than two months for a new behavior to become a habit. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
If, over time, your routine isn’t working for you, make small changes. It’s a trial-and-error process of figuring out what works best for you.
Here are some additional resources to help you manage your time and build a creative process that serves you:
A guide to time management for entrepreneurs
Four steps to prioritize tasks when you have too much on your plate
This list of seven productivity tools to make your life easier
Some productivity tips to help you get more done while working from home
One last note before we move on: If you’re dealing with burnout, it’s okay to take a longer break from creating. A vacation can be the pick-me-up you need to break through that mental block and come back refreshed.
If you need to step away from your business for an extended period of time, check out these tips for taking a break from your business, including how to communicate with customers or clients.
Now that we’ve covered changing what you do, let’s talk about something a little more personal: Changing how you think.
Step #3: Shift your mindset
Earlier, we talked about the ways perfectionism and self-doubt make it harder to create. But how do you build that confidence in yourself and your work?
A growth mindset helps you embrace, overcome, and learn from challenges by focusing on learning rather than “looking smart”. When you see knowledge as something to develop continuously, you’ll be more motivated to keep learning — and less afraid of failure.
And when you’re less afraid of failure, you’re more likely to get out of your comfort zone and put out something that isn’t perfect. After all, how else will you learn?
Failure is a standard phase of the entrepreneurial journey. In fact, it’s what happens right before your business moves toward scaling and growth.
When you frame failure as part of the “experimenting and pivoting” stage, it becomes less of a terrifying roadblock and more of a precursor to success.
Ryan Kulp, the founder of Micro Acquisitions, explains: “To run a successful business, you have to first get comfortable running an unsuccessful business, because most of the time, success comes later.”
To get comfortable with making mistakes, you need to be kind to yourself. As creators, we’re often our own harshest critics. That self-criticism could be holding you back from creating your best work ever.
That’s where self-compassion comes in.
Coined by psychologist Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three main components:
1. Self-kindness: When you make a mistake, treat yourself with understanding rather than criticism. Imperfection, failing, and struggling are inevitable parts of life — don’t make it harder on yourself by being unkind.
2. Common humanity: Every creator deals with creative block once in a while. When you realize that you’re going through a universal experience, it can help you be kinder to yourself and feel less alone.
3. Mindfulness: Self-compassion doesn’t mean ignoring negative emotions like fear or self-doubt. Being attuned to your mind and body can help you acknowledge and overcome difficult moments. Plus, mindfulness can help you tap into your creativity.
Alright, we’ve covered the steps you can take on your own. But being a solopreneur doesn’t have to mean going at it alone — and connecting with others can make a big difference when it comes to accountability and inspiration.
Step #4: Connect with other creative professionals
Solopreneurship can be a lonely endeavor. Many creators are remote workers, and loneliness and remote working often go hand-in-hand.
A study from Buffer shows that two of the top struggles for remote workers are collaboration and communication, and loneliness.
If you feel unmotivated and uninspired, connecting with other creators can help:
Studies have shown that feeling supported socially can make a significant difference in your mental health, regardless of how much you’re socializing.
Neuroscience posits that people are more creative when they’re exposed to other people’s ideas.
Talking to people who have been in your shoes and understand the creative process can help you feel less alone, boost your creativity, and keep your work on track.
Membership communities and mastermind groups are great places to start.
There are mastermind groups for almost every type of entrepreneur in every niche. For example, Justin Jackson created his MegaMaker community for developers and designers who “want more than a regular 9–5”.
The group connects people with similar goals, so they can form partnerships, share advice, and support each other.
Creator Brit Kolo, the founder of Marketing Personalities, says that joining a mastermind group is the best investment she’s made in her business so far:
“Business growth is just the beginning of the incredible effects … I’ve also grown as a human being, a leader, and a CEO. The other business owners in my mastermind group have become lifelong friends, and I do not say that lightly.”
“To be accountable, I told friends I would launch my product in 30 days. And they sent me an email every day with D-15, D-14 in it. Peer pressure worked great for me!”
“Sell it before it’s built! If you can think about the outline, map out the content, and build a sketch of what’s to come, you can likely pre-sell the course to your inner circle before you even create it.
It’s incredible motivation to actually create the course, and you have a little money in the bank to support you in doing the creating.”
(Learn more about how to pre-sell courses in this guide.)
Wherever you go for inspiration, make regularly seeking out others’ work and ideas part of your creative process. And who knows? You might end up helping another creator overcome their creative slump.
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Beat creative block and get unstuck
Even the most prolific creators run into creative blocks from time to time. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be stuck in that slump forever.
To recap, here’s how to overcome creative block in four steps:
Ask yourself questions to determine where you’re getting stuck. Is there a process you don’t enjoy? Are you missing key information?
Create a routine with set work hours and regular breaks. Make sure that your creative process includes the time and tools you need to be productive.
Focus on mindfulness and growth rather than perfection. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn as you go.
Reach out to other creative people for accountability and inspiration. Creative work doesn’t have to be lonely work.
Remember that, as a creator or solopreneur, you are your business.
When you take care of yourself, you’re setting yourself up for success personally and professionally. Prioritize what’s right for you and your work, and you’ll conquer those creative slumps in no time. You got this.