4 Ways to Break Through Creative Blocks


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painting palette

As an artist, a writer and a social media strategist, I’ve encountered my fair share of creative blocks. Also called a writer’s block, this feeling of being stuck at a standstill, frustrated and devoid of new ideas strikes every person who employs creative thinking and brainstorming in her career. Fortunately, there are some practical tips that can help anyone get unstuck, regardless of the particular type of creative output you struggle with.

1. Consume as wide a variety of ideas as possible.
This is the best safeguard against creative blocks. Nothing is truly original; every idea builds on the ones that came before it. To generate the best ideas, you need to have a wide enough “idea vocabulary” to pull from. Read as many books as you can get your hands on; watch movies you normally wouldn’t.

I studied drawing and painting in college. Once, in a senior-level painting class normally reserved for hours-long critiques of new student work, my (otherwise tough, but sane) professor rolled a TV into the paint-splattered open studio classroom and made us watch a 1970s surfing flick called Big Wednesday. His point was clear: To be a good artist, soaking in a variety of other ideas, theories and cultures is just as important as the critiques we slaved away to be ready for and dreaded for days.

"Untitled (Courtney)," 36x48, oil on canvas, by Megan Van Groll.

“Untitled (Courtney),” 36×48, oil on canvas, by Megan Van Groll.

Next time you find yourself unable to come up with new ideas, take a break to watch an esoteric or unusual seeming documentary or foreign film on Netflix you’d have never sought out otherwise, or read a novel about characters you don’t think you’ll relate to at all. Go to an art gallery and just browse. Don’t try to choose a film or book or exhibition you think might relate to your specific creative problem; the point is to be random with your material. Spend some time on Duolingo learning a new language you have no immediate use for.

This is also one of the reasons I’ve made travel such a priority in my life. Traveling to someplace new, far and very different from your home country is dramatic and intense. You’re a fish out of water, everything is new and different and each trip will change you just a little bit. Travel — especially culturally authentic, independent travel — is possibly the best way to expand your mind and cultivate creativity.

Inside Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro and all of South America

Inside Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro and all of South America

People who are hungry for more knowledge, more experiences and more ideas will rarely have a hard time being creative. That insatiability will serve you — so feed and encourage it.

2. Break your habits.
Let’s say you’ve followed the aforementioned advice and have a large “idea vocabulary” in place, with a wide history of knowledge and experiences coloring your perspective. How do you take these seemingly disconnected, unrelated puzzle pieces and make them into something new? The act of forming new ideas from older ones is simply a matter of connecting the dots, taking small, selected pieces of old ideas and material and reframing them together. In that way, all creation is really, at its heart, a type of curation.

When we have trouble taking those pieces and fusing them together in new ways, it’s because our brains are wired to follow the same thought processes they always do. Your beliefs, your habits, their triggers and all of your everyday behaviors are wired into your brain. If you want to rewire it to form new connections and ideas, take your resulting habits and behaviors and change them up.

girl sketching outdoors in florence

Sketching al fresco in Florence, Italy

Instead of going the same way home from work every day, try a new route through a part of town you rarely see. Exercise spontaneity, and go see that film by yourself that you noticed as you drove past the art house theater. Try a new restaurant. Go to an art gallery opening, museum or lecture series offered by a nearby university. Pretend you’re an anthropologist stumbling upon a new culture; notice details, seeing things like they’re new.

Instead of going to Cancun or the Caribbean (or even Europe) for vacation, or going to see family yet again, pack up and take off to South America, India or Zambia. You can even try doing things in opposite order. This can be as simple as switching up your most mundane and menial of habits: Brush your teeth before washing your face if you have a very set sequence of washing your face first; eat dessert first.

3. Challenge your assumptions.
If you have a specific problem at hand for which you need to brainstorm a creative solution, try lateral thinking. Start by listing each individual assumption you’re making about the situation, and then challenge each one. Is it really true? Take each part of the problem and think about how a conventional, normal person would approach this. How can we be different? And how would you deal with this if you weren’t you but someone else, with a different skill set? Remember,

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein

If this creative problem solving approach interests you, I highly recommend you read How to Apply Lateral Thinking to Your Creative Work on 99U.

4. Capture everything.
If you’re an artist or designer, carry a sketchbook and pencil with you everywhere you go. Journalist? Writer? A notebook. Photographer? Have your camera with you as much as possible. You need some way to capture the passing thoughts, fresh ideas, perfect shots and flashes of future paintings that speed through your mind at lightning pace. If you don’t capture it right then, consider it lost — the chances you’ll be able to remember or recreate it are slim to none.

Just as you want to soak up as many random, foreign or assumption-challenging ideas as possible, you also want to keep track of and re-examine your own ideas, however fragmented, silly or incomplete they may seem.

notebooks and colored pencils

I carry at least one small notebook with me at all times, and I also use tools like Evernote (and the Evernote iPhone app) to keep track of anything and everything that passes through my mind and might be of use to me later.

Next time you find yourself stuck in a creative rut, remember that your brain might just need to consume new, unrelated ideas and experiences. When you get back to work, don’t discount those experiences: You never know which weird or random memory will lead the way to your next masterpiece, innovation or breakthrough idea.

Photo credit: Megan Van Groll

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