Article by Katherine Fusco
Every once in a while, a miracle happens: A writer or a designer or an artist finds themselves with an open window of time. Envision a shaft of light streaming in and an angels’ chorus.
But then doubt creeps in, darkening the scene, and this creative soul is suddenly unable to work. No ink flows from the pen, no marks on the page, no code written.
This kind of creative block, frustrating as it may be, sort of has our best interests in mind, at least in the short term. Which is the problem: Short-term pain avoidance may be evolutionarily advantageous when it comes to not getting eaten by wild beasts, but it’s not particularly amenable to creative growth, which, let’s face it, is an often painful process.
Self-protection can be useful. Except when it isn’t. For creative workers, the ego-protecting mechanism known as a “block” defends our sense of self at the expense of our most important work. To grow as creative people, we have to first of all put in the sometimes painful reps necessary to develop our crafts, and then we must expose our work to the world, where it may be rejected or ridiculed. It’s perhaps no wonder that the bigger the creative ideal, the stronger the follow-up reaction to protect oneself by shelving that ideal may be.
Part of the problem with pursuing a big creative project may be the many thoughts, both positive and negative, that spring up around the project. Focused attention is key to creativity, and the various thoughts about failure, success, and how difficult the task is all make creativity that much harder to sustain.
Given the real problem a block can present to someone who works creatively, the simple advice to “get over it” or “push past it” (as often delivered harshly by our own interior dialogues as by someone else) just doesn’t cut it. Instead, blocked creative workers need a portfolio of concrete strategies to deploy. Here are a few:
1. Make a List
Who doesn’t love a good list? A list can break an intimidating project down into a set of smaller, more specific tasks, which gives you a palette of options to choose from each day, ranging from the mundane to the more creatively ambitious. You can then pick and choose what to do depending on how you are feeling that day.
Also, by breaking your project into actionable steps, you are reminding yourself that the project is not you. Instead, it is a thing you are doing. Sometimes a simple reminder of this fact can be soothing.
2. Change the Scene
Sometimes we can grow to associate a particular place with bad or blocked feelings. As a result, a shift to a new room or a new coffee shop can be all it takes to get a fresh start on the project.
3. Approach the Project Lightly
This shift is both attitudinal and material. What if, instead of taking the big work seriously, you found room to play in the project? This might look different depending on your working context, but a delightful study on enhancing the creativity of children by improving their moods offers the suggestions that playing upbeat music and participating in simulated laughter can improve creativity.
What if you took a second to laugh, even if forced, before starting? What if you broke out colored pens and pencils to draft your proposal? What if you took a walk and dictated while breathing the fresh air? How can you shake your process loose from heavy feelings?
4. Apply the Minimum Possible Effort
Given your field of work, what’s the least possible thing you could do? Is it running the spell check? Is it printing something out to read? When you are really stuck, small items like these keep you in touch with the project and keep it moving forward without necessarily activating the scary feelings associated with big creative endeavors.
5. Work for the Least Possible Amount of Time
What if you radically limited the amount of time you allowed yourself to spend on the task?
Sometimes, grand creative projects seem to demand grand, intimidating work hours. But what if you told yourself you could work on the project for only five minutes every day, scheduled those five minutes on a calendar, and used a timer to hold yourself to that tiny upper limit? Chances are you’d build the muscle of touching the project in a regular way, and by keeping things limited for at least a week, you might even build desire to work more going forward.
What all these strategies share is an effort to deflate the creative project’s scary, ego-threatening aspects. The goal is to tame the project into a manageable size so that you can do the work that matters so much without feeling that any one work session matters too much.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and US Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative, and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY, and Salmagundi. You can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.