5 Research-Proven Ways to Overcome Creative Blocks


Blank page syndrome: we’ve all been there before. You’ve got your document open, prepared to capture all your brilliant ideas — yet nothing seems to be coming out of your brain. Whether you’re a writer, an artist, or trying to conjure an out-of-the-box solution, a creative block can seem like an impossible hurdle to overcome.

Luckily, there are a few proven methods for sparking inspiration and working through creative blocks. And even luckier, we’ve pored over the research for you, so you don’t have to search for yourself! Here are five suggestions for overcoming blocks in your creative work.

1. Set a routine.

This Elsevier study examined three groups of nine blocked writers, and found that those who wrote habitually showed the highest level of creativity. Working within a routine not only increased their overall output, but it also increased their generation of new creative ideas. On the other hand, writers who waited for inspiration or abstained from writing completely while blocked saw little-to-no improvement in their struggle to create new work.

Once you commit a specified block of time to your creative work, the best way to start is simply that — just start! Give yourself permission to write badly, and make it your goal to get something down on paper. You’ll have plenty of time to revise afterwards and at the very least, creating something preliminary can lead to better ideas later on.

Austin Kleon, artist and best-selling author, shared a similar process while writing his book:

And Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird wrote an excellent essay on why writers must start with horrible drafts:

“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. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

2. Step away from your work

On the other end of the spectrum, taking a break from your creative work can also do wonders. If you’ve found yourself ruminating on the same task for hours upon hours, stepping away from the task may do you some good. It’s all about balance!

Psychologist Graham Wallas outlined an insightful theory of the four stages of the creative process, which include: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. During the preparation stage, you collect all the intellectual resources you’ll need to construct new ideas. Think: researching, planning and entering the right frame of mind. Then, comes an extremely important period of unconscious processing. This is where no direct effort is exerted upon the problem at hand. Many great minds have advocated for this stage of incubation, like Alexander Graham Bell and Lewis Carroll.

Sleep has also been widely documented as a crucial component for processing all the new information your brain has acquired. Debbie Millman, writer and artist, even has sleep twice on her amusing list of 10 ways to overcome creative blocks:

  1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
  2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
  3. Color code your library. This is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
  4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
  5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
  6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
  7. Weep. And then weep some more.
  8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
  9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
  10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!

3. Take a walk.

Accounts of the creative benefits of walking have dated back to the 1800s. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal,

“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Additionally, Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as 180,000 miles in his lifetime, which averages out to 6.5 miles a day starting from age five.

Recently, these inklings of the tie between walking and creativity have been scientifically confirmed. A 2014 study by Stanford found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking. Both walking indoors and outdoors boosted creative inspiration, as the act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Conversely, participants who were sitting produced only half the amount of creative responses as those who were walking.

So, next time you find yourself in a creative slump, take a short walk. Whether it’s around the block, inside the office, or at a standing treadmill desk, you may be surprised at the results!

4. Change up your scenery.

If you return to the same workspace every day, see what a change of scenery can do for your creative flow. Heading out to a new cafe, a stimulating shared workspace, or a refreshing park can awaken your inspiration and refresh your vigor for working.

More dramatically, taking a trip or spending an extended period of time abroad can improve your capacity for problem solving and creative thinking. Jonah Lehrer writes in a Guardian piece, “Several new science papers suggest that getting away—and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going—is an essential habit of effective thinking.” In essence, our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. When we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted by a more limited set of associations. Traveling and experiencing foreign cultures loosens up these constricted thoughts, making it easier to see things from new perspectives.

As TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

5. Keep a notebook.

In her book The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo reveals how author Joan Didion used her notebook: “Into her notebook, Didion writes descriptions of people she observes, random observations (the sign on a coat in a museum), facts she’s learned (the tons of soot that fell on New York in 1964), recipes (one, for sauerkraut).” In a nutshell, Didion used her notebook to remember moments that would later inspire her writing. Then, DeSalvo goes on to reveal that her own notebook has worked in similar ways: entries from a particularly tough time in DeSalvo’s life helped her create a few authentic essays for a volume.

Use a notebook to save interesting thoughts, quotations, and observations. Write down things you’ve read, films you’ve seen, and anything that you find interesting. The power of keeping a notebooks is that you’ll create an arsenal of inspiration — pages upon pages that you can return to when you’re feeling stumped.

Struggling through a creative block is never fun — but it’s something that almost everyone experiences from time to time. Next time you’re feeling stuck, try one of the methods on this list to get your creative juices flowing.

What are your go-to methods for overcoming creative blocks? Tweet us @Brandfolder and let us know!