Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

NaBloPoMo Q&A 6: Chopping Blocks

Or: How To Bust Your Creative Block

Megan asked:

Say someone’s in a rut. What advice would you offer for getting out? ie, how do you stay creative and engaged? Who/what keeps you accountable?

And Joey asked:

How do you overcome creative block? What inspires you?

I had an English teacher in high school who said something I still think about today. She said, “a piece of writing is never done, you’re just done working on it.”

That could just as easily apply to design, photography, or any other creative endeavor. The point is, the process is what’s important. Being done is the death of art. The real joy comes from always improving.

Creative blocks, in my experience, come from forgetting this essential fact. If you fall into assuming that the picture or sentence in front of you is final, it sucks. Of course it sucks. Everything sucks in the beginning. That’s not the point. The point is to make it better, word by word, pixel by pixel.

Where you wind up may be a totally different place from where you started, and that’s okay. That’s the joy of the creative process.

When I get jammed up, here are some of the things I do to chop the block.

  • Go away. If you’re spinning your wheels in front of the computer at 2pm, you’ll probably still be spinning at 5pm, only then you’ll be 3 hours angrier. Short-circuit this by getting up and heading out the door. Run errands, walk the dogs, walk around the block – anything. Just leave. You won’t be doing any good in front of the computer anyway. Getting yourself into a completely different physical space can help move your mental space.
  • Change mediums. If you’re getting no joy in pixels, change to paper. Try designing a site with just office paper and a Sharpie (37 Signals had a great post about this). If you’re bored with your digital camera, get a film one. If you’re not writing well in front of the computer, switch to a legal pad. Sometimes bumping into a new set of constraints will free you up in other places.
  • Log off. Take your modem, unplug it, and put it in a closet. The internet may be the greatest self-publishing medium ever invented, but it’s also the greatest time-suck to ever exist. Sometimes connecting with your inner voice means disconnecting from the rest of the world.
  • Bust that cycle. This is something I learned from Ze Frank. When you’re feeling overwhelmed with your usual process, pick one habit and change it. It doesn’t have to be a bad habit, like quitting smoking. It could just be waking up at a different time, listening to new music, going to new places for lunch. Breaking a cycle can lead to a feeling of renewed possibilties and excitement. (Thanks for this one, Ze!)
  • Stop multitasking. I have my tasks divided into two groups: half-brain tasks and full-brain tasks. Watching TV, skimming the latest news, doing the dishes … these are half-brain tasks. I can do more than one at once. But writing stories, researching stuff, hardcode design … these need the full brain. If I’m getting nowhere, it may be because I’m trying to stuff a full-brain task into a half-brain time slot. (On the other hand, sometimes with a design challenge, I’ve found that doing it with half a brain can help me stop over-thinking it. Experiment with your tasks to see how you’re most productive.)
  • Get a pen pal. If the block is related to writing, try this: Write a letter to a friend all about how frustrated you are. Tell your friend about how you can’t possibly write it. Of course, in order to describe why you can’t do it, you’ll have to explain what the project is. This forces you to put what you’re trying to do into words. The next thing you know you’ll be writing what you need to write.
  • Quit. That’s right, quit. The worst thing you can do to creativity is give it a deadline. Make a complete and total decision to stop the project. Dump it from your mind. Think about something else. Anything. Then go to bed. This is like zapping your RAM. You may just wake up in the morning with a brand new idea – one that’s not too different from where you were trying to go in the first place – once you take the pressure off.

Remember that you have a vast ocean of creativity within you. When you’re under pressure and blocked, you may start to feel like your creativity is finite. Maybe it’s run out! (I’ve literally had this conversation with friends before. I was convinced I had a limited number of designs in me, and I thought I’d just used the last one.) But that’s just the block talking. There’s always another design, another story, another work of art within you. All you have to do is find it. Good luck!

Thanks for the questions, Megan and Joey! Who else has one?

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.