Creative block affects us all — not just novelists or artists. Most web working roles involve some sort of creativity. Perhaps we don’t know where to start when we’re commencing a new project (I call this “blank page syndrome”). Or maybe you’re faced with a challenge and don’t feel at all inspired about finding the best way to tackle it. In this post, I’ll look at two ways that I deal with creative block.
I find that working on-site can make it easier to get started on a new project. Of course, it depends on the way you work, but in some cases, having colleagues around — either hounding you for your piece of work, or being on-hand to bounce ideas off — can be really motivating. More than once I’ve found that discussing a task with a colleague in a little more detail has helped me get past the creative block and start working. But when you work remotely, these kinds of motivators aren’t always available.
The blank page syndrome can be very daunting if you’re working remotely, as can the challenge of motivating yourself to dive headlong into a new project — especially if the production timeframes are generous. The catch is that delaying getting your teeth into a new project inevitably puts those generous timeframes under pressure, and if you feel rushed, you can ultimately end up producing an output you’re not that proud of. More than that, if you don’t nip this kind of behavior in the bud, it can all-too-quickly become a work habit — which can be bad news for the quality of your output.
Everyone deals with creative block differently, so I thought I’d share with you two approaches I use to overcome it. Although you could try to apply these techniques on-site, all the distractions that go with working in an office may make the job difficult. If you’re working remotely, and have complete control over your time, these ideas may work well for you.
The Immersion Technique
If I’m feeling excited about a job, and have the sort of creative block borne of wanting to do a really good job — so good that I don’t know where to start — I often use the immersion technique. This technique involves setting aside an entire day (if it’s a big job; otherwise, you could just allocate a few hours) to get the new project started. I don’t check my email. I let my calls go to voicemail. And I spend the whole day getting the project off the ground.
If they’re not already clearly defined, I’ll usually set goals for this day, since this helps direct my work. If I feel that talking to someone else about the project will help me get going, I’ll schedule a meeting with a project team member during the day — usually it’s at the start of the day, so we can toss ideas around and discuss any points on which I’m not clear. This meeting acts to clarify the brief and helps me get into the right headspace for starting the project. Often, it’ll also precipitate a number of action items or directions that I can use to focus my efforts for the day.
The immersion technique is fairly intense, but it does give you the potential to get your project off to a really strong start, and to get a lot done on day one. You shouldn’t skip breaks during the day — if you do, you’ll probably risk project overload or mini-burnout, which is the last thing you want at the start of a job. One huge advantage of this approach is that it gives you the time and space to maintain precious focus and follow your trains of thought through to their natural ends, which can make a big difference to how involved you become in the project, and how likely it is to succeed.
The Diversion Technique
The diversion technique can be a better option if your creative block stems from a sense of being daunted by the new project. For this technique, I start by setting a time in my schedule to produce a project output. This could be a draft of a business plan, phase one of a design, a prototype of a system or model of a process. I usually set this time aside at least three days in advance: if today’s Monday, I’ll schedule the time in for Thursday or Friday.
Then, on each day between now and that schedule “production time:” half an hour or more to give some thought to the project. Perhaps each day I’ll think of a different aspect of the work, or maybe I’ll spend most of the time thinking about the output I need to produce and planning how I’ll do that.
Whatever the case, I try not to take this time too seriously, and I try to make it enjoyable — I’ll get away from my desk, do some planning in the park or a cafe, whatever. In essence, I treat this as “brainstorming” or “concepting” time; time to get my head around the project and my role in it. I also try to spend some unscheduled time — time when my mind is wandering — thinking about the project.
That’s why it’s called the diversion technique: because over the days before you’re scheduled to complete some work on the project, thinking fairly abstractly about the project becomes a diversion. Of course, you don’t want to stew on it or think about it non-stop. The idea behind the diversion technique is that it gives things time to percolate so that, come your dedicated work time on Friday, you’ll have done some good quality, no-pressure thinking, and you’ll have a lot of “content” to get started with. Hopefully, this should help you overcome the blank page syndrome, and dig up some motivation for the task.
Immersion and diversion are my two favorite ways to overcome creative block. How do you overcome the challenge of starting a new, substantial piece of work with little or no outside motivation?