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Summary:

On days where our tools, skills and energy come together, our output seems to flow seamlessly. On other days, though, no matter how many tools we use or how many cups of coffee we consume, something seems to be blocking us from getting anything done.

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Most web workers are knowledge workers. We use our specialized knowledge to perform most of our tasks, and the web is just a tool to carry out these tasks. On days where our tools, skills and energy come together, our output seems to flow seamlessly. On other days, though, no matter how many tools we use or how many cups of coffee we consume, something seems to be blocking us from getting anything done. On our worst days, we can’t even get our work started.

In other words, anyone who’s a knowledge worker spends their working moments somewhere between two states: choke and flow.

Flow is a state of mind that gives you complete, energized focus on the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this state as being completely involved in a task, feeling a sense of ecstasy and clarity, and losing your awareness of time (a summary from Lateral Action can be found here). There are many alternative words used to describe flow. Programmers may call this “deep hack mode,” while athletes refer to it as being “in the zone.”

The other end of the scale is the “choke”, also known as a creative block. When you choke, your performance becomes poor or your work process is halted because of anxiety — even if you’re normally skilled and have performed exceptionally well in the past. Choking is a state full of worry, self-handicapping and pressure. Author Steven Pressfield calls this state “Resistance”, but other words used to describe this feeling include “mental block”, “writer’s block”,  and “performance anxiety”. When choking takes over your workday and accomplishing anything seems impossible, it may feel like an uphill battle.


So how does one encourage flow and break down blocks?

To avoid being crushed into inaction by our creative blocks, we need to understand how to break them. In a radio interview, psychologist Andy Evans of Arts Psychology Consultants discussed a two-pronged approach to breaking creative blocks: eliminate or lessen the elements that are causing the block, and to build up one’s self-esteem and confidence. How this is accomplished varies individually, but here are a few areas to start with:

Removing the Block

Some creative blocks are caused or triggered by complex issues such as depression or personal tragedies. But for the simpler, more mundane blocks we encounter regularly, they are mostly caused by distractions: thoughts and objects that take away our attention from our work. You may be worrying about what to cook for lunch, the laundry you have to do, or a client’s late payment. Instead of using your brain’s energy and resources on your work, they are spent on these. Fortunately, you can deal with these distractions accordingly:

  • To avoid being bothered by miscellaneous tasks and errands, give them their own place and time. Schedule them for later so that even if you can’t do them now, you know that you’ve allotted time for them.
  • Establishing routines also helps clear your mental clutter. If you find that you worry too much about food preparation, then prepare your ingredients and meals in batches. Or have a list of two or three “default” meals to buy if you don’t want to spend time thinking about what to eat.
  • But if you find yourself interrupted by unforeseen, multiple worries such as a late paycheck, an argument with your boss, or other personal concerns, taking a break to mediate or do a mind sweep may help.

Once you feel like all the blocks you can control have been removed, it’s time to build your confidence to start working without choking.

Building Confidence

To gain confidence, we must take the pressure off. During creative work, we may have the tendency to control even the smallest details to ensure that the final output will be great. This may come in the form of editing, rewriting, and re-editing the first sentence of an article before finishing the first draft, or by erasing and redrawing imperfect lines in a pencil sketch. This is especially true if we are working in front of an audience (PDF) — whether they are supportive or not. As some studies (PDF) show, this extreme self-consciousness during a task we’re competent at, especially one we’ve heavily practiced, can lead to a decline in performance.

A simple way to put it is that if we waste our brain’s resources over-thinking how we’re going to do something we normally do well, we don’t leave enough brain power for the creative act itself. So instead of dwelling on unnecessary details, maybe it’s better to remind yourself that you’ve done this work before and trust the instincts that you’ve honed over the years.

Getting to “Flow”

But getting to the flow state requires more than alleviating pressure. It means we should sit down and work long enough to get to the point where our vision of the work is clear and we’re not distracted by anything else. But working on the web gives us easy access to hundreds of distractions. How do we avoid giving in, especially when being distracted has become a habit?

Positive self-talk (PDF) can be a simple way to start. When we encourage ourselves too keep working and not check Facebook or Twitter for the umpteenth time, it may help us curb our impulses and resist temptation.

And if that doesn’t seem to work, previous posts from Amber, Darrell, and Georgina contain other suggestions on how to focus and get back to the task at hand.

Going from choke to flow may seem easy on paper but, in reality, it’s different for everyone. It may even be different for you every time you encounter it. Ultimately, the best way to break down creative blocks and get to the flow state is to be aware enough when it happens so that you can test and apply what works for you.

How often do you experience creative blocks and how long do they usually last? What do you do to break them?

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  1. Thanks Celine.
    I’m in a constant battle choke lately. I’m sure I’m learning all kinds of valuable life lessons from it though. :)

    I love this: “…remind yourself that you’ve done this work before and trust the instincts…” That’s exactly what I do. I’ve been kicking ass at this for over 10 years. I just need to keep reminding myself of that.

    To combat all of the internet distractions, I’ve installed the LeechBlock Firefox add-on. It keeps me from spending all day on those time-sucking sites, keeps me focused, gives me a little slap on the hand when I’ve wandered too far and, after a few weeks, it really does help change bad habits. Highly recommended!

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