41 Ways to Overcome Creative Block

At one point or another, we all experience some form of creative block. Whether you’re a designer, illustrator, writer, or entrepreneur, that feeling of being stuck can be frustrating. 

What’s more: if you are a professional who relies on a steady stream of ideas for income, creative block is not just annoying; it can be costly as well.

2020 study by LinkedIn discovered the “soft skill” companies value the most is creativity. That’s why it’s essential to develop reliable systems for getting past creative block as fast as possible.

The truth is, many of these techniques are things we already know, but over the course of our lives, the basic principles of creativity get lost down the rabbit holes of deadlines and daily work habits. 

Therefore, this list can be viewed as a refresher on some of the elemental ways to invoke and restore creativity.

1. Read a book

Author Cheryl Strayed has spoken at length about creativity. Her advice for budding writers is this: “Find work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. Study the sentences your favourite writers made until they live in your bones.”

The World Literacy Foundation says, “Reading helps us practice imagination by letting the words describe a certain image while the reader manipulates the picture in the mind. This practice strengthens the mind as it acts like a muscle.”

The message is clear: reading is one of the best ways to get unstuck. If you don’t have the time to read an entire book, that’s totally fine. The point is simply to exercise your brain. Therefore, reading just a handful of pages can be incredibly valuable. 

Three books I recommend for exercising that muscle are:

  1. The Good Times Are Killing Me by Lynda Barry
  2. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
  3. In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Good Times Are Killing Me book cover
The Good Times are Killing Me by Lynda Barry

2. Go somewhere new

You don’t need to travel to a distant or exotic destination to overcome creative block. Going somewhere new can be as simple as taking an unexpected route to work or exploring a remote part of your city.

According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat. It doesn’t want to waste energy.” That is why, he continues, “Novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination.”

3. Challenge your assumptions

Assumptions are all about perspective. The German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that there is no truth—only interpretation and perspective driven by a person’s interests. 

It’s far too easy to stay in the comfort zones of our long-standing beliefs, but by doing so, we lose sight of the fact that there are innumerable ways of seeing things. Challenging assumptions is incredibly valuable because it can lead to new ideas you wouldn’t have considered possible.

One way to practice this is simply to be curious and ask a lot of questions. It’s helpful to remember the old adage: there’s no such thing as a dumb question. As Carl Sagan put it, “Every question is a cry to understand the world.”

4. Watch a movie

Watching a movie is a great way to spur the imagination because it lets you live in another world, and it fills your head with interesting characters, stories, and ideas.

If you’re watching a movie to help get out of a rut, here are three tips to get the most out of your viewing experience:

  1. Watch the movie with intention by paying attention to the writing, acting, lighting, and camera angles.
  2. Give it your undivided attention. Don’t send messages or scroll through social media until the credits roll.
  3. Try watching the movie on mute. This will force you to be more engaged and use your imagination.

5. Listen to music

In some cases, overcoming creative block may be as simple as listening to music. Though many of us do this unconsciously, you may not realize that music’s ability to unleash creativity is backed up by research.

For example, this 2017 study found that “happy” music encourages divergent thinking, a free-form thought process that fosters creative ideas.

Marc Beeman, who spent two decades studying the brain and its creative processes, says: “If you’re stuck on a problem and you’re looking for creative inspiration, taking a break to listen to music or engage in idle ‘mind wandering’ may allow the brain the freedom it needs to ‘dredge up’ new ideas or insights.”

6. Meditate

A consistent, daily meditation practice can positively impact your mental health by increasing focus, patience, clarity, insight, and perspective. 

Artists such as Mike Love and David Lynch have used meditation to tap into “an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness” throughout their careers.

However, as creative coach Mark McGuinness points out, “there’s a lot more to meditation practice than simply boosting your creativity. If I were to promote meditation as some kind of creative thinking technique, the monks would be rightly appalled—or amused.”

Therefore, a better approach would be to pursue it without looking for immediate results. You might just be surprised at the effect it has on your creative life as a byproduct.

7. Talk to a friend

If your creative block stems from personal issues, talking it out with a friend might help remove some of the barriers preventing you from operating at your peak artistic self.

8. Establish a creative routine

Robert Rauschenberg started his day with a healthy breakfast, vitamins, and espresso—followed by an episode or two of The Young and the Restless on TV.

Louise Bourgeois was very habitual, according to her longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy. In the morning, she liked a cup of tea and jelly “straight from the jar.” Then, at 10 a.m., he would pick her up and take her to the Brooklyn studio to begin painting.

Whatever your daily routine is, leaning into it may be exactly what you need to get the ideas churning and keep creative block at bay.

Adobe 99U agrees: “Repeating mundane tasks can help creators access a deeper state of mind. The different elements of the routine become associated with this creative state of mind so that they can re-enter it by simply repeating the steps of the routine.”

9. Commit to yourself

If you’re one of those people who constantly puts off work under the pretext that you don’t feel adequately inspired, this one’s for you. 

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, writes about overcoming resistance. He argues one way to do this is by taking the principles of public commitment and applying them to yourself.

For example, if you know you should begin working at 8 a.m. the next day but anticipate resistance, simply make a mental commitment that you will start working tomorrow at 8 a.m. no matter what.

Next, reinforce that commitment with a deliberate physical act, such as blocking that time off on the calendar above your desk. If you put off working yet again, the marking on your calendar will serve as a physical reminder of the broken promise.

10. Do a puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles offer tons of unique benefits for your brain. A puzzle can:

  • Improve your memory
  • Exercise problem-solving skills
  • Release dopamine
  • Melt away stress
  • Improve visual-spatial reasoning

For creatives, it’s a perfect activity to keep you purposefully distracted from work while offering healthy stimulation at the same time. 

Here are three puzzles I recommend:

  1. Connected: Three Puzzles by Serena Mitnik-Miller
  2. Sol Lewitt Double-Sided Jigsaw Puzzle
  3. Wayne Thiebaud Cakes & Pies Jigsaw Puzzle
Puzzle by Serena Mitnick-Miller
Connected: Three Puzzles by Serena Mitnik-Miller
Sol Lewitt puzzle
Sol Lewitt Double-Sided Jigsaw Puzzle

11. Exercise

Much like meditation, exercise works best when it is part of your overall lifestyle versus a quick fix to overcome creative block. That said, a 15-minute jog around the block is sufficient to trigger your body’s production of serotonin, which is your body’s natural “feel-good” chemical.

According to the New York Times, “active people come up with more and better ideas during tests of their inventiveness than people who are relatively sedentary, suggesting that if we wish to be more innovative, we might also want to be movers and shakers.”

12. Walk outside

If intensive exercise isn’t your thing, no worries. Evidence has shown that simply getting fresh air is enough to stimulate your creativity. 

Psychology Today cites a series of studies by researchers Meyers-Levy and Zhu proving that “open air unconsciously stimulates our mind to think more openly as well.” 

So, go ahead, step outside, and take a walk if you’re experiencing creative block. You’ll most certainly be happy that you did.

13. Try a new routine

While following a routine works well for some people, others need to balance their workday by trying new things to avoid falling into a rut. If you’re in the latter group, it could be an excellent way to get past creative block.

An article in Forbes notes that “changing things up will improve the neuroplasticity of your brain. This helps you connect thoughts in new and unusual ways, which will trigger fresh ideas.”

To do this, simply commit to doing things a little differently each day, if only in small ways. 

14. Use the Action Book

If you’re a freelance designer who has many different projects going on at all times, the Action Book by Behance can help organize your thoughts and jobs effectively.

It’s broken up into four color-coded sections that you can use for planning, note-taking, or making to-do lists (my personal favorite). 

By getting your life organized, you’ll free up mental energy that can be spent on more creative work, like problem-solving or coming up with new ideas.

15. Practice gratitude

As creative people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others and making silent judgments about what we don’t have. Of course, social media has only exacerbated this problem.

As an alternative, try waking up and spending a few minutes each day counting your blessings. When you really start to think about it, there are many things to be grateful for. 

Expressing gratitude leads to feelings of joy. Joy leads to creativity. It’s really that simple. 

“The greater your capacity for sincere appreciation, the deeper the connection to your heart, where intuition and unlimited inspiration and possibilities reside.” —HeartMath

16. Work in constraints

Conventional wisdom states that to be creative, you need to “think outside of the box.” However, there is evidence that thinking inside the box might be a better alternative.

Ernie Schenck, an Emmy-nominated creative director and author of The Houdini Solution, explains: “The biggest secret of productive, creative people is that they embrace obstacles; they don’t run from them. In their minds, every setback is an opportunity; every limitation is a chance. Where others see a wall, they see a doorway.” 

Here are two books that will teach you how to work with constraints:

  1. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
  2. The Houdini Solution by Ernie Schenck
The Obstacle Is the Way book cover
The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday

17. Digital detox

Digital detox is about creating mental space to allow your mind to wander.

While creativity is usually thought of as something that can be magically conjured up at will, the truth is that the best ideas tend to come only when we have properly set the stage for it to happen. 

An excellent article on NPR explains: “Mind-wandering is a critical step in creative thinking, especially for those who have hit a roadblock. Your brain, quite literally, needs time to relax and wander to reignite that creative spark; conversely, not having enough time to mind-wander may fuel a creative rut.”

You can’t let your mind wander when you’re constantly on your phone or computer. That’s why it is essential to unplug from all of your devices every once in a while.

18. Say no

Many of us feel an extreme amount of pressure to be productive at all times. That’s why we often hear people say they feel “guilty” for taking a day off. 

The thing about creativity, though, is that you can rarely make it happen on command. Instead, it’s more about setting the stage for ideas and connections to occur. When every second of our day is occupied doing something, it’s no wonder we don’t feel inspired.

Time is one of the most valuable things we have. Saying “no” more will allow your brain to relax long enough for brilliant ideas to occur.

19. Explore a creative hobby

A few years back, a writer friend started drawing in his spare time while trying to finish a novel. While spending time learning a new creative skill may seem counterintuitive, this approach can be beneficial in various ways.

Trying something new lets you exercise your brain while not being entirely focused on the more significant creative project you are working on. It lets your mind wander just enough to find new ideas and sources of inspiration. 

20. Use a time management tool

If you’re always distracted and find yourself going down Internet rabbit holes frequently, you might consider using a time management tool.

It’s unlikely that you’ll come up with your next brilliant idea while bouncing around time-wasting websites all day. That’s because creative breakthroughs tend to happen during periods of “unfocus” when your mind is allowed to wander. 

Try one of these apps to help keep those distractions in check:

21. Go to a museum

When I’m feeling uninspired, one of my favorite things to do is go to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), put on some headphones, and walk around for a few hours.

If you don’t live near a museum, you can visit various online exhibitions. The Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, has an excellent YouTube channel that lets you explore its vast holdings.

These institutions allow us to recharge, learn about different people and cultures, and interact with great works of art. They’re also an excellent way to get past creative block.

As the Museums Association says, “Museums can increase our sense of well-being, help us feel proud of where we have come from, can inspire, challenge and stimulate us, and make us feel healthier.”

22. Pick a bad idea and run with it

If you struggle with perfectionism and have extremely high standards that are impossible to meet, you probably spend a lot of time dealing with creative block. 

Back in the day, when I used to write screenplays, I’d spend half the day staring at a blank page because I couldn’t envisage the perfect opening scene. 

One technique I learned to deal with perfectionism is picking a lousy idea and seeing how good I could make it. This technique relieves some of the pressure and builds up creative momentum that you can then transfer over to your “good” idea.

23. Make a mind map

Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

A mind map is a great way to connect things. It doesn’t have to be pretty—just get a piece of paper and jot down a central idea. Then, start brainstorming related ideas, connecting them with lines that radiate out, branch-like, from the center. By the end, you’ll have a visual representation of your thought process, which might help you break through to find new connections.

24. Write in a journal

Many writers use a technique called morning pages to get their creativity flowing. It’s defined as “a stream of consciousness journaling habit done first thing every morning on a daily basis.” The good news is: you don’t have to be a writer to benefit from journaling. 

According to Forbes, “Famous journal keepers include inventor Leonardo da Vinci, painter Frida Kahlo, and entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin.” Today, famous artists who keep a journal include Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Forbes continues: “Their experiences demonstrate just how versatile journaling is and how almost anyone can benefit from this practice.”

With that being said, here are five journal tips to get started:

  1. Be consistent. Do it every day.
  2. Write early. First thing in the morning is best.
  3. Use a pen and paper, not your computer.
  4. Throw perfectionism out the window.
  5. Be authentic. Don’t write for an imaginary audience.

25. Work in new surroundings

According to Fast Company, “Some of the most frustrating roadblocks to creativity can stem from being in a static environment. Whether you’re at the office or working remotely, being in the same old space for hours at a stretch can drain you of your creative juices.”

Small changes can make a big difference. If you typically work from home at your desk, try going to your local coffee shop for a few hours.

If, on the other hand, you work at an office and aren’t allowed to leave, reorganize your area so that it feels fresh. For example, you could create a mood board or decorate your desk with artwork, photographs, or flowers—anything you feel might inspire you. 

26. Surround yourself with beauty

For a surefire jolt of inspiration, try going somewhere that stimulates you. It could be the beach, the desert, or the mountains. It could be a museum or an art gallery. Or, maybe it’s going to your local bookstore and looking at art and design monographs all afternoon.

As a graphic designer or other type of creative person, you are most likely already tapped into specific things that inspire you. So, whenever you feel blocked, just allow yourself to lean into those things.

27. Challenge yourself

After taking a class on bookbinding at the Center for Book Arts in New York, artist Ben Denzer decided to challenge himself by making books using atypical materials. One book is made out of lottery tickets, while another consists of toilet paper.

Denzer’s story serves as a good reminder for all of us to pursue those creative impulses that may at first seem nonsensical or strange. The results may surprise you and lead to novel ideas you couldn’t have known existed.

28. Be open

In collaborative environments, being open creates an atmosphere that fosters ideas—while on the other hand, being closed-minded does the opposite. So, what does this look like in practice? 

Duncan J. Wardle, former head of innovation and creativity at Disney, told Forbes: “Next time you hear a bad idea in the office, try saying, ‘Yes.’ That is, fight that impulse to say, ‘No, and here’s why your idea isn’t going to work.’ That negative response shuts down creativity.”

You can practice being open with yourself as well. Next time you are brainstorming, don’t immediately discard your own ideas, as bad as they may seem at first. Create roads, not roadblocks.

29. Stimulate your senses

According to Psychology Today, we can “use our five senses to stimulate creative flow.” 

Smell is one of the most powerful senses because of its strong connection to memory. For example, the scent of lavender immediately brings me back to childhood because my mother always kept lavender in the house. 

One way to access the power of smell is to close your eyes see what smells you can pick up on in your immediate surroundings. How do they make you feel?

30. Travel

Pop culture is rife with stories of famous artists who found inspiration while traveling the world. Writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time in Paris, painter Georgia O’Keefe went to Hawaii, and artist Salvador Dali frequented Cadaqués, Spain.

In recent years, the connection between travel and creativity has been confirmed with research. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of several studies, told The Atlantic: “We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries, it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity.” That trust, in turn, influences creativity. 

While it may not be practical for many of us to travel abroad at the drop of a hat, a staycation or weekend trip to the next town over may offer many of the same benefits.

31. Notice things

There’s a well-documented phenomenon called inattention blindness, which is defined as “the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.”

This means if our attention is entirely focused on one thing, it’s possible to miss other things right in front of our face

Noticing things that others miss is a big part of creativity. Artists tend to look at the world differently, seeing possibilities where others do not.

In the book Wired to CreateScott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire go deep into this topic, explaining how creativity is linked to the desire to explore “one’s inner and outer worlds.”

For practice, go on a walk and try to notice everything. See how many details of your surroundings you can pick out, and then write them down in a notebook. It will serve as a reminder of the infinite possibilities that exist in your everyday environment. 

32. Stop comparing 

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Amazingly enough, this sentiment rings just as true today as it did 100 years ago. 

Not only will comparing yourself to others rob you of the pleasure of doing the work you love, but it may also lead to creative block.

Also, remember that people are on their own journeys, operating on their own timelines, and are often running races for completely different reasons. Writer Jon Acuff put it best when he said, “Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

33. Spend time in nature

The relationship between nature and art has been well documented. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “Art not only imitates nature, but it also completes its deficiencies.” That is why artists have used nature as a subject and an inspiration for centuries.

Drawing from a recent study by Danish creative professionals, Science Direct says, “Nature especially plays a role in the preparation phase and the incubation phase of the creative process.”

That means if you are experiencing creative block, spending a couple of hours in the park, at the beach, the desert, or the mountains could do wonders for your creativity.

34. Try to fail

There’s a reason why George Lucas said, “Failure is another word for experience.” 

The fact is, no one wants to fail at something, especially a creative endeavor that feels personal, but without pushing boundaries, we don’t give ourselves much opportunity to grow. 

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, “In the sciences, the concept of failure is a natural part of experimentation. If you want to learn how a process works or develop a new one yourself, the scientific method demands that you try, fail, and try again. But in the arts, failure is often seen as a dirty word.”

This is an interesting paradox and one that you can use as fuel next time you feel stifled. Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? You’ll either learn from the experience or grow. Either way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

35. Do something non-creative

Performing the same creative tasks for too long without any breaks can impede the brain’s performance, according to research

Since the pandemic started, more professional designers have been working from home than ever before. While the remote office has its benefits, it can easily lead to overwork, which is not good for inspiration.

An article published by Inc. notes that “The ideas you have while commuting or in the shower are not coincidental. They’re a result of you taking a step back, whether you’re aware of it or not.” 

That is why, to stimulate your creativity, you should take small breaks throughout the day. Instead of jumping on social media, do a banal chore like sweeping the floor or washing dishes. A repetitive task like chopping fruit or vegetables could work as well. It may give your brain the break it needs to come up with your next big breakthrough. 

36. Eat well

Five foods that are linked to better brainpower, according to Harvard Health, are:

  1. Green veggies
  2. Fatty fish
  3. Berries
  4. Tea and coffee
  5. Walnuts

While you’re unlikely to see your creativity spike after eating a bag of walnuts, introducing more of these foods to your regular diet will have a meaningful impact on your overall health and well-being. 

37. Sleep well

Dozens of studies on sleep and creative problem-solving have found a strong correlation between the two. “Sleep can facilitate insightful behavior and flexible reasoning, and there are several hypotheses about the creative function of dreams,” says Wikipedia

To put it simply, when we get seven or more hours of sleep per night (according to the Mayo Clinic), we feel better, which leads to us functioning at a higher level—no surprise there. However, it gets more interesting.

There’s also evidence that interrupting sleep at an early stage, called hypnagogia or N1, can boost creativity. Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison used to practice this sleep technique, which has been called “an ideal cocktail for creativity.”

So, whether you opt to get a full night’s rest or try the N1 technique for a motivational kick-start, sleep could be a crucial component to breaking through your creative block. 

38. Redefine creativity

On The Art Assignment, Sarah Urist Green gave us this pearl of wisdom: “You don’t need to be creative or inspired to make art. Seriously, I think creativity is hugely overrated. To make art, all you need is to sit down and start doing it.”

39. Use prompts

Prompts are designed to beat creative block. While there are many different kinds of prompts available, my favorite is Oblique Strategies by Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno.

First released in 1975, Oblique Strategies consists of a pack of over 100 cards, each of which suggests a course of action or a new way of thinking. The cards have been used by numerous artists and creative people worldwide since their initial publication.

40. Turn your phone off

In an article for Inc. called, “Is Your Smartphone Killing Your Productivity?“ Jessica Stillman writes, “If you’re in the market for fresh ideas, killing off every last moment of absent-minded musing is probably counterproductive.” Echoing that sentiment, Brian S. Hall declares, “The iPhone killed my creativity.”

Though we all know these things intrinsically, putting down our phones is easier said than done. That’s why I recommend turning it off entirely from time to time. It will help you reclaim some of that precious downtime and, with it, your creativity.

41. Start early

In the book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey examines the habits of 161 famous artists—including Henri Matisse, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Nikola Tesla, Pablo Picasso, and others—and found that about one-third of them got up at 7 a.m. or earlier. 

Currey says, “If I were going to extrapolate one lesson from the book, it would be this: get up early and go straight to work, making a cup of coffee if you like but not doing much else before sitting down, and take advantage of that time before the myriad demands of daily life have a chance to take hold.”

Part of the reason early mornings are so conducive to creativity is that your mind is fresh, and decision fatigue hasn’t set in yet. Additionally, studies have shown that the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for creativity) is most active right when you wake up.

So, whether you are a morning person or not, getting up an hour or two earlier than usual might give you the boost needed to conquer creative block.

Conclusion

That concludes this list of 41 actionable ways to overcome creative block.

For many, this is a refresher course on the knowledge you’ve already accumulated on your own. Nevertheless, I hope you found some of this information helpful.