Writer's block: tips for beating creative paralysis

Jan 10, 2020

5 mins

Writer's block: tips for beating creative paralysis

The idea of “writer’s block” conjures fear in the heart of anyone faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch. And while the blank sheet of paper has evolved to become a digital rectangle and its ominously flickering cursor, the curse of writer’s block has also extended its reach far and wide.

With a growing number of creative professions out there, almost everyone has experienced this specific type of mental paralysis at some point in their career. Whether you are a media communicator, graphic designer or business entrepreneur, you face the continual challenge of coming up with new ideas and finding the perfect one to really make a difference. What’s the cure for creative paralysis and how can you stay creative in the office jungle day after day? Here are some tips to help get you started—and finished!

Defining so-called “writer’s block”

See if this sounds familiar. Your desire to produce something perfect is so strong that any idea you come up with seems bad when you start thinking about it seriously. At first, in any case, the idea seems doable and rather clever. But as soon as you start digging a bit deeper, all its imperfections rise to the surface and the desire you once had seems futile. Unable to go any further, you move onto something totally different and turn the page on your “writer’s block”.

If you’ve ever felt this type of fear or anxiety, that’s because you are no stranger to “writer’s block”.

Today’s professions require increasing creativity and imagination to succeed. In an age of robots and AI, human intelligence has become a new currency in the working world. What’s more, because imagination is what makes us different, creativity is a key part of building a career that will stand the test of time. In a future not very far away, there is every reason to believe that the repetitive tasks performed by humans will one day performed by robots. In fact, it is already the case in many sectors. That’s why many people have turned to creative professions that require intangible skills such as thought, design and innovation.

Unfortunately, you cannot find creativity and imagination on demand. Creative blocks and procrastination may well be one of the most challenging aspects of today’s professions.

The consequences of being blocked

For more than a week you’ve been struggling to write one sentence you like. You feel totally uninspired and every idea you get seems mediocre. The longer you stay in this zone of creative paralysis, the more exasperated you become and the more you lose confidence in your ideas and your ability to make them real.

A failure to succeed in writing puts any creative in a prison of guilt.

This fear of creating can often lead to a period of depression. The worry that you may never find inspiration inhibits the intellect and makes it impossible to produce anything. In the end, this level of almost nebulous anxiety stresses you out and paralyses you creatively. So, take a break from focusing on the final creation, the finished project, or what our idea will look like. Turn your attention to the process instead and focus more on setting up the conditions you need to be creative.

Tips for overcoming creative paralysis:

Change your routine

Find some small aspect of your working day that you can change up without too much difficulty. For example, if you take a bike or walk to work, even for part of the way, look for an alternative route. Or be a tourist in your own town – get up early on your day off and go somewhere you’ve never been before.

Take time to look around

We’ve all heard this advice before: stop and smell the roses. If you let yourself be amazed by some simple details in your surroundings, you may just find inspiration from the most ordinary of events. In other words, take a break from always trying to be so creative and innovative.

Take time for yourself

Go for a walk and listen to that podcast you still haven’t had time for. Make yourself a delicious meal or do some yoga. Take time for yourself, and don’t put pressure on yourself to write/create. The idea will come more easily when you aren’t anxious. Learn to trust yourself.

Talk to someone outside your immediate professional circles

When you feel the creative block coming on, reach out to people who have nothing to do with your job. For example, your grandparents or senior friends or family will have such different experiences and outlooks on life that they might inspire you when you least expect it.

Eliminate all distractions

Put your smartphone on airplane mode, disconnect from the Internet, turn off the TV. Look inwards and listen to your inner voice.

Especially your smartphone

Whether you’re on public transport or waiting in line for your morning coffee, stop looking at your smartphone. Force your eyes and brain to wander instead, observing and anticipating the things that are unfolding around you. Our reliance on smartphones has a huge impact on the brain and is detrimental to our imaginations.

Tips for staying creative over the long haul

Goals and deadlines

Procrastination alone can lead to creative paralysis, especially when the objective for your creative output is foggy. Setting clear objectives and firm deadlines can stimulate the brain.

Describe an ordinary object – in great detail

As simple as it might sound at first, this exercise is effective. The short task will get you looking for specific adjectives and help stir your imagination in the process.

Set up media monitoring in your field

Most of us already do this in some form or fashion. But don’t forget to look at what’s happening in other countries. Visit your chosen sources every day and draw inspiration from what those further afield are doing.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a well-known exercise that only requires a stack of Post-its and a clear wall or whiteboard. Write down each idea that comes to mind on one square and display them up in front of you. Move them around like the pieces of a puzzle to outline your project and you’ll find inspiration by building a structure out of chaos.

Write everything down

Using a notebook on a daily basis and writing down everything that pops into your head is the best way to ensure you don’t forget a great idea. You can also write about your feelings, the creative block itself and how it’s affecting you.

Don’t stop at the first hurdle

Many people make the mistake of getting stuck at the beginning. Keep writing, even if the first sentence or paragraph is proving harder than you imagined. It’s more likely to come after the fact. That’s why journalists are taught to leave off writing the header until they’ve reached the end of the article.

Is “writer’s block” even real?

According to the journalist Oliver Burkeman, “The most important step in overcoming writer’s block…may be cutting it down to size: grasping that it’s just a situation, not an underlying condition, and that it’s solved, by definition, the moment you write anything.” The same is true for creative professions, in which the challenge of generating a new idea is paramount. In his article on writer’s block for The Guardian, Burkeman challenges the idea that creative paralysis is real.

Don’t panic. It’s normal to struggle with inspiration. Some great writers took more than twenty years to write a new best-selling book. It’s not for lack of motivation. One of the most prolific British fiction writers of the last century, Graham Greene, found himself suddenly paralysed by what he termed a creative “blockage” when he was well into his fifties.


Have you heard of the Pareto principle?

The Pareto principle, named after an Italian economist from the late 19th century and also known as the 80/20 rule, is a theory maintaining that 80% of the output from a given situation or system is determined by 20% of the input. If you translate it into the act of writing, it means that 80% of your creative work is produced only during 20% of the time you spend on it. That’s why it’s so important to identify the time of day when you are best prepared to succeed in this kind of work. If you’re a creative early bird, get up early and write as soon as you wake up. If you’re more of a night owl, go about your business during the day and sit down at your computer after midnight. There’s no point in spending all day waiting for the perfect word to land in your lap, or on your laptop.

Photo: WTTJ

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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