What’s blocking your creative output?

Your creative block could be
We have three distinct roles as creative beings. (These apply to areas other than creativity, of course. But let’s focus.) The roles are consumer, curator, and creator. Each role is important. To reject the role of consumer because “you’re focused on creativity” is as deadly as rejecting the role of creator because “you’re not a creative person.” All three roles together form a creativity conduit:
We need to be consumers in order to take in our world; observe; read; listen; watch; appreciate what’s been created; hear the larger conversation that we’re part of. We need to be curators in order to choose what we like or don’t; develop our style and taste; clarify purpose and focus; find commonality with others. We need to be creators in order to use our skills, insights, and experiences; to share what’s inside of us; to process what we’ve received; to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe; to offer what we have; to grow. But the creativity conduit doesn’t always flow, does it? Things happen. We get out of balance. We lose focus. We ignore one or more roles, or we create blocks. If you’re facing a creative block, maybe it’s for one of these reasons.

1. Trash inputs

What happens

You’re taking in whatever comes your way, with no regard for its quality or effect on you. Everybody enjoys trash inputs sometimes; that’s cool. When most of what you’re consuming is trash, however, you encounter severe consequences. It’s the difference between eating that greasy fast food meal every now and then versus eating greasy processed fast food for every meal.

Key factors

Quality: what you’re consuming doesn’t give you much. Your inputs lack depth, perspective, beauty, and honest thinking. They don’t challenge or inspire you. They stink. Quantity: You’re taking in too much of these trash inputs. You can’t filter them; you’re overloaded. Maybe you no longer have any filters in place. Variety: Your creative work can handle and even benefit from some (contrast is helpful in many ways) but when overloaded by trash inputs, there’s no longer any contrast. It’s all trash now.

How it feels

  • You don’t feel inspired or interested, only bored and lethargic.
  • You’re struggling to come up with ideas you actually like.
  • Many of the ideas you do have die early on in the creative process. You don’t feel motivated to finish anything. It feels pointless.
  • The ideas you do continue working with feel unsatisfying. You don’t like what you end up producing. You work hard on something and then hate it.
  • You’re abandoning projects, giving up on work, and withdrawing from your own creative life. You hate this but you don’t know what else to do. Maybe you’re losing your touch.
  • You get choked up in quality control; you do finish something, but it’s so much less than what you want it to be. You might be spending a lot of time polishing, editing, finishing, arranging before you release the work you’ve done…. but you’re still not happy with it.
  • Feedback is fading, or you’re getting negative feedback. You feel disconnected from your audience. You’re desperate to do something good.

How to fix it

Take a good long look at the source of your inputs. What are you consuming? Where is it coming from? “Trash inputs” doesn’t mean that something is bad, only that it’s not helpful for your creative work. Realize that no one will filter your inputs but you. If you don’t want trash inputs, you have to stop taking them in. Take a break from all your input sources for a while. Set up filters to only receive better stuff from your input sources. Change your input sources. Think back to a time when you were creatively prolific and loving your work; what were your inputs then? What sources did you return to? Find them again (or another version of them). Give yourself time to adjust and find a new equilibrium. Remember that if you’ve been on a fast food diet, a bowl of mixed greens won’t taste good or satisfying. Start using a simple idea system; this will help you filter and develop your ideas, choosing the best ones and giving them due attention. Don’t worry if you don’t have any good/interesting ideas at first. They will come. Cleanse, fast, detox: you might need to do the mental/emotional equivalent of a physical fast to clear out all the gunk that’s built up in your creative conduit. Try this:
  • a self-enforced media detox. Tune out of news, social media, online everything (as much as possible) for several days.
  • go back to the most basic, rudimentary form of inputs that match your work. For example, if you’re a writer: read some children’s books. Read stories, fables, and myths. If you’re a visual artist: visit a museum or a library and look at early human art and modern art. Focus on color, form, design. Don’t think too much about it. Look. Soak it in. If you’re a musician: put in your headphones and revisit the classics of whatever genre(s) matter for your work. Absorb.
  • engage in basic forms of creative output: write a simple story. Draw with crayons on paper. Sketch with pencil. Paint with one color. Compose a simple lyric or melody.
When you’re ready for more, you’ll know. You’ll get the itch. You’ll feel cleaner and fresher and energized and everything will look brighter and deeper at the same time.

2. Not enough inputs

What happens

As impossible as it seems in our age of information overload, you can limit your inputs so severely, for so long, that you lack material. Perhaps you are entrenched in routine, so that even your normal inputs become too familiar and stale to affect you. Perhaps you are in (or emerging from) a period of great stress or crisis: if you’ve been dealing with a family or medical emergency, a job overload, or an onslaught of obligations, maybe you just haven’t had the time or attention to consume good stuff.

Key factors

Quantity: you’re not getting enough of anything. Even if there are inputs in your life, your energy has been too low to take them in or give them conscious attention. Variety: you may have grown too familiar with your inputs. The brain needs variety. If you’re been reading the same books, watching the same shows, staying in the same genres and types of experiences, you need to break out. Familiarity breeds contempt, yeah? Your brain is no longer paying attention to your inputs because they’re too mundane to matter. Change it up.

How it feels

  • You feel psychically stretched thin, like there’s nothing left of you. Where did you go?
  • You’re stuck in that uncomfortable combination of boredom and restlessness. You need to move, act, experience; but everything you think of seems uninteresting, requires too much effort.
  • Jealousy is snapping at your heels. Other people’s creativity looks so effortless. Other people have it so easy.
  • The voice of resentment is roaring in your head. Careful here. If you listen too long, the resentment turns to self-pity. There’s no deadlier emotion for creativity. As soon as you say yes to feeling sorry for yourself, you give yourself an Always Valid Excuse for avoiding creative work.
  • You question the value of your work. Nothing seems to have any meaning any more. You find yourself wandering dark mental hallways, wondering if everything you’ve done is pointless.
  • You feel isolated, cut off from the creative community, separate, alone, apart, undesirable.
  • You feel misunderstood. Nobody knows how hard it is. Nobody gets it. Nobody cares.

How to fix it

First, rest. If you’ve been in a period of crisis, change, and stress, you need rest. How can you give yourself rest? How can you relieve the pressure? What can you let go of? What obligations can you cancel? Realize that you are responsible for taking care of yourself. You are. And you can take care of yourself. Yes. You can. Sit with the boredom and ask yourself what you’re really craving. Does it scare you, the answer you hear? Keep asking until the answer scares you. Then follow that thread. Realize that change is terrifying to use for a lot of reasons; realize that the terror can be an excuse for stagnation. Routines are helpful but routines are not life. You need change because you are alive. You are a glorious living creature; you grow or you slowly die. How can you make a small change? No, smaller. Smaller. One small step toward change. Try it. Start a new hobby. Read a different genre. Think about the balance of comfort and growth in your life. We all need places of comfort and rest; but we need to balance those with times of growth (which is, by its nature, uncomfortable and challenging). If you’ve been stuck in “all growth” or “all comfort,” seek ways to bring balance into your life. Ask someone for their recommendation (music, movie, book, show, hobby, experience, restaurant, anything!) and then… TAKE the recommendation. Don’t qualify. Don’t reason. Don’t substitute. Try it.

3. Misplaced energy

What happens

You have good inputs, with variety and mostly high quality. You like what you’re consuming and it has a positive, challenging effect on you. In fact, you like it so much that you can’t help sharing it. All the time! With everyone! You set up more and more layers in your curation process: categorizing, saving, finding new ways to share, discussing, recommending. There’s value in curation, but all your creative energy is going into your role as curator. There’s not much left for your role of creator.

Key factors

Quantity: you’re probably taking in way too many inputs to process in a reasonable amount of time. It’s great that you have so many high-quality inputs that you want to share with others; it’s not great that all your attention and energy is spent on collecting and curating.

How it feels

  • You’re energized by the feedback and interaction you get from being a good curator. And that’s lovely! But you get so much (instant) gratification from your curating—and how people respond to it—that you’re ignoring your own creative work.
  • When you start doing your own creative work, it feels… Ugh. It feels like it takes way too long. It feels less interesting. It feels really difficult. It feels lonely.
  • All your joy in finding good things to share is masking something a little uglier under the surface; you’re afraid your own work can never live up to the standards you’ve established for good work.
  • Hello, jealousy. You feel it. You smash it down by finding something really good to share and feeding on the comments that praise your taste, your eye, your sensibility. It works for a while.
  • A vague dissatisfaction tries to speak to you, tries to become more specific. You don’t like to listen to it.

How to fix it

Start with honesty. Misplaced energy is a form of procrastination. You are only hurting yourself. Start requiring some small, very simple type of creative output from yourself. Daily is good. A daily sketch, a daily paragraph, a daily poem. Anything. Dip your toes back in the creative waters. You are a creator. You’ve just gotten out of practice. Recognize the painful truth that there will always be more options, more good stuff, more possibilities, more books and movies and music and shows and plays and conversations and paintings and illustrations and genres than you can consume in a lifetime. Rejoice that there is so much richness in this world for you. Set time limits for yourself. Dedicate some amount of time to consuming and curating, because it is good and you love it and do it well. Good for you! Choose the best of the best, and when you reach your time limit, honor it. You might need some accountability and support. Self-imposed limits are difficult. Require creativity before curation when you arrange your day. Realize that you may never feel qualified to do the work you want to do. Feeling qualified is an elusive thing to chase. You can’t control how you feel. You can control what you do. You qualify yourself to do something by… doing it. That’s it. Your feelings may or may not match. Curation is lovely and important, and all creators need thoughtful curators; but the world also needs your distinct and important creative output. We are incomplete without what you have to offer. Please make your offerings, however incomplete, imperfect, small, or below the personal standard you have. You will improve with each offer.

4. Creative constipation

What happens

You’ve taking in good outputs; perhaps you’re doing a bit of curating. What you’re not doing is any creative work. You turned your filters into obstacles. There’s no flowing out; there’s a big block, and no matter how much you take in, it’s not enough. You’re stuck in the consumer role, and you may feel completely disconnected from your own creative powers.

Key factors

Identity: you’ve disconnected from your own role as a creator. Perhaps you don’t see yourself as creative. Perhaps you had a bad experience, negative feedback, or some other kind of creative shut-down. Whatever the reason, you’re living in one half of your creative conduit and it’s creating a big block at the other end.

How it feels

  • You might feel comfortable, actually. For a lot of people, living primarily in the consumer role is normal. It’s much easier to consume than to create.
  • You’re always seeking entertainment or meaning. If you identify yourself as consumer, your energies will all go toward consuming. You’ll feel bereft and angry if you have to go very long without consuming.
  • Your attention span is getting shorter. You find it more difficult to focus on complex, deep topics. Your brain has gotten too comfortable and doesn’t want to do difficult work.
  • You feel justified in your choices. You’re contributing in your own way! You’re part of something. You’re involved. You’re active. But you’re still not doing your own work, are you?
  • You may go through periods of obsessing over some new interest or genre, then distancing yourself. This attraction to newness is your way of making up for the joy and fulfillment you’d get from doing your own creative work.

How to fix it

Unblocking can be painful and scary. Accept that you may have to go through some discomfort and feel very vulnerable to get past this block. Realize that you are the only one who can give or withhold permission to create. You are your only authority. You are the only judge of your work. Expand your definition of creativity: if you don’t identify as creative, it’s probably because you have a narrow definition of it. If you’ve created this block in response to negative feedback, criticism, or some other pushback to creative work you did, it’s time to do some research. Read about people who have succeeded in a way you want to succeed. Find out what they did. What rejection did they face? What obstacles? What criticism? Try something new; anything new. The need you have right now is to distance yourself from doing only what you’re comfortable with. Convert part of your consuming activities to creating activity. For example, if you consume comics, spend time creating a comic yourself. You don’t have to show it to anyone. Focus on creating, not shipping. If you fear creative work, it may be that you don’t trust yourself to create something good enough. So, for a while, take the “releasing” option off the table. Focus on creating just for yourself. Play. Practice. Relax into being creative with no pressure to do anything else.

5. Perfectionism

What happens

You’re in a tragic place, but you don’t have to stay here. It’s great to have high standards for the work you do, but you’re stuck in something else. You set a standard, reach it, and then push the standard higher. You’re creating, but you’re afraid to release your work. You won’t ship. Your creative conduit is blocked, and all the beautiful offerings you’ve made are locked in behind a thick wall of fear.

Key factors

Quality: it’s all about quality, at first glance. You don’t want to do good work; you want to do excellent work. You’re not okay with mistakes. You want to meet high standards in everything you do. But there’s more going on than attention to quality. Identity: you’ve identified yourself so completely and fully as a creator that you’re now terrified to “prove it” to the world. You think that being a creator means doing perfect work, all the time, being better than others. And you’re terrified you can’t live up to this definition of creator; indeed, who could? But if you can’t live up to it, who and what are you?

How it feels

  • You’re frustrated to the point of an internal seething simmering rage that will explode, beyond your control, at any provocation. You don’t know what sets it off; you just know you feel angry.
  • You’re beginning to look at things you used to love with disgust. Nothing has flavor anymore. Everything is flat.
  • Oh, jealousy! But it’s more than that. Other creators doing good work is too difficult to handle; you’re intent on finding something wrong with their work.
  • The longer this block is with you, the more sensitive and self-defensive you become.
  • You feel trapped and you’re becoming really good at blaming situations, people, things beyond your control for the trap you’re in. You’re smart and quick, and you’re using your abilities to create logical paths that make you feel justified and superior. But deep down you know what’s going on.

How to fix it

You feel trapped, because you are: in a prison of your own making. You built it around yourself, shut the door and locked it. Now you keep (purposely) forgetting you have the key. It’s time to wake up to what’s really happening: you are the only one who can free yourself. Realize that the solution is simple and possible and the fact that you don’t want to face it is because you’re afraid. This is a big realization. Take your time. Ship something. Pick a random thing in your “not quite ready” pile (it’s a big pile, isn’t it?) and send it into the world. Require yourself to ship something daily. A small thing is fine. You can call them incomplete, if that helps. Label or justify or explain however you want as long as you ship. Create a checklist for finishing things, a clear, step-by-step process for doing that last bit of work. Use your checklist and then call the work finished. Realize that “finished” does not always mean “complete,” and “complete” never means “perfect.” Creative work can always expand, improve, connect; you have to pick a point of completion and send it to the world. Otherwise you never get to your other work. Ask yourself what you are afraid of: what’s the big bad thing that will happen if you send something into the world and it turns out to be awful? What’s the real consequence you fear? And how bad is it? Could you handle it? Probably. Spend some time on relationships and activities that aren’t related to your creative work. You need to expand your own sense of self, so you can relax your hold on your creative identity.