paper airplane soaring into a sunset - overcome creative block

The dreaded creative block: it’s a familiar struggle for artists. Try as you might, nothing is flowing, and ideas and inspiration feel a million miles away. “That’s it for me,” you might think. “The well is dry. I’ve painted my last painting (or written my last story, etc.)” 

Creative blocks are part of the creative process itself, but it’s probably a small comfort that you are not alone. These “stuck” times can stoke our fears and stir up self-criticism. And sometimes we have deadlines and need to get a project done, regardless of how inspired we feel. 

It can be even harder to cope with creative blocks if art is closely tied to your identity. Natural dry periods can spiral into anxiety or depression, especially if you are already prone to feeling anxious or depressed. In these cases, normal creative block can take more of a toll on your mental health.

The simple passage of time may be enough to clear your block. But if you want or need more immediate relief, read on. I perused the research, and here are five science-backed strategies to overcome creative blocks.  

Leslie Knope needs sleep to overcome a creative block

1. Sleep: the Leslie Knope Strategy to Overcoming a Creative Block

Remember that Parks and Recreation episode where Leslie is convinced she has had her last good idea? It’s right after she crushed it with the Harvest Festival, and she feels pressure to come up with her next great idea. 

In true Leslie Knope fashion, she rants to Ron, “Years from now, people are gonna say, ‘Remember that woman who came up with the Harvest Festival idea and never came up with another idea again? What happened to her? What was her name? Kim? Anyway, who cares? She’s stupid, and she’s dead now.’” 

Of course, after Ron locks her in a bedroom overnight at a super creepy B&B, Leslie wakes up with tons of amazing ideas for new projects. She just needed to stop and get some rest, and let her brain reset. 

The lesson is clear: creativity won’t flow if you’re too stressed or tired. Trying to force yourself to come up with creative ideas when you’re blocked is futile. Instead, get a good night’s sleep and see what has bubbled up to the surface the next morning.

Why is sleep so important for creativity?

There is no shortage of research and scientific evidence connecting sleep to increased creativity. It seems like common sense; get some rest and you’ll think more clearly. 

The neurological underpinnings to this common sense advice suggest that it’s not just general rest that accounts for creativity. It appears that creativity is correlated with getting enough non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) in particular.

NREM sleep involves low levels of arousal in the higher-level areas of the brain known as the cerebral cortex. The idea is that these low levels of brain activity increase your ability to access the remote associations, that are so important for creative innovations. 

So make it a good night’s sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room, with plenty of time to cycle through some quality NREM sleep cycles. 

Our brains are working for us while we sleep! Thanks, brain. (Also, I always knew Ron Swanson was a genius.) 

Hiking in the woods can help you overcome a creative block

2. Take a Hike to Overcome Your Creative Block

More accurately, just move your body however you like. There are lots of good reasons to get exercise, and boosted creativity is one of them. 

Anecdotal literature suggests that creative people often rely on bodily movement to help overcome creative blocks. It turns out, there is hard science to back this up.  

This article in Nature concluded that exercise not only enhances creativity, but it works independent of its ability to improve our mood. In other words, the more you move, the more creative you are, regardless of whether the exercise cheers you up.

This point is important to emphasize: bodily movement can help increase creativity, even if you are feeling down and the movement isn’t really helping you feel better. 

The authors discuss ideas about the underlying mechanism for how exercise and movement affects creativity. If it isn’t solely based on exercise’s mood-boosting properties, there is something else going on. But science hasn’t quite figured it all out yet. The authors wondered if the personality trait of “openness to experiences” mediated between creativity and activity, because it is associated with both of those variables.   

Good news for lazybones like me: the subjects of the study weren’t doing difficult workouts. Instead, the study measured participant’s level of everyday bodily movement. So you can just wander around aimlessly until creative inspiration strikes. (Please email me if you try this and it works! I love the idea of creatively-blocked souls wandering around in the night, then shouting “Eureka!” and running to their studios with mad inspiration.) 

switching mediums can help you overcome a creative block

3. Switch up Your Medium to Overcome Your Creative Block 

The fancy-pants psychological term we are talking about here is “task switching”, which simply means moving your attention from one thing to another. Like, try a different art form or medium. 

For example, if you have writer’s block, spend some time sketching. If you are a painter, try some collage in your sketchbook. 

We tend to become fixated on doing familiar things in a particular way – this is called “cognitive fixation”. When we’re cognitively fixated, alternate possibilities get ignored or shut down, until we “forget” about them, and find ourselves in a rut. Enter the creative block, and the rationale behind task switching. 

In short: Task-switching decreases cognitive fixation, which increases creativity. 

This study found that participants who repeatedly switched back and forth between two creative tasks outperformed those who only switched one time at the halfway point. They also outperformed the participants who got to choose when to switch. 

These results suggest that, in real life, having multiple creative projects to work on at once with lots of hopping around from project to project would produce more creative output than working on each project separately.

Travel to gain new perspective and increase your creativity

4. Travel to Overcome Your Creative Block

Our brains are designed to efficiently screen out information. In fact, three things in particular will catch our brain’s attention: threat, opportunity, and the unexpected. I don’t recommend creating threatening situations for yourself, and we can’t always produce opportunities on demand, but travel is a great way to introduce the unexpected into your life.

Getting used to the familiar is a process called “habituation”, and it’s actually crucial to our survival.

A common example of habituation in our everyday life is the way we get used to noise in our environment is. For instance, traffic noise in a new apartment might distract you at first, but after hearing it for days and weeks, you scarcely notice it anymore. You have become habituated to the traffic noise.  

The problem in terms of creativity: habituation also means that when you spend time in the same place, things become mundane and begin to escape our notice. The same-old becomes fertile ground for a creative block. When our environment appears mundane thanks to our brain prioritizing survival over our creative endeavors, a change of scenery can unblock your creativity.

In a different culture, everything is new, and our brains are forced to work harder. And make new connections, which boosts creativity!

Experiencing a different culture deprives our brains of the familiar, and it’s disorienting and exciting. Also, it becomes easier to see something new in the old from this different perspective. 

This study found that travel increased cognitive flexibility, due to increased diverse experiences, along with the decreased stress and positive emotions typically associated with a vacation.

Have you had that experience of coming back from vacation, and things at home are the same, but you have a different perspective? That is the mechanism that can help dissolve a creative block. 

Travel isn’t always realistic, but you can use this principle and think about how to have new experiences where you live. Visit a new museum or a new part of town, interact with a new group of people. New stuff in can inspire new stuff out!

smartphone and headphones for listening to music, to help boost creativity

5. Listen to Music to Overcome Your Creative Block

You may have tried this one; I know I have, and it helps me.

What does the research say?

This study found that listening to “music high on arousal and positive mood” boosted creativity.

I immediately wondered about their definition of music that is “high on arousal and positive mood”. It turns out that they used Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Spring, which actually makes me think of a snooty restaurant with a dress code. I started down a spiral of “They’d never let me in! I’d be so humiliated!” Not good for my creativity!

I get it, you have to operationalize things with research. But music is so subjective, and one person’s Vivaldi might be another person’s My Bloody Valentine. For the participants of that study at least, they found the Vivaldi uplifting.

The point is, find music that YOU FIND uplifting and energizing, and see if listening to that helps you break through your creative block. Try different music, because this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Final thoughts about overcoming a creative block

Above all, when you’re dealing with a creative block, practice some kindness towards yourself. They aren’t fun, but you will get back into the flow. Take care of yourself and let your amazing brain find its way back to inspiration. 

Most creative blocks resolve with some time and space. That said, there is a level of creative block involving panic-attacks, sleepless nights, and plummeting mood, that warrants professional help. Sometimes, creative block shows up in the context of a broader struggle with anxiety.

Anxiety and depression don’t have to be part of the picture when it comes to creative blocks. Please reach out for help if you’re blocked and experiencing feelings of depression, anxiety, or desperation.