Use chaos to break through your creative blocks

We all feel stuck at one point or another in our work. Ideas can overwhelm us, next steps can seem far away and hopeless, or we might simply feel uncertain about exactly what to do.

Whenever I’ve personally felt stuck, it has always felt like something very real and almost tangible was missing, but I am never quite sure exactly what that missing piece is.

In those moments of stuck-ness, we either feel like giving up or rushing forward head-first. Neither are ideal solutions to the problem of getting stuck, because neither helps us identify what it is that got us stuck in the first place.

As author Todd Henry writes on his blog:

“'Stuckness’ is just a part of doing hard things. However, just plowing through is not necessarily the answer. Internal work does not always equate to external progress. Instead, it can sometimes be helpful to step back and consider the particular source of your stagnancy.”

Rushing forward blindly can often work to overcome creative blocks, but in doing so it sets us up to get stuck under the same circumstances again in the future.

A better path through “stuckness,” (or creative blocks) is to first identify that piece of our perspective or the work itself that feels missing to begin with.

Once we learn to identify the missing piece, we can then begin to work to find and place it where it belongs.

In his blog post, Henry lists a few common reasons for getting stuck: not understanding who we’re serving or the real-world requirements for the work we’re doing, a lack of a clear focus, convincing ourselves that the work doesn’t really need to be done, or trying to solve a new problem in an old way.

When it comes to creative thinking, I believe there are a few overarching reasons we tend to get stuck, unable to generate new or useful ideas. They are:

Relying on a solidified network of ideas. Tried and true might work for some things in life, but when it comes to creativity: chaos rules. If you’re too locked-in to a way of thinking, or if you’re looking for new concepts in all the familiar places you typically look, your mind is going to struggle to connect ideas that can help you break through.

Focusing too tightly. We often spend a lot of face-down in our work, failing to ever look-up at what’s going on around us. Focus can be great for states of creative flow, but the moment we encounter a block in our work, that’s a sign we need to get up and move away from it for a while. Taking a break can feel like abandoning the work, but in-reality: a break can be just what we need to adjust our focus and see what’s been lying just outside of our vision.

Staying on course. In addition to keeping our focus too tight on the work at-hand, we often fail to see how a changing course might benefit ourselves or the work. Typically what causes this type of block is being married to an expected outcome or goal. Goals are great, but they are typically set when we’re at the start of something, unable to see the broader pictures. As Facebook VP of Advertising Andrew Bosworth once wrote“We pick our starting position when we have the least information about the landscape.”

These reasons stem from everything we know today about how the mind works to generate and navigate ideas.

At the heart of each block is one large, but undoubtedly moveable, thing: ourselves.

I’ve written about this before in my article get out of your own way, but I think Steven Johnson summarized just how to overcome the most common creative blocks in his spectacular book Where Good Ideas Come From:

“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”

It sounds almost counter-intuitive, but creativity thrives on vast networks of ideas colliding almost chaotically in our minds. To overcome creative blocks, we must “build our tangled banks” as Johnson puts it.

The ways to do that: give yourself breaks, get away from the work by taking a walk, writing everything down, embrace serendipity, run towards mistakes instead of shying away from them. Most importantly: learn when to encourage controlled chaos in the moments when you feel you need them least.