How to beat your psychological creative blocks

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It’s not uncommon in the creative industries to be told: “Do it because it’s something you enjoy doing.”

What is uncommon is to find that advice actually working for us.

Why? Well, scientific studies have shown that we’re less likely to be creative or produce creative work when the task at hand is motivated by external drives, a paycheck, some level of attention, or a reward, and so on. These external motivators hinder our creative abilities.

For example, I’ve recently found myself stuck while working on a very large project. At first I was excited to be working on it, but as the work progressed I noticed my thoughts drifting away from: “This is fun, I’m learning a lot,” to more of: “How can I make sure this succeeds? How can I make money to pay my bills off of this?”

I ended up feeling stuck, unsure of what to do next.

Rather than tackling these types of burdened/required tasks in a casual, relaxed way (as creativity requires), we find ourselves asking routine questions to instead distract ourselves. Am I using the right tools? Should I get coffee again before starting? What’s the expectation for how this should be done? I wonder what so-and-so will think of this? If this is going to fail, why should I even start? And so on.

These questions stop us in our tracks. Rather than simply doing the work to see where it goes, we come up with excuses on why we can’t start or keep going.

We are essentially the makers of our own creative blocks.

Sylvia Plath, an esteemed poet and short novelist, knew that her regularly experienced writer’s block was self imposed, albeit as a result of expectations. Sylvia wrote: “Editors and publishers and critics and the world… I want acceptance there, and to feel my work good and well-taken. Which ironically freezes me at my work, corrupts my nunnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.”

Even if we find ourselves working because the work is it’s own reward, as Sylvia puts it, the overwhelming sense of being criticized, of making something that falls flat and fails, or of not achieving the goals we have envisioned for ourselves, often paralyzes us.

Psychologists refer to this as “overjustification hypothesis.”

Our own internal motivation to do something becomes overridden and stomped-on by external motivations. Even if we enjoy the creative work we do, when we’re doing it to pay bills, or to build reputation, or while someone watches us, we’re less likely to do it creatively.

This explains why I’ve suddenly found myself stuck on this project. While my originally intentions were good and enough to start the project, they’ve been overridden by external motivators. For me, money and reputation have halted my progress.

To beat this type of creative block we only have to look to psychological science.

In a 1980 study titled Effects of salience of extrinsic rewards, researchers learned that by simply going over a list of internal reasons for doing something, participants felt more aligned with their own intrinsic motivators.

The research has been confirmed by additional studies as well, including one that explicitly evaluated how motivation hinders or enhances creativity.

In the study, established creative writers were tasked with creating poems. Simple enough. In addition to the task of writing a unique poem, a small group of the writers were also given a short, five-minute questionnaire asking questions about why the writer chose writing as their primary profession or passion.

There were two versions of the survey given to the group at random. One version had writers explore intrinsic motivations for writing (like: self expression, the ability to explore their thoughts, and because of it’s utility as a form of self-therapy), while the other survey had writers explore external motivations (to impress fellow writers, parents encouraged it, getting a job, or to become a financially-secure and best-selling author).

At the end of the study researchers learned that those who had done the questionnaire that entailed extrinsic motivations produced work that was vastly less creative than the other groups.

External motivators certainly do hamper our ability to think creatively and produce creative work.

The researchers exclaim at the end of their report: “These results add considerable strength to the intrinsic motivation hypothesis of creativity. They demonstrate that, even in the absence of specific extrinsic constraints, creativity may be undermined if extrinsic goals are simply made salient to people.”

For us, this means that simply taking five minutes to explore our own intrinsic motivations for working on something can help us produce more creative work.

So there we have it.

When it comes to creativity, the absolute best work we can do only comes from an intrinsic desire to do so. Reminding ourselves of those reasons often can help get us through creative slumps.

What are your reasons?

You can read a PDF of the full creative writer’s study at pomona.edu. Crumpled paper photo by Steve.