Get out of your own way

How often do you get in your own way?

We put ourselves into situations where doubts and fear basically shut down what we’re capable of. Rather than looking at situations in an opportunistic way, we shun our abilities by telling ourselves “I can’t do that” or “That’s dumb.”

If we want to be creative, we simply need to get out of our own way; to relax and let the ideas come naturally.

It sounds so effortless, but if it were that easy to get out of our way, then coming up with creative ideas on command would be painless. But it’s not easy. The fears and negative thoughts build up and make it extremely difficult to get out of our heads.

There is hope, fortunately.

To let creativity flow naturally we have to use what researchers call emotional agility. It’s the ability to take our fears, doubts, and negative thoughts, and turn them into opportunities based on our personal values or goals.

There are four steps to improve your emotional agility and get back to creating:

1. Look for thinking patterns

Any time you feel stuck, think about how you’re feeling and the thoughts you’re having. If you find yourself consistently thinking repetitive thoughts (like “I can’t do this” or “This is hopeless”) then that’s a pattern you need to be cognizant of. Why? It’s these cyclical thoughts that are keeping you stuck in the first place! Recognizing them is the first step to getting unstuck.

2. Label those thoughts

Once you’ve recognized the thoughts that are keeping you stuck, you simply need to label them as what they are: thoughts.

If you’re working on a big project and find yourself thinking something along the lines of: “This will never work.” The next step is to recognize that you’re simply having that thought and that it’s just a thought. Whether it’s true or not is not impacting you, what’s impacting you is that you’re having the thought; “I feel like this will never work because I’m thinking this may not work.”

3. Accept them

Take a few deep breaths and acknowledge those thoughts now. Even if you’re really angry or frustrated, give yourself the proper time and setting to acknowledge and accept those feelings. We have acknowledge and accept these thoughts because, whether the feelings are logical or not, the thoughts are markers that we’re doing something important. Ignoring them or trying to brush them aside only makes us focus on them more and remain in a stuck cycle. Accept your fears and doubts as they are.

4. Remind yourself of who you are

Lastly, check how the thoughts and feelings are impacting your mission and values.

I use this quote so often, but for a good reason. It’s from Merlin Mann, he said: “We procrastinate when we’ve forgotten who we are.” The same is true for getting creatively stuck.

We have these fears and these negative thoughts that are preventing us from moving forward, but we’ve now recognized that they’re just thoughts and they aren’t going anywhere, so what do we do next? Remind yourself of who you are and what you value. Then check if the thoughts you’re having align or interfere with your values. Ask yourself if those thoughts will benefit your objective in the long term. If they aren’t helping, you now have emotional motivation to press on.

As a personal example of this (the inspiration for this post): last night I found myself stuck on a project. It has been going well for the past few months, but all of the work left to do on it has begun to feel overwhelmingly daunting.

So I was absolutely stuck. I didn’t want to keep working on something that may end up being trash. If I put in a few more months of work and the project ends up being a flop, won’t I have wasted all of that time? Time I could have been spending having fun with friends or doing anything else worthwhile? As a result: I’ve been procrastinating.

For the last few weeks I would end up watching TV or going out to dinner with friends, anything to keep away from the work.

But last night I sat down and reminded myself that the fears of the project failing might be just that: fears. I was then able to remind myself that I’m someone who creates. Failure or not, creating is what I do. That’s what I value most right now in my life.

Just like that, almost immediately after having that realization, ideas began to pop-up in my mind.

By simply acknowledging the fears and choosing to keep working anyway, it’s as though someone flipped a switch in my brain and the creativity began to flow on it’s own. That is, after-all, how our brains work. We just need to get out of our own way.

So if you’re feeling stuck or find yourself procrastinating often, follow the above four steps and see if that doesn’t get you back on a creative track.

Original photo by Nicola.

Why does creativity seem to come and go?

Creativity seems to come and go on its own terms, regardless of what we often do or don’t do.

We can either be completely lost in our work, forgetting about time and stress, or we can be utterly stuck, unable to move a brush across the canvas or fingers over the keyboard.

Ideas do come and go freely, but there is a lot that influences that flow. If we’re not in tune with what may be causing our creativity to rise and fall, we’re at the mercy of it, rather than using it as a tool.

Simply being aware of what makes creativity come and go is that first step to better understanding how your own creativity works. What’s really important is learning what to do when you start to feel creativity slipping away from you.

Mental obstruction is a huge culprit in hindering your creative flow. Picture your ability to think as a river current; it flows, constantly and endlessly.

Typically there are one or two major things that our brains are working on at any given moment, and outside influences are often what direct and prioritize those things. You can probably identify the most important things on your mind readily, without having to think about it very much. These things are commonly along the lines of: work or school, relationships, bills, what to do tomorrow, or something immediately impacting you.

When creativity occurs, it’s often a symptom of one or two things: freedom to think, or having a creative task to work on.

When you’re in the shower, for example, you are experiencing freedom to think. Often the one or two most important things going in your life at that moment will be running through your brain, subconsciously though. That’s because your conscious state is occupied with simple tasks: turn on water, scrub with soap, sit and feel the warmth of the water.

That freedom to think means your brain is going to be subconsciously working on all the little details that are your top of mind problems. If you have a big interview, for example, your brain is already working out what exactly to say, how to say it and whether or not you should wear your black pants or the gray?

The other side of this is having a creative task to work on. If you’ve got a big creative project you want to work on and you’re either staring at it or you’re thinking about it – again, for example, in the shower – then your brain is treating that as a top of mind objective. All of your thoughts will be flowing towards that work.

If there’s an emergency, or you’re exhausted and have a big day tomorrow, or you burned your finger, or something else, all of those things can take up the valuable real-estate that is top of mind.

So now your brain isn’t going to make an effort to freely flow from idea to idea in search of creativity. Instead, your brain going to focus on the most important issues at hand instead.

The things that end up affecting our creative flow are simple to spot: stressors, energy, and immediate necessities.

Creativity comes and goes because our stressors and necessities change often.

And there’s a delicate balance to all of this. You have to be just the right amount of stressed, but also content to have that creative flow working right.

Now, knowing this, what do we do?

When I find my creativity stifled or just completely missing, I’ll sit down with a pen and paper and jot down a list of everything that’s top of mind for me right then.

Am I stressed about my job? Are there any things going on in my relationships that are worrying or exciting me? Is there a big life event coming up that I am pre-occupied with?

Once I’ve written out my list, I’ll go down it and see if there’s justification for having those issues top of mind, rather than my creative work. Often I’ll discover a thing or two that I can do right then that helps free up some of my much needed mental flexibility. Removing obstructions will allow my creativity to return, and my thoughts to flow to what I deem most important.

Try the aforementioned exercise next time you feel your creativity slipping or gone. Write down whatever feels most important to you at that precise moment and see if there’s anything you can address or remove right then and there. If not, don’t fret. Your creativity will return the moment you get a few of those things off of your mental list.

You can count on it.

To quote Mark Kozelek:

“Throughout my life, there’s just periods when I write and periods when I don’t. I don’t feel like anything’s really blocked. It’s just not where things are at right now, and it’s just a matter of time until there’s something going on where I feel compelled to write. “Writer’s block” sounds so dramatic and worrisome, and I don’t worry about it. I know deep down that I’m a writer, and it’s just a matter of time until it comes back, and when it does, it’ll be good like it’s always been.”

Illustration by Thierry Feuz.