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Breaking Through Mid-Project Creative Block

By Charles Purdy

You’re in the middle of a complex creative project when that feeling hits—that “OMG, this thing sucks!” feeling. Your inspiration dries up. You ask yourself, “What made me think this was a good idea? What made me think I could even do this?” You want to give up, set the project on fire, and flee your studio—never to pick up pen or pixel again.

Every creative has been there: utterly creatively blocked, midway through a project. (And it started so well!) I come to it in the middle of many projects. It’s the point when ideas run out, progress slows to a crawl, and self-confidence evaporates—in fact, I will likely hit that point while I’m drafting this very article. So what’s that feeling all about? And can it possibly be prevented?

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD—LITERALLY

Starting something new is exciting, and finishing something awesome feels, of course, pretty darn good. The problem is the middle part, the work part.

And it’s not merely a psychological struggle—there are also real physiological changes in your brain. When you’re in a creative “flow” mode, there is a different pattern of activation in your brain than when you’re in “work” mode, according to Dr. Heather Berlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“We know a little bit about what’s happening neurally when you’re in that flow state,” says Berlin. “There appears to be a decrease of activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that, among other things, is related to your sense of self, agency, and time and place. It also filters your behavior so that it conforms with social norms. At the same time, there’s increased activation in your medial prefrontal cortex, which is related, among other things, to the generation of new ideas. This pattern of brain activation allows for novel associations between ideas and is linked to positive emotions. So when you’re in that flow state, it can feel like the ideas are coming from outside of yourself…. Also, when you’re creating, there’s a pleasant feeling associated with the generation of novel ideas, which is related to increased dopamine activation.”

In short, when you’re feeling creative, your inner critic is silenced and dopamine (a.k.a. “the feel-good hormone”) may be increased. But when you’re not in that flow state, explains Berlin, “you have a relatively increased activation of your dorsolateral prefontal cortex”—so your inner critic is hyperaware.

PRACTICAL TIP 1: ACCEPT THAT FEELING LOST IS A GOOD THING

Mark McGuinness is a poet, a creative coach, and the author of Motivation for Creative People. He encourages creatives to embrace what John Keats called “negative capability”—that is, pursuing an artistic goal even through confusion and uncertainty.

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“I think it’s good when you get to that feeling of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ The danger is when you extend that into saying, ‘And therefore I’m no good as an artist or designer or writer or whatever.’”

“In a certain sense, you have to not know what you’re doing when you’re creating a genuine work of art,” says McGuinness. “If you don’t push yourself beyond your limit of conscious understanding, you haven’t really opened the door for the creativity to come in. So I think it’s good when you get to that feeling of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ The danger is when you extend that into saying, ‘And therefore I’m no good as an artist or designer or writer or whatever.’”

So when you have that “I don’t know what I’m doing” feeling? Give yourself a high five! It means you’re pushing your creative limits!

The idea of celebrating a block resonates with portrait artist Anne Ruth Isaacson, who also sees midpoint block as a gift—and as a signal to take a step back before going forward. She says, “In the case of my work, it means there may be something to reconsider with the story, the composition, the colors, the expression—or all of the above.”

McGuinness recommends adding the phrase “even though” to the litany of self-doubting phrases that run through our minds during a mid-project block: “Even though this is terrible, I’m going to keep at it.” “Even though I am no damn good, I’m going to keep at it—even though it’s likely a waste of a time.”

PRACTICAL TIP 2: STAY AT YOUR DESK! THEN GO FOR A WALK.

There are two fundamental pieces of advice for creatives struggling with a block: Some experts recommend setting the project aside for a while—getting up from your desk and going for a walk or something. (I myself often find that doing something with my hands—something non-digital, like sewing—helps my mind untangle the knots in a digital project.) Others recommend staying put and slogging through the pain. So which tack is the right one? To some extent, say the experts, both are:

Berlin says, “A lot of times if you’re stuck creatively, it’s better to not just sit there trying really hard to be creative. Instead…try to get yourself out of that very cognitive, hyperaware headspace. Go for a walk or do something else and let your unconscious do the work for you.”

At the same time, there’s a fine line between “going for a walk” and “neglecting your creative or artistic practice.” Your unconscious mind is important, but you also have to put in the hard work.

And this tenet is central to McGuinness’s advice for creatives: “Doing something else can be a great tactic, as long as you’re doing it after your work time,” he says. “There’s a difference between incubation and procrastination—the difference being that with incubation your unconscious mind is working away on your behalf while you’re mowing the lawn or doing the dishes or whatever. But first, routine and habit are key.”

He explains, “Henri Poincaré, the French mathematician who was one of the first people to describe this phenomenon, describes working really hard on a mathematical problem for weeks and almost burning himself out; then while on holiday, the answer came to him in a flash of insight. But he didn’t start off by taking a holiday and strolling along the beach.”

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“There are different steps in the creative process. There’s taking in information, there’s doing the work, and then there’s letting it go, where you sleep on it or don’t think about it, where your unconscious can take over—hopefully. It’s a process.”

Your unconscious mind isn’t just pulling ideas out of the ether; rather, it’s ruminating on what you’ve fed it—through work. Creativity is, in part, about connecting old ideas in new ways. With that in mind, it also makes sense that providing your brain new stimuli (a walk on the beach, for instance, or a sewing project) will help it make new connections that can perhaps break through a block. It’s all about balancing the two.

PRACTICAL TIP 3: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

Both Berlin and McGuinness say that mid-project creative block is in many ways unavoidable, but that focused practice is one way to prevent it. McGuinness stresses the importance of routine. “There are different steps in the creative process,” says McGuinness. “There’s taking in information, there’s doing the work, and then there’s letting it go, where you sleep on it or don’t think about it, where your unconscious can take over—hopefully. It’s a process.”

He continues, “For instance, knowing that you start and stop each day at a certain time is important—otherwise, you expose yourself to two dangers: You might drive yourself mad working all day, to the point where you’re not making any positive difference. Or you might neglect your work. So it’s good to have that definite end to a day, even if you’re saying, ‘Well, I played full out today and lost, but I’m going to get up tomorrow and try it again.’”

Berlin uses the example of improvisational musicians, such as freestyle rappers: the more they improvise, the better they get at the process of improvising. “It’s easy for a professional improviser to get into that mind state,” she says, “even if that doesn’t mean they’re going to create something brilliant all the time…. On a specific occasion, you might have a good rap, a good creative flow; on another, you might not necessarily produce something amazing. But with practice, you can more easily get into that improvisational brain state.”

PRACTICAL TIP 4: SEEK FEEDBACK—SELECTIVELY

When I was a student, a creative writing professor told me that mid-project creative block was a good time to get feedback from peers. But as we all know, there’s high-quality feedback and low-quality feedback (as well as right and wrong ways to receive it). So first make sure you’re ready for criticism, and then make sure you’re asking the right people.

McGuinness concurs: “You need to be very clear about whom you’re asking and why, and you have to clarify what you expect.” If you’re feeling fragile, for instance, that may mean asking someone to tell you what’s working, rather than what isn’t.

Professional pianist Eunbi Kim says, “The way I work through middle-of-the-project doom is releasing something in ‘beta’ format…. The feedback I get propels me to move forward, especially when I sense excitement for the completion of the project. Sometimes, we feel this doom because we've been trucking along for so long that we need some kind of positive reinforcement or a way to make it real to push us to the end. Plus, there’s accountability built in when you’re saying that you’re offering a preview of a project that you’ll eventually complete.”

PRACTICAL TIP 5: DEVELOP HEALTHY CREATIVE HABITS

What we’re all looking for—what I was looking for when I started asking people how they dealt with mid-project creative block—is a magic bullet: something to help us when we need to be creative right now!

But the mind just doesn’t work that way—it seems that the best way to fight mid-project feelings of doom is to develop healthy creative habits: stick to a work schedule (whatever that schedule may be), set deadlines, regularly exercise your improvisational skills, and nourish your brain by trying new things and exposing it to new stimuli.

Keep in mind that creating is something that you, as a creative person, really do want to do! McGuinness concludes, “The first few times you do something, feeling blocked can be just horrendous—because you really believe that voice in your head saying ‘I’m no good; I’ll never be able to do this.’ But by the 50th time you do it, you will see that this feeling is just part of the process.”

 

What are your methods for breaking through creative block? Share them in the Comments section below.