Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

spartan wanderer

Breaking Creative Blocks

A couple of months ago I tore my rotator cuff, resulting in (perhaps appropriately) my right arm becoming a useless noodle for quite some time. This happened at a time where I had a very strong, healthy routine going. I was exercising everyday, eating right and drinking less. My wellspring of daily energy was always full and I was getting a lot done. Then this happened, and all of that got pushed off a cliff. 

Creative blocks are not uncommon, and I’ve actually written about them before. This one hit me particularly hard, however. It took me over a month to write a single article for my poor friend Jen’s magazine. I stopped posting here. Anyone who writes knows that stopping is a death-knell for the quality of your work. It is definitely a use it or lose it situation. So naturally, after I stopped it took me a long while to start again because I was afraid it would be shit. 

That’s not the way to think if you want to break through a block. Do this instead:

1) Force yourself to sit down and write. 

This first tip is the best one. The only way you’re ever going to get back into it is to just write. Write about anything. Look out your window and write about what you see outside. Focus on a single person walking down the street and make up an inner-narrative for them (this isn’t creepy because I live on the 15th floor). Really, just fucking write. The more you do it, the better you get. The less you do it, the duller and slower your mind’s wit becomes when trying to get those ideas on paper or screen. 

2) Read the writing of others. 

One of the most effective ways to get me through a block is inspiring myself to action. Have you ever read something or seen a performance that just drives you to becoming better at what you do? It’s not exactly jealousy; more of a realization of what is possible if you work hard at something. It can be painful to read someone’s excellent writing due to the low confidence that usually accompanies writer’s block, but it’s important to ignore that voice and instead let someone else’s inspiring work galvanize you into becoming your own awesome self again. 

3) Write in set increments of time. 

I find this helpful with both writing and design. Our minds are not programmed to be productive indefinitely. Therefore, it’s usually more effective to “chunk” a project into set increments of balls-to-the-wall productivity. I prefer the Pomodoro technique. This is a handy way of breaking up your time so you don’t fall prey so easily to diminishing returns. The method breaks up your time into 30-minute increments - 25 minutes on and 5 off. After four of these cycles, you take a 15-minute break instead of 5. The promise of a break makes whatever you’re doing seem like less of a monumental task, making work a hell of a lot less stressful.

4) Work at inducing a flow state. 

Have you ever gotten so in the zone while working that hours past by unnoticed, nothing around you mattered or maybe you even forgot to eat? This is the flow state, and it is the most powerful tool in a creative professional’s kit. This state of heightened creativity and productivity most often occurs naturally, but it is possible to induce yourself. This article breaks down the flow process into three stages. The first is saturation, or gathering as much information about your goal as possible. Know where you're starting, where you want to end up and how you're getting there. The next is incubation, which is simply allowing your mind digest the information you've acquired. Usually going for a walk or some other light exercise is beneficial for this. The pathways to your goal that were revealed in incubation are activated in the illumination phase, which is flow. It's also recommended to include certain rituals that can trigger a response, such as a dedicated workspace, some high-quality in-ear headphones or possibly even a stretching routine before sitting down to work. 

5) Eat right, exercise and get some sleep.

This is going to show up on any list about productivity, well, at least on my list. This is the foundation upon which your empire will be built. If you are not healthy then you are not doing your best work, it’s just that simple. At this point, I'm trying to do yoga and a 30-minute run before I start my day. Just that little bit helps me stay energized throughout the day. This post from Zen Habits has a wealth of other tips that can get you in the right frame of mind and body for a productive day. Let’s try to ignore the fact that I’m going to get a Big Mac after writing this. 

Honorable Mention - Drugs

To clients who may be reading this - calm down. I mostly mean caffeine. It’s still a drug, no matter how little it alters your state of consciousness. Coffee is definitely a requirement if I’m going to get anything done, to the point that I have instant coffee (don’t judge) in my house just in case of emergencies. Also, let’s take a look at nicotine for a second. I used to never touch it before coming to China, where the idea of not smoking indoors is laughed at and it’s practically rude to refuse a cigarette, if offered. I cannot deny that a nicotine/caffeine one-two punch has a positive effect on my productivity. For this reason, I’m probably going to invest in some sort of beginner’s vape rig soon, because cigarettes are, indeed, disgusting. Vape naysh, y’all. 

Staying Above Water

Getting out of a block is certainly a challenge, but staying free of that creative immobility is the bigger goal at hand. And for that, I have to reiterate the oh so important tip from above. Keep writing. Or drawing. Or whatever it is you do. Even if it pains you to do so on certain days, and even if you can only work on it for 10 or 15 minutes. If you're having a bad day, use it. Use that extra emotion to create something and stomp that lurking block into the ground. 

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