How to Work Through "Creative Block"

We've all been there - whether it's a term paper staring us in the face, half-finished and due the next morning, or as an artist, a blank canvas ready and impatiently waiting to be filled. But what to create? How does inspiration come? HOW TO FIGHT PROCRASTINATION MIXED WITH HAVING NO CLUE WHAT TO MAKE?

It's easy to look at other artists and believe that they're constantly inspired and perpetually making genius-level work. Want me to let you in on a secret? They don't. Any great artist will tell you, to wait for the Muse to whisper in your ear is time wasted.

Early on in my painting career, I read a life-changing book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. You can find it here on Amazon. A friend recommended it, and once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down! Pressfield is a creator himself - a writer - but his book speaks to any person entering in or stuck in the middle of their creative endeavor. Normally a writer of fiction, Pressfield found that writing a self-help book, although a challenge, was necessary in conveying his message. You'll find his instructional narrative peppered with tales of a protagonist (you), an antagonist (Resistance), and your guide (the Muse) to help you along your way.

The chapters are short and easy to digest; he understand how overwhelming just getting through a chapter in a book can be, especially while you're struggling to focus on your creative work. Some of the best advice you'll find in the pages are:

“When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

Simply put: just sit down and do it.

I'm circling a couple different points. 1. How to fight procrastination and 2. How to work through creative block, when no ideas are coming. Here's a breakdown of how I like to deal both of these creative hardships.


1. Do the easy thing first. I've learned that in my finances, when I'm faced with a mountain of debt, it's best to start chipping away at the smaller amount first. When that smaller debt is repaid (in a short amount of time than if you had attempted to scale the larger debt) you'll have the exhilarating confidence of having achieved a personal goal to spur you onto the next challenge. Dealing with your mountain of a to-do list can be much the same. Look at the task that is the easiest, the smallest, or something you don't mind doing. Each task that you accomplish will be a job well done, and that increased confidence will give you the gumption to keep going!

2. Do the difficult thing first. Wait a minute!! I just said do the "EASIEST" thing first!! Yes, I know. I'm not contradicting myself, but simply allowing an alternative idea to coexist within this post. My mother taught me, when faced with a to-do list, do the thing you hate first, the thing that takes the longest. That way, you'll have it out of the way sooner and won't be dreading it during the work you enjoy. I've found that both ways (doing the easy thing first / doing the difficult thing first) have their pros and cons, and work equally well in different situations. Am I feeling energetic, confident, and powerful or am I fatigued, depressed, and forlorn? Allow yourself a minute to assess how you feel and which strategy would be the most beneficial for achieving your goal.

3. Do sections. From books like the Magical Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo - a neat-freak's dream read - it's better to clean up in categories, than by rooms. Why? When you're faced with a task, it's better to bite off smaller chunks, rather than swallow the elephant in one go. Too morbid? Sorry - instead of doing all the things, focus on one category (organize my Inktober challenge drawings; make final sketches of commissions all at once; package and inventory your notecards).

4. Set a timer and work against the clock. Perhaps my biggest foe - TIME - and how to make it work for me, instead of being a slave to my day. I'm often bemoaning the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. Although I've got a headstart on my to-do list, time usually runs out. When I'm motivated by a timer, I'm sure to spend the correct amount of time on a project, instead of dawdling and wasting precious minutes on nonessentials. Have to clean the bathroom, but you hate it? Set a timer for 15 minutes to see if you can get toilet, sink, and tub clean before time is up! Need to get a commissioned portrait finished? Definitely bite it off in 30 minute chunks, until you've finished painting. Another side of using a timer, is when it goes off, you ought to allow yourself some time to chill out and DO NOTHING. Don't check Instagram, don't check email, don't watch Youtube videos. Maybe play some music, grab some water or tea to refresh yourself, maybe go for a quick walk to move around and change your surroundings. These breaks are as important (if not more important than) the creative time.


1. Sit down and do the work. This is the best advice I ever got. Many creatives languish in not knowing what to create, and depend heavily on their Muse. If she doesn't show, they don't create. But, if creating is your JOB, then you can't afford to not create. Does a nurse not take vitals when a patient arrives, because he doesn't feel inspired? Does an engineer not begin computations because the Muse isn't accompanying her work? Of course not! The difference between the work of a nurse, an engineer, and a creative, is that often the former two have a clear task list/work load. They already know what's expected and therefore can focus their energies on achieving their goals. For the creative, here are some helpful ways to keep you with a clearly-defined task list?

- Do those brainstorming bubbles you did in high school

- Make lists of items you want to create

- Make short term and long term goal lists

- Find art challenges online (30 day drawings, Inktober Challenge, etc) to keep the creative juices flowing

- Land on a topic you're passionate about, and do a mini series (3-5 pieces) to end up with a small, cohesive body of work

- Do an activity that's not art, but related, to continue being inspired (go to a museum, a park, on a hike; meet a creative friend and share your endeavors and tips for motivation; go see a movie, a play, a concert) All of these things can allow your body rest of the art, while your subconscious is constantly collecting ideas for your next project. You never know where inspiration will come from!

2. Cut down on distractions. Are you able to multitask? Then maybe you're someone who's easily able to work while watching episodes of the Office on repeat. I'm an artist who enjoys working from home, but I like the entertainment/ambient noise of a TV show. However, if it's something new and intense, I shouldn't be watching it while I work. I might end up just staring at my screen, instead of painting my projects. Judge the type of work you have to do alongside the type of distraction you're tempted to indulge in. A stressful project is due? Just play some motivating music, or work in silence. And easy commissions? It's ok, go ahead and play your favorite TV show. Be flexible with your distractions, but if in doubt, cut it out. TAKE NOTE! If your phone is a large distraction, put it on silent, face down, somewhere far away from your work space. Getting click-happy with Facebook and other social media sites, during your work time? Get strict and put up a block on your browser, allowing you only 10 minutes a day on certain time-wasting sites.

3. Get connected with other creators. Instead of letting that ugly green-eyed monster in (that's jealousy) observe and listen to other creators who have been in your shoes, but are slightly ahead of your game. Study how they climbed their ladder and battled their own creative blocks. If you have similar projects or themes, you might find that their success is the perfect inspiration to get you working on your own challenges. More often than not, their success stories will be just the encouragement you need to achieve your work.

In all of these tips on how to get past procrastination and creative block, it's also important to give yourself grace. Maybe today isn't the day to push yourself to work. Maybe you've been at the grind for a while and need a break. Be kind to yourself, and remember the most important idea behind creating: to uplift and inform. It doesn't work well for the creator to be burnt out and sick of their job. Take breaks, refresh, and take time for self-care. A massage, a walk, a bath, or just a quiet cup of tea can go a long way in rejuvenating those creative cells.

As always, thanks for reading. Now, GO FORTH AND CREATE!

Marni Manning - Artist

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