• Drew Smith

Has Anyone Else Been Battling Creative Block?

Most of us have been there at one time or another. You've got something to get done, but the ideas and motivation are just...not there. This might look like staring at an empty screen with a flashing cursor. Perhaps you keep rummaging through your art materials, only to keep putting them back down. Your instrument might seem like it's floating in another, unreachable world.

This is usually pretty frustrating and demoralizing. Creative block deprives us of the amazing health benefits of creativity, like dopamine release in the brain (experienced as pleasure), reduced cortisol levels (experienced as feeling more relaxed), the self-esteem bump that comes along with those "aha!" moments, and the kinds of enjoyable challenge that keep our brains firing on all cylinders.

So if it's making us feel bad, and making it harder to get to the good stuff, what do we do?

After a recent bout of creative block and fog that had me feeling low, I turned to one of my favorite resources (scientific data!) for guidance. Most available data focuses on how to facilitate creativity, rather than manage those times when it seems dried up.

Still, there is evidence to suggest that either giving yourself a deadline and powering through, OR setting the task completely aside might both be ways to break down creative block. Frankly, the choice between these two totally opposite approaches hasn't been working for me in our pandemic landscape, but they DID remind me of the concept of approach/avoidance motivation, which essentially describes our mindset around how we mentally approach things.

Approach Motivation sounds like this: "If I do this, my boss will be happy with me."

Avoidance Motivation sounds like this: "If I do this, I won't annoy my boss."

How is this related to our topic? "Avoidance motivation has been associated with a wide range of negative psychological consequences, such as performance decrements, resource depletion, and reduced well-being, particularly in the long run." (Roskes, Elliot, De Dreu, 2014). This sounds eerily like creative block to me...

With so many critical issues of our time to address (in addition to the day-to-day challenges of simply living), it can be easy to flip and flop between powering through and totally unplugging. Many of the current challenges we're facing are commonly framed from the perspective of an avoidance motivation mindset:

"I don't want myself or others to get coronavirus."

"I don't want to lose my job/business/income."

"We don't want historically marginalized people to endure more harm and inequity."

"We need to avoid a global climate catastrophe."

"*#@%!" That sounds bad, and if we're being honest, things are bad right now, in a lot of ways. With the repeated blows of the past 11 months and pervasive uncertainty about where things are headed, it also makes sense that we are collectively just thinking about how to avoid the next bad thing. Our brains evolved and are literally hard-wired to anticipate dangers for survival.

Acknowledging pain and challenge is often a big part of healing and recovery, but staying there for too long can have its downsides too.

Eventually, a few things helped me start to wiggle free from the cloud of creative block and sense of depletion. For one, just recognizing that my source of motivation was characterized by avoidance made a big difference. Re-writing our mindsets towards approach motivation might be asking a lot right now (you decide for yourself) but being armed with the information helped, which is why I'm sharing it here.

Secondly, I ended up splitting the difference between the choices of stopping or going harder at my work. For me, this looked like blending parts of each choice by putting down the immediate task of "coming up with something" and spending intentional, active time with things only tangentially related to my immediate tasks. This involved plugging in to podcasts about topics I wouldn't "normally", relying heavily on shuffle and discover functions for music streaming platforms, and watching films in other languages or about creative process in mediums beyond my area of expertise. It wasn't an immediate, or complete, fix, but it helped loosen up ideas and bolster my motivation.

Truth be told, there probably isn't one right way to try and support our own global well-being and creativity, but the belief in their inherent connection is why Render exists. Like most things, context and personal experience are always at play. Is there anything that has worked for you to keep feeding your creativity, now, or in the past?