Does this sound familiar?
You’re Not Alone
I’m talking about a creativity block and it can be quite a challenge to diagnose, treat, and overcome. If you answered yes, then congratulations, you are a human being. If you have been in the field for any length of time and have never experienced this, you are likely some sort of creative machine whose brain needs to be analyzed so that we can bottle and sell whatever special ju-ju you’ve got flowing in that big ole’ noggin. I’m just kidding…maybe.
In all seriousness though, this sort of mental block can affect anyone, at any time, and for a number of reasons. It’s my hope that sharing my experiences with this particular challenge and the lessons that I’ve learned as a result, may help someone else to avoid, or recover from, a similar situation.
last several weeks month, I’ve battled the most severe creative block that I can recall. In the middle of juggling three large projects, and fielding a number of urgent ad-hoc requests, I went from “being in the zone” to a state of utter apathy, all in the span of a couple of hours. Sure, there were the normal stressors and sources of aggravation in the office, but this was different — I didn’t care, that I didn’t care, and right there laid the danger. I had more than plenty of work to do, much of it involved things that usually excites and engages me, and I had a few deadlines to meet…but none of it mattered.
The thing you need to keep in mind is that I am extremely passionate when it comes to my work as an Instructional Designer. Nothing irritates me more than knowing that I am not doing my very best work ; I have my time as a classroom teacher and passion for life-long learning to thank for that. So it stands to reason that being apathetic of my work was very much out of the ordinary for me. That lack of passion for what I was doing was my first sign that this wasn’t a typical creativity block — I was showing signs of being completely burned out.
Distinguishing a Creative Blocks from Burnout
Although I realized that what I was experiencing was more than just a block, I wasn’t immediately sure what it was that I was going through. There wasn’t an instant moment of clarity that took me from
“I have a Creative Block”
“Oh, I am burned out!“
There was no quick resolution, no magical cure — the only two signs that led to my self-realization were the passage of time and a failure to find sources of inspiration.
Sign #1: A Lack of Inspiration
A regular part of my creative process is the continual recharging of my “creative batteries” by doing things like looking at what friends and colleagues are working on, checking Twitter for articles and insight into what now inspires others, or simply listening to music. Whenever I have had any sort of creativity block in the past, using any combination of these three sources of inspiration was a sure-fire way to snap me out of my creative drought.
This time was very different, no matter how many sources of inspiration that had I looked at that had helped me with Creative Blocks in the past, nothing was stirring my creativity. What was even more troubling was that even new sources of inspiration had no effect on breaking me out of the Block either. If reliable sources of inspiration don’t give the spark that you expect them to, you may be experiencing the early stages of Burnout—trust your intuition in this case.
Sign #2: Where has the Time Gone?
Despite not finding inspiration from my usual resources, I found myself repeatedly trying to draw water from those dry wells. In hindsight, I’m reminded of Einstein’s quote about the definition of insanity — but then, it was the only thing that I knew to do.
As days turned into weeks, I realized that this was a bigger problem than what I had experienced in the past. It’s normal for a Creative Block to last a couple of hours, or days. However, if the issue persists for a week or more, then the Block has grown into the early stages of Burnout.
Now before I get into what I did to resolve the source of my issues , let me offer this general disclaimer. I am by no means trying to suggest that what worked for me will work for everyone —a simple Google search for cures for both Creative Blocks and Creative Burnout proves that there are many techniques and methods out there. This is simply what worked for me and if nothing else, I hope it helps you to look inside yourself to figure out what will work for you in a similar situation.
The process to address the root causes of my burnout was a journey, full of small steps and repetition.
1. Admit there is a Problem
It took me a while to own up to the fact that something was seriously wrong. As soon as I admitted that there was a problem, it was much easier to get my arms around it and move towards a resolution. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you are having difficulty.
2. Talk about it
I was very fortunate to have a close friend and colleague, and an understanding manager to talk with about my problem. Even though they may not have had insight to share or could actively help me resolve the issue, having them as a sounding board to talk through the problem, possible causes, and what I was feeling as a result really helped me to start to understand what was wrong.
3. Re-Prioritize your Work
Fixing this might take a while, but you can’t entirely stop being productive —rank your tasks by difficulty/required effort, and focus on those tasks that can be completely quickly with minimal effort. It’ll give you the chance to address your burnout while still maintaining forward momentum on your projects.
4. Look for Inspiration
Sure, it may feel like you are on a quest for something that you may never find, but if you give up on finding something to reignite the creative spark, you’ve already conceded defeat. Perseverance is key —just because the usual resources are coming up dry doesn’t mean that there isn’t something out there that can help. Cast your net wider and look to sources from other fields or mediums.
5. Step Away for a Little
Often times just giving yourself a short break to catch your breath, relax, and reflect can be the chance that you need to get over the issue. Take a walk, work on something that’s not work-related, catch up on your Twitter and blog feeds.
6. Don’t be Afraid to Walk Away
Sometimes a break for a few minutes or hours is simply not enough, and you’ll have to walk away from the job for a day or two. This last step can be particularly challenging especially if you have upcoming deadlines to meet, or a less than understanding working relationship with your supervisor. However, if you weigh the pros and cons of a lost day or two of productivity versus the long-term negative impact on, and potentially permanently ruining your ability to be creative —I think any sane person can make the case for the former.
So there you have it —my problem, self-discovery, and solution for dealing with my most recent bout with Creative Block and Burnout. Now, I’d like to hear how you’ve battled these two types of issues.
What experiences with Creative Block or Creative Burnout have you had, and how have you overcome? Leave a comment below!
In my next post I will share sources of inspiration and tips for beating Creative Blocks that were shared by friends and colleagues.
Contribute to the list of tips and tricks on Twitter using #BeatTheBlock.