3 Types of Creative Blocks, and How to Overcome Them

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I had every intention of writing this article yesterday morning. And then again, last night. And then this morning. But my team needed me, I had a couple of fires to put out, and honestly, I just didn’t really feel like doing it.

When I finally sat down to write, I realized what was going on: Procrastination was rearing its head. Or, as I like to call it, “Fear in overalls.” Procrastination is a type of fear that has good intentions but lacks consistent follow-through, and it’s easy to slip into. It’s the part of us that says, “It’s all good, I can do this later, I’m not really in the mood, I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.”

As a bestselling author of three books, and a writing mentor who’s supported thousands, I’ve learned a thing or two about why we don’t start or finish projects — why ideas nudge us for years but rarely see the light of day.

Whether I’m supporting a founder with a track record of success, a New York Times bestselling author, or an aspiring writer who’s just picking up the pen, creative blocks plague us all. Through my work, I’ve identified three types of creative blocks and how to overcome them.

Creative Block #1: Procrastination — “I’ll do this later after I do that other thing.”

Maybe you’re reading this right now to avoid something else that you need or want to be doing. If so, you may be dealing with procrastination. But before you get down on yourself, let’s look closer at the real cause. Unlike what many of us learned, procrastination is not a sign that we’re lazy, weak, or lacking in motivation. Procrastination, from a psychological perspective, is also a survival function.

When we’re stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, or dealing with any perceived threat — which could be, “I really want this to go well but the outcome is uncertain,” or “I want to put myself out there but I’m not sure how it’ll be received,” — our nervous system moves into a fight/flight/freeze response. In other words: we procrastinate.

Understanding the science of this can help us have compassion for ourselves—and others—and also decide what to do about it.

I learned about “micro-yeses” from my friend Britt Frank, a neuropsychotherapist and the author of The Science of Stuck. A micro-yes is the smallest next step you can take—a step so small, it seems almost ridiculous to call it “a step.”

So, if you’re wanting to write an article but you’re stalling — like I was — the next micro-yes is not to schedule an hour to write. That might spook your nervous system and send you into further delays. In my case, my micro-yeses were:

  1. Get my tush in the chair.
  2. Write one bad sentence.
  3. Write another.

And voila, the brain stopped perceiving threats, my nervous system was more regulated, and I cranked out the article. I was on my way, and micro-yeses will help you get going, too.

Creative Block #2: Perfectionism — “This isn’t good enough.”

If procrastination is “fear is overalls,” perfectionism is, as Elizabeth Gilbert put it, “fear in fancy clothes.” Of all the blocks out there, perfectionism—and the pressure to be great right away—is one that will stop a project dead in its tracks before it ever has a chance to flourish.

When I landed my first book deal, my publisher asked me if I could write the book in three months. As crazy as that sounded, my book was titled Choose Wonder Over Worry, so instead of worrying about how unrealistic that deadline sounded, I asked myself: I wonder how I can get this done?

I cleared my calendar, flew across the world for a writing retreat, and then, as I sat down to write, I found myself paralyzed by a voice inside my head that chimed in every ten seconds to tell me, “That’s a very bad sentence.”

After consulting with a mentor (and nearly losing my mind), I was reminded that there is no such thing as a great first draft. In fact, my goal was to be a “bad writer” and write terrible first drafts, so that I’d get to the stage of having so-so second drafts and better third drafts.

That strategy helped me finish my book—and it’s one that’s helped many others in my signature writing workshop, On The Page. Revision is essential and will strengthen your work—but first you need to get those “pen miles” down.

Creative Block #3: Imposter Syndrome — Who am I to call myself a writer? Am I going to get found out?”

If procrastination is “fear in overalls” and perfectionism is, “fear in fancy clothes,” then imposter syndrome is “fear in hiding.”

Whenever you’re putting yourself out there, or trying something new, there will be people who will be more experienced, or knowledgable, or renowned than you. It’s a simple fact of life. Whether you are just starting out in your career, or have decades’ worth of accolades, there is always a fear that people who have achieved more will say: You don’t know what you’re talking about, or, who are you to think you can do this?

In fact, sometimes the more successful you are, and the more you’ve accomplished, the more likely you are to feel imposter syndrome. It’s like the old saying attributed to Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Case in point, I have a client who got a significant book deal on a topic that she’s a world-renowned expert on. She’s been featured in dozens of publications, she has a thriving business in her field, and her book is a vehicle to make her message more accessible to more people. And yet, on one of our calls, she shared with me: “I hope I can one day call myself a writer.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not a writer like those other writers,” she said. “Maybe if the book’s a huge success.”

That right there is where imposter syndrome thrives: between internal doubt, and the belief that external accolades will prove we are worthy. And the most brutal part of imposter syndrome is that even if we reach our vision of “ultimate success,” it’s still not enough.

So what to do about it? The solution to imposter syndrome is two-fold:

  1. Notice the critical voice inside your head that says, I’m not enough, I’m going to be found out, I don’t deserve this, I have to work harder to prove myself — and remember that voice is an old and damaging story that you don’t need to buy into anymore. Notice it, remember it’s not you, and as uncomfortable as it might feel, choose a more empowering narrative, such as: I’m already enough.
  2. Celebrate the progress you’ve already made—including the mistakes. Focus on what you’re learning, how you’re growing, what you value, and what is meaningful to you. Don’t get caught up in what you’ll need to “someday” achieve so that you’ll finally arrive. You’ve already arrived.

I know encountering blocks can feel unsettling. But once we name what we’re experiencing, we can recognize it more easily, and then respond to it differently. Creative blocks are challenges, yes, but they do have science-backed solutions. Sometimes it starts with lowering our really high personal expectations, rolling up our sleeves, and having a little faith in the process.

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