5 Science-Backed Techniques To Overcome a Creative Block
Working in a creative field is a dream come true for me and many others, but at times the artistic freedom that comes with my role as a designer can be the biggest hurdle to getting a job done. When you are working on tasks that require your imagination and artistry to be at the forefront, it puts a lot of focus and stress on your own ability to invent creative solutions.
When things are flowing nicely you tend not to even think about this at all, but the moment you run into a little creative block you can feel the pressure and it can become a real dead-end to any task, as the weight of getting a job done now relies on you finding creativity or inspiration, which of course is not something you can force.
Thankfully there’s a lot of great advice out there to help tackle creative block, many of it coming from personal stories and experiences of people who have experience in dealing with this over the years, but in this article I’d like to answer the question, what does science say about overcoming creative block?
The advice to ‘go for a walk’ is one answer that is given out a lot, but interestingly this method is actually backed by science too. A study by Stanford ultimately found that 81% of participants taking part in a walk had a positive boost in creative inspiration compared to those who stayed seated. Walking outside seemed to be most beneficial, but wasn’t it wasn’t a requirement, as walking indoors around inside your building, or on a treadmill had very similar effects, showing that the act of actually walking itself is more important than where you walk.
The study found that walking seemed to be better suited to improving creative brainstorming and did not necessarily help when it came to finding answers to problems that had one single correct answer. This highlights the fact that walking doesn’t necessarily help find solutions to all types of problem solving, but luckily for us it does look like an ideal method specifically for tackling creative challenges.
This could explain why Mark Zuckerberg reportedly swears by ‘walking meetings’ – a concept that the late Steve Jobs was a big fan of too. Research showed that the positive benefits of walking to open up creative ideas stayed with you even after your walk is finished.
Another benefit of walking likely comes from the fact you are simply taking a break or diversion from the task at hand. Stepping away from a challenge gives you time to focus on it once you return as this study teaches us: “when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
The researchers at Stanford were keen to point out that walking is not going to simply give you the answer to your chosen problems, instead it is an effective way to kickstart the early stages of creativity when you are struggling to get your thought process going.
Avoid Early Inspiration
Okay so this one may seem a little odd I’ll admit, sometimes for me there’s nothing better than surrounding myself with work and ideas that inspire me in order to absorb some of that creativity so it can improve my own work, but research has shown that designers can be hit with design fixation, which leads to the copying of ideas, even if those ideas were of poor quality in the first place. The habit of absorbing inspiration can turn against you and could even work as a block to your own creative ideas and thinking as you can get stuck looking for inspiration in the wrong places and can’t find a way to look beyond the work that surrounds you already.
The result of these findings are that it can be beneficial to explore multiple ideas of your own, even ones that are you are not confident with, before seeking out outside inspiration. You might benefit from this freedom to explore a broader spectrum of outcomes without limiting yourself to the ways that other people might have tackled similar problems before.
The issue isn’t with seeking inspiration itself, but rather the order in which you include this step in your project flow. It is suggested that you might benefit from exploring many more of your own thoughts and ideas at the very beginning of a project before surrounding yourself with existing examples to draw inspiration from.
Once you are past the stage of exploring ideas, another simple thing you can do to combat creative block, or rather prevent it, according to this paper is to simply give yourself multiple tasks to do at once, and switch between them, rather than putting your full attention to one task at a time. This is “in part because temporarily setting a task aside reduces cognitive fixation.” The concept of ‘Cognitive fixation’ is when you spend too much time obsessing over other people’s ideas, which can make it harder to come up with solutions of your own. The report showed that “Participants who continually alternated back and forth between two creativity tasks outperformed both participants who switched between the tasks at their discretion and participants who attempted one task for the first half of the allotted time before switching to the other task for the second half.” — This is a very compelling reason to give yourself multiple tasks to do once you’ve passed the initial idea stage.
We all know the importance of keeping our bodies hydrated, but surveys show that many of us actually fall short of our recommended water intake and as a result many of us may be regularly suffering from dehydration without even realising it.
The negative impacts of dehydration are clear, even a mild loss of 1-3% of body water weight can lead to a drop in energy levels, memory and brain performance amongst study participants. This hit to brain performance and mood could play a contributing role towards causing creative block.
Therefore if you are looking to combat creative block, a great first step could be to reach for a glass of water and try to hit your recommended intake in order to improve your overall brain function, especially if you are not already taking in enough water. We’ve all heard the advice about drinking more water before, and once again this seems to be supported by the science.
Sleep On It
Sleeping correctly has benefits that are far more important than just tackling creative block of-course, but thankfully multiple studies point towards the fact that sleep could also have a positive impact your creative thinking, so when creative block hits you could find a fix in a few different ways by simply sleeping on it.
The first benefit comes from the idea that (according to a 1993 study at Harvard Medical School) creative solutions can present themselves to you during sleep. People taking part in the Harvard study were asked to go to sleep thinking of a problem they were unable to solve. 50% of participants reported that their chosen problems were present in their dreams, while around 25% of participants said that the actual solutions to those problems came to them during sleep too. This would suggest that sleeping can provide you with ideas and answers that you might not have considered when awake. Why might this be?
Psychologist Deidre Barrett who lead the study says: “We’re in a different biochemical state when we’re dreaming, and that’s why I think dreams can be so helpful anytime we’re stuck in our usual mode of thinking.” — So it appears that some people are able to process problems differently during sleep which could prove to be a real help when you’re stuck with creative block.
Another positive impact of sleeping when you are hit with creative block comes from an Italian study which found a positive correlation between the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep and some aspects of creativity and originality. The idea is that during REM neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and acetylcholine levels in the brain are lower than they are when awake. The hypothesis is that these lower levels allow new original associations in the mind. Another study in 2009 also concluded that “REM enhances the integration of unassociated information for creative problem solving.” — all of which seems to suggest that sleep could help you to tackle your creative block.
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