Creative blocks: How to change the game

When I get stuck on a creative project—any project, really—it’s often because my emotions are shouting so loudly that I mistake them for objective reality.

“It FEELS like this writing assignment is impossible, therefore it IS impossible. I FEEL uncertain about how to design this workshop, therefore I will fail. I FEEL frustrated because I don’t see an answer to this creative problem, therefore there IS no answer for it.”

That’s emotional reasoning in action. I’ve been thinking about this concept since reading When in Doubt, Make Belief, about coping with obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD for short. Mental health is a continuum, and though I don’t have OCD, I’m seeing a lot of myself in this book—I can certainly get unproductively obsessive about things (when in doubt, make lists!), and I let anxiety run the show more often than I would like.

Author Jeff Bell, who has the disorder, writes about the way that compulsive, repetitive behavior provides temporary emotional relief for someone with OCD. An example might be checking the stove burners seven times in succession, then going back to check them yet again. The rational mind knows this behavior is unnecessary, even counterproductive, but the emotions aren’t buying it.

Emotional reasoning plays a large and stubborn role in my creative life. I don’t check the stove burners, but I do get swept up in the discouraging messages from the hollering emotions. It’s tempting to respond by avoiding the project that’s frustrating me, which buys me temporary relief but reinforces the power of emotions to derail me in the future.

Bell recommends mindfulness—steady, nonjudgmental awareness—as one way of coping better with emotional reasoning and the nonproductive impulses it can lead to. When you observe the anxiety instead of giving in to the obsessive (or in my case, escapist) urge—when you sit it out until the anxiety dissipates—you gradually habituate to the anxiety. Over time, the painful feelings that you would do anything to avoid become less dominant, less threatening.

Over time: there’s the rub. Often the anxiety does not dissipate soon enough for me. Often it gets worse before it gets better. I have been known to use this phenomenon as a further reason to delay action: “See? I was right not to want to get started! Who in their right mind would choose to do something that feels this awful?” But according to the cognitive therapists, seeing the awfulness as unbearable is a thinking habit that I’m mixing up with reality.

Naming the mission

Part of it has to do with how I frame the issue. That’s why having a name for it—emotional reasoning—is helpful. I’m in the habit of focusing on the goal: “How can I feel better right now?” A more useful goal (or frame) could be: “How can I practice a different way of dealing with frustration and anxiety right now? Am I willing to habituate to these feelings so they don’t bug me so much, don’t run the show?”

This second goal is more challenging. It means drawing on a different set of mental muscles, carving out a new mental groove. Hard work! But potentially healthier…and might even, potentially, lead to feeling better over the long term.

As with my coaching clients, I’m not aiming for a sudden about-face—that’s not a sustainable way to deal with a longstanding habit. But I have found that huge shifts can come out of a simple beginning: increasing the amount of time between the impulse to react in the default way, and the reaction itself. Micro-lengthening that bit of time between impulse and default reaction starts to change things in profound ways.

I think this is another way of looking at my take on the Pomodoro Technique (for me, micro-sessions of work alternating with longer rest periods) and why it’s been helping. The feelings aren’t derailing me so much; I’ve been focusing better. Now I’m examining the frame: changing the goal from “Make the feelings go away” to “Practice habituating to the feelings, so they’re less fearsome and not so much in charge.”

Behaviorally, this translates into: When the unpleasant creative-frustration-uncertainty-avoidance cluster pushes its way into consciousness, notice it. Sit with it. It would be nice to say, until it dissipates, but that may still be longer than I’m willing to tolerate. I’m starting by increasing the amount of time I sit with those feelings—pause, breathe—before running away.


  1. Katie Brandt says:

    I have found the same happens to me. This year I have had 2 large tasks that I have given myself a week to finish. As soon as I started the project I would get all of this anxiety of how to best get it completed. This has lasted for two days. I acknowledge the feelings and then on the third day I am super productive.

    Maybe it is just a pattern with me – if so, that is ok. As long as I know it will get better I am find.

    Thanks for the article!

    Katie Brandt

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Katie – Sounds like you’re doing a great job of using what you’ve observed about yourself to manage your pattern.

  3. I find that by going a step further to find the thought behind the feeling, I can better able sit with the emotion, especially the ones related to time management — which all seem to come before the emotion sets in. People who get depressed about their lack of time management skills, or procrastination, seem to have this issue in buckets… but I have found that thoughts don’t have to be believed, and if caught early enough they don’t create as much of a problem as they could on the emotional side.

    (I recently wrote an article on Procrastination so this is topic I have been thinking about a bit.)

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Francis – Yes, the cognitive-behavioral therapists talk a lot about identifying the thoughts behind emotions (or behind behavior, which may also be what you’re talking about in regard to time management). I can see how a multi-pronged strategy would be effective: recognize when emotional reasoning is going on; recognize the thought behind it; having named it, practice habituating to the discomfort by sitting with it.

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