How to Beat Writer's Block and Other Creative Hurdles

Last week, we covered 6 habits and mindsets to coax creativity from all corners of your brain.  This week, the Savvy Psychologist has 8 strategies you can use to karate-chop a creative block. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
February 21, 2014
Episode #007

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Tip #4: Separate Gathering from Creating

Information gathering is a distinct step from the act of creation.  Indeed, for anyone who has ever tried to fact-check on the web while simultaneously trying to write a story, you know that the story always ends with you getting sucked into Tumblr.  At the very least, you’ll probably get frustrated from switching back and forth between two mindsets.  So first gather your eggs, then make your omelet. 

Tip #5: Sleep (and Smell) on it

We touched on sleep and creativity in the episode How to Be Creative, but this is such a fertile field of research we’ll revisit it from another perspective. 

A 2012 study in the Journal of Sleep Research experimented with covertly compelling the mind work on a task during sleep.  In the study, each participant was presented with a problem that required a creative solution: specifically, how to motivate people to volunteer.  For some of the participants, an orange-vanilla scent filled the air while they learned about the problem, while others weren’t exposed to any scent at all.  Of those exposed to the scent, half were then given a diffuser with the same orange-vanilla scent to put next to their beds while they slept that night, while half got a completely different scent. 

The next morning, those who had smelled the orange vanilla scent both during the problem presentation and while sleeping generated more creative answers to the problem—that is, their answers were more useful and more novel than those who had smelled the other scent while sleeping or no scent at all.  In addition, the matching-vanilla-scent participants were better able to pinpoint which of their ideas was most creative than those in the other groups. 

Now, one study doesn’t make this technique a surefire bet, but if you want put matching diffusers in your creative workspace and next to your bed next time you hit a creative block, no one will judge you.

Tip #6: Relive Your Glory Days

When you’re stuck, try revisiting your own greatest hits.  Look at the best painting you’ve ever painted.  Read that award-winning story you wrote.  Read your paper from that top scientific journal.  Looking at our own bests can give you both a boost of confidence and a running start.

Tip #7: Put it Away and Work on Something Else  

Last week, we talked about incubation—how, after tackling your problem initially, doing something unrelated can help boost creativity.  This is true not only big picture, but in the moment. 

In the midst of a creative block, rather than banging your head against the wall, direct your energy towards something else for a while.  A creative and productive scientist colleague of mine recommends having three projects going at once—something just starting, something in the middle, and something wrapping up.  Find the mix that works for you and you can usually find one project on which you can make creative progress.

Tip #8: Dance

Exercise, it seems, is the miracle balm for just about everything: depression, anxiety, all sorts of medical issues, and of course, fitting into those skinny jeans.  Just ask my colleague Get-Fit Guy! Interestingly, fighting creative blocks may be one of the few exceptions.  A 2013 Dutch study found that 12 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise—riding a stationary bike either at moderate speed or to exhaustion—had little to no effect on creativity, and in some cases even impeded it. 

However, they noted that participants who exercised regularly weren’t negatively influenced as much, and for some tasks, the exercise actually improved their performance a bit.  Why is this?  It’s possible that for people who are already physically fit, exercise is automatic and doesn’t take much attention, therefore providing the chance to incubate, or unconsciously chew on their creative problem.  By contrast, for people who aren’t regular exercisers, having to engage in physical activity is challenging and takes conscious effort and monitoring, thus sapping their resources and reducing creative performance.

Yet couch potatoes need not despair: a brand new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that dancing for just 5 minutes enhanced both mood and creativity.  Dancing behind a closed door takes zero skill and effort—no one will see you if you dance off the beat or look like a lunatic—so your brain is free to work on your block.  So if a run around the neighborhood makes you feel like Bigfoot stomping on ants, don’t despair—a one-song dance party with no one watching may unlock your creative block.

Thanks for listening!  And thanks for your thoughtful comments about Part 1 of my guest episode on Grammar Girl's show. If you haven't seen it yet, make sure to check out How Literature Changes the Brain for the Better. And  If you can’t get enough, Part 2 is now available.  Check it out on the always-fabulous Grammar Girl podcast. And be sure to connect with me on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page or on Google+.


Baas, M., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). A meta-analysis of 25 years of mood-creativity research: Hedonic tone, activation, or regulatory focus? Psychological Bulletin, 134, 779-806.

Campion, M. & Levita, L.  (2014).  Enhancing positive affect and divergent thinking abilities: Play some music and dance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9, 137-145.

Colzato, L.S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B.  (2012).  Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking.  Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 116.

Ritter, S.M., Strick, M., Bos, M.W., Van Baaren, R.B, & Dijksterhuis, A. (2012).  Good morning creativity: task reactivation during sleep enhances beneficial effect of sleep on creative performance. Journal of Sleep Research, 21: 643–647.

Colzato, L.S., Szapora, O.A., Pannekoek, J.N., & Hommel, B. (2013).  The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7: 824.

Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions. 


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