How you block your creativity — and what to do about it

In the creative workshops I run, I ask participants to create a giant mind map on a topic they know well. Then, based on the mind map, I ask them to brain dump 20 or more content ideas in 10 minutes.

But there are always participants who don’t reach 20 ideas. In fact, some get stuck around 6 or 7.

And when I ask them what was going on for them, they typically tell me:

“I just kept thinking it’s probably already been done.”

Or “it probably won’t work.”

Or some variation of the following:

  • We probably won’t be able to find the data
  • The client (or boss) probably won’t sign off on it
  • It would probably cost too much
  • It’s probably not very good

And more…

All of which are valid concerns — but now is not the time!

There was an academic study that monitored the brain activity of jazz musicians. They were wired up to EEG machines and the aim was to see which parts of the brain lit up when they got into flow.

But what they discovered was quite the opposite!

It wasn’t about the parts of the brain that lit up, but the parts that switched off.

The area that turned off was the frontal region (which can be thought of as the social brain), where we consider what might happen when we take an action — it might not work, we might make a mistake, and others might judge us.

When you start to question your ideas before you get them down, that’s like trying to type that difficult email.

You start typing half the sentence, then… delete, delete, delete.

You start again and… delete, delete, delete.

You’re trying to write and edit at the same time. 

That’s a surefire recipe for writer’s block.

Creating and editing are different modes of operation, requiring different areas of the brain — one of which actively interferes with the other.

You’ve got one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake.

It’s far easier if you can allow yourself to just write — and get your ideas down. 

Then in a separate session, come back and edit.

If you’re worried your ideas aren’t very good, you can even turn it on its head for a while and brain dump the worst ideas you can think of.

You’ll soon loosen up.

This will allow you to overcome the inhibition and realise…

There’s no consequence to writing the bad ones down.

Some of them might be so bad they even give you a bit of a laugh. This can all help you lighten up and get the ideas flowing.

You can take similar approaches to other mental blocks.

If you’re worried your ideas won’t be possible, try writing at the top of the page:

‘This probably won’t be possible, but…’

And get the ideas down.

Similarly, you could try:

  • This has probably been done already, but…
  • This would probably be too expensive, but…
  • The client (or boss) probably won’t sign off on this, but it would be cool if we could…

Whenever I sat down with my former colleague Matt Round to discuss his early ideas, he would always start by saying “These are probably all rubbish but…”

For context, Matt has been responsible for lots of viral content – at Us Vs Th3m, Distilled and now His ideas are rarely “all rubbish”! BUT… if that short disclaimer helps him feel comfortable discussing his ideas, so be it.

You can do the same when you’re coming up with ideas in the first place, even if you’re not presenting them to anyone.

If you’re worried some of them might not be good, consider this: I don’t like to start filtering down ideas until I have at least 60 to 80 in front of me. And I usually only put 3 of them forward to the client, at most. Sometimes I won’t use any of them. 

The vast majority of your ideas won’t be good enough, and that’s okay — in fact, it’s expected!

You’ve got to go through the bad to get to the good. 

It’s a numbers game.

So it doesn’t even matter at this stage if the ideas aren’t good, if they won’t work, if they’re too expensive, if they’ve already been done… 

You can edit them all later.

But for now… just get them down.

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