Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
Creative projects can be some of the most rewarding and frustrating things.
Oddly enough, the more creative the project, the messier it tends to get. Sometimes it's hard to even get started. Other times, it's easy to start but feels impossible to finish.
In the past decade, I've written thousands of articles and sales email templates. I founded a profitable copywriting company that trained and employed dozens of writers, who all struggled with writer's block at various times. I also created lucrative educational courses and built software for enterprise technology companies.
And, in the past year, I even wrote and recorded over a dozen rap songs. I also directed and self-produced music videos for some of these songs.
Through all these endeavors, I've learned a lot about creative processes--both for solo projects and highly collaborative ones. I know what separates the productive and successful ones from those that get stuck and go nowhere.
Here are some tips to help you overcome creative bottlenecks, whatever you're working on.
Break it into smaller pieces
Creative projects are often large and complex, and that can be daunting. An easy way to fix this is taking a moment to think about all the required steps in your project, and then breaking it into bite-size chunks. This makes everything less intimidating, and can also help you avoid analysis paralysis and procrastination.
Set a timer and make deadlines
Perfectionism is like a deadly weapon we often point at ourselves. It's like a mirage that we always think we're close to reaching but there's rarely an end. And that extra month you spent obsessing to make something 5 percent better usually won't make a difference in quality or your outcome.
I fight perfectionism and related creative blocks with time.
Once you've broken your task into bite-size pieces, you can make deadlines for each part. I personally set a timer whenever I'm writing (I did it to write this article), and I highly recommend all writers do the same. The artificial pressure has a way of preventing obsessing over individual words and other analysis paralysis. For writing an article, I give myself about 30 minutes, and then another 10 to 20 minutes for editing at a later time. You can also do the same thing for outlining and research, but sometimes I prefer to just write.
Change of scene
This is a little bit harder in the pandemic, since I can't just use my miles to hop on a business-class flight to Asia. But you can always just rent an Airbnb somewhere nearby if you need a little getaway. Even just taking a break and going on a walk can go a long way to change your state of mind and give you fresh perspective.
Keep an idea bank for rainy days
I'm a big fan of this strategy, since great ideas often come in bursts when creativity is overflowing. Many creators and innovators also do the same thing--from tech investor and serial entrepreneur Jason Lemkin to the young YouTube sensation Ashley "Bestdressed."
All you have to do is write down your ideas when they come to you.
Some people do this digitally, and others prefer pen and paper. I personally keep a notebook and create countless sticky notes. Every week, I review my notes and add photos of them to my "idea Trello." From there, I can review them on a monthly and quarterly basis, and decide which ones I want to put into action when. It's important to note that you shouldn't feel like you have to do all these ideas. Rather, they're just backup options for when you get stuck.
I struggle with this a lot, because I have so many ideas I get excited about that I want to do all at once. However, this is a trap that leads to a bunch of unfinished projects that become overwhelming. And then you feel bad that you're dropping balls, and not getting things done, and maybe even self-hate a bit.
You'll actually be much more productive and creative if you clear your mental and emotional clutter. This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to stop all your other projects and just focus on one thing, although sometimes that does help. Rather, just slow down, and try to work on fewer things at once. You'll actually get a lot more done, and be much happier as well.
Is there a bigger problem?
Sometimes you can't get yourself creatively unstuck because of deeper issues in your life. The first time I had serious, prolonged writer's block was when I was extremely unhappy and experiencing severe burnout. I thought the problem was that I couldn't produce content, but really that was just the tip of the iceberg.
All my tips in this article are great for helping you spur your creativity and fight procrastination, but they won't fix burnout, other fears, or conflicts in your life. It's important to pause, zoom out, and reflect to work on the bigger issues. And don't be afraid to get help if you need it--whether that's talking to a therapist, a friend, or a trusted mentor.