Creative Stumbling Blocks: How to Hurdle Them

This is a guest post from contributor Sarah Whinnem. Sarah and I met on Twitter and have maintained a relationship online for quite some time. She is an inspiration as a visual artist, active social media participant, and good friend.

Creative Stumbling Blocks: How to Hurdle Them

No matter what aspect of the creative world you work in, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of hitting a metaphorical creativity wall. It happens more often for some, but trust me, it happens to everyone. Personally, I find myself in the situation for mainly one of two reasons: First, I have been concentrating on something so long that I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m too close up to whatever I’m working on to have a fresh perspective. Second, I am working on something I’m not totally invested in. It’s usually a project where I either don’t have clear direction, or I’m not quite happy with the direction it’s taken. These situations seem to get me stuck pretty easily. But in analyzing what my personal stumbling blocks are, I’ve  come up with a few good strategies to get past them. Some are more productive than others, and I have taught myself how to recharge my creative batteries while staying on track.

The Obvious: Take a Break

This trick ALWAYS works. Walk away from the desk, the laptop, the paper, and leave it alone momentarily. This is often a solution to the first stumbling block. By giving your mind a break from the project youÕre working on, you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes your brain just needs to change gears to get back up to speed. Einstein allegedly worked a job in the patent office to keep his brain distracted while not concentrating on physics.

The Trap: Procrastinating
The key to this trick is that it’s very easy to get distracted into doing something else altogether, and get sidetracked from whatever you were working on. This isn’t exactly the point of getting a mental break, so you have to be careful not to let yourself get carried away!

The Better Solution: Alternative Work
I have found that I work better by simply putting one project aside and switching to another type of work. This seems to be more suited to non-thinking-intensive work, such as data housekeeping, billing or filing, or even some types of coding. These types of things aren’t that fun, but all need to be done on a regular basis, and I’ve found that they’re the perfect diversion when I’m stuck and getting them done still allows me to be productive.

The Inspiring: Creativity by Osmosis

Another really good way to get your “Ah-ha!” muscles moving is to be inspired by the creativity of others. Today, there are thousands of millions of galleries, articles, and conversations by and among those infinitely more creative than I am. It often doesn’t take long to be inspired when viewing someone else’s work. Now I don’t mean copying here, I mean letting someone else’s creative solution to a problem inspire you to come up with your own creative solution.

The Trap: Idle Browsing
It’s very easy to wander off on a tangent while you’re searching around for inspiration. A gallery of photography easily leads into a list of photographers on Twitter and before you know it, you’re catching up on all the latest Sockington news. Or reading reviews of the newest camera to be released. I have found that I need to be very disciplined when opening up my feed reader so I stick to my Design category and avoid ICanHasCheezburger when I am supposed to be working.

The Better Solution: Boundaries
I am easily distracted with this, so I have two solutions. One, set a time or content limit for the diversion. I give myself a small amount of time, or if I have found something interesting, I’ll finish reading it. Two, a great alternative is to pick up an actual book. I love flipping through an art or design book to see what the masters have done. Even poetry is inspiring- there are tons of fresh ideas in creative fields outside my particular area.

The Collaborative: Brainstorm with Others

Two heads are better than one, right? A productive way to get inspired for a project is to get feedback from others. This solution works especially well for projects you’re stuck on for the second reason- ambiguity. Another set of eyes can help you see something you may have missed, or may be able to suggest a solution you haven’t thought of. I’m especially lucky in that I work with several other talented designers I can collaborate with, but communities such as Twitter, ConceptFeedback, or Dribbble are all ways for freelance and independent designers to work together. This tactic also mentally switches your brain from design mode into conversation mode, which is often enough to power through a tough spot.

The Trap: Getting Social
Again along the distraction lines, collaborating with others quickly can progress into chatting. You just need to be aware of that and stay focused. I actually don’t have too much of a problem staying on topic when I’m discussing work with a colleague. This seems to be the most helpful tactic for me.

The Better Solution: Meetings
As bad a connotation as that word has, it’s useful for brainstorming. It’s a simple as setting a time limit for a quick session where you can talk about the project, and come up with a solution together. It’s helpful if you’re direct and concise about the conundrum you’re having and what problems you need solved.

All in all, the main idea here is to force your brain to switch gears, and to know what motivates yourself. It’s relieving that when I get stuck in a rut, I know myself well enough to realize what works and what doesn’t. Staying inspired and productive is really about knowing yourself and finding out what stimulates your creativity.

Sarah is a graphic designer, Mac geek, and mean margarita-maker. Check out her site* and be sure to follow this brilliant beauty on Twitter @madysondesigns. *Note: Sarah’s site is currently under construction, but should be back up and running soon. Make sure to check back and experience her brilliance first-hand.


Wired for Success in 2010

I wrote this post back in January, but considering it’s been almost 6 months since then (oh, MY GOODNESS it’s flown by!), I thought I should post it again as both a reminder to myself what I want to accomplish and a means of checking in on my progress.

The other day, I read a great article on Chris Brogan‘s blog about Wiring Yourself for Success in 2010. He suggests that, instead of making the traditional New Year’s Resolutions and following them up with endless to-do lists, a better alternative is to set goals and lay out mind maps or frameworks for how to accomplish those goals with multiple paths to the same end result. So, instead of laying out resolutions like “lose 30 pounds”, he says he chooses to set a fitness goal and focuses on one word (in this case, active). He then writes out multiple ways, or paths, to achieve this goal and any distractions or obstacles that might prevent him from accomplishing it, then lists out a few steps to take on his path to success, what the “finish line” looks like (3-5 activities a week, looser jeans, a need to go shopping), and ultimately what comes after he has achieved this goal (step up activity level, try something challenging).

Rather than static goals and infinite to-do lists, this approach is accessible and fluid. If you slip up, there’s no need to start over, simply reassess and redirect, keep working your way to that goal. It’s encouraging, motivating, and makes so much sense.

Chris suggests picking three words for the year to start with. Mine will be: Learn, Create, Invest.



  • Goal word: LEARN
  • Path 1 to the goal: formal classes (I’m in the process of signing up for graphic design classes)
  • Path 2 to the goal: utilize free time
  • Path 3 to the goal: integrate into work life
  • Distractions: work, other goals, social and leisure activities
  • Steps to the path: sign up, work hard in, and excel at online graphic design classes; find free or inexpensive photography tutorials and practice with both digital and 35mm film cameras; read, read, read; observe professionals online and reach out to ask for guidance; work closely with my boss on creative projects and professional development opportunities
  • The finish line: working knowledge and understanding of typography and layout in print and online media, five photography sets each with a different concentration (aperture, focus, f-stop, filter, flash, etc.); enough knowledge to push forth and create my own website.
  • What’s next: use new knowledge to complete own website, portfolio.



  • Goal word: CREATE
  • Path 1 to the goal: build own website
  • Path 2 to the goal: continue blogging
  • Path 3 to the goal: create my own style look
  • Distractions/obstacles: time management, lack of patience
  • Steps to the path: create a logo for my new online identity/website, layout and design of site, code it, update it; post to blog at least twice each week, keep new and exciting features coming and continue with features which I have already started, keep it fresh and relevant; add at least three home-sewn pieces of clothing to my wardrobe; make at least three pieces of jewelry; clean out any old or outdated pieces and donate to charity; take photos to document looks
  • The finish line: a comprehensive, cohesive style and look in person and online; a brand I am proud to push forth in the world
  • What’s next: continue to refine look, organize and style home spaces and document with photos, label, periodically refresh look online and in person


piggy bank

  • Goal word: INVEST (I had originally picked “Smart”, but changed it to a verb – I like “doing” words and investing sounds smart, doesn’t it?)
  • Path 1 to the goal: invest financially
  • Path 2 to the goal: invest my time
  • Path 3 to the goal: invest in myself
  • Distractions: cash flow, time management, the usual social and leisure distractions
  • Steps to the path: eat well (no nitrates, chemicals, preservatives, or hormones, eating a balanced diet, eating often but not lots at once), exercise (walking, biking, and getting out more), learning to view spending money on myself as an investment and not wasteful, do something every week that I can be proud of – whether that’s creating a piece of artwork or excelling at a project at work or donating time or money to a charity I support, spend money and time on quality and not quantity
  • The finish line: owning only things that are quality and useful and nothing that can be considered clutter, visible results in health improvement via physical appearance and in hormone test results, a savings account not linked to a checking account that has a small amount in it only used in cases of emergency, a list of accomplishments at the end of 2010 that will challenge me to do even better in 2011
  • What’s next: paying down debt on student loans, investing money, a list of equally challenging goals for 2011

Image credits: Learn – Dubio; Create – Thanushyan; Invest – Jordan Liang.

Analysis on my progress with these goals coming soon. In the meantime, I’d love to know what challenges and goals you set out for yourself in 2010. How are you doing with them?