Posted by Todd Henry on Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 00:00
Overcoming an initial creative block can be challenging. But hurdling the "second wall" can be even harder. Here's how to do it.
For creative professionals, inspiration is often a luxury. We go to work everyday and have to make meaning out of disorder and extract form from the formless.
But because of the on-demand nature of our work, we often encounter barriers to full engagement. On the path to doing great work, we inevitably hit walls.
There are typically two walls that impede creative progress. The first, and most obvious one, occurs very early on (or before the creative process even begins). It's what causes us to shrink back from our work and seek something – anything – that will immediately give us an excuse to avoid confronting our uncertainty or fear of failure.
It's much easier to check email, make a call or reshuffle the papers on our desk than it is to bare our soul to the blank page, the blinking cursor or the empty art board. Beginning is often the hardest part of any creative effort. To get started, we must reach the point where we realize apathy is a worse fate than failure.
But that's not the last creative speed bump.
As we engage with our work we can hit another hurdle: the dreaded "second wall." This is the point at which we face a creative problem that seems unresolvable. We can't decipher the right course of action, and we panic. Our mind starts to flutter again with thoughts of distractions to fill our need for a quick productivity ping. We start to lose our edge, and we rationalize that this might be a good time to take a break.
But breaking at this critical phase of the creative process can be harmful in more ways than one. First, it causes us to lose critical focus at a time when our brain is revved and ready to go. The next time we sit down to dig into the work, even if that's in 10 minutes, we will have to recollect our thoughts. This is detrimental to real progress.
In addition, succumbing to the second wall means that we'll be beginning our work with a previously unsolved challenge, which will further contribute to our difficulty engaging with the project.
The solution? We need to learn to push through the second wall. When a seemingly unsolvable challenge presents itself, we need to stay with it until we have a reasonable solution. We should always end our work sessions on the upswing, not at an impasse. This approach will do a few things for us:
- It gives us a working solution. Even if it isn't the best solution, our minds can more easily refine a subpar solution than generate a new one from scratch. In between work sessions, we can continue to refine and tweak our solution until it's the best it can be.
- It subtly reinforces our capacity to solve problems. If we quit every time we face a difficult challenge, we're training our brain to fold at the first sign of conflict. However, like any kind of physical training, pushing ourselves through the burn increases our capacity to do great work.
- It provides us with a starting point. If you struggle with the first wall – getting started – then one effective way of combating this struggle is by always providing yourself with a good starting point. Make sure you end each session with a solid way to begin your work next time. If you're excited about your next action, you'll be less likely to procrastinate or seek alternative forms of engagement.
Like any kind of training that challenges us physically or mentally, we need to learn the value of persistence and commitment to our creative work. Stagnancy leads to apathy, which leads to creative death. To continue growing, we must commit to busting through the second wall. We will find our best creative work on the other side.
Todd Henry is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He regularly speaks and consults with companies, both large and small, about how to develop practices and systems that lead to everyday brilliance.