Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several conversations with visual artists about creative block—the challenge of just getting started or not knowing what to do, whether it is your first project or your fiftieth. Interestingly, it is often not a lack of ideas but an overload of ideas that is the challenge, and that's what I'd like to explore today.
The Habits of Idea People
Not all creative people are idea people. Some, for instance, are better at identifying problems or fine-tuning solutions than they are at generating ideas. But for those who especially love exploring possibilities and coming up with potential solutions, creative block is rarely a lack of ideas. More likely, it is a case of feeling overwhelmed by too many ideas and an inability to choose between them. And sometimes it is that we love the idea-generation part of the creative process so much that we don’t want to move on or haven’t reserved enough energy for the next phases of the process. Or just as we think we’ve made a decision, another idea comes to us and we are off on another tangent.
Other times we tend to be perfectionists. We want to know which idea is the best, most perfect choice? Which will yield the greatest benefit? Be the most fun or the most unique? Or sustain us the longest? Such questions can be a challenge for those with a few good ideas. Imagine someone who has dozens of ideas to which they’ve become attached. If any of this sounds familiar, stay with me.
Strategies to Help
One of the first keys to moving forward is acknowledging that you are an idea person—that coming up with ideas is the part of the creative process you like best. And yet, it is just one step in the creative process, and you must move through them all to complete any project. Set some deadlines or find someone to hold you accountable so that you continue to move through the entire process.
Find a box. I know, everyone is always talking about thinking outside of the box. But you really benefit from having a box to begin with. Having a specific challenge or defined set of parameters helps you to focus, to make your ideas more relevant, to know when you have a working solution, and to move forward with confidence. Without guidelines, you could continue coming up with ideas forever.
Take the next step: evaluate your ideas. Perhaps start with something simple like a card sort. Write all of your promising ideas down on individual cards. If you have a dozen or fewer, great. If it is more, then cluster related ideas and give those clusters a single name first. Then sort your cards by asking the following: Which of these ideas is the least compelling? (Move that card to the far right.) Which is the most compelling? (Move it to the far left.) Which is the next least compelling? (Move it beside the one on the far right. And which is the next most compelling? (Move it to the second position.) Continue this process, going back and forth until you reach the middle and have sorted all your cards. Don't over analyze it; go with your gut reaction to determine which is most compelling. If you have a clear winner, then get to work. If you have two or three equally strong options, then ask yourself the following about each:
- What do you like about it?
- What potential does it have?
- What concerns do you have?
- How might you overcome those concerns?
Or establish some criteria—maybe four or five requirements you want the idea to meet. And them rate them based on those criteria before making a final pick. Having different ways to think about and evaluate your ideas helps you move beyond your emotional connection to a more logical decision-making process.
Also, know that you don’t have to throw those other ideas away. You’re just choosing one idea to move forward with right now. Hang on to your cards and notes. Keep an idea file or journal. You can always come back to other compelling ideas later.
If all else fails, just throw your best ideas into a hat, draw one out and get to work! Yes, just doing something is often all you need to get the ball rolling.