What to Do When You Get Stuck

One of the worst-kept secrets of creative people is that – from time to time, more often than we’d like to admit – we hit a wall. A lot of people imagine that creatives – storytellers, filmmakers, musicians, designers – live in a world of constant wonder and inspiration. We’re the idea people. Creativity is fun, right?

The truth is that anyone who does creative work will tell you (if they’re honest) that it’s normal to feel stuck every once in awhile. Sometimes we’re inspired. Other times we’re just trying to make a deadline. Sometimes our work has tons of clarity and focus, and we’re convinced that it will make the world a better place. Other times we simply get lost halfway in the process. And one of our greatest fears is that we’ll stay stuck forever.

So how do we get un-stuck?

As you might have guessed, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Every person is different, everyone’s process is unique. Some of us thrive on planning and structure. Some of us thrive on spontaneity and gut instinct. But there are some principles to help you maneuver around your personal roadblocks and get you moving again.

One of the best insights I’ve ever come across about navigating the creative process was from Steven Spielberg. He was asked how he stayed inspired and productive as a creative professional, where his ideas came from and how he executed them so well. I thought his answer was profound. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this …

As a creative professional, it’s as if you’ve been handed a passport. And this passport allows you free passage between the different regions of your brain. The first region – we’ll call it the childlike daydreamer, the awe-filled, inspired, irresponsible part of your brain – this is where all your beautiful ideas are born and can stay safely sheltered. Then there’s the other part – we’ll call it the region of experienced adulthood, the grown-up who gets how the world works and knows what it takes to survive. 

As a person who creates, you have to access both regions. Otherwise you’ll get stuck. If you get stuck in your kid brain, your beautiful ideas won’t mean much to anyone else, because they’ll never cut it in the grown-up world. But if you get stuck in your grown-up brain, you’ll talk yourself out of ideas that aren’t fully formed yet. You’ll play it safe, avoid too much risk, and end up inspiring no one.

A light bulb went on when I heard this, and it’s helped me ever since. So often when I get creatively stuck, I’m either lacking inspiration (stuck in my grown-up brain) or lacking discipline (stuck in my kid brain.) Part of getting un-stuck is pulling out the passport and crossing the border, reconnecting with the thing I’ve been missing out on.

So when you’re feeling stuck and uninspired, like you haven’t had a good idea in a really long time, it’s probably worth spending some time doing things you really love to do. Research shows that when we’re at play, at rest or away from our everyday tasks (ie: on a walk or in the shower), our unconscious has more space to problem-solve and come up with great ideas and solutions. Einstein is quoted as saying that “creativity is the residue of wasted time.” So ‘waste’ a little time (or take that long overdue Sabbath) and you‘ll do your creative kid brain a giant favor.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling stuck and directionless, like you can’t make forward progress on your project, it might be time to embrace some structure. This could be as simple as writing down your to-do list for the day or getting your ideas out on notecards, just getting things out of your head and onto paper. Maybe it means setting a timer so that you stay focused for the next couple hours, or quitting / silencing every piece of technology that pulls you away from your work. Hunker down and get a good day’s work done. You’ll feel like a responsible citizen again, and your grown-up brain will thank you.

Maybe the best insight to getting creatively un-stuck is realizing that you’re not creating alone. 1 Corinthians 3:9 says that we are co-workers with God. If we’re in God’s Kingdom, we get to co-create with our Creator, which when you think about it is pretty phenomenal. That means that, when you get stuck, you have heaven’s resources to draw upon. God’s the One who created you, after all. Ask Him what your next step looks like.

Getting stuck is normal. But getting un-stuck is crucial, because people need to hear the stories you have to tell.