4 Evidence-Based Ways to Push Past a Creative Block
Jump-start your creativity with these strategies based on recent research.
Posted May 3, 2018
Sometimes the creative ideas flow freely—and sometimes they barely trickle. What makes the latter experience so frustrating is the knowledge that you’re quite capable of being creative. You’ve come up with inventive ideas and innovative solutions before. But right here, right now, you can’t seem to turn on the idea spigot.
Fortunately, psychological science can help. Below are four strategies based on recent research that may get your creative juices flowing again.
Strategy 1. Think in terms of opposites
Opposites attract creativity, when they prompt you to use what’s known as Janusian thinking. Named for the Roman god Janus—who is depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions—this type of thinking involves pondering two opposite concepts at once.
In new research, Chen-Yao Kao of the University of Tainan in Taiwan explored the benefits of taking a Janusian approach. Volunteers completed sentences including two adjectives that were opposites, almost opposites, or not opposites. For example, in the opposites condition, they might complete this sentence: “___ is optimistic and pessimistic because ___." The more opposite the adjectives were, the more ideas people generated.
Suggestion: Frame a problem as a paradox. Then ask yourself how it can be both apples and oranges. This forces you to look at the problem from two opposing perspectives, which may lead to a broader range of ideas.
Strategy 2. Set constraints for yourself
Speaking of paradoxes, here’s a good one: Setting boundaries for your mind can sometimes free your creativity. Catrinel Haught-Tromp, a psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey, calls this the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis. She’s referring to the beloved children’s classic, which was penned by Dr. Seuss after an editor challenged him to write a children’s book using no more than 50 different words.
In research by Haught-Tromp, volunteers were asked to write creative two-line rhymes that conveyed common greeting card messages (for example, happy birthday). In some cases, there were no limits on their word choice. But in other cases, they were asked to include a specific noun that wasn't obviously related to the message. Imposing this requirement led to more creative output.
Suggestion: When you’re feeling overwhelmed by boundless possibilities, narrow down your options by establishing some parameters. For example, you might limit the tools you can use or topics you can explore. With fewer options, you can explore the remaining ones more deeply, and that promotes creativity.
Strategy 3. Turn on some happy tunes
To study how music affects creative thinking, researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands divided 155 volunteers into five groups: happy music, calm music, sad music, anxious music, or silence (the control condition). The musical selections—all classical pieces—had previously been shown to convey their respective moods. “Happy” music, for example, was represented by an upbeat, energizing piece.
Once the music or silence commenced, the volunteers began working on tasks designed to test different types of thinking. Those listening to happy music outperformed the control group on tasks that called for divergent thinking—in other words, original ideas and fresh perspectives.
Suggestion: Wake up your creativity with happy, rousing music. Remember: The idea is to free your mind to be creative—not focus it on lip syncing—so you might want to choose music with no vocals for this purpose.
Strategy 4. Sleep enough, consistently
Some days, 17 waking hours don’t seem to be enough. If you’re like many people, you skimp on sleep for a few days and play catch up after that. But then something else comes up, you lose sleep again, and the pattern keeps repeating.
To study this pattern, Baylor University researchers looked at the sleep habits of 28 interior design students. Many cycled between late nights working on school projects and catch-up nights when they slept 10 hours or more. Such erratic sleep schedules were an accepted part of the student culture, but they may have had unintended consequences: The more variable the students’ sleep, the more their creativity declined over time.
Suggestion: Adults need at least seven hours of sleep nightly, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. For optimal mental functioning, simply averaging seven hours isn’t enough. Ideally, you should try to get that amount every night.
Being creative on demand isn’t easy—and sometimes it feels nearly impossible. When you’re creatively dammed up, these evidence-based strategies may help you get unblocked.
Haught-Tromp, C. (2017). The Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis: How constraints facilitate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 10-17. doi:10.1037/aca0000061
Kao, C.-Y. (2018). How combining opposite, near-opposite, and irrelevant concepts influence creativity performance. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. doi:10.1037/aca0000166
King, E., Daunis, M., Tami, C., & Scullin, M. K. (2017). Sleep in studio based courses: Outcomes for creativity task performance. Journal of Interior Design, 42(4), 5-27. doi:10.1111/joid.12104
Ritter, S. M., & Ferguson, S. (2017). Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking. PLOS ONE, 12(9), e0182210. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0182210