Getting Unstuck

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. | Denise Shekerjian, Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born

All of us, at some time or other, feel like we are ‘stuck’ on a problem, a project, or some other activity. The mathematician Dan Rockmore sums it up, neatly:

All problem solvers and problem inventors have had the experience of thinking, and then overthinking, themselves into a dead end. The question we’ve all encountered—and, inevitably, will encounter again—is how to get things moving and keep them moving. That is, how to get unstuck.

But when taking up the issue of getting unstuck, we need to start with the other end of the cycle: what is the baseline that forms the backdrop behind getting stuck? What is the state of mind that is disrupted when we are pulled off track and blocked? I choose to characterize the opposite of stuckness as stickness: which is to say, sticking to the routines that channel your work.

One of the insights widely shared by creative people is unsurprising: creativity is honed by long hours of persistent, day-in, day-out work. The best writers generally have very set writing schedules, and an ardent desire to stick to it.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote about his routine in a letter to his wife:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.

Other creatives of all stripes tell very similar stories. The quotation at the top from Denise Shekerjian is her synthesis of interviews with forty MacArthur Fellows, from the broadest imaginable range of fields: political science, history, the arts, and sciences. The consistent thread is the willingness, no, the eagerness, of the Fellows to do the work in support of their own ‘peculiar talent’.

So the first part of the process to generate first-rate work is simple. As Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist, composer and Prime Minister, put it:

Before I was a genius, I was a drudge.

He was another creative who knew about doing the work:

I owe my success in one percent to my talent, in ten percent to luck, and in ninety percent to hard work. Work, work, and more work is the secret to success.

And of course, people — even the most creative — aren’t at their best every day. But they still do the work. The best-selling author Jodi Picoult is such a character:

If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

So, these highly creative people accept the ebb and flow of creativity: not all days are a peak experience, but you have to commit yourself to the process, and the process is mostly doing the work. Writers write, painters paint, mathematicians form theorems, and musicians play.

But all of them, at some time, get stuck. And just as they share that same doggedness of purpose in their work, they share common ways of shaking off the blockages.

The most consistent recourse to being stuck is to take a walk. There seems to be a great benefit in engaging in an activity that requires a degree of concentration, but not absolute attentiveness, and meanwhile allows the unconscious mind to do its work, below the surface, while you look at the trees, watch the birds, see the sky.

There’s a well-researched phenomenon known as ‘embodied creativity’. It turns out that the metaphorical associations linked to various activities can stimulate the mind in a way that matches the activity. Annie Murphy Paul lays out the theory:

*Such experiments suggest that we can activate a particular cognitive process by embodying the metaphor that has come to be associated with it.


Simply moving the body through space is itself a loose kind of metaphor for creativity: for new angles and unexpected vistas, for fluid thinking and dynamic change. The activation of this metaphor may help account for the finding that people are more creative during and after walking than when they are sitting still.

Think about the words we use when we can’t seem to muster an original idea—we’re “stuck,” “in a rut”—and those we reach for when our creative work is going well. Then we’re “on a roll,” our thoughts are “flowing.” The language we use is full of metaphors that borrow from our experience as embodied creatures; metaphorical movements reverse-engineer this process, inducing the body to make metaphor-evoking motions as a way of prodding the mind into the state the metaphor describes.

“Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own,” the cognitive scientist Sian Beilock has written. “Getting a person to move lowers his threshold for experiencing thoughts that share something in common with the movement.”*

So, what is involved is getting the conscious mind out of the way, almost magically, by fooling ourselves into allowing intuition to float to the top.

The children's book author Madeleine L'Engle used music in a similar way:

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

I often resort to another widely used technique to get unstuck on a specific project: divert yourself by switching to a different one. The artist Ben Skinner

I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me.

Yes, we all get stuck, but we can get unstuck by shifting the conscious mind to something else, something distracting like a shower, taking a walk, or playing the piano, lulling ourselves into an alternate state of mind. You can create a little space for the unconscious mind to break through while your hands are washing your hair, your dog is tugging on the leash, or you are tuning your guitar.

Then you can get back in the groove, back to the routine, back to editing that draft.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon