We have three distinct roles as creative beings: consumer, curator, and creator. (These roles apply to areas other than creativity, of course. But let’s focus.) Each is important. To reject the role of consumer because you’re focused on creativity is as deadly as rejecting the role of creator because you’re not a creative person.

We need to be consumers in order to take in our world — observe, read, listen, watch, appreciate what’s been created, and hear the larger conversation that we’re part of. We need to be curators in order to choose what we like or don’t, develop our style and taste, clarify our purpose and focus, and find commonality with others. And we need to be creators in order to use our skills, insights, and experiences and share what’s inside of us, process what we’ve received, participate in the ongoing creation of the universe, offer what we have, and grow.

All three roles together form our creativity conduit:

All illustrations: Annie Mueller

But the creativity conduit doesn’t always flow, does it? Things happen. We get out of balance. We lose focus. We ignore one or more roles, or we create blocks. If you’re facing a creative block, maybe it’s for one of these reasons.

1. Trash Inputs

You’re taking in whatever comes your way, with no regard for its quality or effect on you. Everybody enjoys trash inputs sometimes; that’s cool. When most of what you’re consuming is trash, however, the consequences can be severe. It’s the difference between eating greasy fast food every now and then and eating it for every meal.

Key Factors

What you’re consuming isn’t giving you much quality. Your inputs lack depth, perspective, beauty, and honest thinking. They don’t challenge or inspire you. You’re also taking in too many of these trash inputs. You can’t filter them — or maybe you no longer even have filters — and you’re overloaded. Your creative work can actually benefit from some trash — contrast is helpful. But when you’re overloaded, there’s no longer any contrast. It’s all trash.

How It Feels

  • You don’t feel inspired or interested, only bored and lethargic.
  • You struggle to come up with ideas you actually like.
  • You don’t feel motivated to finish anything. Everything feels pointless.
  • The ideas you continue working with feel unsatisfying. You don’t like what you end up producing. You work hard on something and then hate it.
  • You’re abandoning projects, giving up on work, and withdrawing from your own creative life. You don’t like it, but you don’t know what else to do.
  • You get stuck in quality control. You finish something, but it’s so much less than what you wanted it to be. You polish, edit, fix, polish, improve, and polish again before you release the work you’ve done — but you’re still not happy with it.
  • Feedback is fading, or you’re getting negative feedback. You feel disconnected from your audience. You’re desperate to do something good.

How to Fix It

Take a good long look at the source of your inputs. What are you consuming? Where is it coming from? Keep in mind that trash inputs aren’t necessarily bad; they’re just not helpful for your creative work.

You have to realize no one will filter your inputs but you. If you don’t want trash inputs, you have to stop taking them in. Take a break from all your input sources for a while, or set up filters to only receive better stuff. Maybe even change your input sources entirely. Think back to when you were creatively prolific and loving your work. What were your inputs then? Rediscover or find other versions of them.

You might need to do the mental and emotional equivalent of a physical fasting to clear out all the gunk that’s built up in your creative conduit.

Give yourself time to adjust and find a new equilibrium. Remember: If you’ve been on a fast-food diet, a bowl of mixed greens won’t taste good or be satisfying at first. You might need to do the mental and emotional equivalent of a physical fasting to clear out all the gunk that’s built up in your creative conduit.

Start using a simple idea system to help you filter and develop your ideas, choosing the best ones and giving them due attention. And don’t worry if you don’t have any good or interesting ideas at first — they will come. In the meantime, try these exercises:

  • Take a self-enforced media detox. Tune out of news, social media, and everything online (as much as possible) for several days.
  • Go back to the most basic, rudimentary forms that match your work. For example, if you’re a writer, read some children’s books, stories, fables, and myths. If you’re a visual artist, visit a museum or a library and look at early human art and modern art, focusing on color, shape, and size. If you’re a musician, revisit the classics of whatever genre matters to you. Don’t think too much about any of it; just soak it in and absorb.
  • Engage in basic forms of creative output. Write a simple story. Draw with crayons. Sketch with a pencil. Paint with one color. Compose a simple lyric or melody.

When you’re ready for more, you’ll know. You’ll get the itch. You’ll feel cleaner and fresher and energized, and everything will look brighter and deeper.

2. Not Enough Inputs

As impossible as it seems in our age of information overload, you can limit your inputs so severely and for so long that you lack material. Perhaps you’re entrenched in routine to the point that your normal inputs feel too familiar and stale to affect you. Perhaps you are in (or emerging from) a period of great stress or crisis. If you’ve been dealing with a family or medical emergency, an overloaded work schedule, or an onslaught of obligations, maybe you just haven’t had the time or attention to consume good stuff.

Key Factors

You’re not getting enough of anything. Even if there are inputs in your life, your energy has been too low to take them in or give them conscious attention. Or you may have just grown too familiar with your inputs, making them mundane. If you’ve been reading the same books, watching the same shows, and keeping to the same genres and experiences, you need to break out. The brain is no longer paying attention because it needs change.

How It Feels

  • You’re stretched thin, like there’s nothing left of you.
  • You’re stuck in that uncomfortable combination of boredom and restlessness. You need to move, act, and experience, but everything seems uninteresting or requires too much effort.
  • Jealousy is snapping at your heels. Other people’s creativity looks so effortless.
  • The voice of resentment is roaring in your head. (Careful here: If you listen too long, resentment turns into self-pity, and there’s no deadlier emotion for creativity. As soon as you say yes to feeling sorry for yourself, you give yourself an Always Valid Excuse for avoiding creative work.)
  • You question the value of your work. Nothing seems to have any meaning any more. You’re wandering down dark mental hallways, wondering if everything you’ve done is pointless.
  • You feel isolated and cut off from the creative community, maybe even undesirable.
  • You feel misunderstood. Nobody knows how hard it is. Nobody gets it. Nobody cares.

How to Fix It

First, rest. If you’ve been in a period of crisis, change, and stress, you need rest. Think of what you can do to relieve the pressure, what you can let go of, what obligations you can cancel. Realize that you are responsible for taking care of yourself and that you can take care of yourself. (Yes, you can!)

If you’re in a rut, sit with the boredom and ask yourself what you’re really craving. Does it scare you, the answer you hear? Keep asking until it does, and then follow that thread. Change is terrifying, but realize that fear of it can be an excuse for stagnation. Routines are helpful, but routines are not life. You are a glorious living creature who needs change because you are alive; either you grow or you slowly die.

We all need places of comfort and rest in our lives, but we need to balance those with times of growth.

Make a small change. Something really tiny. Just one step — start a new hobby or read a different genre. Ask someone for their recommendation (music, a movie, a show, a restaurant, an experience — anything) and then take the recommendation. Don’t qualify it or reason about it or substitute it. Just try it.

We all need places of comfort and rest in our lives, but we need to balance those with times of growth, which is, by its nature, uncomfortable and challenging. If you’ve been stuck in “all growth” or “all comfort” modes, seek ways to bring back some balance.

3. Misplaced Energy

Your inputs have variety and are mostly high-quality. You like what you’re consuming, and it has a positive, challenging effect on you. In fact, you like it so much that you can’t help sharing it. All the time. With everyone. You might even be setting up layers in your curation process: categorizing, saving, finding new ways to share, discussing, and recommending. There’s value in curation, but all your creative energy is going into your role as curator, so there’s not much left for your role as creator.

Key Factors

You’re taking in way too many inputs to process in a reasonable amount of time. It’s great that you have so many high-quality sources (and that you want to share them), but it’s not great that all your attention and energy is spent on collecting.

How It Feels

  • You’re energized by the interaction you get from being a good curator — which is lovely — but you get so much (instant) gratification that you’re ignoring your own creative work.
  • When you start doing your own creative work, it feels like it just takes way too long. It feels less interesting and really difficult. It feels lonely.
  • All your joy in finding good things to share is masking a fear that your own work could never live up to the standards you’ve established.
  • Hello, jealousy! You really feel it. You smash it down by finding something good to share and feeding on the praise you get for your good taste, your keen eye, your solid sensibility. It’s only going to work for a while.
  • A vague dissatisfaction tries to speak to you and become more specific, but you don’t like to listen to it.

How to Fix It

Start with honesty. Realize your misplaced energy is a form of procrastination and that you are only hurting yourself. There will always be more options, more good stuff, more possibilities, more books and music and shows and conversations and paintings and genres than you can consume in your lifetime — rejoice that there is so much richness in this world for you!

You can dedicate some time to consuming and curating because it is good and you love it and you do it well. But set time limits. Choose the best of the best, and when you reach your time limit, honor it. You might need some accountability and support; self-imposed limits are difficult.

Make your offerings no matter how incomplete, imperfect, small, or below your personal standard you think they are.

Curation is lovely and important, but the world also needs your distinct creative output. We are incomplete without what you have to offer. Restart by demanding some small and simple creative output from yourself: a daily sketch, a daily paragraph, a daily poem, anything. (Maybe even require this daily creativity before you let yourself curate.) Dip your toes back in the creative waters. You are a creator — you’ve just gotten out of practice. Make your offerings no matter how incomplete, imperfect, small, or below your personal standard you think they are. You will improve with each one.

Realize that you may never feel qualified to do the work you want to do. Feeling qualified is elusive, and you can’t control how you feel. But you can control what you do, and you qualify yourself to do something by doing it. That’s it. Your feelings may or may not match.

4. Creative Constipation

You’ve taken in good outputs, and perhaps you’re doing a bit of curating. What you’re not doing is any creative work. You have turned your filters into obstacles. There’s no flowing out; there’s just a big block, and no matter how much you take in, it’s not enough. You’re stuck in the consumer role, and you might even feel completely disconnected from your own creative powers.

Key Factors

You’ve disconnected from your role as a creator and perhaps no longer see yourself as creative. Maybe you had a bad experience, negative feedback, or some other kind of shutdown. Whatever the reason, you’re living in one half of your creative conduit, and it’s stopped up at the other end.

How It Feels

  • You might actually feel comfortable. For many people, living primarily in the consumer role is normal. It’s much easier to consume than to create.
  • You’re always seeking entertainment or meaning. You feel bereft and angry if you have to go very long without consuming. All your energies go toward consuming.
  • Your attention span is getting shorter. You find it increasingly difficult to focus on complex, deep topics. Your brain has gotten used to only consuming and doesn’t want to do hard work.
  • You feel justified in your choices. You’d say you’re contributing in your own way. You believe you’re part of something, and you think of yourself as involved and active. But you’re still not doing your own work, are you?
  • You go through periods of obsessing over some new interest or genre and then distancing yourself. (Spoiler: This attraction to newness is your way of making up for the joy and fulfillment you’d get from doing your own creative work.)

How to Fix It

Unblocking can be painful and scary. Accept that you may have to go through some discomfort and feel very vulnerable to get past this. You may need to expand your definition of creativity. If you don’t identify as creative, it’s probably because you define the term narrowly. Realize that you are the only one who can give or withhold permission to create. You are your only authority, the only judge of your work.

Try something new; anything new. You need to distance yourself from doing only what you’re comfortable with. You might start by converting some of your consuming activities to creating activities. For example, if you consume comics, spend time creating one. You don’t have to show it to anyone.

Take the “releasing” option off the table and create something just for yourself.

If you’ve developed this block in response to negative feedback, criticism, or other pushback to creative work you did, it’s time to do some research. Read about people who have succeeded in a way that you want to succeed. What rejection did they face? What obstacles? Find out what they did and think about what you can do.

Or you might simply focus on creating something but not shipping it. If you fear creative work, it may be that you don’t trust yourself to create something good enough (whatever that means). So, for a while, take the “releasing” option off the table and create something just for yourself. Play, practice, and relax with no pressure to do anything else.

5. Perfectionism

It’s great to have high standards for the work you do, but you find yourself stuck. You set a standard, reach it, and then push the standard higher. You’re creating, but you’re afraid to release your work. All the beautiful offerings you’ve made are locked in behind a thick wall of fear. You’re in a tragic place — but you don’t have to stay there.

Key Factors

At first glance, it’s feels like a quality issue. You don’t want to do merely good work; you want to do excellent work. You’re not okay with mistakes. You want to meet high standards in everything you do. But there’s more going on. You’ve identified yourself so completely and fully as a creator that you’re now terrified to “prove it” to the world. You think being a creator means doing perfect work all the time and being better than others. And you’re terrified you can’t live up to this definition of creator. Indeed, who could?

How It Feels

  • You’re frustrated to the point where an internal seething, simmering rage might explode beyond your control at any provocation. You don’t know what will set it off; you just know you feel angry.
  • You’re beginning to look at things you used to love with disgust. Nothing has flavor anymore, and everything is flat.
  • Oh, the jealousy! But now it’s more than that. Other creators doing good work is too difficult for you to handle. You’re intent on finding something wrong with their work.
  • You’re sensitive and self-defensive. You’ve grown adept at blaming situations, people, and things beyond your control for the trap you’re in. You’re smart and quick, and you’re using your abilities to create logical paths that make you feel justified and superior. But deep down, you know what’s going on.

How to Fix It

You feel trapped because you are — in a prison of your own making. You built it around yourself, shut the door and locked it, and now you keep (purposely) forgetting you have the key. It’s time to wake up to what’s really happening: You are the only one who can free yourself.

You’ll need to realize the solution is both simple and possible — and you don’t want to face it because you’re afraid. This is a big realization. Take your time.

Ship something. Pick a random thing in your “not quite ready” pile (it’s a big pile, isn’t it?) and send it into the world. Require yourself to release something daily. A small thing is fine. You can even call it incomplete if that helps. Justify it however you want as long as you ship it.

Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. What’s the big bad thing that will happen if you finally ship something and it turns out to be awful?

You can help this process along by creating a checklist for finishing things — a clear step-by-step process for doing that last bit of work. Use your checklist, and then call the work finished. And accept that “finished” does not always mean “complete,” and “complete” never means “perfect.” Creative work can always expand, improve, and connect, but you have to pick a point of completion and send it into the world, or you’ll never get to your other work.

Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. What’s the big bad thing that will happen if you finally ship something and it turns out to be awful? What’s the actual consequence, and how bad is it, really? Realize that whatever it is, you can probably handle it.

If for any reason you find yourself out of creative commission — too much input, not enough, or you’re just spinning wheels — step back. Spend some time on relationships and activities that aren’t related to your creative work. Expand your own sense of self so you can relax the tight hold on your creative identity.