Creative Blocks and Scanner Moments

I commented on Twitter late last week that I have probably a month’s worth of half-finished posts written (or, at least, titles jotted down) for Sententia. The problem is, of course, that they’re not nearly ready for prime time, which means that blog content languishes.

Some of those drafts are mere fragments of ideas, others are posts that I’m sure I could sit down and knock out, and still others started off strong but never moved beyond that point. I’ve hit my block in the road, but when faced with a blank page, couldn’t get beyond the first few thoughts.  In other words… writer’s block.

When I look back at all those post drafts, a fair amount of it is actually pretty terrible (lucky you that I never posted any of it!), in that the writing just never came together. But some of it’s quite good — a good idea, pretty clearly written, just not finished. But that doesn’t explain why I’ve hit this block, or what to do about it!

Creative Blocks

When I look those “terrible” drafts, I can remember the experience of writing them — and for a large proportion of them, I remember it felt like pulling teeth. I had ideas that I wanted to express, but couldn’t find the words to do so.

It’s like a painter who can see a beautiful picture in their minds eye but is frozen by a blank canvas, or a musician who hears fragments of a tune in their head but can’t pull it together into a meaningful melody.

The experience is a pretty common one for most of us: we get to a certain point, and then *boom*. We hit a wall, our perfectionism clicks in, and all of a sudden, we’re facing a creative block.

For some people, this creative block completely prevents them from getting started. That great idea vanishes when you’re faced with a blank page. For others, you’ll get all fired up about an idea, maybe even get part-way in, but then all of a sudden, you find yourself stuck.

The natural response when you creative blocks is to get frustrated. “Why can’t I get this ou! It’s on the tip of my tongue, it’s a great idea, but everything I write just sounds wrong!”

Beating Back the Creative Blocks

The most common advice for overcoming a creative block is to just persist. Keep on going, and eventually, you’ll find work through that blockage and find your voice again. For writers, it’s “write a terrible first draft; you can rewrite or edit it later.” For artists, it’s “just start sketching and see what comes out.” For musicians, it’s “focus on the music, let the notes come as they will.”

That’s good advice, and very often, it works. But not always. That advice works if you’re having momentum problems. It’s hard to get started and get into flow. But if you just jump in, you’ll get into flow soon enough.

But beyond the common momentum problem, there are other factors that can come into play as well:

High Expectations - Are you expecting too much of yourself? When I write, I do this all the time. I want my first draft to be a perfect expression of what I’m trying to say. 

Overcoming High Expectations: Realizing that not every project has to be totally perfect is easier said than done. All of us have a perfectionist streak in us, so the key is to make it work to our advantage rather than holding us back. Ask yourself, “How perfect does this have to be? Is this a project that requires 100% perfection, or maybe only 50%? 20%?” 

Distractions – The single-biggest flow killer is external distractions. If it’s lunch break and you’re trying to create, you won’t get into flow if your cubicle neighbor’s phone is ringing off the hook.

Overcoming Distractions: I find myself more distracted when I’m trying to get my creative work done ‘whenever I can’. Whenever I can turns into wherever I can, and that means I’m usually not in an optimal place to get things done. The key is to set aside a time and a space for whatever is important — a time and a space that you can control. Then, lock the door, turn off the e-mail, and enjoy your undistractedness.

Boreout – This one may seem counter-intuitive at first: if you have too little to do, it can be hard to get on a roll and actually do something. The key thing is not that you’re lazy, but that you’ve tried to cope with boredom in ways that sap your momentum. (See Wikipedia:Boreout and Forget Burnout, Boreout is the new office disease for more).

Overcoming Boreout: The best thing, of course, would be to avoid the boredom coping strategies that lead to boreout in the first place. Things like setting little challenges to get things done as quickly as possible can keep your momentum going and help you avoid dragging out smaller tasks. If you’re already suffering from boreout, the key is to get moving again (like the momentum example given at the very top) — but start small. Pick something you’ve wanted to work on or have thought about trying. Set a stopwatch and work on it for 5 minutes. Take a break, then do five more minutes. After a few repetitions, bump it up to 10 minutes. And so on, and so forth.  You’ll have your momentum back in no time.

Moving On – And finally, we come to the classic scanner syndrome. You have no lack of ideas — in fact, they come more rapidly than you can handle — but you never seem to want to bring them to a conclusion. People call you a dilettante, a dabbler, or a jack-of-all-trades.  (Read this excerpt from Refuse to Choose to see if you’re a scanner!)

Overcoming Moving On: The trick to this one is that … well … there is no trick. The need to move on isn’t something you overcome, it’s something you learn to identify and embrace. If you are a scanenr and have reached your “finish point,” the worst thing you can do is just keep going. It’s far better to leave something incomplete than to force yourself to live a miserable existance (and then beat yourself up in the process). The key is to know when you’re experiencing a creative block, and when you’re experiencing a scanner moment.

Embracing the Scanner Moments

That last point — moving on and the ‘scanner moment’ is worth talking a bit more about. When I look at those draft posts I have sitting in my blog publishing area, I see another kind of post that I didn’t mention before. Those are the ones that I was initially really passionate about.

I’ve got loads of ideas for posts that are half-finished because all of a sudden, they just didn’t seem that interesting any more. Whether I’ve started an outline or even written up a first draft, going back to that idea and finishing it off would feel like revisiting yesterday’s dinner. I’ve reached my finishing point, and no amount of self-discipline will bring back that initial passion for an idea.

I’ve recently started re-reading Refuse to Choose to help me tackle this problem, and came across something of an epiphany. In a section describing scanner daybooks (the ultimate scanner tool which — I am almost ashamed to admit — I haven’t gotten around to using. Yet!), Barbara talks about the importance of running with your ideas and letting them flow:

Always try to make your descriptions as complete as possible so that if you disappeared and a stranger found this description, she’d be able to complete the project. Why? Because otherwise, once the passion wears off, you’ll forget why you were so excited. Let your thoughts spill out on the page as they come to you, instead of making a list or an outline you won’t understand or appreciate later.

You’ll notice that the solution here is a combination of the creative blocks techniques listed above — you want to move on when you’re ready, but before that point, make sure you capture whatever it is that has caught your eye. Your best bet is still:

  • When the urge strikes, cut yourself some slack on the perfectionism and realize that you’re just following your natural instincts to be a scanner!
  • Give yourself a time and a space to pursue your many passions, without constant interruption. Then, when you’re done, go back to the crazy life with all its distractions. Even 5 minutes here and there can make a huge difference in your level of personal fulfillment.
  • Follow your passions — yes, that’s plural! A scanner is particularly at risk for boreout because we tend to reach our ‘finish’ point much sooner than others. If you try to focus on just one thing at a time, you will suffer from boreout. If, instead, you honor your passions and ideas (even just by writing them down) you not only will feel more fulfilled, but you also won’t get bored.
  • And finally, take advantage of those moments when your passion is in full force. Love it, explore it, write it down in depth. And when the moment passes, leave it behind. It’s the best thing for you.

In other words, as a scanner, you can approach your creative blocks in much the same way as everyone else. You may just do it a bit more rapidly.

How to Overcome Boredom

Last week at work, I was experiencing a whole bunch of boredom.  The project I was working on amounted to little more than copying and pasting, and changing dates on documents to reflect that it is now January 2009, not September 2008.

83/365  painfully boring day

photo by riot jane

At first, I was able to keep myself engaged by making a game of it — how quickly can I get this document fixed? How many can I do in an hour? But that only lasted so long before I was avoiding checking my email, and could barely stand to look at the (seemingly ever-growing) pile of updates yet to do.

Fast-forward to today, and boredom seemed like a thing from the very distant past. I was in the groove, having a lot of fun working on a project and being excited seeing it all come together. I still wasn’t checking e-mail, but this time it was because I was so into what I was doing.

So what was the difference? What exactly is it that makes us bored vs. not-bored? As we’ll discover, the key is to understand challenge and skill — and find which one is your anti-boredom medicine.

Defining Boredom

I’m a firm believer that understanding something (like boredom) can make a big difference when it comes to overcoming it. So let’s start there.

Most of us would probably define boredom something like how the dictionary does:

The feeling of being bored by something tedious 

Oh so helpful, right? So, as I was taught when in elementary school, when a definition in the dictionary doesn’t help, try looking up other words from the definition. Which leads us to

Bored, adj. To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious

Well, now we’re getting somewhere. It may not be the world’s most detailed definition, but it is slightly more insightful. At the very least, the definition(s) match our emotional experience of boredom: the feeling of tedium, the feeling of being weary because of experiencing dullness and repetitiveness (repetitiveness… repetitiveness…)

But what a dictionary definition doesn’t tell us is what boredom actually is — it only tells us how we experience it. And while it might give us a bit of a glimpse into why we get bored, it doesn’t really help us all that much beyond what we already knew: we get bored because we’re doing boring things.

What Boredom Isn’t

Another technique we can use to understand what boredom is and where it comes from is to look at what it’s like when we aren’t bored.

For example, we could say that we’re not bored when we’re totally engaged with something, or when we’re curious and captivated, or when we’re being challenged. This would imply that boredom is characterized by a lack of engagement, challenge and/or curiosity. And this makes intuitive sense: it’s impossible to feel simultaneously bored out of your skull and completely engaged and interested in something.

This also aligns with research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted psychologist from Claremont Graduate University. I recently re-watched his TED Talk on Flow (which is super-interesting; I may write a post about it!); while the talk itself is about the state of Flow (ie. the aforementioned complete engagement) you can learn alot about boredom from it, too.

Boredom as Low Challenge, Low Skill


According to Csikszentmihalyi, there is a relationship between how you feel doing something (e.g. bored, relaxed, in control), how much you’re being challenged, and how much of your skill level you’re needing to do that task.

Let’s skip the “Flow” side of this diagram for now, which is where most people focus, and instead look to the topic at hand: boredom.

As shown in this diagram, Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that we tend to experience boredom when we are engaged in non-challenging tasks which use some of our skills, but not a lot. That matches up with our earlier definitions, in that boredom hits when we’re doing things that are dull and non-challenging.

Beating Boredom By Increasing Challenge

What’s more interesting, though, is that this diagram doesn’t just tell us what boredom is, it also tells us how we become bored — and in doing so, it gives us hints about how to get “un-bored”.

In short, if boredom occurs when we aren’t challenged and aren’t really using our skills, then the opposite ought to be true. Increase the challenge and amount of your skill you’re using, and you’ll move out of boredom.

Note, however, that just increasing the challenge on its own isn’t a guarantee that you’ll beat boredom and get into a better space; if I wanted to program a complex application, which would raise the level of challenge. Now, I am a competent programmer, but it’s been a while since I’ve written any serious code. In other words, it may be high challenge, but the skill level it would require is way beyond where I’m at — I’d feel worried about my ability to complete the task, since I perceive my skill level was far below what it needed to be.

So while an obvious key to moving out of boredom is to increase the challenge — with the added caviat that we also need to make sure that we have the skills to handle the new challenge.

Moving to New Skills

But since challenge and skill are related, it really ought to work both ways, even if this isn’t obvious. Let’s take the programming language example — what would happen if I decided to learn a programming language? By doing this, I am not so much changing the challenge level (as I’m a fairly competent programmer, and have a good understanding of programming languages) as changing the skill level involved.

In other words, just like you can overcome boredom by adjusting how challenged you are, you can also overcome boredom by adjusting the skills you’re using. Now obviously, changing skill and challenge levels are related: if you’re pushing yourself to acquire new skills, you’re creating an inherent challenge. But each individual will have different ways that work better for them.

Which Works Better For You?

Imagine what you would do in this situation: if you were totally bored with your current job, which approach would you be more likely to take to better your situation? All things being equal, would you try to find a new job in the same field, or would you try to change career directions entirely?

There’s nothing wrong with either direction — both will meet the same need and will help you move out of boredom — but one will feel intuitively more natural than the other. If you’d try to find a new job in the same field, you’re more challenge-driven. If, on the other hand, you’d rather change fields altogether, you’re more skills-driven.

Either way, that’s your anti-boredom medicine. Simply by increasing challenge or adjusting skill requirements, you can beat boredom.