3 Exercises to Smash Your Creative Blocks


by Carmel Hagen         

There’s that black hole again: The sudden obstacle on the path of creativity that sucks the wind from your sails, replacing your former confidence with the weight of total frustration. While commonly encountered, these roadblocks are rarely easy to either define or address (if they were, you would have avoided them)—but until you do, you’re stuck in an exasperating holding pattern.

While critical thinking eventually spits out an answer to most creative conundrums, it’s easy to waste time in analytical rabbit holes, or get so overwhelmed by the answer’s elusiveness that you lose steam entirely. These three exercises, categorized by problem type, will help you breeze past the dead-ends, and discover what really needs your attention fast. 

Problem: I’m not motivated.

Solution: The 5 Whys

Thought starter: Sometimes our lack of motivation is a simple side effect of bad sleep and poor nutrition, but often it’s fueled by something deep underneath the surface, like a design or strategy flaw eating away at your subconscious. The 5 Whys, originally developed by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda, swiftly excavate the origin of an issue so you can identify the problem, address if it’s within your power, and move the ball forward.

Example: Beginning with your problem (I’m not motivated), ask yourself “Why?” five times, using each prior answer as the trigger for the next. You may not need to use all five whys before you land on your real issue (and in particularly hairy or complex situations, you may need more):

Problem: I’m not motivated.

Why?: Because I’m uninspired.

Why?: Because I’m not convinced we’re taking the right approach.

Why?: Because I don’t feel like our strategy is bulletproof.

Why?: Because the numbers we looked at today seem to suggest our audience is different than we thought.

Why?: Because our sample size was too small.

Answer: I need to talk to my boss about re-doing our sample.

Problem: I can’t find my flow.

Solution: The Skill/ChallengeParameter

Thought starter: Flow is the holy grail for any work session, it’s when you are “in the zone” and totally immersed in your work. Positive psychology experts agree that flow is a function of focus, involvement, and enjoyment—but creating that perfect cocktail can be elusive. Bengt Järrehult, Director of Innovation at SCA packaging, suggests using two parameters to help uncover what might be keeping you out of the flow zone, then using that insight to find your way back.


Example: Imagine an X-Y axis featuring two main parameters: Challenge and Skill. For any given project, “Challenge” equals the difficulty of the task, and “Skills” equals the ability you possess. Inside of the quadrant are three areas: Stress, Boredom, and Flow.

To be in the Flow, your task would need to be just challenging enough that you stay clear of the Stress zone, and take advantage of enough skills to stay clear of the Boredom zone. If you land in the Stress zone, you need to find your way back to your flow by asking for help or advice. If you land in the Boredom zone, you should try to up the ante by trying out a new skill, like hand drawn lettering if you normally work with digital type, or using a MakerBot to model an architectural concept. Read more about getting into flow here.

Problem: All my ideas feel stale.

Solution: Alternative Uses

Thought starter: Brains are wired to protect us from risk and favor things that worked in the past, so it’s no wonder we get stuck generating the same ideas. To break out of this pattern, you need to trick your brain out of connecting old dots—but first, you need some new dots.

The Alternative Uses Test, developed by J.P. Guilford, helps you break out of old thinking patterns by quickly brainstorming non-traditional uses for traditional objects. In this version, we isolate one element of an old idea that needs innovating, and force fresh interpretations from its dusty underside. By leaving every other element of the project the same and isolating one aspect, it frees our brain to be more adventurous.

Example: Amanda the pastry chef wants to have a chocolate chip cookie on her menu, but is having a hard time creating one that can stand out from the crowd. In this sample brainstorm from her two-minute Alternative Uses exercise, she chooses the element of “chocolate” and forces herself to think of every possible way to use it:

  • Melt the chocolate and fold it into the cookie batter so it creates a marble effect.
  • Temper the chocolate and dip the finished cookies into it.
  • Dust chunks of chocolate in dehydrated orange peel to add an unexpected twist.
  • Finely chop the chocolate so small bites are fully infused into the batter.
  • Use the cookie batter to make tart shapes and fill with chocolate ganache.
  • Make chocolate milk out of the chocolate and serve it with the plain cookies.

Even within the insistently objective pages of dictionaries, creativity can be defined in mystical terms (in some, even as shapelessly as “a phenomenon” leading to “transcendence from a traditional idea”). But to extract your personal power from the process of moving an idea along isn’t just a disservice, it’s a huge waste of time—so next time that bump in the road sneaks up on you, give tackling it head on a try.


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