The Best Cure For Creative Block and Feeling Overwhelmed

Man suffering from creative block holding a stack of papers

Do you suffer from creative block? Do you ever have times where you have to get work done, but you just can’t? You carve out the time, you try to set yourself up for success, but for some reason you’re completely ineffective? It’s not laziness. It’s not procrastination. But something seems to be working against you where you just can’t engage mentally. Perhaps you’re completely overwhelmed because you have so much to do that you don’t know where to start.

If you find yourself in the midst of any of this, then you know that the worst part is that the more time you spend getting nothing done, the more paralyzed you become and you end up in an even deeper hole.

It’s a form of creative block, and it affects just about anyone whose job requires them to solve problems. When you’re trying to create a solution to a problem – be it managing people, creating marketing collateral, formulating new processes, or writing of any kind – you need to be in a good headspace to do it. You can’t be anxious about how much time you’re wasting.

When this happens, it’s really useful to have some routines or techniques that will bring you out of it, and one of the best techniques is simply this…

Clean your office or workspace.

I’m sure you know the old saying: “A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind”. Certainly that’s one good reason to clean our workspace as it can help us focus more by removing distractions. However, that’s not the biggest reason that it’s an effective method to combat creative block; the biggest reason is much deeper than that.

I recently read Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for Life – An antidote to chaos this year. One of Peterson’s “rules” is to “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world” (Rule #6). It’s pretty heady stuff, but I heard him explain it in more layman’s terms once on video, where he suggested that the practical manifestation of that rule is to clean your room every day. Peterson’s premise was that because the world can naturally be a pretty dark place, that you need something virtuous to push back against that darkness. He says the best way to do that is by adopting a sense of purpose through taking on responsibility.

Learn what is within your control to change.

The trouble is, there are many things in the world I can’t control (or take responsibility for), so by starting the day with cleaning my room, I am training my brain to learn what is within my control to change and to focus my efforts on those things and not let the the things beyond my control have priority over my thoughts and actions.

It’s a pretty mind blowing idea when you think about it, and I’ve found it has a close relationship to the problem of creative block as well.

When you need to come up with a solution to a problem, your mind needs to dream it up first, and you can’t always control when that inspiration is going to hit you. But if you just sit there at your desk staring at a blinking cursor, not only will you not get anything done, but more importantly, you’ll be more defeated every second. It’s as if the cursor is speaking to you saying “C’mon! Why are you wasting your time?”, “What’s wrong with you?” and “What ever made you think you were good enough to do this?”

These thoughts will take you out. You’ve got to push back against them. So how do we do that?

Your brain needs to be properly stimulated.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I think the brain, like our body, needs proper stimulation to do it’s best work. When exercising, I’ve found I need a good warmup before I can do the more advanced moves. It’s not just a matter of stretching…I actually need the muscles to be activated a bit doing similar moves to the ones I’ll eventually be doing. For example, a series of deep lunges and air squats before I try exploding jumps and advanced plyometric exercise. In my experience, the brain seems to work in a similar way.

Cleaning is Categorizing

When you are cleaning your office you are actually doing the work of categorizing many things simultaneously. From a high level, you start with maybe 3 categories…

  1. What is garbage and needs to be thrown out?
  2. What doesn’t belong in your workspace and needs to be put back in its place?
  3. What needs to stay and be organized with the rest of your stuff?

From there, you start to get into priorities…what demands immediate attention and what can wait awhile? You may even find yourself making adjustments to the actual layout of your office. Perhaps you make plans to store things differently so that the things you need often are more easily accessible than the things you seldom need.

You see, my suggestion to clean your workspace isn’t merely about getting something done or being productive. It’s also about the kind of work your brain is involved in. As you pick things up your brain is doing a million calculations without you knowing it. It’s processing information, categorizing it, and making connections…

  • “Oh yeah I need to call John.”
  • “I remember writing that note…we had birthday cake in the office for Cynthia that day.”
  • “I need to digitize those post-it notes before they get lost.”
  • “I’ve eaten out way too much lately.”
  • “Maybe I should start saving my receipts for tax purposes.”
  • “Does anyone even have a cd drive in their computer anymore.”
  • “I should get some new light bulbs for my desk lamp.”
  • “I need to give that charging cable back to Paul.”
  • “Time to empty the trash.”
  • “Maybe I could put all of those types of files in the same place so they’re easier to access.”
  • “I really like this song, I need to buy the album.”
  • “Hey, maybe one idea to solve my problem is…”

You see, while those thoughts seem random, they all represent a similar type of work. Your brain is categorizing information. Prioritizing it. Putting it in order. By cleaning your workspace you’re mentally doing the same kind of work that you need to do to solve your work problem. Think about it…problem solving begins by putting all the relevant information in a proper context so that you can more easily see a solution that best fits that context.

Cleaning is problem solving

Cleaning your workspace is actually problem solving of a much higher degree than regular cleaning. The problem is clear: your workspace is messy. How do you solve that? By cleaning it? No, it’s actually more complicated than that, because cleaning it means putting everything where it should go, which means a series of many connected decisions about seemingly disparate pieces of information. These decisions are very different (knowing what to throw away vs. how to file certain papers), and yet they’re all fixed to a common goal: a clean workspace.

Tips for success

This sort of quick-firing, organized chaos is exactly the headspace you need to be in to solve complex problems at work, to fight overwhelm, and to get over creative block. So if you want to give it a try, here are some quick tips…

#1 – If your office is already clean, do something similar.

How about…

  • Clean your computer desktop! If you’re like me that desktop can have a bunch of stuff on it that “I’ll get to when I have time”. As I hope you can see by now, the mental work of organizing all that stuff is the same kind of problem-solving process.
  • Organize your iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox or My Documents folders
  • Organize your latest Evernote notes into appropriate notebooks
  • Clean your email inbox
  • Create a music playlist for a productive morning routine
  • Optimize your calendar by removing any recurring events that no longer happen
  • Go through your voice memos and categorize or even transcribe the best thoughts
  • Any type of organizing activity that has to do with work.

#2 – Don’t do something else…stay in or near your workspace.

You may find that you avoid work so much that this article has give you permission to step away and do your grocery shopping, clean the house, fix the car, go for a run, etc.

Don’t do that. Stay near the problem, so that your brain is subconsciously still connected to it. Stay “in the flow” of work. These activities don’t consist of the same organizational brain function that is needed to properly stimulate your creative side.

#3 – Leave when the day is done, regardless of what got done.

You see, you can’t always control when inspiration is going to hit, but our brain does its best categorizing when we’re at rest, especially when we sleep. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve left for the day with no solution to my problem and then figured it within the first 10 minutes of sitting at my desk the next morning.

The key is to show up every day and do something productive during the time allotted and then give yourself permission to turn it off and unplug until the next day. If the day ends at 5pm, you need to be done and go be with your family and just trust that the process will eventually yield the results you’re looking for.

Rise above the things that work to hold you down

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

– John Wesley

I happen to be a person of faith myself, and I’ve always hated the above quote, because it’s original meaning is that outward cleanliness is a sign of inward purity, which is a dangerous game to play. However, I’d love to co-opt it a bit, as I see a better meaning here…

If you find this method helps you get over your creative block, take notice of what is actually happening. The whole battle is always mental. Yes, it has to do with intelligence, but also emotion and self-confidence. These are things that we are not in total control of at all times, and yet, through this little exercise, we’ve learned how to not let the things outside of our control have control over us. It’s a truly transcendent exercise that allows us to rise above the circumstances that met us when we sat down to work for the day. If you never get close to solving the problem before it’s time to leave, you still walk away confident because you didn’t stare at a blinking cursor all day doing nothing to combat the problem.


So the next time you find yourself stuck, give this a try and see if it doesn’t flip the switch in your brain to problem solving mode.

Also, I’d love to hear feedback…have you ever had creative block? What seemed to work for you? Sound off in the comments below!