Creative paralysis, or “block”, is often the result of inattention in a few key areas.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m working on a new book project, which will be wrapped by later this year and (hopefully) out in mid 2015. In the research process for the book, I’ve encountered more than one moment of stagnancy, in which I seem unable to mobilize past a particular sticking point or area of “fuzzy wandering”.

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this phenomenon, of course. I see it all the time in teams I work with, or while working on projects I’m trying to drive to completion. I hear managers complain about it. I get e-mails from strangers on the other side of the planet lamenting their inability to mobilize around their “most important work”.

“Stuckness” is just a part of doing hard things. However, just plowing through is not necessarily the answer. Internal work does not always equate to external progress. Instead, it can sometimes be helpful to step back and consider the particular source of your stagnancy. There are three that I encounter all the time.

Definition: You Don’t Really Know What You’re Doing

It’s hard to solve a problem you haven’t defined, yet we try to do it all the time. We jump into the work, but don’t make the effort to ensure that we understand the problem we’re really trying to solve. As a result, we eventually hit a wall when we’ve done all we know to do, but have lost touch with the end goal.

Possible sources:
– Lack of empathy: You don’t understand who you’re really serving and what a potential solution to their problem requires.
– Lack of focus: You haven’t pruned your objectives enough to make them actionable. You’re attempting to solve concepts, not problems.
– Self-deception: You’ve convinced yourself a problem exists that really doesn’t in order to justify your activity.

Solution: Make certain that you are working on well-defined problems, and re-visit those problems as often as necessary to re-ground yourself in them.

Motivation: You Don’t Really Care, Do You?

Well, maybe you do care, but only because your paycheck (or reputation) is on the line. However, this isn’t always sufficient to keep you bringing your best to the work. You have to have a well-established through-line that provides baked-in motivation to keep working when things get tough.

Possible sources:
– Misplaced ego: You’ve made the work all about yourself, so when there’s little acclaim on the line you can’t quite gear up for it.
– Old problems, new you: You’ve personally moved on from the problems that used to intrigue you, but you’re still plugging away at them.
– Black Box Phenomenon: You’re plugging away at the work, but have absolutely no clue why any of your required tasks are relevant to the larger mission of the organization. You’re all “what” with no “why”, which creates dissonance.

Solution: You have to be brutally honest with yourself about issues of motivation, and do your best to tie your work back to a deeper through-line that motivates you. Sure, you may not always care about the specific tasks, but how you work says a lot about who you are as a person, which I assume you do care a lot about.

Systems: Old Dog, New Tricks

Finally, your progress may simply be limited by your existing system or workflow. Things like standing meetings and organizational hierarchies tend to stick around for years after they’ve served their original purpose, but so do personal productivity habits. Where are you due for a shake-up of your systems to help you gain a little creative traction?

Possible sources:
– Stale systems OR too much pool-jumping: Are you (a) due for a system refresh or (b) in need of some stability to enable you to focus more effectively? (Systems are just conduits for your work, not the work itself.)
– Wrong mix: Do you need to expand your relational network, or involve new people in the project to help you jump-start your work?
– Bad assumptions: Are you making assumptions that are limiting your scope of exploration? Sometimes systems can limit your vision in an unhealthy way, and questioning your operating assumptions can give you new direction for your energy.

Solution: Do an audit of your systems, and see if you can identify energy drains. Where could you use fresh focus, relationships, or stimuli to help you gain traction? Where have things grown stale?

“Stuckness” is, in many cases, a choice. You may not come up with the optimal solution, but if you stay diligent and commit to progress, you can always re-direct to a better place. However, wallowing in stagnancy is a shortcut to misery.

Refuse to be stuck. Do whatever it takes to break through.

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