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How to Think Your Way Out of a Dead End

Mar 13, 2012

That big document is due at 5 p.m. sharp and the end of the day is fast approaching, but you're drawing a complete blank. Here are some tips for knocking down mental blocks.

On some days you might speed through your workload and achieve "inbox zero," while on others you struggle to get through the most basic task before closing time. Although external factors, like workplace interruptions or lack of sleep or too many meetings, might be the culprit behind your slow progress, sometimes your brain just doesn't seem to want to work.

The idea of "writer's block" is well known from myriad pop culture sources, but the concept applies to any job, whether it be artistic, scientific, administrative or other. Any task that requires problem solving or anything resembling creative thought can be hampered by some type of productivity block.

Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks call these types of problems insight problems, challenges that do not require an analytic, ground-out answer, but can be solved by applying creative, outside-the-box thinking. In a study conducted by Wieth and Zacks, as recorded in Scientific American, subjects were tested to see when people best solve these types of problems.

As it turns out, people are better able to achieve insight solutions when they are off their game. A "morning" person is more likely to find insightful solutions at night because he or she "off-peak" and willing to indulge types of ideas and thinking that might otherwise seem foolish. The same is true for other peak conditions, where distractions can actually help fuel creativity.

But we can't all change our schedules to suit our needs. Others have addressed the creative block problem in, well, creative ways.

Recognizing the reason you are blocked can help you break through the problem. Copyblogger drew up a list of reasons you may get bogged down during a project. The blog suggests you analyze your method of addressing a task - is logical thinking the best way to find a solution to this problem? - or disregarding "common sense" approaches.

Musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies for creative people who need to overcome blocks. The cards' instructions are satisfyingly oblique, as the name suggests, with quotes like, "You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas," "Steal a solution" or "Do something sudden, destructive and unpredictable." You can view a digital version of the cards here. Merlin Mann of 43 Folders created his own "writer's block hack," based on the Oblique Strategies but designed to be a bit more concrete. You can view his list here.

One of the classic creative block solutions is free writing. The idea is to set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and tell yourself that during the designated period, you will simply work, ignoring all distractions. Although what you produce may not be usable, or even legible, producing work is better than staring at a blank page, and you might subconsciously come up with something you never would have had you been focusing intently.

A creative block might not be a temporary problem, though; it could be a symptom of a greater issue.

If you find yourself struggling day in, day out to meet deadlines and produce to your satisfaction, it may be a sign that you have a systemic problem with accomplishing goals. The life hacking movement, a loose collective of online figures devoted to finding creative ways to get organized, has produced numerous online tutorials and advice columns for developing and keeping to a schedule. Websites like 43 Folders, Lifehacker, Lifehack and Pick the Brain all feature ideas for better organization and productivity.