Struggling with Creative Block is Normal

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Creative block doesn’t care where you are. It can strike even if you’re in one the most beautiful places in the world. I know because it just happened to me. I was struggling with writing this very article here in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Distractions can seem as tall as mountains and in my case they are. Writing this week’s article has been a huge struggle. Good work almost always involves a struggle of some kind. It’s rare for creative work to fall into place with everything flowing beautifully from start to finish.

Queenstown has almost immediately become one of our favourite places in the world. Distractions exist and this is one of the biggest I’ve faced. Literally.

How am I supposed to focus with stunning views like this?

Queenstown is a huge distraction!
Queenstown is a huge distraction!

On one hand, it’s a distraction because all I want to do is explore while we’re out here for a week because my wife and I love Queenstown so much, but on the other hand, it’s massively inspiring. I was struggling with creative block writing this article but I took some time out to edit this photo I had taken the day before and reset myself. Now I’ve come back to the article, I feel reinvigorated.

Creative block is only temporary but it can feel like an eternity.

I’m deep in research figuring out how top designers get past creative block. Their ability to cruise past creative block is one of the biggest reasons why they are the best. It happens to all of us but I’ve discovered the best designers have systems in place for dealing with creative block anytime it appears. Some of them are so used to it, they don’t even believe in creative block anymore. That’s how effective they are.

Show Up Consistently

My commitment to writing an article every week here on Inspect Element is what keeps me going. Consistency is the catalyst for improvement. The more you do something, the more you’ll improve.

The less consistently you show up, the harder it is to get past creative block because you just aren’t used to trying to get yourself over that hurdle. The experts show up every day because they know that not only is it the best way to improve but also the best way to learn how to slay the beast of creative block.

The main reason for my struggles to be creative with this article is because I didn’t show up for a few days while I was dazzled by the beauty of Queenstown. As article day came closer, I knew I was running out of time which put me under pressure and made it more difficult for me to work. I should know better because of my research tells me I should show up and work consistently.

Luckily, I’ve been showing up and consistently writing an article every week for the last six months, so getting into the flow of writing this one is easier than it would have been.

Rest, Re-emerge

One way to get past creative block is to do what I did above. Rest for a period of time and return to the task fresher than you were before. I picked up this concept from when I used to work as a back-end developer, where I would struggle with a coding issue for literally hours, only to return the next morning and solve it within five minutes thinking I turned into some kind of genius overnight. In reality, I just was thinking more clearly thanks to some rest.

I’ve talked about this before in a concept I call The Overnight Design Test:

If you find yourself struggling with a design for half a day or more, then you almost certainly need to rest overnight and return to it in the morning. If I realise I’m struggling for too long, trying harder can make things worse, leading to frustration and often questions to myself such as “Am I a good designer anymore? Have I lost it?”. It’s not a pleasant state to be in so I have to catch myself as early as possible and use the overnight design test.

You don’t have to wait overnight, or even the equivalent amount of time. I probably spent about an hour editing the photo above but you can do anything that clears your mind from your work and it doesn’t even have to be that long. Try a fifteen or thirty minute walk if that’s all you have time for. Sometimes that’s enough to do the trick. Any amount of rest can be better than trying to struggle through.


Experimenting is something I’ve also written about before but to take this article as an example again, I had no idea what to write initially. Under pressure of needing to write something in less than a couple of days, I decided to fall back on one key aspect of my system of getting past creative block and start experimenting.

I started by exploring the ideas I already had for future articles and settled on one but I realised it was going to take too long and I was getting more stressed. I didn’t want to burn myself out by writing something that would normally take a few days into less than two. Then I thought I should write something about taking a break and experimented with notes about that which led me to this article you’re reading now. I was struggling with creative block, so I just wrote about that. I know it’s something people struggle with and I know what can help.

In design terms, experimenting can simply mean start playing around with layouts or typography or colour. You’ll never know what happy accidents you’ll stumble upon and there’s no way you’ll stumble on them if you don’t experiment.

Cruise Past Creative Block

Remember to show up consistently, rest, re-emerge and experiment and you’ll be on your way to cruising past creative block.

If you’re interested in more about overcoming creative block, sign up here. I’ll be writing more about it in the future, as well as potentially creating a full course if there’s enough interest.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with 9 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.