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3 Foolproof Strategies for Overcoming Creative Block

Do you ever wonder how some artists finish so much music?

They’re idea machines.

They put out music consistently.

And they work fast.

But if you’re like most people, you aren’t an idea machine, you find it hard to put out music consistently, and—assuming you don’t get stuck—you work slowly and ineffectively.

It’s frustrating and discouraging. You love music, right? That’s why you got into all this in the first place. But you’re not particularly loving the feeling of overwhelm and stagnation; the lack of achievement and progress.

The truth is, you’re more than capable of becoming an artist who finishes what they start, comes up with great ideas consistently, and works effectively.

It’s completely possible. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

But it requires some effort on your part. If you think you can just sit there and wait for the music gods to bless you, you’re delusional. Likewise, if you think after reading this article you’re going to be that artist, then you’re also delusional.

This article will help give you a strategy for overcoming creative block and becoming a productive producer, but it won’t implement the strategy. That’s on you.

Note: This article is part excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity, and part original content. If you want to learn more about creative strategies, as well as how to focus better in the studio and increase your output, then I recommend reading the book.

Do You Really Have Creative Block?

Let me be direct for just a moment.

A lot of people mistake creative block for sheer laziness. You could be one of them.

I’m not saying you are, I’m just saying you need to consider that as an option.

Laziness is an incredibly powerful manipulator. It will force your brain to justify reasons why you shouldn’t make music. Often that justification is, “well, I’ve got creative block so I should just take a break.”

The problem with this, and laziness as a whole, is that it’s perpetual. The less time you spend making music, the harder it is to get back on track and start again.

A simple way to test for laziness is to force yourself to sit in your studio for a set period of time—say, 30 minutes—without the option of doing anything other than attempting to make music.

If you’re lazy, you’ll probably muck around for a little bit, and then realize that there’s 27 minutes left and you might as well try to create something to ease the boredom.

More often than not, you’ll create at least something. It might suck, but it’s something, which is proof that you don’t really have creative block.

Don’t View Creative Block as an Option

We’re extremely quick to tell ourselves we have creative block. Probably because it gives us an excuse not to face our fears and make something, because making something is hard.

But what if it was your job to make something? What would you do?

You work for a newspaper. You’re the lead writer in a team of people all working hard to break a story. You come into work three days before the deadline and say…

“Sorry guys, I’ve got creative block. You know how it is.”

They smile sympathetically and respond with….

“That’s fine, [your name], it happens to the best of us. We’ll just extend the deadline! Why don’t you go home and watch a film or something. Clear your head. Take a week off.”

Of course, that would never happen. You’d get fired.

Newspaper writers, or even authors for that matter, realize that creative block is more or less a delusion. A limiting belief. They have to work or they don’t get paid. They can’t accept it as an answer.

But when you’re a hobbyist artist or producer, it’s much easier because you don’t have any skin in the game. If you have a day job and work on music on the side, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t finish music, right? You don’t lose money and you don’t lose security.

It’s hard to nail this truth into your head—that creative block is not an option for some people, and therefore it doesn’t need to be an option for me. But if you can truly internalize this (which I recommend), then you won’t need any of the strategies I’m about to share.

Where Creative Block Comes From

While “creative block” is normally just laziness—a lack of willingness to put in effort—it sometimes runs deeper.

If you truly do have creative block, forcing it may not be the right thing to do. You might just end up feeling worse about everything.

I’m not a psychologist or therapist, and I won’t pretend to act like one. But in my experience, other than laziness, creative block comes from four key things:

  1. Challenge
  2. Suppression/tunnel vision
  3. Outside distractions
  4. Deep mindset problem

Note: I go through these in more detail in my book.

Challenge

Many cases of creative block arise from a challenging aspect of a project, or a skill that you desperately need to develop.

For example, let’s say you always get stuck when it comes to writing your chorus. It’s easy to think that you simply have creative block, but it’s more that you lack practice in writing choruses.

If this is the case, you need to spend some time studying. Read some books, watch some tutorials, remake some tracks.

Suppression/Tunnel Vision

Falling into this trap is easy. It happens when you try to force a certain sound; when you try to make your music fit a mold.

Producers and artists who try to emulate their idols find themselves here.

The fix? Try to emulate 2-3 artists instead of just one. You won’t be able to help sounding original.

Outside Distractions

If your life is falling apart around you, how can you expect to have the peace of mind necessary to make music?

The outside world can indeed affect your ability to do creative work. Sometimes, you just need to resolve problems outside of music, even if they’re small ones.

Deep Mindset Problem

This is a form of creative block that stems from an unhealthy or fixed mindset.

This often exists in the form of perfectionism—the obsessive desire to make something perfect (which is impossible).

Other times this problem could be due to a limiting belief. You’ve convinced yourself that you don’t actually have the ability to come up with good ideas or finish songs.

Overcoming perfectionism is difficult, but possible. The following strategies will help.

3 Key Strategies for Beating Creative Block

There are many strategies for overcoming creative block (I share 17 strategies in The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity), but the three I’m about to share are the most powerful.

It’s worth noting that these might not work the first time, or even the second time. You’ve got to try them out for a few sessions to see if they work or not (they will).

Also, these strategies are based on common sense. So if they seem extremely simple, it’s because they are.

Strategy 1: One Thing at a Time

Neil Strauss, New York Times Best-Selling author, once said during an interview that “writer’s block doesn’t exist.”

He ran an experiment during a writing workshop where he told the students (some were pros, others were complete newbies), to write just one sentence.

Then he told them to write a second sentence that made the reader feel something.

And then he told them to write a third sentence that tied back in with the first.

Everyone in the room managed to do it.

Why? Because it was a simple process. They were doing one thing at a time.

As an artist, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You look at what you’ve got—maybe it’s a simple melody—and you think about everything you need to do to turn it into a full song. No wonder you feel overwhelmed.

Instead of thinking big picture, break the process up into segments:

  1. Write a melody
  2. Add a chord progression
  3. Add drums
  4. Arrange

If you’re really struggling, you can break those segments up into individual pieces:

Writing a melody:

  1. Create the rhythm for the melody
  2. Create the first bar of the melody
  3. Create the second bar of the melody
  4. Extend/double it and add variation to make it four bars long

Get it? Anyone can write the rhythm for a melody. The first bar is easy as well. By breaking something up into smaller pieces, it becomes much easier to tackle.

Strategy 2: The List Technique

This strategy is great for when you find yourself stuck 50-70% of the way through a project. You have the core ideas down, maybe you’ve even finished the arrangement, but there’s something missing.

Sometimes, you know exactly what’s missing, and you can fix it straight away. But most of the time, it’s a bunch of small things that compound and scream for attention.

The best thing to do in this situation is to identify what those small things are, and write them down as a list.

Grab a pen and paper, then listen to your track through twice (so you don’t miss anything) while writing down everything that you think needs to be fixed. It might be that the crash cymbal in the intro is slightly too loud, and you might feel like the riser during the build-up should be removed. Don’t be afraid to be ruthless here.

After you’ve written everything down, start working down the list addressing each item.

Tip: It helps to imagine your idol producer is sitting in the room listening with you. You’ll tend to listen much more critically.

Strategy 3: Stakes

Remember how I mentioned that newspaper writers have skin in the game while amateur producers who don’t rely on music for their income don’t?

Well, there’s a way to hack it. It doesn’t involve quitting your job and trying to do music full time—that’s an irrational thing to do; it only works for some people (read about survivorship bias)—it’s much more simple.

If you want to have skin in the game, so that there’s a sense of imminent pain or loss if you don’t do the work, then set stakes.

You can use a site like gof**kingdoit.com, set a stake, goal, and deadline, and then feel the pressure to achieve that goal ignite your drive. Alternatively, you can do this with a friend. Tell them you’re going to send them a track by the end of the week or you’ll give them $100 (increase the amount depending on how rich you are—if $100 doesn’t hurt, then 10x it).

Doing this is great. It forces you to work. The feeling of finishing a song might not be a powerful enough motivator, but the fear of losing money definitely is.

Conclusion

Creative block isn’t some mystical thing that you can use as an excuse when other people ask you why you haven’t put out any music.

It’s something that can be overcome with the right mindset and strategy.

Next time you find yourself stuck, think of the newspaper writer, break the process down into tiny steps, list everything that needs to be done, and find a way to have skin in the game.

Want more advice on creativity and finishing music? Check out my book The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity.

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Sam Matla

Sam Matla

Sam Matla is the founder of EDMProd, host of The EDM Prodcast, and author of The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity.


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