Overcoming creative paralysis: making projects happen

cycle of creative paralysis.png

When I first started doing creative projects (like Wandermaps), I would often get sucked into this corrosive cycle— grandiosity, inertia, guilt— and eventually become paralyzed. This is what mine has looked like in the past:  

The cycle of creative paralysis: 

  1. You get a great idea.
    And wow, it’s truly awesome. Perhaps, you think, it’ll be my golden egg; my ticket to creative fulfillment, financial freedom, and love. You sit on the idea for a while, then you tell your friends about it. It gets more precious and grandiose in your head. Weeks pass, maybe months. Eventually, you start getting a little worried that someone else will steal the idea and do a better job with it.

  2. So, you try getting started.
    You clear out an afternoon to dive into the project. But you hit a roadblock. Maybe you spend an entire afternoon stuck on the name of your website, or trying to figure out the CSS.

  3. Your enthusiasm wanes.
    Three afternoons pass, and you still don’t have much to show. You’ve settled on the name, but you don’t know where to go from here. The todo list feels very cumbersome. You get frustrated, and start thinking crazy thoughts about the futility of art and existence (or maybe that’s just me), so you decide to put the project off.

  4. Time passes. Project is untouched. You feel guilty.
    Each time you think about this creative baby, you feel pang of guilt. If only, you think… if only. You know it has so much potential. Every so often, you hear about projects similar to yours, and feel discouraged— and a little jealous— that it’s already been done. Or, you think to yourself, with mild bitterness, how you could’ve done it better.

  5. Repeat steps 2-4.
    Until it just becomes a faint memory of ambition unfulfilled, until the urge rises again, and you start back at step 1.

The Hopes and Dreams Paralysis 

Speaking entirely from personal experience (and seeing other people go through it), I've noticed that there are many different strains of creative paralysis — some existential, ruminating, self-pitying, and melancholic, others more neurotic, apathetic, or rigid. 

The form of paralysis I referenced above I’ll call the Hopes and Dreams Paralysis. It’s born from earnest hopes and dreams feeding one’s sense of grandiosity, devotion to perfectionism, and a deep rooted fear of failure. Perhaps this creative project touched a nerve in your body connected to something deeper - a sense of purpose and ambition untapped, something near and dear to you. So you pile all your hopes and dreams on the project. 

The problem is, the project itself is a living, breathing thing. In its early stages of existence, it’s fragile and unformed; like as a young seedling or a fetus. It cannot stand the full weight of your hopes and dreams. That stuff is heavy. 

On making creative projects real 

I’ve experienced the hopes and dreams paralysis many times, especially when I worked a day job, and was struggling to cobble together a creative workflow. I felt a good amount of creative angst, and sometimes I still do! 

Over time, here are the guidelines and processes I've come up to combat it. This is how I've made creative projects real, even in spite of the voices in my head: 

1) Work from a place of abundance, not scarcity. 

What’s scarcity? It is the fear that there won’t be enough for you, that you won’t have any good ideas for the rest of your life. That this is it, and if you fail, it’s over. Scarcity breeds in a mindset of missed opportunities, jealousy, and competitiveness. It’s poison to the health of the project, because it makes the project feel too precious, and thus making you possessive, guarded, and rigid. Conversely, the attitude of abundance is one of trust and ease - in yourself, your abilities, and the receptiveness of the world around you. I try to check in with myself and ask: am I working from a place of scarcity, or abundance? 

2) Don’t let a project become too precious.

A project becomes too precious when you cannot step outside of the work and look at it from a third-person point of view. Your ego has become inseparable from the work. It becomes hard to take constructive criticism, and to see clearly what is best for it, and how to make it even better. (That being said, some projects are meant to be wholly personal and it's okay if they're precious - those are not the ones I’m referring to here). 

3) Don’t put all your hopes and dreams on one project.

Pinning your career and life ambitions on the success of one project is too much pressure for a young, unformed thing to take. I've done this without even realizing it, and it's always killed my creativity and motivation. Some creatives have “breakthrough projects,” so to speak, but the paradoxical part seems to be that it’s never the one they expect. You can’t plan for a breakthrough, just like you can’t plan to be discovered. Just relax, and refer to guideline #1. 

4) Don’t talk about it too much before you’re ready.

This is completely up to individual preference, but I’ve found that some ideas are better nurtured in private — giving my subconscious the time and space to chew on it— before opening it up to outside influences. It's easier to avoid the trap of only talking about a project, and never doing it. 

5) Cultivate the ability to do deep work.

Getting into a state of “flow” - intense, effortless concentration - takes a lot of practice. Distractions and contradictory impulses is often just a way for our brains to avoid doing challenging work for endeavors that may, ultimately, still disappoint us. Cal Newport writes about deep work in his recent book, which I highly recommend. 

6) Give yourself concrete deadlines, and stick to them. 

I was the most creatively prolific when I had responsibility to other people; clients, workshop deadlines, class presentations, etc. Self-imposed deadlines are much harder to enforce, but it just means that the importance of the project (and thus, the significance of the deadline) needs to emotionally resonate with you. I try to take a moment to feel in my bones why this project matters (and if it doesn't, why am I doing it?) Having an accountability partner always helps, too. 

7) Focus on the bare bones first. 

Part of making a project happen is understanding its anatomy. What are its bare bones— the core essence without which the project would no longer exist? If you’re starting a blog, the bare bones is not the platform you’ll be hosting it on, or the name of the blog, or the tagline — it’s the topic you'll be writing about, and the writing itself. 

8) Always work iteratively.

I’ve always been inspired by this startup mindset (and by Google’s sprint methodology) to rapidly prototype and improve a project in iterations. When I look at a project, I’ll ask myself: what is the most basic, version 1.0 of this that could exist in the world? Then once that’s built, I’ll ask the same question for version 2.0, and version 3.0. It’s not doing away with perfectionism; on the contrary, it’s knowing when to strive for better, and when to keep moving. 


When it comes to overcoming creative paralysis, it's really about learning how to give birth to your ideas, so that they can stand on their own in the world. Many of these guidelines I've learned through trial and error, and from the influence of a dear friend, George Strakhov, who has succinctly encapsulated the process of creative midwifery here