Managing creative blocks

Lessons from the book Anatomy of a Breakthrough

November 05, 2023 · 11 mins read

This post is a collection of lessons from the book Anatomy of a Breakthrough, by Adam Alter, on understanding why we get stuck and how to get unstuck. It is a fascinating read that underscores that getting stuck is a virtual certainty in creative endeavours and that there are ways to get unstuck. The book is a collection of stories of breakthroughs and how they came about. It is a great read and I highly recommend it.

Why being stuck is so common

Let’s start by defining what can be considered as “being stuck”. The author says you’re stuck if you find yourself in one or more of these three situations.

  1. Temporarily unable to make progress in a domain that matters to you
  2. Fixed in place for too long enough to feel psychological discomfort
  3. Existing habits and strategies aren’t solving the problem

One of the most common reasons we get stuck is due to the motiovation problem we encounter near the middle of any pursuit. Clark Hull in the 1930s found that rats in a maze would run faster as they got closer to the goal. The same thing happens with us. Our propensity to quit gradually declines as we get nearer the goal. Often times the rats begin fast, slow down and then speed up as they get to the end. Slowing down or getting stuck near the middle is very common. This is often called the goal gradient effect. One way to counter this middle lull is to break down a larger goal into smaller goals and adopt a Narrow Focus. The smaller goals should be somewhat significant themselves like breaking down a 30 mile marathon into 10 chunks of 3 mile each. This way you can celebrate the smaller wins and keep the motivation going.

Transitioning between decades also affect us. 9 ending ages make us more introspective and we tend to evaluate our lives more. The commonly used trope of mid life crisis is real and linked to the point discussed above. Bruce Feiler calls these Lifequakes.

Another common reason we all get stuck is repeated use of same techniques and strategies that have become obsolete or ineffective. Even the best strategies need improvements from time to time. It makes sense to have many irons in the fire so a loss of one or two doesn’t matter all that much but they should be in different stages of germination from a seed to almost a tree.

Finally, we all underestimate persistence. Mental difficulty is a sign of progress. The creative cliff one feels is an illusion and your creative capacity doesn’t erode with time or effort. Persistence is hard primarily because we equate mental difficulty with failure. Creativity is hard because we live and experience the same cultural norms and face the same boundaries and it is difficult to escape those same ideas around us. This is called convergent evolution by which bats, birds and butterflies all evolved to have similar wings structures.

Dealing with the emotional aspect of being stuck

Being stuck makes you feel anxiety and lonely. Here are 5 ways you can deal with the emotional stress of being stuck.

  1. Framing being stuck as a challenge rather than a threat can bring us out of the rut. Threat seems definitive while challenge can bring out the best of us and also seems to assure us that even if we fail today, we can come out again and go for it tomorrow.
  2. Visualising or Materialising is important but also radical acceptance, i.e. visualise the worst case of failure and realising there’s a life on that side as well. This is also known to relieve pressure and anxiety.
  3. Satisficing to make peace with a good enough choice rather than continuing to optimise and chasing perfectionism. Perfectionism is seeking romcom worthy relationships and sitcom worthy friendships. It’s unreal and exhausting.
  4. Slow down and prepare. Messi prepares his mental map of the field and the players and their strengths and weaknesses in the first few minutes of his game, and its only after the first few minutes of walking the field that he gets into his groove. Sometime getting unstuck is about slowing down rather than speeding up.
  5. There is an optimum failure rate, a sort of sweet spot of toughness of a problem that makes for best learning. An error rate that is too high will discourage you from carrying on and too low will make you feel disengaged quickly. The optimum failure rate allows you to emotionally fail more easily.

Tips to get unstuck

  1. Do a Friction audit to find points of friction as those are likely to get you stuck. Similar to how one finds and fixes drop off points in a customer experience funnel, one must try and find points of friction in life that are likely to get one stuck. For example if its too cold outside, may be you need a treadmill at home to make it easy for you to workout everyday. You can even add friction points like not storing junk food in the fridge to discourage yourself from a habit. This is linked to the idea of Environment Design concept discussed in Atomic Habits.
  2. Use formula based approaches containing predefined structures to get unstuck. For example Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling lists some ways to get you out of a rut, for ex
     rule 4 - some templates like once upon a time .. x then x because x and then x
     rule 6 - challenging characters with hardships..
     rule 5 - simplify and lose
     rule 9 - what cannot happen next can lead to some interesting insights
     rule 11 - put it all on paper
  3. Add more automation to life so as to avoid dissipating mental energies and simplifying things and avoid getting stuck.
  4. Adding constraints or getting inside the box can also be a simplification technique that helps you get more creative and think differently. It was seen that in a team containing a star player, people often passed the ball to the star player more often than other players and thus the team as a whole became more predictable.
  5. Recombination or getting inspired by other ideas is a great way to avoid being stuck. Striving to do something entirely original puts immense pressure on you. Success can come from a well placed tweak.
  6. Pivoting involves Holding an idea like you would a small bird. It should be tight enough that it doesn’t fly away but gentle enough so as not to hurt it. This nimbleness allows you to pivot more freely and be open to more possibilities.
  7. Ask for help from a diverse set of people or seek out a black sheep. The advise doesn’t need to be competent, it needs to be different.

Habits that help getting unstuck

  1. The OODA loop or observe, orient, decide, act can also help one get unstuck. The first step observe is to figure out why you’re stuck. The second step is the most important and requires you to make an action plan personalised for you. The decide step is to exploit the piece of information you got from the 2nd step and the final step is about to act.
  2. Experimentating multiple pathways or options to pick the one that works best. Forming a habit of experimenting with multiple ideas is known to get more optimal outcomes in the long run. There are generally two ways to setup experiments. First, choose from competing solutions and second, look in the global space of all available options.
  3. Explore Exploit Tradeoff is creating periods of stasis interleaved with periods of change. An optimal balance of saying yes and no to new opportunities can make all the difference. Your default answer in any given situation should depend your current state of mind (for ex in the face of new career opportunities, if you’re satisfied with your career, you can default to No, while if you’re unsatisfied your default your answer to Yes).
  4. Being always ready for action when you bump into inspiration. Following, sparks of creativity, with action immediately is the key to getting unstuck. Feelings are nothing if they don’t feed into action. Most musicians swear by picking up the instrument and strumming it leading to new tracks rather than just humming the tunes in their heads.
  5. Micro-scheduling is when you put on a timer for 60 secs to do just one thing. It eliminates the need to think what else you could be doing right then and paves the way for you to empty your ideas on to the paper/keyboard/etc in front of you. It is also known to be a great way to get started on a task you’ve been putting off for a while.
  6. Exercise or any kind of movement is known to encourage divergent thinking
  7. Strategic lowering of standards helps you get started with your version 1s and to get you flowing. It also allows you to “empty your bad ideas” and get to the next one. It also allows you to work on your bad ideas without any mental baggage and gets you moving.

I run a startup called Harmonize. We are hiring and if you’re looking for an exciting startup journey, please write to Apart from this blog, I tweet about startup life and practical wisdom in books.