How to Break a Creative Block in 24 Hours

Image: The Painter’s Studio by Adriaen van Ostade/Artvee

Creative blocks are the bane of every person’s existence. These ruts could go on for a week, a month, a year, or even decades. After all, life happens, time gets thin, and expectations get higher. The most consistent solution is simple: to set a tight deadline, and to deliver something by that time. And possibly to do this over, and over, and over again. While he might not have been facing a creative block, on August 9, 2021, recording artist Lupe Fiasco tweeted

Finna do an album from scratch in 24 hours…

1 song in…

9 to go…

Last time I did this Stack was alive…

I appreciated that Lupe Fiasco announced he would be recording an album in such a short time. It reminds me of Kanye West’s genre-bending 808s and Heartbreak was recorded in a mere three weeks. As Kanye acknowledged during its press run, he could have launched it as a mixtape, which a more conventional artist probably would’ve done when they were trying something new. 

But, he didn’t. Kanye wanted 808s to hold the weight of an album, so that fans—and critics—would take it seriously and soak it in. He “decided not to worry about what was on [the] radio at that time, and just do it, and do it quickly.” And so did Lupe.

The point is just to make something, complete it, and release it. It’s inspiring to find out how many artists have done this. 

Sprint Through Complexity

This type of project certainly isn’t limited to the realm of hip-hop. In his interview with #The100DayProject, Pentagram partner and Yale lecturer Michael Bierut talks about how a colleague had advised him not to do the long-term projects with his students (which Bierut acknowledged he lacked the patience for), and instead to try to give a one day project. “Look, there’s only one rule with this, and it has to be done by 5:00. A bad idea finished by 5:00 beats a great idea that you can’t finish until 10:00.” 

Bierut’s one-day project stands out against the longer, more complex, projects in graduate school. It eventually got more specific, where students would design a book cover in a day, or illustrate something for a newspaper.

It certainly makes me think of 48 Hour film, as well hackathons (see Shopify’s Hack Days), and many of the daily creative challenges that exist. As with anything with a tight deadline: decide quickly on an idea, commit, and scope down. There’s no time to get excited about more possibilities, judge your own work, or to doubt yourself; you’re simply focused at turning in a project by the deadline.

Practice Letting Go

A key theme of this very tight constraint is, of course, to accept it. It’s not that you expect to make something of poor quality; rather, you’re aiming to make something acceptable, but in a very short amount of time. Accepting the deadline really allows you to loosen up, which might actually stimulate your creativity. It’s a version of how Richard Feynman learned to loosen up, by drawing with his eyes closed:

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! [which I recommended in my Best of Books newsletter in July 2018], Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recalls an art class when he was told, repeatedly to “loosen up.” He writes, “I figured that made no more sense than telling someone who’s just learning to drive to ‘loosen up’ at the wheel. It isn’t going to work… I resisted this perennial loosen-up stuff.”

Feynman was then instructed to draw without looking at the paper. He kept his eyes on the model, not looking at what he was doing with the pencil. The first time he did it, his pencil broke at the very beginning and he had nothing but impressions in his paper. The second time he did it, he was impressed with the results, noticing a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work.

Something clicked. Feynman realized that he knew that it would be impossible to draw well without looking at the paper, so he didn’t consciously try. He writes, “I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.”

Similarly, don’t get your expectations high for a one day project. Keep them low, and aim to complete it.

Release the Project

On a final note, Lupe Fiasco completed his album in 72 hours, the delay of which shouldn’t take away from the worthy accomplishment. I’m excited to hear what Lupe’s made. It’s going to take a little while to release, but that makes it even more significant: he’s putting resources into shipping it.

That’s an important final point: you’re not necessarily releasing at the end of the day. In most cases, it would be ideal to show someone, just so that they know you finished it. It might feel more real. But you might also choose to make something just for yourself
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