“My daughter forgot her Chromebook at home. Trump’s latest tweet is going to cause a media storm. The space heater is making me sleepy.” This laundry list of random thoughts flips through my mind while I’m trying to focus my brain on writing this article. How do I clear this mental blockage?
If you could peek through my computer screen, you’d see me slumped over my keyboard and staring at my fingers. Yes, I’m the perfect image of writer’s block. Even if you don’t write, I bet you’ve experienced the feeling.
A mental block is the inability to complete a train of thought. It’s frustrating. Your thoughts are derailed by something. In my case, today it was a Chromebook, Trump’s Twitter feed, and a space heater.
But life keeps moving and deadlines don’t change because you feel like taking a nap. Big breakthroughs often wait just on the other side of these blocks.
Try these quick fixes the next time you need to get your thoughts back on track and get rid of mental blockage:
1. Remind Yourself That Mental Blocks Don’t Actually Exist
I know I just gave you a list of reasons I can’t write at the moment, but the reality is I’m still writing.
I pushed through the mind games and just put my fingers on the keyboard. I forced myself to write and got rid of all my expectations. In fact, I expected to move the cursor with sheer crap.
That’s the key. Refuse to accept that your mental block exists and do the work anyway. Let’s apply this technique to something outside the literary world.
Say you are having trouble parenting your teenager. Nothing you’ve done is working and you’re pulling your hair out trying to get through to them. You’re worried changing your parenting game will screw them up.
Just try something. Get over your need for perfection. Maybe you write her a letter and pour out your frustrations and love. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture. Like Seth Godin wrote, “Start small, start now.”
Once you start, you will have feedback. You’ll have that glorious feeling of progress. Either you can keep making small steps ahead or scrap that idea and try something new.
2. Avoid Your Crutches
Coffee, alcohol, sugar, and drugs can get you through a moment, but they don’t clean up the clutter.
Don’t panic. You don’t have to give up the cup of your morning ritual or the piece of cake to celebrate your loved one’s special day. It’s the moment you want to reach for that extra cup of coffee to churn out that big presentation.
If you’re stuck, mental stimulants won’t guide you through. They will add to the clutter and may only worsen your mental blockage. Instead, stick with good nutrition.
3. Time to Turn In
Instead of heading to the kitchen to jump start your mind, try crawling under the covers instead. Sleep is one of the best ways we can sweep the cobwebs off our minds.
I love naps, but I know not everyone is in the same camp. When your foggy brain is begging you for that caffeine fix, try laying down for 20 minutes. You may not sleep, and that’s okay—just let your mind drift. This break from problem-solving mode might just be the breakthrough you need.
When you’re burning the candle on both ends, the best thing to do is to call it quits.
Let’s say it’s 10 pm and you’re slumped over in front of your laptop. Doing your best to stay focused on the design details of your client’s website. Instead of agonizing over subhead text options for another half hour, shut it down and head to bed.
You know when it’s been too long. Even if you’re up against a hard deadline, a well-rested mind will make better decisions in a heck of a lot less time.
It’s a clique to say, “I’m going to take a walk to clear my head.” It’s a clique because it works.
Is walking too mundane for you? Try running. Is running not your thing? Jump on the Pilates reformer. There are a lot of exercises out there even if you’re too busy to do them regularly. It doesn’t matter how you chose to move your body. Just move!
5. The Headshake
Have you ever caught a teenager mid daydream while studying? A quick “hey” breaks into their stream of consciousness. They shake their head and go back to math homework.
It’s a simple gesture—and almost automatic.
Next time you catch your focus stuck on the same problem playing over and over in your mind, try shaking your head. Imagine that as a way to reset your brain. Try again.
6. Write It Out
You’ve heard the advice to write out what’s on your mind before, but there’s a twist. There are different ways to write. You just have to choose one that will move your mental blockage.Brainstorm: Grab a piece of paper or a digital notebook, and write whatever comes to mind. My favorite way to brainstorm is by mind mapping. Journal: The big brother of brainstorming. Here you are writing about your mental blockage in complete sentences, but there’s no formal structure to your writing. It’s just a stream of consciousness put into words on paper. Don’t know what to write? Try writing “I don’t know what to write” repeatedly. It might do nothing, but it might also spark an idea. Pros/cons list: This is a favorite for the indecisive. The good old-fashioned essay: Yes, it’s like you are back in junior high. Imagine that your English teacher wants you to write a persuasive essay about your mental block.
7. Get Comfortable Being Alone
Mental blocks linked to a complex problem require both focused and diffuse thinking. Diffuse thought happens when your brain is on autopilot (like those “aha!” moments you have in the shower).
Focus thinking takes more effort and a quiet workspace. For those of you living in quarantine with a house full, this will be a challenge. When was the last time you reached a flow state while working from a laptop that’s propped on your kitchen counter with a household buzzing around you?
Here’s a secret for those of you in this current situation. You need to block off time while everyone else is asleep. Set your alarm for 5 am, and sit with your mental block. For you night-owls, stay up and get that alone time in after everyone is asleep.
8. Fix the Actual Cause
Sometimes it’s just that simple. Say your mental block is on how to improve sales. You’ve scheduled time to meet with your marketing team, but this new product launch is falling flat. Your creative muse is hidden by the replay of the fight you had last night with Dad.
It’s time to pick up the phone and rehash the argument about the family gathering plans. Your brain won’t stop replaying this loop until you’ve let it play out.
If it’s an obvious problem, that is what’s preventing you from moving ahead—an issue that comes into your head every time you sit down to work. I said it’s simple, but I didn’t say it would be easy.
9. Take a Fresh Perspective
Try looking at your problem through the eyes of a child. Better yet, ask your kid for ideas on how to move your mental blockage.
Kids have a sense of wonder when they look at the world. Lacking years of experience from looking at the same problems, their opinions are unfiltered.
Imagine giving a toddler free access to a cabinet full of Tupperware. They will entertain the kiddo for hours (if you’re lucky) building towers, knocking them down, banging on them, and maybe even pretending they are cars zooming around the kitchen. The last thing they will think of is filling it with last night’s pulled pork and plopping it in the fridge.
Of course, you can’t expect a toddler to figure out a marketing strategy for your product launch. However, I bet you could get some interesting ideas from a ten-year-old if you took the time to listen. Sometimes, all you need is a fresh perspective.
Funny story in the midst of writing this piece, I got a phone call from my son’s school. He complained about a tummy ache, and they sent him home. I spent the rest of the afternoon managing covid testing and accepting the reality of a 14-day quarantine with my 5th grader.
Time to practice what I preach!
Listening to my son’s take on the situation, “quarantine is boring”, I followed his lead. He used the time to write out a gratitude list he plans to share at Thanksgiving, and I buckled down and wrote this article.
I write all this not to ask for sympathy, but to show that it’s possible to move the blocks and clear your mind.
More Tips on Clearing Mental Blockage
Featured photo credit: Nik Shuliahin via unsplash.com