Creative block. Writer’s block. Mental block.
Whatever you want to call it – it’s an issue that plagues producers all too often.
But how do you deal with it?
Today, I’ll dive into this common problem, and give you some strategies you can use to overcome it.
Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. Click here to learn more about it.
The odds are if you’re a producer, you’ve likely encountered creative block or will at some point. It sucks, it’s nearly unavoidable, and there’s nothing glamorous about it.
To make things worse, the topic of creative block has been oversimplified in the production community. If you ask a question about how to deal with it on a forum or Facebook group, you’ll get answers like:
Take a walk!
Make a different genre!
Smoke some weed dude!
Now, that’s not to say these answers don’t help (well, I don’t know about the last one), but they aren’t really sufficient.
Because creative block has levels of severity (at least in my opinion). If you tell someone who thinks they have creative block to smoke a joint or go for a walk, it’s not really going to help; especially if that person is just being lazy.
Likewise, telling someone who has a more severe form of creative block (like perfectionism) to just “push through it,” is only going to make things worse.
The unfortunate reality is that there’s no “one size fits all” solution to creative block. I used to think there was a fix-all solution, I wish there was, but sadly there just isn’t.
Now, that doesn’t mean that solutions don’t exist (I’ll be going through a ton of them in the next section). What it does mean is that you need to know what stage of creative block you’re in before you can look for the best solution.
Stage 1: Sheer laziness
It’s easy to mistake laziness—or a lack of willingness to put in the effort—for creative block.
When you first start producing music, the process is easy. You don’t find it hard to sit down, it’s fun, and you don’t really stress out about it. But as you learn more and progress, it starts to become more difficult.
What was first a simple task, production now requires you to push through it with difficulty, just like you’d have to push through difficulty if you wanted to lose weight or eat healthier.
Laziness is an incredibly powerful manipulator. It will force your brain to justify the reasons why you shouldn’t make music. Often that justification is “well, I’ve got creative block so I should just take a break.”
(There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks, just make sure you really need one. Sometimes it’s better to push through.)
The problem with this and laziness as a whole is that it’s perpetual. The less time you spend making music, the more you delay it, and the harder it is to get back on track and start again.
But Sam, music is my hobby! Why should I keep doing it if it’s hard?
Hobbies are supposed to be fun, but ‘fun’ doesn’t mean easy all the time. In fact, you could argue that difficulty, when overcome, leads to a sense of accomplishment that provides more satisfaction than performing a task that requires no effort at all.
I recommend thinking of music production as a craft rather than a hobby. A craft is something you diligently work on. It’s something you take pride in and something that keeps you sane despite having a stressful work life.
You should keep making music even when it’s hard.
Besides, what’s the alternative? What other hobby doesn’t require hard work to get better at?
Stage 2: Challenge
You’re working on a project.
Everything’s going well and you’re feeling good… until you come across a problem.
You don’t always know what the problem is, but it’s there. Maybe it’s the chorus or drop that doesn’t sound quite right. Maybe it’s the transition between your intro and breakdown.
Whatever it is, it’s vexing. You don’t know how to fix it.
Fortunately, if you’re in this stage, you’re like 99% of other producers in the world. You’re not alone, and as we’ll see in the next section, it can be overcome.
Stage 3: 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.
True creativity is letting a song make itself. It’s drawing a note in your piano roll and immediately hearing the next one in your head and going with it instead of ignoring it because it doesn’t fit the style or genre you had in mind.
Producers fall into this trap when they attempt to emulate another artist. Because they’re not letting ideas roam free by trying to force them into a framework or style, they find it hard to A) enjoy the process and B) get the right sound.
Stage 4: Outside distractions
The way I see it, there are two types of creative people.
For the first type, creative work is a form of escapism. They can easily “switch off” while producing and ignore everything going on around them.
The second type needs to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy production or simply to sit down at their desk and start.
I’m the second type. If I’ve had a stressful day, I know that it’s going to be difficult for me to sit down at my desk and start making music. Why? Because I can’t just switch my brain off and stop thinking about things outside of music.
So, for many people, the outside world and everything in it can lead to creative block. This is a severe stage of creative block and is hard to overcome, but I’ll share some tips in the next section.
Stage 5: Deep mindset problem
This is a common stage. It’s not necessarily worse than stage 3 or 4, but it’s more deeply rooted and thus can be more challenging to overcome.
The Deep Mindset Problem 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.
Finally, it can also be due to an obsessive focus on a superficial objective. If at the end of the day, you only care about money and fame and use music purely as a means to achieve that, then you can find yourself stuck. You’re only concerned with the end result, yet your main focus needs to be on enjoying the process since it’s the most challenging part.
Strategies for Dealing with Creative Block
The strategies below are not a replacement for consistent work. If you’re not producing consistently and you’re not taking measures to stay focused, then these strategies won’t work.
This may seem unhelpful, but many producers need to hear it.
Creativity can be forced. To suggest otherwise is to discredit those who do creative work every day by necessity—i.e., magazine and newspaper writers.
If they don’t write, they lose their jobs. So, how do you force it?
You just do. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Force yourself to lay down a drum beat. Just do something. Make something that sucks.
The important thing is that you go from doing nothing to doing something.
Take a break
It’s easy to get burned out, even when you’re producing consistently.
Consistency doesn’t imply stress-free. Authors and artists attest to this when they talk about how burned out they feel by the end of a big project like a book or album.
If you think you need to take a break, then take one. You’re not going to lose all your production skills during your break, nor is your career going to fail. Not only do breaks reduce stress, but they also give your brain some time to mull over the ideas you’ve been working on.
Tip: I recommend a week-long break depending on how burned out you feel. Sometimes, you’ll only need a few days and other times you’ll need longer. It’s up to you to figure out the ideal length.
The important thing here is not to use the word “break,” as a fancy term for procrastination.
If you’re stuck with a certain section in your project, ask for feedback on it.
A simple question like: I’m working on a new song and I’m stuck at the part around (timestamp). I’ve thought about doing X or Y, but I’m not sure. What comes to mind for you?
Make sure you don’t ask for feedback simply to gain validation or approval. As good as it feels to do that, it doesn’t help you overcome creative block. Whenever you ask for feedback, you should be prepared for discomfort. Feedback should be critical, not make you feel good.
One thing at a time
One common cause of creative block is feeling overwhelmed. We look at how much work is required to make a song and we default to the path of least resistance–that is, not working on a song at all.
There’s a way to reduce that overwhelming feeling and lower friction. It’s the age-old technique of doing one thing at a time.
If you struggle with the prospect of creating a full song, and your creative block is more “big picture,” then you can break the process up into segments such as:
- Write a melody
- Add a chord progression
- Add drums
…and so forth.
If your creative block is more granular and lower-level, say, you’re struggling to write a melody–then you can break that single task up and do one thing at a time:
- Create the rhythm for the melody
- Create the first bar of the melody
- Create the second bar of the melody
- Extend/double it and add variation to make it four bars long
Anyone can come up with the rhythm for a melody. It’s not stupid to start there if you’re struggling.
Note: Obviously you can combine these and have a “big picture” sequence as well as a more granular one. Everyone is different, so use these tips and tools in a way that works best for you.
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.
This strategy is painful as it often involves scrapping work that’s taken hours of effort.
When you work on a track for a long time, you naturally end up adding a lot. Sometimes, as you add things, the track loses direction. It becomes too busy, and you lose focus of the core ideas which make the track special.
The ruthless reduction strategy is a great way to get your project back on track and have the core ideas remain in the spotlight. Here’s how it works:
- Save your project as a new version (in case you make a mistake and need to revisit an earlier version).
- Remove everything apart from the core ideas and instruments. Basically, everything that you know needs to be on the track.
- Work on the track from that point.
This strategy will end up doing one of two things: if your core ideas and sounds are good, you’ll keep working on it. If they’re bad, you’ll realize after you’ve taken everything away that the track probably isn’t worth working on. It’s easy to cover up mediocre ideas with fancy fills and other sounds, but it’s a bad way to write music.
Time-blocking + objectives
This is by far my favorite strategy, and I know it works because I’ve recommended it to many producers with great results.
It’s simple: you schedule out a time-block for production—say, 90 minutes—and then you set an objective for it.
If you’re starting a new project, your objective might be to come up with an 8-bar loop containing a melody, bassline and drum pattern.
This does two things: the time-blocking forces you to perceive that time as important, and adds some healthy pressure, and the objective gives you something to work towards so you’re not mucking around focusing on things that don’t matter.
Stage 1: Sheer laziness
The 5-minute production session
One of the best ways to combat low motivation or laziness is to make things as easy as possible. I mean ridiculously easy. Stupid easy.
It’s why those self-help guys will tell you that the best way to start exercising is to make an extremely small commitment: instead of telling yourself you’ll go to the gym five times a week when you’ve never gone before, you decide to go for a five-minute walk twice a week.
If you have a hard time producing, then you should lower the commitment. Reduce the friction. Commit to just five minutes of music production.
This seems stupid, but you’ll notice a few things when you do this:
- There’s no pressure. You’ve committed to five minutes of music production. You don’t feel forced to make something great because you know it’s impossible to do so in such a short time period. You feel relaxed.
- You’ll almost always go longer than five minutes. Chances are, your timer will go off after five minutes, you’ll laugh, and keep going. Anything you do past five minutes is a bonus, and you should feel proud that you exceeded your commitment.
- It forces you to focus. Sometimes you’ll sit there for five minutes and do absolutely nothing, but most of the time you’ll immediately focus on what’s important. You’ll want to achieve something in the five-minute time frame you’ve set. Not something great, because you know it’s impossible given the time period, but you certainly won’t procrastinate or waste time on trivial stuff.
Laziness often stems from a lack of motivation.
If you’re not feeling motivated to produce, there are a number of things you can do to regain passion and motivation.
The first thing you should do is work out your why. Why do you make music? Do you make music because you absolutely love it? Or do you make music because you want to become famous and make a lot of money?
Superficial goals like this aren’t necessarily bad—there shouldn’t be any shame in wanting to make money—but they don’t cultivate lasting motivation because they aren’t intrinsically rewarding.
If for you, making music has become a means to an end, rather than a process itself, then you need to recalibrate your goals and vision so that it places importance on the process as well.
For example, the following goal:
I want to build a career out of music because I love making music.
Includes an objective and also recognizes that the process is important (love making music).
Your why can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. What’s important is that it makes you feel something.
One example that comes to mind is from a reader who emailed me a while back. His reason for making music is that it’s his escape. He lives with chronic pain, as does his wife, and music production is the one thing that allows him to zone out for a while.
You might not use music as an escape, but it is important to think about what it really means to you and why you do it.
Another way to gain motivation is to listen to more music.
It amazes me how few producers prioritize listening to music. It’s something you should do habitually and consciously.
A great writer studies and reads many books. A great businessman studies other business models and concepts. It follows that a great music producer or musician studies and listens to a lot of music.
Aside from being a great learning tool, listening to music almost always ignites motivation. If you’re listening to new music on a daily basis, it doesn’t take long for you to hear that one track that urges you to get in the studio and start making music.
Note: Motivation can’t be relied on. It’s good for the initial “push,” but you need to remain disciplined and use it to build momentum. Motivation will get you out of ruts; it won’t keep you out of them.
If the above two strategies don’t work, then you have to get serious.
As a music producer, unless you’re working as a professional, there’s nothing stopping you from not making music. You don’t have any skin in the game. There’s no loss.
This isn’t a bad thing, after all, you don’t want to feel like music production is an obligation. But if you actually want to make music and find it difficult to A) get started and B) finish something, then having skin in the game will force you to do both. Because if you don’t, you lose something, and it hurts.
So, how do you create a scenario where you have skin in the game? Where losing is a painful option that you want to avoid at all costs?
You set stakes.
I needed to finish the second edition of this book. I didn’t need motivation, but I did want to work faster and harder. So I used a site called gof**kingdoit.com (spelt out in full), wrote down my goal with a deadline, and put down $1000 as a stake.
I’m writing it now, and if I don’t achieve my goal of finishing the book by the deadline, an email gets sent to my accountability partner and he clicks the link that says I didn’t achieve my goal. I lose $1000.
You can employ this as a producer. Whether you want to finish a song, an EP, an album—it doesn’t matter. The key is to set a stake high enough that forces you to take action. If you set a $5 stake, it’s pretty easy to justify giving up, because losing $5 doesn’t hurt as much as $50 or $500.
Stage 2: Challenge
Ask for advice
If your creative block stems from a challenge–something you don’t know how to do–then your first line of attack should be asking for advice.
If you’re lucky enough to have a mentor or set of mentors, then go to them. If you have producer friends who know more than you, ask them. And if you don’t have friends or mentors, join any of the several production groups on Facebook and pose your question there (I recommend: EDMProd Artist Community, EDM Producer Network and EDM Bedroom Producer).
Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from producers who don’t know you. Producers who are talented but aren’t super busy are often delighted to help out as long as you’re polite, specific, and don’t ask a ton of questions.
Identify an alternative
Sometimes, you’ll work on a project and have a great idea come to mind for a certain section of the song.
Maybe you want a breakdown similar to that of a Koan Sound track, except you’ve only been producing a few months and don’t have the technical ability to replicate that style well.
Detach yourself from that idea and find an alternative that you can implement using your current skills. This isn’t a cop-out, it’s called being smart. A vocalist won’t go out of their range if the song requires them to, they’ll sing it in another key.
Spend some time studying
Sometimes the only thing stopping you from finishing a project is a lack of knowledge or skills.
It might be songwriting and composition skills; you have the ideas in your head but you’re not sure how to realize them in your DAW. Sometimes it’s sound design skill; you have the sounds in your head but you can’t recreate them. And sometimes it’s arrangement and structure know-how; you have a solid loop written but you don’t know how to turn it into a full song.
By spending some time studying (a few days or weeks), you can come back to an existing project with more knowledge and fresh ideas.
Stage 3: Suppression/tunnel vision
Get into the open mode
We’ve already gone over how to get into the open mode, but it’s crucial that you actually do so when faced with this stage of creative block.
When you’re in the open mode, you’re creative. You’re playing; not trying to force anything. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and force a sound or style when you’re distracted and not relaxed, so make getting into the open mode your priority.
This is easier said than done, but it’s worth thinking about.
Let’s say you’re trying to imitate a certain producer. You want to sound like that producer, but perhaps it runs deeper than that?
Maybe you want to sound like that producer because that producer gets a lot of recognition. Your brain starts making up this story that if you don’t make music the same way that producer does, you won’t get recognition.
This is irrational, of course, but we aren’t rational creatures as much as we’d like to be. Our brain makes up stories all the time to make sense of things.
When your brain makes up a story like this, it adds a ton of pressure. As soon as you make something that doesn’t sound like that producer, you fail.
When this kind of pressure exists, it’s impossible to be creative. You’re producing within a straight-jacket.
So, remove the pressure in any way you can. Collaborate with a friend, play around with a new plugin, do a remix, just allow yourself to try something different.
I’m a huge believer in working fast. It’s a great way to create, and a lot of top creative people in their respective fields will tell you it’s beneficial.
But it’s especially important when you’ve got tunnel vision or you’re trying to sound a certain way. Because to imitate another artist or make music in a certain style, you really have to think about what you’re doing.
When you work slowly, you’ve got plenty of time to think. You can easily disengage from the process and analyze what you’re doing. This is a bad thing.
When you work quickly, you work intuitively. You have less time to think, and you follow ideas where they take you.
Stage 4: Outside distractions
Deal with them first if they’re important
Some outside distractions are too important to ignore.
If it’s a family matter or any sort of crisis, then you shouldn’t even be thinking about music. But you already know that.
If it isn’t a crisis but the distraction is still kind of important, it’s a good idea to deal with it before sitting down and making music.
Perhaps you’re distracted by an argument you had with someone that’s still lingering in your head. Would you have a better production session if you resolved that before sitting down to produce? Maybe it’s a work project you forgot to wrap up. If it took 30 minutes to finish it, would it help you have a better session?
There needs to be balance here because it’s easy to use these outside distractions as a reason not to make music. The last thing you need is to spend all your time fixing all the trivial things and never getting around to actually making music. This next strategy exists to prevent that from happening.
Produce in the morning
Blasphemy! Producers don’t function in the morning! Are you crazy?
There’s a tendency for us producers to work at night. I believe this is due to three things:
- A lot of producers are young. Young people tend to stay up late.
- There’s a strong link between music production and DJing/live performance, and the latter almost always happens at night.
- People have jobs and find it easier to produce after they come home.
The problem, however, is that your mind is typically full of things at the end of the day.
Jenny made you a terrible coffee at the office, and her voice is so annoying. It echoes eternally. Then you stubbed your toe as you walked out the door. Basically, you went through a day.
When you produce in the morning, none of that stuff has happened. You haven’t seen Jenny yet (thank goodness), and yes, you could have stubbed your toe, but the day has just started so you’re less likely.
Also, your mind is more focused during the morning. You’re not as distracted, and you have more willpower (which is something that fades throughout the day).
At the very least, try it for a few mornings. You might surprise yourself.
Stage 5: Mindset problem
Find out what it is
Are you a perfectionist?
Do you have a limiting belief?
You need to work out what type of mindset problem you have.
But how do you find out whether or not you’re at this stage of creative block? The best way to know is when you’ve spent months on end struggling to make music. Maybe you’ve even tried a bunch of the aforementioned strategies to no avail.
If you are in this stage, you have a lasting creative block that takes a long time to go away by itself (most people quit).
The best thing you can do is examine yourself and be honest with yourself. If you’re a perfectionist, admit it. If you have a limiting belief, admit it and work on it. It helps to ask other people what they think you have.
I’m making it sound like an illness. It really isn’t—it’s something almost all creative people deal with, which is why it’s essential to talk to other people who are experiencing this severe form of creative block, or who’ve been through it.
Recommended: Producer Mindset Mastery
How to overcome perfectionism
The best way to overcome perfectionism is to set deadlines.
There are other helpful strategies, but none as powerful as short deadlines.
Deadlines force you to focus. They force you to abandon the desire to make something perfect.
If you’re a perfectionist who hasn’t set deadlines before, you’re in for a tough experience. But afterwards, you’ll be on your way to finishing a lot of music.
How long should I set a deadline for?
I recommend a time period of five hours. That is, only spend five hours total on your next project.
You can do that in a day, spread it out over a couple of days, whatever works best. Just make sure you’re tracking your time spent on the project.
Five hours gives you enough time to make something that doesn’t sound terrible, but it’s too short a time to muck around and tweak instruments to perfection.
Remember, if you’re in this position, your goal should be to finish, not to make something great.
How to overcome a limiting belief
I’m not a therapist and this book isn’t about overcoming limiting beliefs, so I’m not going to go into extreme detail on this topic.
However, I will share some advice that has helped me overcome limiting beliefs related to music production. It might help you, but no guarantees.
One of the most common limiting beliefs that leads to creative block is “I’m not cut out for music.”
The only reason people hold this belief is due to the false narrative that assumes some people are born with talent (born musical) while others aren’t.
The best way to overcome a belief like this is to first understand why you hold the belief, and then make a case against it and test your assumption.
Let’s say I believed that people were born with talent and that hard work didn’t make much difference. I’d first try to work out where that belief came from. Was it from a book? A movie? Did my parents tell me it when I was a kid?
Then I’d test my belief by reading a reputable book on the topic (The Talent Code is a great book on this particular topic, by the way), along with some scientific studies if I felt I needed extra convincing. If the book or paper contradicted my belief, that belief would be much easier to give up because I know that it’s objectively wrong.
Once you’ve tested your assumption and found out it’s wrong, then it’s simply a matter of reminding yourself of the truth every time you start falling into the trap of believing it again.
- Work out where your limiting belief comes from
- Test your assumption to find out whether it’s true or not
- Remind yourself until the belief changes
Note: A lot of limiting beliefs are changed through a breakthrough of some kind. For example, if you believe you’re not cut out to make music, and then you muster up willpower and put out a track that gets a lot of positive feedback, then your belief is likely to change on a visceral level. Don’t be afraid to simply ignore and push through limiting beliefs until you’re forced to realize that they’re false.
Your creative block probably won’t disappear unless you do something about it.
Your assignment for the end of chapter three is to pick one strategy and try it out. Ideally, pick a stage-specific strategy based on the severity of your creative block. If you’re not sure what stage you’re at, pick a general strategy.
If you want to make things easy on yourself, choose the Five Minute Production Session strategy!
Cool, now you have some strategies for dealing with creative block. The next step in improving your workflow and creativity is to get a copy of the Producer’s Guide to Workflow and Creativity. This post is from the third chapter in the book, but there’s a lot more to cover – like workflow, finishing music and originality.