How to Deal With Creative Block and Creative Envy

There are two things that consistently get in our way of being creative entrepreneurs — and with a little bit of intentional effort, they can both be avoided.

If you’re a writer or a designer, creative block and envy can easily limit your productivity. So what’s the best way around this?

It starts with being intentional about taking care of yourself. Perhaps it’s time away from the internet or simply removing the distractions that seem to work their way into our lives.

In this 24-minute episode Allison Vesterfelt and I discuss:

  • Her new gig with Donald Miller at Storybrand
  • How she packed a day’s worth of writing into 60 minutes
  • The creative “one step back, two steps forward” mentality
  • Being distracted vs. having creative block
  • The impact of a 7-day internet-free retreat
  • Creative envy and how it weighs us down
  • The biggest mistake that writer’s make

The Show Notes

How to Deal with Creative Block and Creative Envy

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Brian Gardner: I’m getting better at identifying when I trip over my words, stopping, and then just leaving a space because I know I can cut it.

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. I am your host, Brian Gardner. I’m here to discuss the struggles around being and becoming a creative entrepreneur. Together, we’ll identify what’s standing in the way of you building and growing your online business. No Sidebar is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, a complete website solution for writers, designers, podcasters, and other online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/platform.

This week, we’re back with Allison Vesterfelt. We’ll be sharing our thoughts on creative block and creative envy, me as a designer and her as a writer. Before we get going, Ally, let’s catch up on a few things. It’s been a few weeks since you’ve been on the show, and there’s a reason for that. We don’t get to talk as much as I’d like to, but again, that’s okay, because a lot has changed on your end. Just give us a snapshot of what’s happened over the last couple of weeks.

Her New Gig with Donald Miller at Storybrand

Allison Vesterfelt: For the last five years, I have been running my own company, doing the entrepreneurial thing. It started as freelancing, and then grew into this bigger thing where I had people working for me and with me and that’s been really fun. I guess it’s been about six weeks ago now, a writer friend of mine, who is also one of my heroes in the writing world — his name is Donald Miller — asked me if I wanted to come join his team and be a writer full time for his team. The offer was out of left field.

I wasn’t planning to quit what I was doing and start a full-time job, but it was also such an honor to be asked by him. I’ve worked closely enough with him and with his team to know that they are a blast to work with, and they’re a really, really fun team. I took a few weeks to think about it and finally decided to say yes. The last three weeks have been my first time in five years working a real 9-to-5, show-up-at-work-every-day, 40-hours-a-week kind of gig, and it’s been a blast. It’s been so much fun.

Brian Gardner: That’s really good to hear. I’ve been talking to Daryl about that, and you and I talked a bit about the decision you made and whatnot, and so it makes me happy to know that you’re happy. It also makes me happy to know that you told Don that you had to be part of this show still, and that was part of your deal, so we don’t get to miss out on you. That’s a good thing.

Another thing that’s changed since you’ve been on last was the idea of going unscripted. Robert and I spent the last two weeks cutting my teeth on doing the unscripted thing. Again, that’s what we’re doing here. I have questions and notes, but under no circumstance will I be reading. You and I have discussed this as well, just doing the conversational riffing thing, because we have a lot in common, and we share a lot of the same mentalities on certain things. With creative block and creative envy, I think that bodes totally well for us just going back and forth.

I also like the idea of going off topic sometimes, because that’s where golden nuggets in life get found. When you stick to a script, you have a tendency not to go down places that may uncover interesting thoughts and opinions about things.

All right. Let’s talk about creative block. Creative block is this thing that gets in our way of when we want to be creative, right? It’s something that keeps us up late at night. There are times of the day we don’t want to even be working, but we have to work and get through it.

As a writer, you obviously have it in a different form. For you as a writer, it looks differently than me as a designer, so what are the types of things that you do when you get to a point where you just can’t think, you just can’t write? Talking about the fact that you have a job now and work for Don, and now that you have a job where you have to write for someone else, there may even be some more pressure that comes along with that. What do you do, or how do you get through that kind of thing?

Allison Vesterfelt: Yeah. In the last five years, as I’ve been working with a lot of writers, I have not met a writer yet who hasn’t had to deal with writer’s block. It can be one of the most frustrating things you deal with, especially when you depend on your writing for your income, you don’t have the option of just saying, “Oh, I’ll just wait until the inspiration comes.” You have to sit down and write right now.

The thing I’ve learned from my own life about writer’s block is, I always say, “Writer’s block is not just writer’s block. It’s life block.” Usually, for me, when I sit down and I try to write and I can’t write, it’s usually because there’s something I want to say, need to say, someone I need to talk to, something I’m not admitting to myself, something deeper that I haven’t tapped into yet.

The most effective tool for me has been to step away from the computer and to go for a long walk, or a run, or to a park, or somewhere where I can get away from all the noise, and my phone, and my computer, and everything that’s asking for something from me, and listen to the intuition I have inside of me or follow where that leads me. Almost always, that leads me to something that will help me clear the blockage.

How She Packed a Day’s Worth of Writing into 60 Minutes

Allison Vesterfelt: I think it was like six months ago or maybe a year ago now that I was working on a huge project, and I was bumping up really close to the deadline and was really worried I wasn’t going to finish. Every day for a week, I would sit down on the computer, and I would try to get the words out, and they wouldn’t come out. And they wouldn’t come out. And they wouldn’t come out. I was so frustrated.

For a few days in a row, I went on these long walks. By the third day I did this, I was walking around my neighborhood. As I was walking, I just was thinking to myself, “Okay. I’ve got to figure this out.” I was saying a little prayer to ask for guidance as to how to get past this blockage, and the words that I heard in that moment were, “Take care of yourself first, and then others second.” It was like not an outside voice. It was an inside voice. It was like that little intuition, the conscience, or whatever you want to call that inside of you that guides you out of problems.

I heard those words, came home, sat down on my computer to get some more writing done, and immediately when I sat down, my husband walked in the door. It’s like 4:30 in the afternoon. He’s like, “Hey, what are we going to do for dinner tonight? What do you want to do tonight?” I got a text message from a friend who said, “Hey, do you want to hang out tonight?” Then, I had gotten an email from a client who was really concerned. They needed something ASAP. They needed it right that second, and I just repeated those words to myself, “Take care of yourself first, and others second.”

It was like the minute that I did that, I realized, “Okay.” I said to my husband, “Hey, we’ll talk about this in one hour. I just need one hour to get some words on the page,” and replied to my friend and said, “I can’t hang out tonight. Let’s catch up tomorrow.” Then, I closed my email and decided that I would respond the next morning during business hours. In the next 60 minutes, I got more writing done in that 60 minutes than I had in the whole day.

I think sometimes, it’s something like that, that there was something going on inside of me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on or couldn’t explain. But once I went on the walk, and cleared my head, and heard those words, it guided me out of the problem, if that makes sense.

Brian Gardner: Yeah. Have you ever seen the movie The Social Network?

Allison Vesterfelt: Yes.

Brian Gardner: You know that scene when Justin Timberlake comes to the house for the first time when they moved to San Francisco, and they’re walking around and introducing people, and he goes up to this one guy, and he’s like, “Hey,” and he’s like, “No, no, no. Don’t talk to him. He’s wired in?”

Allison Vesterfelt: Yeah.

Brian Gardner: It’s like it’s the visual I got when you were talking about that, when you had that moment where, “Hey, I got to work,” and Daryl coming home and giving him the, “Uh-uh, no. My headphones are on, and I’m wired in.”

Allison Vesterfelt: Exactly.

The Creative “One Step Back, Two Steps Forward” Mentality

Brian Gardner: It’s funny, though, because I’m the opposite of you, even though I know I should do what you just said. I even wrote about this last week on my blog. Just about the idea of Internet addiction and feeling like you always have to be online. For me, when I get creative block, I have this mentality of, “I have stay on the Internet. I have to keep trying to beat down the door or put my head through the wall to get it to work.”

Once in a while, I actually do as you say, which is turn off the computer, go for a walk, go on a run, go do something totally brainless, and I’ll come back and feel inspired or, “Oh, my gosh. There it is. Now, I can clear through this. I don’t know why I was being so stubborn before.” It’s good words, and it’s counter-intuitive though to like to step away to make progress. I guess it’s like a one-step-back-two-steps-forward mentality, which is hard to think it will happen, but as you said, and as I’ve experienced a few times, it really is a good thing.

Allison Vesterfelt: Do you think there is a difference in approach because — I don’t know if you would call yourself an extrovert. I would consider you an extrovert and me an introvert. Do you think that maybe for some people to clear creative block, it might help them to go to people, or do you think it always is about going it alone?

Being Distracted Vs. Having Creative Block

Brian Gardner: I think the cure for creative block looks a lot of different ways depending on symptoms and whatnot. I think even with you or with me, in some block, it may help to talk to people, and in some block, it may help to just go for a run. Although, as I was thinking about what we are going to talk today, I don’t want to mistake creative block for being sidetracked online.

In other words, I’ll say, “I got creative block,” when in reality, it means I’m hanging out on Twitter, and doing things that are actually just disruptive. It’s really not creative block, so I got to blame other people and be like, “Oh, I’m having creative block because I keep getting pinged on Skype from people.” It’s like, “Hello. Just turn off Skype, close down social media, and then focus,” because that’s a lot of times, all it might be.

I don’t even need to go on a run. I just need to tune out the stuff that’s distracting. I think like one of the take-home messages here is, “Don’t mistake creative block for just being distracted,” and that’s a whole other show, a whole other episode and stuff. We even talked about on the blog over at is how to tune out those things. Email is another example of something that gets in our way.

Allison Vesterfelt: This was in connection to what you just said. I was thinking about how — and maybe this is too much of a rabbit trail — but about how there’s such an expectation for us to be available via email, Twitter, Facebook. It’s like if I Tweet something — and maybe this is an imagined expectation — but I feel like if I Tweet something and people respond to me, then I actually am required to respond to them. It’s same thing if I send an email or somebody emails me. I’m required to respond to that email.

If I don’t have my phone for a few hours, and somebody text messages me, and I don’t text them back for four or five hours, I feel a weight or a sense of guilt, and I sometimes feel like that is part of the blockage. What I have to do to clear that blockage is just turn everything off.

Brian Gardner: I think I need to realize that other people are more patient than I might be. In other words, if I don’t respond right away, whether it is on social media or email, my guess is they’re not sitting there tapping their fingers and saying, “All right. When is he going to respond?” I think what you just talked about and those who go through that, which I do at times, I think it’s just our own thing that we feel that really isn’t happening. You know what I mean?

Allison Vesterfelt: Right, like an imagined pressure?

Brian Gardner: Exactly.

The Impact of a 7-Day Internet-Free Retreat

Allison Vesterfelt: Last year around this time, I went away for a week to this retreat center where you check in your phone when you get there. You’re there for seven days, and you do meditations and different kinds of things. It’s called the Living Centered Program. A lot of artists and musicians and writers go there to get back that creative energy they feel like they’ve lost.

Living seven days without my phone felt like something physically changed in my body. The other thing it reminded me of is that, “Oh, my gosh. The world goes on without me.” I didn’t talk to my husband for seven days. I didn’t talk to my family for seven days. Everybody knew. I told people ahead of time, “I’m going to be unplugged for seven days.” I didn’t check my email for seven days. I didn’t get on Twitter for seven days. I didn’t look at anything for seven days.

I think I get into this mode. It’s like a hyper-productive or hyper like, “Okay. Move, move, move. I got to get everything done, everything responded to” — that kind of mode. To unplug and shut everything down for seven days was so life-changing, and it just made me realize, “Oh, my gosh. Okay. The world moves on without me. Nobody needs me that badly that if I don’t respond to them for one week that their world will fall apart.”It was just this sense of relief that there’s more space than I think there is.

Brian Gardner: I don’t know if I could do that. For me, it might be life-ending. I don’t know that I could go seven minutes without being connected to some sort of online something. I do absolutely commend you for doing that, and I do totally understand that I’m sure it’s 100 percent positive and awesome and all of that. I would probably have to go kicking and screaming. But back to the email and the response thing, and then we can head towards this creative envy thing.

I think and I get down on myself sometimes for being such a responder, that I think I set up the expectation that I will respond all the time and respond quickly. “Oh, if Brian hasn’t responded within 20 minutes, then something must be wrong because Brian always responds to me in 20 minutes.” I’m trying to actually train myself in taking a little bit more time, as much as I hate it, because it means more email sitting there.

Six hours go by, which is more expected behavior anyways, because most people do take that amount of time, if not longer, to respond. So there is a bittersweetness to clearing out the inbox and letting it sit because as soon as you respond to something, if someone is right there, they respond right back, and then you’ve got even more work to do. Sometimes, I’m like, “If I just let it sit there, then it won’t keep coming in.”

Allison Vesterfelt: You are much better at responding than I am. You’re so fast.

Brian Gardner: Every time I text you, if I don’t hear back from you in 10 minutes, I think, “Uh-oh, something is wrong.”

Allison Vesterfelt: “Ally is not even my friend anymore.”

Brian Gardner: Yeah, like, “I thought we were close.”

Creative Envy and How It Weighs Us Down

Brian Gardner: All right, creative envy. Creative block stinks, but creative envy can be crippling. Creative envy can be something that totally weighs us down and totally can go to bad places. In moderation, creative envy is good, because it motivates us, keeps us on track, and inspires us to do good things. There’s nothing wrong with having an inspirational person in your life, or people, for that matter.

I think Robert and I talked about it a little bit, either the last show or the show before, where you get into that area where it becomes resentment, and that’s a really bad place to be because nothing good comes out of negativity or feelings of, “Oh, I so wish I was that person.”

I brought up the whole Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding thing. That obviously was performance envy, but who are the people, who are the writers — and you’re not throwing anyone under the bus here — in your life that you use as inspiration that may or may not borderline envy? Like the people who you’re like, “Huh, I just really wish I could do that.”

Allison Vesterfelt: Anne Lamott is the first one that comes to mind, and John Steinbeck. I just finished reading, a few months ago, his book called Journal of a Novel, which he wrote as he was writing East of Eden, which is probably my all-time favorite book. He said something in there that shocked me. He said, “As I’m writing this book, I’m reminding myself that even if nobody ever reads it, it will be worth it to have written it.”

I just thought, “That is so cool to know that John Steinbeck, who has written books that are in the canon and that kids read in high school — it’s required reading in high school — thought that to himself as he’s writing,” because it just made me remember, “Hey, we’re all human. We’re all just going to try to make this thing work.”

I definitely have, at times, thought about something Anne Lamott has written, or while reading something, East of Eden, or even Donald Miller. I’ve thought to myself, “Dang it, why didn’t I think of that?” or, “That’s exactly what I wanted to say, and you just said it so much better than I could have ever said it. It’s not fair.”

Brian Gardner: I have the same thing. As much as I do from a design side, even from a writing side. I love to write, but I don’t write as much and often as I wish I could, primarily because I’m doing other things like podcasting, and designing, and stuff like that, but also because I don’t think I measure up at times. I could sit around and try to craft the perfect Tweet, but I would spend three hours doing it, and I get mad at people who it just rolls off their tongue.

I’ll go to people’s Twitter streams, and I’ll, just for fun, just scroll through their last — I don’t know, couple hundred Tweets — just to see what they write, and there’s people who, one after another, have fun, witty Tweets that have been favorited or Retweeted. I’m like, “I just wish I could be as witty,” because there’s a part of me that wants to live that out in life. I don’t want to just be this safe, normal, happy guy. I want to write things that make people respond.

There’s people on Twitter — Anna Kendrick. Again, here, I bring her up. She’s classic for being very unfiltered with her Tweets, but some of the stuff she writes is so funny and gets such a response. A lot of it is so true, and a lot of it is what we wish we could say, but can’t. I have Twitter envy for people like her. I wish I could just copy her Tweet and then just Tweet it. Not that anybody would respond to it coming from me, but I don’t know.

It’s the one thing I’m most aware of when I go to design. There’s designers out there like Bill Kenney from Focus Lab — he’s a person who I admire heavily, and it gets almost very close to that envy. It’s not a negative thing I feel towards Bill, but he’s so good at what he does there at Focus Lab that I just wish I could just perform half as much as he can. I think it’s okay to have that in our life, in any area of our life.

Allison Vesterfelt: Yeah. I would say, especially when it comes to imitation, my thoughts are that imitation is a really, really important part of the development process for any creative. At least when I work with writers — I guess I can only really speak for this part of it — I always say, “Imitation of other writers is the only way you become a good writer.” But the thing I explain to them is that imitation happens in a different part of your brain than creativity, so you have to intentionally set aside time for practice with your writing, and then actual performance of your writing.

For example, like I would say, “Sit down for an hour, and you want to use the creative part of your brain, the creative engine inside of you to write what’s inside of you, and spend an hour doing that. Then, you want a separate time where you sit down for an hour, and you use the other part of your brain, the more analytical, strategic part of your brain, to go through your writing and say, ‘Here’s what’s working. Here’s what’s not working. Here are my spelling errors. If I move this paragraph to the top, it’s going to be more effective. Who’s my reader? Why am I writing to? What do I want to say to them? What do I want them to know by the end of this piece?’”

It’s that other part of your brain, the creative, analytical part of your brain that looks at another writer like Anne Lamott or Donald Miller or John Steinbeck and says, “What are they doing? What are the techniques they are using that are really, really effective, and how can I mimic those techniques to make myself a more effective writer?” But then, the challenge is turning off that part of your brain when you sit down to write again and saying, “Okay. Now that I’ve learned all that, over here, I’ve spent some time learning and analyzing. I’m going to turn off that part of my brain and turn on the other part of my brain, and let the creative engine just flow again.”

The idea would be that when you move back and forth, each time you move back into that creative brain, you actually become a better writer, and it’s still coming through your voice and through your filter, and it’s sounding more and more like you.

I would say the challenge is that creative envy actually blocks your ability to think objectively about what other writers are doing because creative envy says, “That writer, she was just born with that ability. She must have special gifts that I don’t have. I’ll never be like her. I wish I could be like her, but the only way for me to be like her is just to copy her.”

Whereas our creative, our more objective, analytical brain says, “Oh, wow. She’s using this really effective technique where instead of saying she was angry, she actually describes to me what anger looks like, and that works. It brings me into the scene. It makes me feel what she was feeling.”

The Biggest Mistake That Writers Make

Brian Gardner: Maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong. You say to write for an hour, take some time, come back for an hour, and alternate the different types of your brain. I try to do that within the same minutes. Like, I’ll write a sentence creatively, and then I’ll go back and say, “Okay. Now, let’s analyze this sentence.” That obviously becomes very inefficient because I don’t think the brain really works well when you’re going back and forth that often.

Allison Vesterfelt: It’s actually, I think, the biggest mistake writers make. I always tell my writers I work with, “Write now, and edit later. Write now. Edit later. Tell yourself that while you’re writing: Write now, edit later. Write now, edit later.” Don’t edit while you’re writing or your writing won’t flow. It won’t have a flow to it.

Brian Gardner: This is the No Sidebar podcast about creative block and creative envy in which Brian Gardner, the host, takes notes from his co-host. See, that’s one of my favorite things — aside from just loving you as a person — I love having you and having access to such brilliant information from the writing side because you’re so technically trained and so good at what you do that even through osmosis, I get to pick up some of these things. If anything, the reason for this show was for me to hear just what you said.

Allison Vesterfelt: I feel the same way about you. I think every friendship is a win when both people in the friendship feel like they are the luckiest one in the friendship.

Brian Gardner: I appreciate that from you as a friend and as a colleague in a sense. The one thing — being colleagues — that we get to do is this podcast together, and we still are doing the website, which Robert and I discussed a couple weeks ago.

We’ll start to go through a few subtle changes in direction. Nothing major as I’ve talked about before, but the intentionality of really focusing and addressing the content from the podcast side as well as the site towards creative entrepreneurs because after all, that’s what you are, that’s what I am. So writers, and podcasters, and designers, and anyone in the online space there who dabbles or immerses themselves creatively, those are the types of people who I resonate with, who I think you resonate with, and our company, Copyblogger, as a whole, resonates with.

A lot of the stuff moving forward will be specifically targeted toward that audience. I’m really excited about the stuff that we’re going to be doing on the show, really excited about some of the stuff we’ll be doing on the website with more content, a slight design update, which, if anyone follows me outside of this, they know that redesigning is definitely my forte.

Allison Vesterfelt: I’m really excited too. Thanks so much for including me in this. This is so fun.

Brian Gardner: All right, so group hugs for everybody, right? Love it.

If you like what you’re hearing here on the podcast, the best way to support the show is to leave a rating and/or a comment over on iTunes. Want more? Check out and sign up for our newsletter. Each week, we curate the very best and most interesting articles when it comes to designing a simple life at work, at home, and in the soul.

Until next week, this has been Brian Gardner and Allison Vesterfelt.