Suddenly find yourself in a mental rut? Don’t panic: Shahid Ahmad is here to talk developers through his 12-step process for solving any creative problem

How to beat Developer’s Block

I recently suffered from the worst bout of ‘game designer’s block’ I’ve ever had. This fed into my impostor syndrome and I got stuck. Reaching out to my peers, I was starkly reminded that the same processes that work for code problems also work for design troubles.

Here are some of my strategies for tackling creative blocks. I’ve found they work for just as well for design as they do for programming. The important thing is to have a process in place, written down, and to apply it to any creative problem you have – and to start immediately. If you don’t start immediately, you feed fear with its favourite fuel: time. 

1. Step away from the computer. I see the computer like a canvas and the edge of my monitor as the frame. Frames have a profound effect on the way you think. If your thinking is blocked, you need a new frame – and reality is a good one. Don’t just take short breaks; take at least a day off a week; not just from work, but from any computing device. This will reset your frame for a while and allow your subconscious mind to replenish your conscious mind with fresh ideas.

2. Go for a walk, preferably in nature. If that’s a stretch, ground yourself by walking barefoot on the grass. Some suggest doing this at dawn or dusk, because these are usually peaceful times.

3. Meditate by simply noticing your breath. Start with just noticing yourself inhaling, then exhaling for one breath. Then later in the day, try a few breaths. Eventually, you will be able to build this up to 20 minutes. The objective is not to stop thinking, but to bring your thinking under your conscious control. 

4. Write your problem down. Jot down the consequences, worst cases, best cases – all the scenarios and outcomes you can think of. Then write down what you’re going to do about it and do it. Immediately. Impostor syndrome can be tackled much more easily when you write things down. Ask lots of questions on paper. You’ll find that the answer to ‘I’m shit’ is: ‘Actually, that’s not objectively true. Here are several reasons why I’m not shit, and here are some successes I’ve experienced.’

5. Do a mind map. You can use software if you like, but it’s hard to beat the physicality of paper and coloured pens.

6. Go away for a day or two and get physical distance from your problem. Go somewhere new. Nature is great, but new is best because your conscious mind will be so flooded with new inputs that it will be too busy to screw you up.

7. Ask your subconscious, or God, or the universe, or whatever you’re comfortable with, for a solution. State a question or assert a request clearly. Then trust and have faith in the solution arriving in a ‘Eureka’ moment. It always does. Write it down immediately. If you don’t, it will go. I use dictaphones, drafts on my iPhone, waiter pads – anything.

8. Exercise. Swim, lift weights, get your blood pumping and your body working. Try yoga, pilates or just some stretching. The aim here is to get out of your head and into your body.

9. Walk and talk with a friend. Decades ago, I’d go for a ten-mile walk with a friend and we’d just talk. It was remarkably therapeutic.

10. Try cold therapy. Cold showers also help with mild depression, which sometimes goes hand in hand with creative blocks. It sounds barbaric, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. Five minutes under cold water has a remarkable effect on your mood and your energy.

11. Experiment with a different medium. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or not. Paint, draw, play or compose some music, dance or write a journal. I taught myself to make games and play bass at the same time, with my bass constantly in my lap. Whenever I needed to think, or wait for the computer to build something, I’d practice. Now, I can code and play bass.

12. Make sure you’re sleeping enough. If you don’t, your body will produce a ton of cortisol – the stress hormone – and you will get sick more quickly because your body won’t be repairing itself. My phone or tablet doesn’t come to the bedroom with me; we have blackout blinds and if I think I might get disturbed with sound, I wear earplugs. Improving sleep hygiene is probably the single biggest impact life hack you can make.

There are plenty of other things you can try, but the important thing is to know that you are going to get blocked at some point and have a plan to address it, written down in advance.

Shahid Ahmad is an independent developer, and previously head of strategic content at SCEE. You can find him on Twitter at @shahidkamalThis article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Develop.

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