Feeling Creatively Blocked? Try Consciously Procrastinating

I’ve never been shy about my love/hate relationship with the corporate training video. Most suffer from a serious lack of authenticity and all but the rarest few come across as contrived, over-wrought, or  just plain silly (case in point: “Grill Skills“).  That’s because it’s extremely difficult to write rich, flowing content full of realistic scenarios, strong characters, and complex dialog under the best of circumstances – let alone when you have only a few minutes of screen time and an assortment of SMEs, stakeholders, and senior executives all vying to add their own unique spin to your screenplay. Oh, and people are supposed to learn something from it too…

I was recently faced with this challenge when a client approached me about scripting a video of a sales and service conversation. Initially I proposed a “day-in-the-life” documentary video using actual customers and customer service people, but unfortunately, for the type of product our sales & service person needed to discuss on camera, a lot of personal information would be required of the customer and the end result would’ve been a heavily edited conversation that lacked sufficient demonstration of process and probably would’ve felt a bit too much like a commercial for a process. Instead, the client requested that I write a scripted video with actors, a task I’ve undertaken dozens of times before.

Typically I produce a first draft script for my clients within a few days of our brainstorming session. This is an artificial deadline I impose upon myself because it allows for plenty of back and forth between SMEs and stakeholders. But this time around, I felt creatively paralyzed. I just wasn’t feeling that elusive “it” – that little creative spark that gets me into writing. When my Plan A documentary was tossed aside for practical reasons, I suddenly found myself completely devoid of a Plan B and that lack of suitable alternatives shook me – probably more than I even realized.

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They say that adversity breeds creativity and I think that’s mostly true. Today I read an interesting blog post about creativity by Scott Adams in which he suggests that the surest way to kill creativity is to encourage it. At first glance I was in complete disagreement – “Creativity is something you foster!” I proclaimed loudly to the dog assistant at my feet.

But as I read further and then reflected on my own recent experience with this video scripting project, I realized that I overcame my creative block and scripted what I think is a pretty good, maybe even a very good training video, by abandoning any notions of “managing” or “scheduling” the creative process. Mind you procrastination is not in my DNA, and yet I found that trying to force myself to create on a schedule was reliably snuffing out the very spark I desperately needed to ignite. Instead, I chose a path of (what I’m calling) “conscious procrastination” by giving myself permission only to think, but NOT to write.

From the outside, I’m sure I didn’t look like someone who was composing a detailed sales & service conversation. But in my mind I was casually exploring variables, observing how people behaved in the real world, eliminating concepts, making connections, thinking about my own experiences and slowly (very slowly) gathering together the embers of inspiration. Thus, when I was finally faced with a very real, very hard writing deadline, the ideas were all there.

I realize that selectively choosing to procrastinate isn’t always an option, but I must admit that it was a much more organic way to evolve an idea and, ultimately, to overcome a creative block.

Want to give conscious procrastination a try? Here’s what worked for me:

  1. Get out of the short-order cook mindset. I don’t care if your job title says you’re a tech writer, an instructional designer, or a trainer – you are an “experience designer” with learning being the desired outcome.
  2. Don’t get married to a concept or a plan. Instead, give yourself permission to set aside all of the corporate language constraints and SME hang-ups that stifle creativity. Trust in your ability to float in the right direction.
  3. Abandon any notions of assigning yourself a ‘soft’ deadline for writing. The hours leading up to the client deadline is when you should be writing. Besides, you’re way too smart to fall for those cheap Jedi mind tricks!
  4. Casually search for connections. When you’re out and about in the real-world, look for connections between what you’ve seen or experienced and the concepts you’re trying to communicate through your writing or creative treatment. How does real-life measure up to your ideas? What’s surprising, intriguing, or annoying you?
  5. Ditch your tendency to be a perfectionist with the first draft. It’s okay if it’s a little unrefined – as long as it’s well articulated.
So, what’s your take on creativity? Do our attempts to encourage it actually kill it? Are we placing too much value on creativity in our work, or not nearly enough? How do you “consciously procrastinate”? Drop me a line and share your thoughts.