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6 Ways My Brain Stops Me From Creating – And How I’m Fighting Back

I have a lot of ideas in my head. And for the most part, that’s where they used to stay.

In my head. Where other people couldn’t see them, interact with them or build upon them. Where they were safe and untested and uncriticized. All mine.

Sure, I’ve created some. Some might say I’ve created plenty. But that’s only because they can’t see what I’m not creating. For example, this very post sat dormant for at least a month while I pondered, waited and nitpicked at it.

Because the riskiest, most dangerous and potentially most interesting ideas are the easiest to hold back. I would pin them down like butterflies on a mat, like art at a museum. They were in spreadsheets, in notebooks, on scrap paper around my desk.

And while it might feel creative to think of these ideas, they were dying a lonely death when I wasn’t doing anything with them. They didn’t get their chance to add anything to the world. To affect someone. To spark something.

I lost out, too, with this arrangement. I didn’t push myself to think deeper and harder. I lost out on the feedback or insight or even criticism of others. I missed the chance to discover uncharted territory within myself. I stopped before I could start.

It wasn’t the best life I could give my ideas—or myself.

So I decided to change. To find a way forward, I cataloged all the things that had ever stopped me from creating so I could shoot them down, one-by-one. It turned out to be a helpful exercise, so I thought I’d share. Do any of these reasons for not creating something sound familiar to you?

1. Because the ideas aren’t finished

The No. 1 thing that keeps me from creating is that the idea doesn’t feel complete yet. It lacks something, or I need more examples, or I’m not sure if it’s clear.

A former editor of mine called these “glimmers”—a little spark of an idea, not fully formed but on the cusp of being something. Sometimes you need to let a glimmer sit for a while before it becomes a fully formed idea. Sometimes you can smush it together with a few other glimmers to make something.

The main thing is that idea glimmers need nurturing, which can be hard to do. When ideas are still developing, they can feel embarrassingly incomplete or tough to explain to others. What if my little glimmer is misunderstood or turns out to be nothing at all?

How to fix it:

It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned that this is the time to talk about ideas most, so they can grow from a glimmer to a real idea. You can even post it on social media to give it a quick test. So what if the idea might fail? I’ll be able to get feedback right away and know whether to keep thinking on my glimmer or let it go.

2. Because it’s too hard

Although I’ve been writing most of my life, it never exactly comes easy to me. Occasionally the words flow, but more often it feels like a struggle to pull them out of me.

And sometimes I don’t want a struggle. Sometimes I want to lay around and watch Orange Is The New Black.

As the incomparable wit Dorothy Parker put it, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

How to fix it:

The best fix I’ve discovered here is simply to start. Start somewhere, anywhere. As soon as I put down an outline, a headline, or even one sentence of the piece, the rest begins to flow much more easily. You can also do this with a timing structure. Close down all the distractions and force yourself to focus on just 20 minutes (or whatever time period feels right to you) of writing and no more. The bite-sized task can jumpstart your focus for the bigger project.

3. Because I’m focusing too much on other people’s stuff

I’ve always loved reading. And there’s really never been a better time to be a passionate reader. I get great stuff all day every day from my Twitter stream, my gazillion RSS feeds and the newsletters in my inbox, plus there’s the Sunday Times (yup, I still get a printed paper), everything I haven’t quite gotten to yet on Pocket and the many books on my Kindle.

Nothing makes me happier than spending time reading great stuff.

But if I’m not careful, it can also paralyze me into thinking all the good ideas are taken and all that needs to be said already has been. It’s kind of like a specific,writerly version of Imposter Syndrome.

impostor syndrome

How to fix it:

There’s always going to be space for reading, curating and cheering on others’ work. But there should also be a space for building on it and creating stuff of one’s own. Each of us has something to say, and we have the responsibility and privilege of adding to the discourse. It’s up to us to find and nurture the right balance and feel inspired by—not intimidated by–the work that others do. After all, everything is a remix.

4. Because I’m too busy with other work

Even as I type those words I realize what a flimsy excuse they are. Sure, I have lots to do at work and at home. We all do. But you always make time for what’s important to you, one way or another. I could wake up earlier or stay up later. I could cut out all TV. We all have the same number of hours in the day—it’s up to us to use them the best way we can to achieve our goals.

How to fix it:

What I discovered about feeling too busy for writing is that this is generally a symptom of needing to readjust my priorities to make sure creating doesn’t fall too far down the list. The things that have worked the best for me so far are to block out time in my schedule for creative work. I can write on the weekends, or in the morning before I check my email. If it turns out I’m really and truly too busy to execute an idea, I can always give it away to someone who has time to take it on. Because in the end, it’s more about the idea than it is about me.

5. Because I get distracted

From the time I decided to write this until the time I finished it, I did the following: Walked the dog, ate breakfast, thought about searching Amazon for a new rug, checked Twitter, read two articles. And that’s me on a really focused day. Distractions are always going to be present—that’s the world we live in.

How to fix it:

I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different ideas to help me here. The best solutions so far keep me focused by creating artificial pressure: setting a timer that goes off every 30 minutes, creating a deadline (either real or self-imposed), working until the power runs out on my laptop. I also try to realize the difference between productive distraction (walking the dog often leads to new ideas or “writing in my head”) and non-productive distraction, like idly checking Facebook and Twitter.

6. Because I’m afraid

Now we get to the big one—the real reason that underlies all these others. The biggest reason my ideas used to live only in my mind instead of out in the world is that I was afraid they might not be good enough, unique enough or novel enough.

In essence: I’d rather abandon an idea, bury it forever, than have it potentially fail on me.

Possibly an understandable instinct, but a misguided one for sure–especially when you think of it like this:idea-to-execution

Execution is what makes things happen–not pristine, flawless ideas.

Not to mention, if I thought about everything in my life the way I used to think about ideas, I’d be missing out on some pretty amazing experiences. Risk is what makes life interesting.

Luckily, Buffer’s culture creates an incredibly safe space for ideas and thoughts from every team member. Here, I’ve learned to share early and often and to offer and receive feedback with a positive spirit. It has made all the difference. You can do the same by finding a group of peers or a mentor with whom you can practice growing more comfortable sharing around.

How to fix it:

I still haven’t entirely cracked the code on this one, but writing this post is a beginning. Here’s what I’m trying right now:

  • Doing other creative things: My house, at the moment, is littered with construction paper from an art experiment gone awry. That’s OK! Part of my new strategy is spending more creative time, even if there’s no direct result to it just yet.
  • Sharing more with others: In the past I would have been petrified to push publish on this post. This time around, I let my husband (himself a seemingly fearless creator) look at it right away. Feels much better!
  • Creating more meditative time: On bike rides, dog walks and quiet moments alone, I’m letting my mind wander more freely. No headphones, no logistical work thinking. Just wandering. A habit of meditation has made this possible, I think.
  • Allowing myself to be vulnerable: I’ll probably be working on this one the rest of my life—it doesn’t come easy to me. But sharing more with others, asking for help when I need it and being more open to feedback from others are the skills I’m working on right now to become more vulnerable.

Getting comfortable with sharing ideas—both my good and not-so-good ones—isn’t something that happened overnight. It’s a daily practice that I’m still working on and probably will be for some time. I’ve learned that the comfort zone is a nice place to visit, but being uncomfortable is where things really get exciting.


I wonder, are there more former or current “idea hoarders” like me out there?

If so, I hope this post might help you, too. Do any of these “reasons why not” resonate with you? How do you fight back against them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Image Credits: Ajith (അജിത്ത്), Crew, Art of ManlinessForbes

  • McKay Jacobsen

    I love this post. I have the same problem, especially the paralyzing fear of failure. Thank you for your thoughts and ideas on this! It is already helping me with all my ideas.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey McKay! Wow, it feels so great to hear that; very glad that writing this might be useful for you and others. I have a feeling it’s going to be an ongoing practice for me. Would love to hear anything you’ve tried that’s worked!

  • Loving this post. I am an idea hoarder too. Nice to read other people going through the same ordeal. A book that helped me is “Refuse to choose” by Barbara Sher. Letting go of perfectionism, great focus, awareness of the impostor syndrome and meditation are indeed great tips and tools. Thanks for the post!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Oooh, that sounds like a book I need to pick up like immediately! :) Thanks a bunch for reading and self-identifying; nice to know I’m not the only one!

  • disqus_GUKmeglODF

    Thank you so much for posting this. For the last two weeks I’ve been paralyzed with fear to even do something for fear of rejection that I couldn’t do anything else but think about it until it felt like a pit at the bottom of my throat. And this post addressed all my fears and how to overcome them.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thank YOU so much for reading, and for your kind note. I wish you lots of success on overcoming these fears; would love to hear how it goes for you!

  • Meghan

    This is a great post Courtney, thanks! I definitely deal with all of these too, and something I’ve found that helps is the concept of “morning pages.” I’m not sure whose idea it is because I’ve seen it in many different places, but the general idea is that you write ~3 pages (or ~750 words) every single morning, about anything. It keeps you in the habit of writing, and it’s a great way to just clear out your mind and get all the chatter in your head onto the page. I use it in part to write about all of these content-related fears, and it really helps.

    • Courtney Seiter

      This sounds like an amazing habit to get into, Meghan! I could definitely see how that practice would help you cut down on the self-censorship impulse. Thanks a bunch for sharing that idea here with us!

    • This is a fantastic idea! I think I’m going to start doing something similar!

    • Morning pages come from Julia Cameron and her amazing tour of creativity, The Artist’s Way.

      • Meghan

        Thanks so much, Jann!

  • This post has helped me drastically. It’s going to be required reading for my editorial team as well :)
    I’ve also opened up most of the links to other articles you linked to in this article.. I’m making those required reading for *myself* this coming week! :)

    • Courtney Seiter

      Oh wow, that’s so amazing to hear, Patrick! Yup, there are a lot of great resources linked to in here from Buffer and elsewhere. Hope you enjoy!

  • Gary Harrower

    Thanks for the blog. “I hate writing. I love having written.” – This is so me! I’ll definitely try out some ideas from here and report back how it goes!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Please do; I’d really love to hear! Thanks for reading. :)

  • Brilliant post! Thank you! One of the most impactful that I have read this year!

    • Thanks, Scott; I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and share that! :)

  • Congratulations on getting this out to the web – a huge accomplishment for any of us who deal with (mostly unfounded) fears that our ideas are going to be the end of us. Thank you for your bravery!

    • Thanks so much! It’s been great to see the response and feel so connected to others who are challenged by the same feelings. :)

  • This is brilliant, Courtney, so helpful to hear from another member of the creative tribe who’s being brave about our struggles and triumphs–even if you’re being a bit too modest about your output. Thanks for leading the way with some great ideas. Ditto on OITNB, too.

    • I have a feeling binge-watching on Netflix has been the downfall of many a creative project. ;)

  • Aj Comfort

    What a great article and very timely, I’m developing a card game and I have seen myself fall victim to all of these – especially #2. I always seem to take an idea and blow it way out of proportion and before I know it I’m watching reruns and avoiding the work. I love the graphic – I need to get out of the comfort zone :) and into the courage zone. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for reading; good luck in developing your project!

  • Paul Farkas

    amazing piece. gonna grab a cigar and just marinate. then execute more!!

  • Ingrid Johansson

    I was contemplating writing the same or similar blog about creativity but I was affected by 2,3,4, 5and 6! Thanks for writing what I was hoping to write…someday! Beside you write brilliantly! Thanks again!


    Great post Courtney! You captured it perfectly.

    • Thanks so much for saying so, and for the kind tweets as well! :)

  • This is so great! I especially love that you give a “how to fix it” for each obstacle point. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it, Justine! Appreciate your kind words. :)

  • This post is BRILLIANT. I swear this was written for me. I’m so glad you were brave enough to write this because I often feel like I’m the only way who faces these challenges.


    • Thanks so much, Don! The coolest result of publishing this has been getting responses like yours and seeing that the challenges we think we face alone are in fact universal. :)

      • It’s funny because I teach a SMM and Blogging Course so I’m telling my students not to be afraid of risk, but when reflecting on my own work, I see fear has been holding me back. I’ll definitely be applying all 6 of these but especially #3.

        I’m always afraid of being criticized as being a hack ;-)

  • Andréa Raquel

    Excellent! Nothing to add, bravo for courage.

    • Thanks a bunch, Andrea! :)

      • Andréa Raquel

        You’re so welcome!

  • FANTASTIC! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • PB

    I’m totally an idea hoarder, I have several journals filled with
    invention sketches, art, poems, short stories, “better mousetraps”,
    solutions to big problems, city planning ideas, electric grid redesign,
    smarter house layout ideas, etc. Very, Very tough to share any of those,
    the vulnerability is overwhelming!

    • Wow, it sounds like you’re sitting on quite a gold mine! Would it be helpful to take smaller steps, perhaps? Showing an idea to just one trusted person can have a big impact!

  • Brendan van der Weide

    Nail —-> Head! Thanks Courtney, hopefully your post jumpstarts me back into creativity today :-)

  • Brenna Sniatecki

    Oh, timing, how I love you. I’m just today finally getting my writing website in order–the same site for which I bought a domain almost a year ago and still don’t have anything up yet. And why would that be? FEAR. If it’s not a perfectly executed site, I will be a failure, obviously. And then what would people think of me?

    Enough distractions. Back to my website. ;)

  • itaryan

    I came across this while idly checking Twitter, which shows procrastination has some benefits after all. Thanks for the great post. I suffer from all these problems.
    The thing is, no-one but me cares whether I work on my writing. I am the only one holding me back. Gotta get going…

    • Great realizations here! Seems like you’re on the right track!

  • Too busy, too distracted (Olympic-class distractable) and yup, too afraid in some domains. My fiction writing has sat in the “gonna box” for too long, thanks for giving me a 2015 kick to just f*ing write stuff.

    One other technique I use to fight back is to make sure I never let an idea go by without recording it somehow, usually in Evernote as spoken recordings or written down. Just knowing they are sitting there unreviewed and unactioned increases their nag value.

    • Ha, I love “Olympic-class distractable,” Andy! Recording every idea is a very valuable suggestion, thanks so much for sharing that here!

  • I forgot to mention Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art” which I was led to by John Sonmez I think it would be appreciated by many of my fellow-strugglers on this comment thread.

  • black_rider88

    Great post Courtney! I have the same problems with my personal blog and this really resonated with me.

  • Christine Carkin Giles

    Beautiful piece! What great advice! . . . I’ve always been an idea person, and I’ve implemented some ideas, but they never seemed to go where I wanted them to go. But at this stage of my life I am more creative than ever, busier than ever, and happier than ever! Thank you for your words of wisdom and encouragement! Keep up the good work!

  • Loved the way you broke this post down Courtney and you’ve identified that most of the time ideas don’t make it into real tangible things is because we’re either fearful, lazy or to enamoured with the idea to ever take it further.

    I see that a lot in people I talk to who prefer to just talk about the greatness of their idea because the actual idea of doing something amazing with it is scary or too much hard work. Here’s to taking action and putting amazing ideas into frying pan to cook up something delicious

  • Tammy Gibaud writer

    Great to the point (with solutions) reasons that I believe all writers wrestle with. I am writing, reading your post, checking twitter, walking the dog (twice) and making beef stew. Ha!

  • shelley_s_hanna

    Fabulous post, Courtney!

  • Marketing Director

    Thank you Courtney. You asked how others “fight back”…. I want to share with everyone that eventually you DO reach a point where creativity can be turned on and off like a switch, effortlessly, whenever you choose. After passing that point, it is easier to create than to not create. I personally passed that point 3 years ago. Now creating just feels like “coming home,” a welcome relief, whether I’m writing, painting concept art, writing music, or learning something new. Here’s a post I wrote in 2011 while learning concept art: ….If I could share one piece of insight with my old self, it would be this: People think you need to be inspired in order to create, but this is totally wrong. Creation is NOT a consequence of motivation; the truth is the other way around; creation CREATES motivation.

  • Just discovered this post through a recent tweet and so glad I did — thanks for the great read! Very helpful and motivating. I’ve already thought of some things to change this evening as I tackle some lingering projects : )

  • Varun

    Really enjoyed this article thank you! I’m working on finding more meditative space in my days, as I can feel the flow state coming on when i do this!

  • Russell D’costa

    Wow..!! thanks alot this post has been a great boost for me..!! Keep it up.. Need more motivators like this..! Great job

  • Nicki Denofrio

    Such a great post, Courtney! It was like reading my daily distractions list, except this time, there were great options for combatting them. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s something I need to write. ;-)

  • Brian Geraghty

    Thank you so much for this Courtney! I’m in the midst of writing and completing my first Fictional story and love the characters I’ve created, but get too caught up in trying to do more and more, to the point that I end up not writing anything. Or I end up rewriting over the parts of the story I know and I keep looping back to things I already know or have already written about the story.

    This often can feel fun and even slyly productive, because “hey, I’m writing!” But what it really does is just stalls from me finishing the story. I need to complete my story, because as I heard Seth Godin say once, “serve the idea, because the idea deserves it.”

    Thanks so much again for bringing “idea hoarding” into the light and giving that little monster a name. Now that it’s identified, as you’ve shown above, we can now work on ways of fixing it and moving past it. Great tips and article!

  • Rohit Wankhade

    In my 24 years of life, I haven’t read anything so relatable like this. I felt as if you spoke my heart out completely. I can’t thank you enough for posting this write up. Hadn’t you posted this I would have never been able to restore my lost confidence. From now onwards my writing life wouldn’t be similar as before. This post changed a lot in me…thank you so very much.

  • Kymberly Helwig

    I accidentally hit something that opened this article, and I am extremely happy I did. This was just what I needed today. You have given me some real ways to move pass my sitting on my talents and ideas. Your article was well written and made perfect sense. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  • Jess Argarate

    I really needed to read this today, all points apply to me. Thanks for writing this article!

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