In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about how to overcome creative blocks.

As a founder, creating new things is something you’ll need to do all the time. Whether it’s creating a new blog post, shooting a marketing video or writing a new line of code, creativity is part of being a founder. However, there are going to be times when you can’t think of what to create and this can slow down the progress of your startup.

So in this episode, Steli and Hiten talk about why creativity can’t be defined, ways to overcome writers’ block, how Hiten uses context switching to get past creative blocks and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About the topic of today’s episode

00:29 Why this topic was chosen.

02:03 Why creativity can’t be defined.

03:09 One way to get over writers’ block.

05:00 How internal resistance can cause creative block.

06:20 Another way to get over creative block.

06:56 How overthinking doesn’t help.

08:37 Hiten’s process for creating stuff.

10:19 How Hiten uses context switching to get past creative blocks.

12:56 Tips to help you get past creative blocks.

3 Key Points:

  • As a founder, you have to create stuff.
  • I’m not sure if creativity can be defined.
  • So for me, getting past it means just doing the work.


Steli Efti: Hey, everybody. This is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.


Steli Efti: Today on the Startup Chat we’re going to talk about how to overcome creative blocks or internal resistance to get certain work product done. So this is probably something… This is not probably, this is definitely something everybody has gone through. And when you are a founder or when you’re in a startup, you’re going through this probably quite a lot. You have to create things. Right? You have to create work product. It doesn’t matter if it’s writing an email, it doesn’t matter if it’s writing a sales script, creating a landing page, publishing a blog post, creating a video, writing some code to finish up a feature. Whatever it is, you have to create. And whenever humans are involved with creative and productive endeavors, they do encounter internal resistance. Right? Or what you would call writer’s block or whatever, creative blocks. And those are those moments where you have a difficult time getting started or you have a difficult time not getting distracted. And so finishing the thing that you need to do. And I thought it would be fun for the two of us to just jam a little bit on this and share some of our ways that we found around this, some of the tips that we have to share to overcoming any kind of creative blocks or resistances.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. I’m going to first say that I’m not even sure if creativity can be defined.


Steli Efti: Ooh. All right, tell us more.


Hiten Shah: Look, the reason I’m saying that is it’s one of those things where it’s like, what does being creative really mean? Sure, if I’m an artist and I can’t paint, and I’m a painter, I paint paintings, we can define that as there’s a creative block. Or there could be something else going on. But we can say there’s a block in creativity. If I’m a writer and I just can’t get myself to write, you could argue, “Okay, that’s a creative block.” Right? There’s books for that. There’s a book called The Artist’s Way. And there’s other books too. And they talk about things like write morning pages. So when you wake up, just write a bunch of stream of thought, and that’ll help jumpstart your creativity. I don’t know though. In business, in the life of work, I’m not sure if creativity is something that’s definable in the same way that it is in other places. And I feel like we always have the opening and ability to be creative, whether it’s in our personal lives or in our work lives, even if we’re not artists, even if we’re not writers. And that’s something that I would want to stress, and say, “Okay. If you feel like you’re blocked creatively, I would recommend you get very specific about what’s different in your life from when you are creative, I guess in your own mind, and then try to figure out how you want to fix it.” For example, in my own life, if I’m not very creative, if you want to call it that, with my words, when I speak, if when I write it’s just not coming out properly. Like if I write an email or something like that. I know that I’m just not feeling right. I don’t know if I’m creatively blocked you, some would say that. Just not feeling right. Or, even in my case, it’s like I’m trying to tweet something and share something I’ve done or just come up with something that’s in my head that I want to share and it’s just not coming out. That could be a creative block, but really for me, that has a lot to do with something that I think I relate to creativity in this way and creative blocks, which is your feelings. And I think that it’s not really about creativity. I think it’s more about how do I feel. So that’s what I’m going to throw down, see what you got.


Steli Efti: Right on. I’m not going to even challenge you because this is going to become too big of a topic. And I don’t even know if I want to. Although this reminds me, we need to find more things to argue about. This is actually a fun part of this podcast that we haven’t done in a while. We just like each other too much and agree with each other a lot. But the thing that I want to focus on real quick is, you have created so many different things. But let me just ask you, when you have to, or the last time that you wrote a more long form blog post or something along those lines, you have surely encountered times where you didn’t just say, “I need to write this.” And you sat down, you opened your editor, and you started writing. And then you were like, “Oh, it’s finished. I’ll edit it later.” And that was it. That’s kind of a very smooth experience. But you surely have gone through phases where you opened the editor and you started, you thought about the first sentence, and then you got distracted by email, and then you text to somebody, and then you Slack with someone, and then, “Oh, it’s time to go and meet up for coffee with somebody.” And you went back and tried to restart again. And did this for a couple of days and didn’t really progress anywhere or just had a difficult time to sit down and finish the thing that you really wanted to finish or work on. Because there was, what I would just call, internal resistance. Right? There’s something inside of you that was blocking. It might not be blocking your creativity, maybe it’s just your focus, maybe it’s your energy, whatever it is. I think what a lot of people encounter, I definitely encounter this, is that I want to create a work product, whatever that is, could be a piece of content oftentimes, and it’s not always as smooth as just saying, “I’m going to do it now,” and then I’m doing it. Oftentimes, I’ll have to go some form of resistance either because my attention is split, because I don’t feel like doing it right now, or because when I start working on it, I have a difficult time to get into “a state of flow” where things just happen. And so I have a few false starts before I finally get to the creating part of it. Do you ever encounter that?


Hiten Shah: Yeah. I’ve learned that I just need to spill the beans on things like that. And what I mean by that is I just need to not get caught up in being blocked. And if I have to, write something crappy. So, for me, getting past it is just doing the work. And whatever it is, just starting, even if it’s a sentence or a word or whatever. With writing, I think a lot of it has to do with that. You can easily overthink what you’re trying to write, and that usually leads to this lack of freedom, and then your words just don’t flow. So you’re just overthinking it. So one way to think about it with any endeavor that I would say you feel blocked on creatively or whatever is just don’t let yourself stay in your head and get it out of your head, whatever you have to do. So even if you’re blocked on creating an interface, or you’re blocked on, “How do I send the sales email,” or whatever, just start writing or start drawing on a whiteboard or just start… For me, a lot of things with product have to do with I’ll look at other products if I’m blocked, just to get some inspiration going, or get some criticism going about them. And then that can pump me up to just start. So I think just starting is the key. And I know, I’m sure a lot of creative things that tell you how to do this stuff say that. But, yeah.


Steli Efti: I love that. So let me ask you about dealing with distractions when you have these blocks. Right? So you’re somebody that is incredibly “on.” Right? You are involved in so many different communities. You’re very active on Twitter and social media. Your inbox is probably a very noisy and loud place. And I know how good you are at being super fast in responding to things. And you’re part of probably a million different places and communicating with a million different people and organizations and teams during a normal day. What’s your process for when you need to do, when you’re not in manager mode anymore, but you’re in maker mode? What’s your process for that? Do you block out everything? Do you disconnect from the internet? Are you just like you’ve gotten so good at it, even if you have a thousand tabs open in Slack and notifications, and your phone rings, you just don’t respond to anything. You sort of get in the zone? How do you deal with blocking out price for your attention or distractions when you are in this maker mode trying to create work product yourself?


Hiten Shah: I’ve gotten pretty amazing context switching. So I think if you’re going to work on… It’s not even work on a lot of things. I think I love the idea of maker and manager mode. My biggest issue isn’t when I’m sitting in front of a computer, it’s actually when I’m not. So these days I’m out and about more, having meetings related to FYI that are outside of my home office, basically. And I have meeting days. Like today’s going to be a meeting day. And it just means I have two or three meetings that are outside my house. So for me the issue is more like, “Can I whip out my laptop in my car?” Which is my second office. And will work for like an hour in between meetings. Literally, I do that. And so for me sitting in front of a computer is my biggest hack, if you want to call it that, or my biggest issue that I try to solve for. I could go sit at a coffee shop and get on my laptop too, don’t get me wrong. That’s fine. I like my car though. I’m weird like that. And so I think there’s these habits and behaviors that we develop to make sure that we are productive. And for me I’ve found those. So it’s not so much like I’m in front of the computer, there’s a million tabs open, people are Slacking me and I can’t concentrate. Because I can switch between tasks pretty fast. And so that helped. And so I don’t have any routine of turning things off. I think I’m a little different than most people like that because I feel pride in being able to process those things. I don’t think I would call it multitasking. I think a lot of people have a bad connotation to that. For me it’s simply this. If my attention is drawn to something and then all of a sudden I need to shift my attention to something else, how quickly can I engage in that something else and then get back to my other thing?


Steli Efti: I love it.


Hiten Shah: And that’s context switching. That’s what I would practice if someone wants to get to what I would say is advanced level. And the reason I call it advanced level is when I talk to people about this they’re like, “Yeah, I can’t do that.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, we can do anything we want to do, so that’s cool.” You just need to decide if it’s important to you in order to be able to context switch. And I think context switching is what I would advise anybody who wants to get better at, even the creative blocks and things like that, is if you can switch from a task to another one and then switch back, and then possibly switch to another one and then switch back, you’re mastering this ability to take your attention from one thing to another and being able to shift your mind really fast. And so, I think that’s the way I think about a lot of this stuff, which is very basic things that are happening that are reality. How did I just get better at them instead of trying to resist them? I think a lot of people do resist. Obviously, the natural thing to do is turn everything off. Because when I’m in this mode, I’m in this mode, and this is what I need. And I get it, but do that if that works for you. For me, I prefer to not have such strict rules around my life and my work so that I can be a little more fluid.


Steli Efti: I love it. The one thing I liked the most about what you just said was the, when somebody’s like, “Ah, I’m just not good at that,” and you’re like, “Yeah, if this is what you want to tell yourself.” Right? We can get good at anything we want to. That’s the most Hiten thing about everything you said. It’s like, “Ah.”


Hiten Shah: I don’t know if I buy into this way of thinking. I love it. I love it.


Steli Efti: I think that there’s a certain… There’s a lot that I want to say, but I want to keep this episode short. So two cents and then I’ll give a book recommendation, we’ll wrap this up. I think that, A, just like anything in the world, if you want to get good at things, you have to practice them and do them a lot. And it helps if you believe you can get good at them. And if you can bring a certain lightheartedness to things. If you mentally make this a massive mountain, you’re like, “Oh my God, I cannot focus. Focus is impossible for me. It’s 400 generations of people without focus and I am haunted by the spirits of my DNA. And also, I have all these proofs, all these stories I could tell myself about my past and how I had a difficult time focusing. And so I know I need to focus tomorrow, but I can’t, I already know.” If you make this a huge deal, you are going to make those thoughts realities. Right? You’re going to follow… Your thoughts will influence your actions and your state. Your thoughts will influence how you feel. The way you feel will influence what you do and what you’re capable of in terms of tapping into resources. So thinking about these things and these massive challenges will make them bigger than they need to be. So if you can think lighter thoughts, if you can think better thoughts, if you can just look at this and go, “Huh, yeah.” Maybe in this example that I gave, if you think, “Oh, I’ve always struggled, so now’s the time to get better. Right? I have a lifetime experience in struggling, so now it’s time to accrue a lifetime of experience on being great at this.” And if you can just attack some of these things that you want to get better at with a little bit of humor, with a little bit of curiosity, with a little bit of lightheartedness, it makes a world of difference. And then it’s a thing of practice, right? Where the more you create, the more you do, the better you get at these things. And eventually some of the things that were incredible challenges to you in the past now seem super, super easy. So, the best thing to do to get great at whatever, creating stuff or having less and less of blocks and resistance is just to create more and more stuff and get better at creating. And a quick book reco, you gave one, I’ll give one to wrap up the episode. The War of Art from Steven Pressfield is a super short book. I love his writing. His writing is super succinct. I like when I read something that is at least well-written. I really appreciate that. I’m like, “Oh, he said this really nicely in three sentences.” This book is so small and the pages are usually just half-written, just one paragraph or two paragraphs. I love that. It’s a very quick read, but it’s really well-written, and focuses exactly on this, on breaking through mental blocks and all that. So, that’s the book reco. Those are our experiences. And we’ll wrap this episode up with that and we’ll hear you very soon.


Hiten Shah: See ya.