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Creative Blocks

The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

The "what the hell!" effect and other ways we can short circuit our creativity.

When it comes to doing creative work, it’s important to not only look for ways to let our creativity thrive, but to also be mindful of insidious “creativity killers” that can sneak up and strangle our ability to come up with our best ideas. According to research from Harvard University, there are five main culprits that are responsible for killing our creativity.

It’s important to recognize these impediments to the creative thought process because many are insidious, and worse yet, most can be made on the managerial end, meaning we may be stifling our creative workers without even realizing it. For those of us doing creative work, we must be mindful of these deterrents of the creative process so we can continue to put out our most novel ideas.

1. Role Mismatch

As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Placing people in roles that they are not fit for is a surefire way to kill creativity. Although this may seem like a managerial concern, there are personal consequences here as well. Additional research has shown that we are at our best when we are “busy” (and pushed to our limits), but not rushed. In the wrong role, we can struggle to keep up and live in a constant state of creativity-crushing panic.

2. External End-Goal Restriction

Although self-restriction can often boost creativity, the Harvard study shows that external restrictions are almost always a bad thing for creative thinking. This includes subtle language use that deters creativity, such as bosses claiming “We do things by the book around here,” or group members implicitly communicating that new ideas are not welcome.

3. Strict Ration of Resources

While money and physical resources are important to creativity, the Harvard study revealed that mental resources were most important, including having enough time. Creative people re-conceptualize problems more often than a non-creative. This means they look at a variety of solutions from a number of different angles, and this extensive observation of a project requires time. This is one of the many reasons you should do your best to avoid unnecessary near-deadline work that requires novel thinking. Also, when we are faced with too many external restrictions we spend more time acquiring more resources than actually, you know, creating.

4. Lack of Social Diversity

Homogeneous groups have shown to be better able to get along, but it comes at a cost: they are less creative. This even applies to the social groups you keep, so beware of being surrounded by people who are too similar all the time, you may end up in a creative echo-chamber.

5. Discouragement/No Positive Feedback

It’s tough to continue working on novel ideas when you haven’t received any positive feedback. This feeling is backed by psychological research that shows people who’ve started a new undertaking are most likely to give up the first time things come crashing down, also known at the “what the hell!” effect. Creative people thrive on having others impacted by their ideas. Without feedback, their motivation begins to wither and die. — How about you? What kills your creativity?

Comments (190)
  • Marcelle Liemant

    Topics or themes to write on. They get me every time. I end up writing something very obvious and generic or can’t seem to find a single word. Thanks for this!

  • kirabagheera

    each time I read a topic, I look for the inspiration the title suggests. Most often the title overshoots the actual info intake. I feel like the readings are less information, than re-arrangement of “already heard it”. I click on your articles less and less. please buck the system and insert more potency for the reading. or….. go dodo.

    • d.

      I agree, just like pop music people write watered down stuff to reach a larger audience…

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Or perhaps you’re looking for solutions/answers that just aren’t there. This is coverage of a piece of Harvard research, not my own take on the subject.

  • ContriteOdin

    When people who are supposed know what they are doing (like a boss, supervisor), assign you a task and do not follow-up or even make an effort. You think “Why should I care when they don’t?”

  • HSPHealth

    I love this article. So often when I see a discussion about creativity, it is about what is holding back the individual. Not enough attention is paid to environmental factors. This articles nails it!

  • Jonathan Lavender

    Near-deadline work that requires a novel idea and TIME. Unfortunately this seems to be the trend in advertising and almost every time the project suffers and so do the ‘creatives’ involved in the project. I think creative teams and planners need to PLAN more, together. Thus allowing the creative team to allocate the correct amount of time needed to produce work that is worthy of being paid for by clients. I am sure ‘creatives’ around the globe experience this often…but how do we get around this situation if there is never any TIME to fix it?

    Great article and very relevant points. I think time is a definite killer of creativity…especially when combined with a tight budget, tight deadline, and limited resources.

    • LW

      I would like to work in the advertising industry and have no idea where to begin or who to apply to. Do you think you could point me in one direction or another? I’d really appreciate it.

      • LW

        Ok this is more accurate… I have a creative background / Bachelors in Studio Art and a certification in Digital Media and Electronic Publishing (Desktop Publishing heavy, Adobe CS as well.) I have no idea how to go about finding gainful employment in a creativity base position. I don’t want to work the gallery circuit showcasing my own work. I’d like to have a position with a company, corporation, firm, where I go to work everyday but still get to create. I know these positions exist I just don’t see them and when I have I’m think I may be poorly marketing my self. If anyone can help me out I’d appreciate it. I realize my use of the word “create” is vague but that’s exactly how I intend it to come across. I’m open to whatever anyone comes up with. Thank You in advance to any and all that even read this.

  • Kris

    Be careful about giving “positive feedbacks” just for the heck of it. I’ve seen too many people give positive feedback for the sake of “being nice”. It’s one of the most useless things. I’ve also seen so many designers become so arrogant because they think that their work is always golden. They become spoiled.

    Bottom line, always explain the “why” when giving feedbacks, negative or positive.

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Very true, needless praise just serves to stagnant people who will get the (false) feeling that they don’t need to improve.

  • Maree

    I would add siloed business units all fighting for different parts of the pie and killing ideas based on their own KPIs.

  • Pa Ngo

    I think consistency on the part of the managers can also help. In jobs where creativity is highly underrated and often overlooked by managers who are more concerned about numbers and than real results, creativity is encouraged only when they feel like it.

  • tryingtobreakfree

    Living to relish in other peoples creative “genius” as a mode of research or education is a trap. Writers need to read a ton to be able to write effectively. However, they still NEED to write. Appreciating a well written screenplay, poem, or story does not make a person creative…Only creating does…I am guilty of the former and hoping to share my gifting as a creator. Discipline leads to desire which leads to delight…However, any amazing endeavor starts at discipline..

  • kenjaminstacker

    I’m loving #4. That one needs to be number one.

  • Husac Lucian

    Great article, but these days the weather is killing my creativity – need some sunshine!

  • Carrie

    Not being recognized for a huge achievement (in reference to reason #5) is a HUGE creativity killer. That person will immediately think, why bother? Then they’ll dedicate their creative energy to something else entirely. And if they don’t think it immediately, it’ll still slowly start to seep in over time. Recognize good work, even in small ways like sending a quick “You’re awesome” or “Thank you!” email, tweet, LinkedIn note, etc.

  • Erica

    Being told “no that won’t work” more than 5 times in a row. Without explanation. And that I should still keep trying. That just leaves me frustrated and wondering why bother coming up with anything at all.

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Negative feedback without any constructive criticism is the worst!

    • Helenbeee

      Dont take it the wrong way but you might need to look at your research stage of your projects if you are getting it this wrong at the concept dev stage. Have a look at the questions you are are asking and the factfinding. Are you doing mood and storyboards? rough sketching ideas? never go to the building stage without the concepts being signed off its a big waste of everyones time and a surefire way of losing the momentum of the project.


    A major creative killer is when team-leaders need to be in control of every single little project. I think the best approach is to allow creatives room to run and create on some projects. In other words, choose your creative battles. If a creative wants to experiment with little to no risk involved in the endeavor, then don’t micromanage it. Even if you think its not the way you’d do it. in the long run, creatives will feel less stifled by working with you and you’ll get better ideas out of them.

  • Ann Bevans

    Great post. I love the distinction of being busy, but not rushed. That state creates so much momentum, I feel unstoppable!

  • Nicolas Raymond

    Great easy-to-read insight, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Andi Popescu

    Quite true!

  • mediumstudio

    creativity killers are reading bullshit like this

  • Margot Terc

    I need to make a point of not focusing so much on acquiring resources that I don’t realize that I have enough, and that it is time to get creating!

    While encouragement can be wonderful to get, I have tried making a point of not expecting it or needing it. If I waited for approval or appreciation of my work, what I do would depend on other people. I’ve only recently started committing more to doing creative work, and at this stage it feels really important that I concern myself more with creating and doing, and not so much with how it will be received. I also need to prioritize creating to the point that appreciation is a sweet bonus, but never a requirement for me to produce things.

  • Renee Jacobson

    My stupid OCD. I’ve been writing prolifically, but it just doesn’t seem to be perfect enough. I need to just push publish already. *headdesk*

  • Yaravi Martínez

    Excelent! Thanks for sharing.

  • Annyisha

    I seriously support what is written in this article.And its very important to acknowledge someones work if its good or great or even if the work doesn’t come out that nice, being nice and discussing the matter out is very important and optimally finding the best solution. And definitely money matters a lots and time too but i feel if you give someone enough time to prepare and excel at the work he does than that person if talented will always come out with the best of his creativity.In this crazy and running world patience and humanity is fast becoming null, but if we respect the money we are putting in, the clientele, the businesses we are doing and receiving, the expenditure we are putting up with such as decor, entertaining our valued customers and so on…..we should always remember the valued employees, they too deserve respect. Thus we need to mind our language while dealing with them because they are the strength of the company and maintain a sound work relation because even they have lives and they too deal with daily life’s ups and downs.Frustration leads to only frustration. Haste always leads to mess. And a healthy and a happy mind always can deal with whatever may it come.

  • Joe Pozerycki Jr.

    If not an “approval” … then, honest, quantifiable, critique (or feedback) is what I’m looking for after a presentation phase. It helps the design process move forward, keeping the business objective(s) in mind. If the client can’t articulate “why” the design effort is “incorrect” then you need to help them get there. Sometimes I’ll ask the the client to complete a sentence … example: This color palette isn’t appropriate for this ad because ————- and then, let the client complete the sentence, and move onto the next thing. If things begin to become a drag, you can always try this: Price, Quality, Speed … choose 2. And then move on to the next design task at hand.

  • Sandy Paila

    Creative work is often subjective and feedback can help produce another aspect , but even if the feedback is negative it doesn’t mean your work won’t appeal to someone else.As for the ‘why” well that would be great as constructive criticism is of much greater value.

  • Anna Harriman

    Interesting discussion. I think it’s our role as designers to help our clients figure out the “why”. They may not have a lot of experience discussing design concepts but we do and generally we can help get to the bottom of things by asking more questions and further explaining in design terms what they are looking at. Most of the time if you don’t educate your client and give them a frame of reference for design speak you will never feel like they’re able to communicate with you. And then the creative process (and trust) fizzles.

    • Hanh Nguyen

      My art director had plenty of experience discussing design concepts but rarely explained why he didn’t like a design or a concept. Was he pretending to be a client?

      • Naveen Aysola

        I’ll have to meet and discuss with your Art Director to know what his intention is! 😉

      • Helenbeee

        No but you should have treated him like one and explained that you needed more than subjective comments to achieve a successful design.

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