Have instructional design writer’s block? Here are 8 ideas to get unstuck.

I recently read that James Taylor‘s creative process involves doing nothing for three days in order to come up with a good song… or better said, in order for a good song to come to him.

This idea resonated with me… a lot. Prior to my current role, I worked in an eye bank (as in cornea transplants) and everyone around me seemed to be working very hard. The people in the lab worked late hours. The people in the call center always seemed short-staffed, extremely busy, pulling extra shifts and had little downtime. The distribution team was always trying to figure out how to get the right corneas to the right doctors around the world even when bad weather or civil unrest screwed up the normal flight schedule for planes on which the corneas were transported.

So I was very self-conscious when someone would walk past me and find me simply staring at my screen or wandering around the halls of the office seemingly aimlessly. I didn’t appear to be doing anything. Yet, when someone walked into the training session I was preparing, they’d discover one of the most engaging, creative training sessions they’d ever experienced.

Designing engaging and impactful training requires a creative process. If you’re trying to put something creative together for your next session but the ideas aren’t flowing, here are eight ideas to get unstuck:

Stare at your screen

There’s a temptation that we always need to be doing something in order to be productive. For me, sometimes the most creative ideas come to me when I’m not doing anything at all. I stop typing, I stop reading what’s on the screen.

I still have all the tools I need – an Internet connection, my computer, presentation software – at my fingertips and ready to go as soon as I need them. Sometimes, however, it helps me to just take a few minutes to sit with the topic or the skill I’m trying to train people on, and simply think about it.

Let your fingers do the thinking

Sometimes I either have too many ideas at one time or I don’t have any ideas. Either way, I find that it can be helpful to just start typing – getting the thoughts and ideas down so I can physically see them. Then I’ll cut and paste some ideas into a better sequence and I’ll delete some ideas that proved useless.

Take a walk

In John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, he writes “Our brains were built for walking – 12 miles a day! To improve your thinking skills, move.”

As busy as we can get, sometimes we just need to get away from our desks. I’ve found that something as simple as a 200 step stroll down the hallway not only gets my Fitbit off my back for another hour but it can help get the creativity flowing. Even better is when I have an opportunity to step outside, smell fresh air and walk for a block or two.


Closely related to going for a walk, another place I find that inspiration comes to me is when I’m working out – taking a run or using the elliptical machine. I find I can lose myself in the exercise and lots of stressors simply melt away, allowing space in my mind for creativity and different ways of thinking to emerge.

The ideas for both this Train Like A Champion blog and my company, Endurance Learning, both came to me when I was working out on the elliptical machine.

Use your hands

Last week my daughter was struggling with a homework assignment. I asked what kinds of things she does to set her mind at ease. I told her it was ok to walk away from something when you need to take a break, do whatever can help reset your mind, and then return with fresh eyes.

She spent some time building a mini-pinball machine from a kit she had and she looked at me and said: “Working with my hands helps set my mind at ease.”

Close your eyes

For me, this is kind of like staring at my computer screen, except my eyes are closed. When I close my eyes, I find I’m staring at the back of my eyelids and sometimes I just need to own the black space in front of me. I’ll focus on it and nothing else. There are times when simply focusing on nothing – intentionally focusing on nothing at all – helps to reset my mind and I can go back to working on a lesson plan or a slide deck with a fresh lens. There are other times when, as I focus on nothing, images start to develop in my mind’s eye and those images lead to potential inspiration for a new activity or instructional approach.

Phone a friend

My colleague Tim uses this strategy often. He’ll send me a note that he’d like to talk something through with me. Tim works in a much more technical area than I do and I’ll find that our conversations can last anywhere from 5-30 minutes and by the end of the call, I realize I didn’t say a word.

This is part of his process – sometimes when he’s stuck he just needs to talk through something out loud. Sometimes I’ll ask a question here or there, but more often, he’s listening to his own ideas as they evolve during the conversation. Without giving me a call he wouldn’t have a reason to talk about these ideas out loud. At some point during these conversations, he’ll suddenly stop and say: Thanks! I got what I needed. I’ll talk to you later.

See what others are doing

It can be lonely being an instructional designer, and if you don’t have a team of people who are interested in your topics and/or the finer points of adult learning, breaking out of your own box can be challenging. Sometimes I’ll simply Google a topic and see what comes up. Sometimes an image comes up that serves as inspiration, sometimes I’ll find an interesting take on a topic on Slideshare… and more often, there’s a whole lot of nothing (which helps me feel that I’m not the only one who struggled to find a creative way to cover this topic).

Coming up with a constant flow of creative ideas to effectively design an impactful training program is more than just having your head down, cranking away at work until it’s finished. Giving yourself time to do nothing can be the greatest gift you give to yourself (and your training audience).

What are some ways you’ve found to move beyond instructional design writer’s block?

Don’t have the time to do nothing? Need an extra set of hands to push forward your next training program – whether it’s an in-person program or elearning? Drop us a line and let’s talk about how to make your dream a reality!

4 thoughts on “Have instructional design writer’s block? Here are 8 ideas to get unstuck.

  1. I so related. I started “life” as a mens accessory designer. I would drive management crazy by apparently sitting in my office and staring into space. Yet when I was ready, I spewed it all out. My lines were successful and profitable. I learned at that time to think of it as metamorphosis – the caterpillar emerging as a butterfly. Then I made the switch into training. Design is design. My process is my process. One problem I have faced is having been in technical training and residing in the IT department, it’s been a struggle. The I.T. people are used to linear development and I am NOT. The last management group attempted to document and quantify my thought process. We parted.

    • My favorite line is: “My process is my process”. Yes! Everyone has their own creative process. In this post, I was trying to share not just what I do, but what I’ve seen others do… and your comment and Maureen’s comment have helped enrich the discussion even further. We don’t need to copy, document or reproduce someone else’s process… though others can often offer great inspiration for our own process!

  2. Years ago I read, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie. About creativity, he shared the story of the dairy manager who wanted to improve production and wanted to know why the cows were all standing around “doing nothing”. He learned that it is when “doing nothing” that the cows were actually able to produce / create the most milk. When I need to do some serious thinking that looks like I’m doing nothing, I work from home. People like the output of the creative process, but don’t seem to trust that the creativity occurs when we don’t appear busy or productive.

    As an auditory learner who needs to hear something in my own voice to make room in my head for new thoughts, I’ve found that using the record feature in OneNote to “brain dump” all of my ideas has helped me get past my writer’s block. I then transcribe the recording and organize it in a way that helps me to get started.

    I’ve also found that taking time out to meditate has helped tremendously to cut through noise and allow myself time to think. Listen and Silence use the same letters. By being silent, I can listen to my thoughts.

    • Thank you Maureen!

      I love that example from “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”. Maybe my follow-up post will be called: Want to be more creative? Learn from the cows!

      There’s no one way to navigate the creative process, but I think the theme that you touch on here is that sometimes we need to be comfortable with *not* always needing to do something, *not* always needing to be/appear busy.

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