If you’ve felt especially foggy, slow, or “stuck” lately, you’re not alone.
According to memory researchers, we’re experiencing more mental blocks than ever — moments where we forget simple things or can’t perform routine acts that were once second nature.
In your personal life, a mental block is an annoyance (like forgetting an old friend’s name). But in the workplace, a mental block can be a nightmare.
When deadlines are coming down to the wire, and your team is looking for you to decide on what to do right now, the last thing you want is to freeze.
But here’s the good news: creativity researchers believe creative thinking is a learned attribute. This means that even if you feel blocked or stuck, there are techniques you can use to push through.
So how do you get over a mental block when you’re feeling stuck in a rut?
What are mental blocks?
A mental block is the inability to continue a train of thought.
Think of it like “writer’s block” but for all aspects of your life. If you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, been unable to stay focused, or felt uncontrollably stuck when trying to work out a problem or make a decision, you’ve experienced a mental block.
Here are a few other common signs that you’re hitting a mental block:
- You find it hard to make decisions
- You can’t think outside of the box or come up with creative ideas
- Your brain feels sluggish and slow
- You find yourself constantly avoiding difficult work
- You make constant small errors — even on tasks you’ve mastered
- You’re stuck thinking about the same problems over and over
With increased emphasis on collaboration and creative work, mental blocks can become a serious workplace issue. Especially if you’re a project manager or team lead that people look to for leadership.
But are these mental blocks just tiny “senior moments” of memory loss? Are we just all tired and stressed from the past few years of living in “uncertain times”?
Or is there something else at play?
Why you’re getting so many more mental blocks than usual
Mental blocks can happen to anyone, and the reasons behind them are varied. However, the most plausible explanation for why you’re getting more mental blocks than ever now is the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT).
CLT explains how our brains treat different types of tasks.
If you’re unfamiliar with a task: you use your “working memory” (similar to your short-term memory) to juggle relevant information. Unfortunately, your working memory is limited in how much information it can hold and for how long. That’s why you get frustrated quickly when trying to figure out complex and new problems.
But if you’re doing something you’re familiar with: your brain doesn’t need to use your working memory. Instead, all the information it needs is stored in your long-term memory, and you can complete the task on “auto-pilot.”
Unfortunately, our current reality has made it harder to go into auto-pilot mode for a number of reasons:
- The change in work routines has knocked us out of “auto-pilot” mode. Even just switching from in-person to video meetings can be enough to put pressure on your memory. All these small changes to your working routine and personal life have increased your “cognitive load,” making it hard to do things that were once simple.
- Increased emotions and stress interfere with information processing. There’s a ton of research showing how emotions and stress make it harder to concentrate. And our brains are getting hammered by all the fear and uncertainty in the world right now.
- The more distractions in our lives, the less space we have in our working memory. As we adapt to the “new normal,” we face many more distractions. Whether figuring out when you can pick up your kid from school or how you’ll balance your video meetings with planning sessions, barely a day goes by where we don’t need to figure out something new.
Cognitive load theory is a solid explanation for why we’re experiencing more mental blocks than ever. But it’s hard to know what to do about it when you’re at work.
With increased emphasis on collaboration and creative work, mental blocks can become a serious workplace issue.
The 7 main causes of mental blocks in the workplace
Your workplace - even at home - comes with all sorts of issues that could impact your working memory and make you more likely to hit mental blocks.
You could hit a mental block because of:
- Workload: Too much work and responsibilities can cause your brain to freeze. (That’s why team workload management is so important).
- Collaboration overload: You’re more likely to hit a block when you’re juggling the needs of others with your own need to concentrate.
- Self-doubt and indecision: Leaders pick a direction and start moving. But if you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, you’ll get stressed — and stuck.
- Perfectionism: Focusing too much on doing tasks perfectly can cause you to hit a mental block when things don’t go as planned.
- Vague goals: The less clear your goals, the harder it is to focus on them and know what to do next. (That’s why effective teams all follow the same goal-setting exercises.)
- Age: Researchers say that our memory ability peaks in our 20s and slowly declines from there (with the steepest decline after age 60).
- Exhaustion: Sleep and memory are partners. If you’re not getting enough rest or are constantly tired, you’re going to hit more mental blocks.
Left unchecked, mental blocks can turn into more serious issues, like burnout. So, how do you deal with everything working against your memory?
10 quick and creative ways to get over a mental block
There are many reasons why you hit a mental block. But the worst thing you can try to do when facing a foggy moment is trying to force through it. Instead, your brain, memory, and creative muscles all benefit from stepping away and facing the problem from a new angle.
Left unchecked, mental blocks can turn into more serious issues, like burnout.
Here are some of the more creative ways you can get over a mental block.
1. Break down large projects into small chunks
Why it works: Your working memory can only hold so much information simultaneously. (Most research agrees that we can store just seven (+/- two) pieces of information at once.) When faced with a huge project, your working memory gets overloaded, and you hit a block.
Instead, task management — breaking down large blocking projects into easy tasks — makes it easier to focus on what’s in front of you rather than getting overloaded by everything else.
Even better, finishing smaller tasks can help make you happier and more motivated. As researchers discovered when they looked at what makes great teams succeed:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
How to break down large projects:
- Start with a giant brain dump of everything you need to do to complete the project.
- Then, engage with your team to see what you’ve missed and which tasks should be broken down even further.
- Capture all your tasks in one place (like a project management tool such as Planio) and group them into milestones.
- Then, prioritize what needs to be done now to move the project forward.
Pro tip: Planio can help you keep your task management organized. Tasks in Planio are highly configurable, including subtasks, checklists, priorities, and related issues to help you know exactly what needs to be done next.
2. Work more periods of rest into your day
Why it works: Don’t believe what Elon Musk and all those other “100+ hours a week” hustlers tell you. Our brains need rest to do our best work.
While it can be tempting to “push through” when you’re feeling stuck, it’s much more effective to step away and get some rest. This doesn’t mean you need to take mid-day naps (although those can help). Instead, it’s about taking purposeful and restful breaks throughout your day.
How to work more rest into your day:
- Take breaks outside (and leave your phone at home). This forces you to disconnect from your work and allow your brain time to relax. As an added bonus, fresh air and sunlight can even help you be more productive when you return to work.
- Use the 20-20-20 rule to give your eyes a break. Eye strain is one of the main reasons we feel exhausted at work. Every 20 minutes, stare at someone 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
3. Face your fears
Why it works: Many times, we don’t know why we hit a mental block. But some of the main reasons behind them — indecision, perfectionism, vague goals — are really just symptoms of a bigger problem: fear.
Sometimes a mental block is your brain trying to get you to do anything but the problem at hand. For example, let’s say you’ve got to pitch your next project plan to your CEO, and you want it to be perfect. There’s a good chance that pressure and stress will trigger a mental block.
By uncovering the root causes of your mental block, you can deal with the problem, not just the symptom.
How to face your fears:
- Write it out with the 5 Whys. Take 10 minutes and write down what you’re feeling blocked by. Then, continually ask yourself “Why?” until you get to the root cause. Usually, at that point, you’ll see a way past the block.
For example: “I’m feeling blocked on this project pitch.”
- Why? - Because I want it to be perfect.
- Why? - Because I don’t want to look stupid in front of my CEO.
- Why? - Because I’ve been trying to get a raise for the last 6 months.
- Why? - Because I think I’m good at my job and I deserve it.
4. Try a time management technique like the Pomodoro method
Why it works: A mental block makes time a scarce resource. Suddenly, you’re not just facing a looming deadline on a project but also a lack of creativity in the limited time you already have. Time management techniques can help force you into action mode rather than being stuck worrying about the clock.
Sometimes, all you need is a boost to get past the block and start working. Remember, action precedes motivation. You need to start working before you can feel motivated to keep going.
How to manage your time and get over mental blocks:
- Use the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 20 minutes and work only on the project you’re feeling blocked by. Close your inbox and shut off all notifications. At the end of the 20 minutes, take a 5-minute break. Repeat for a few more cycles.
5. Reframe fear or indecision as excitement
Why it works: Fear shuts down our creative thinking. When you’re feeling blocked, it’s often because you’re afraid to make a choice (or afraid of the consequences of your work).
However, as far as your body is concerned, fear and uncertainty are very similar. They both cause a heightened emotional state, quick breathing, sweaty palms, etc. It’s how your brain perceives those responses that determines how you feel about the situation. So instead of choosing to feel stressed, choose to feel excited.
In fact, when Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks examined how people deal with stress, she found that people who reframe anxiety as excitement perform better than those who try to bury it in the sense of calmness.
How to reframe fear as excitement:
- Treat your fear like a scientist. A “cognitive reappraisal” is a psychological technique that helps you ground your thinking in reality. When you start to feel stressed, write down why you’re feeling blocked and then come up with a hypothesis as to why you feel that way. Then, test your hypothesis. For example:
- Your boss just emailed you and asked you to “call them this afternoon.” You start to feel stressed. Are you getting fired?
- Write down your hypothesis: My work is bad enough that I’m going to get fired.
- Then, question that hypothesis. Is your work bad? Is it bad enough to get fired?
- Go a step further and look for evidence that will prove the opposite of what you’re thinking. Didn’t you just get praised in a meeting for your ideas? Or weren’t you just asked to join a different team as a team lead?
Fear shuts down our creative thinking. When you’re feeling blocked, it’s often because you’re afraid to make a choice.
6. Remove distractors and stressors from your environment
Why it works: Stress is one of the main reasons you hit a mental block. But stress doesn’t just come from inside. Our environment is the “invisible hand” that guides our thinking. And without even knowing it, where and how you work might be sabotaging your creativity and productivity.
How to remove the stressors in your environment:
- Put your phone on silent mode. Even better, turn it off or put it in a different room so you won’t be tempted to check texts, emails, or social media.
- Set “office hours” on chat and for meetings. Don’t let yourself be always available to other people. Choose times where you’re allowed to focus deeply and others where you’ll be in collaboration mode.
- Tidy up your workspace. Clutter can kill your motivation and creativity. Try to clear any unnecessary items off your desk (but keep things you enjoy, like family photos or art.)
Pro tip: A clean Agile board can help you stay focused and avoid mental blocks. Planio’s agile board shows you and your team exactly what needs to be done next with no distractions.
7. Use divergent thinking to break out of a creative rut
Why it works: Mental blocks often appear when we’re trying to work on creative projects. But many of us still follow the outdated thinking that we can’t control when we’re creative. Sitting around and waiting for the muse to appear is a surefire way to hit a mental block. Instead, use techniques to think differently and approach problems from a different angle.
How to use divergent thinking:
- Step back from your project and look at it from a different angle. For example, musician Brian Eno has a deck of cards called his Oblique Strategies, which offer up prompts like “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify.”
- Create your own set of prompts that can help you break out of your usual way of thinking. For example, “What would this look like if it were easy?” or “How would [competitor] tackle this problem?”
8. Try your “dumb” ideas
Why it works: Perfectionism and self-doubt often go hand-in-hand with mental blocks. You want a project to be perfect and then feel stuck before you even start. Instead, it can help to embrace bad ideas as a way to kickstart your brain.
As writers often say, write garbage because you can only edit what’s already on the page.
How to try your dumb ideas:
- Set a short timer and explore an idea you think won’t work. Timeblock your experiment to an hour (or whatever makes sense). This will lower the pressure and make it feel less like you’re “wasting time” on a bad idea.
- Make a rule to embrace all ideas. Try to adopt a beginner’s mindset rather than judge ideas right away. Ask yourself, “How would I approach this if I had no idea what I was doing?”
9. Go back to brainstorming (and use proper brainstorming methods)
Why it works: Mental blocks can also come from a lack of ideas. But trying to force out thoughts is counter-productive. Instead, bring your team together and use your collective brainstorming power to break past the block.
How to brainstorm better:
- Follow the S.U.C.K. method. S.U.C.K. stands for Structure, Uniqueness, Constraints, Kindness. You can read more about this (and other) powerful brainstorming methods here.
10. Stop multitasking
Why it works: There’s really no such thing as multitasking. When you think you’re doing multiple things at once, your brain is really just bouncing back and forth between them at light speed. But rather than make you more productive, multitasking is exhausting, stressful, and can lead to mental blocks.
How to stop multitasking:
- Build your focus muscle. We’re all so used to multitasking that it can be a struggle to try and focus on one thing at a time. Instead of getting overwhelmed, start small. Choose a small task to focus on, close your extra tabs, silence notifications, and set a timer for 20–30 minutes. Over time you’ll get better at focusing on one thing at a time.
The 5-minute activity to break through your mental blocks
If you absolutely need to get over a mental block right now, there’s still something you can do: nothing.
Research into the creative process has identified the “incubation period” as one of the most important factors in creative thinking. This is when you step away from a problem and focus on something totally different (i.e., why we have so many good ideas in the shower or while driving).
So, how does this look in practice?
Step away from your work for five minutes and do anything else — as long as it takes your mind off the project at hand. You could:
- Browse social media
- Watch funny YouTube videos
- Talk to a colleague about their weekend plans
- Call a friend
- Play a game on your phone
- Make a snack
While it might look like you’re slacking off, you’re really just giving your subconscious mind room to play — and break through the mental block that’s getting in your way.
Don’t let mental blocks get in the way of your great ideas
You’re a creative and productive person. And the last thing you want to deal with is a mental block.
Follow these steps when you feel your brain getting foggy. And don't forget to give yourself some slack. We're all dealing with a lot these days, and it's expected that you'll hit a mental block from time to time. When you do, remember there are tools and techniques you can use to get back on track.