We’ve all been in a situation where our brains just switch off, and we can’t remember something.
Maybe you’ve drawn a blank when trying to remember a name — or perhaps a creative brief has landed on your desk, and you just can’t think of any ideas. This is what’s more commonly known as a mental block, and it happens to pretty much everyone at one time or another. So if you’re in the midst of one, worry not: You’re not alone.
Most of the time, they don’t cause any issues. But sometimes, they can be significant enough to prevent you from completing tasks and achieving success. This is when they become a real problem. Let’s take a closer look at what they are, why they happen — and how to overcome them.
What is a mental block?
A mental block is a psychological barrier that stops you from achieving a task — whether that’s something small, like remembering someone’s name or something big, like completing a creative project. In short, it’s a self-limiting mindset that really puts a damper on progress. Here’s what it might look like in the real world:
- Not being able to recall information in a presentation or meeting
- Finding it difficult to complete a train of thought
- Being unable to focus where it’s needed
- Ruminating on the same thoughts without making progress
- You find yourself worrying about what to do next (aka ‘analysis paralysis’)
What causes mental block?
Mental block can strike at any time — but there are a few things that make it more likely:
- Mental exhaustion: Having to make lots of decisions over a long period of time can be mentally draining, leading to reduced ability to make decisions
- Tiredness: A lack of sleep increases the likelihood of mental blocks
- Medication: Some prescription drugs cause mental blocks
- Poor nutrition: A B12 deficiency can cause mental blocks and memory loss
- Stress: Higher levels of stress and anxiety lower your ability to focus, recall information, and make decisions
- Imposter syndrome: Feeling as though you’re inadequate can stop you from performing at your best (don’t worry, it’s something even the brightest stars struggle with, including Neil Armstrong and Michelle Obama)
- Perfectionism: Self-doubt and procrastination caused by a perfectionist mindset can lead to mental blocks
- A cluttered work environment: A chaotic workspace is mentally draining, which makes mental blocks more likely
- Pessimism: Assuming things will go wrong limits your ability to perform properly
How to get over a mental block
If a mental block strikes, all is not lost: There are things you can do to lift yourself out of it. Here are some tips.
1. Pause and breathe
Small mental blocks that happen momentarily can usually be shrugged off — but if you’re somewhere important, like in a meeting or a presentation, there are a few techniques you can do to help yourself in the moment.
Most importantly? Pause. Taking a sip of water. Counting to three and taking a deep breath in should help calm your nerves and give you a little time to move past your mental block.
If, after pausing, you’re still not there, simply say it’s slipped your mind and that you’ll return to it later. People are usually very understanding — and once you’ve taken the pressure off yourself, you might find the thing you’re trying to recall come back to you later on.
2. Take a break
A change is as good as a rest, or so the saying goes — and there’s definitely some truth in this. A change of scene can help relax and refresh your mind, making it easier to shift your mental block.
In fact, it’s scientifically proven that our brains are better at coming up with ideas while we’re doing activities that don’t require much attention, which is why we get some of our best ideas while we’re in the shower, doing the laundry, or falling asleep.
Forcing yourself to focus often has the adverse effect, limiting your brain’s ability to make connections, leading to a mental block. So rather than just staying tied to your computer and powering through, go for a walk, take a shower, jog around the block, take a nap, or try some doodling — anything to relax your mind and give yourself a change of scene.
3. Break your project up
Mental blocks can happen when we’re overwhelmed and not sure where or how to begin. Breaking a big project down into smaller chunks can help make the task ahead seem more manageable. Try Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and setting project milestones — it’s far easier to move forward when the journey is broken up into smaller stages.
Alternatively, delegate some work so you have a little less to do. Chipping things off your to-do list can lower stress levels and give you more mental energy to focus on the rest of your tasks.
4. Tidy your workspace
If your space is cluttered, it’s harder to focus. Our brains like order, and constant visual reminders of chaos drain our cognitive resources, reducing our ability to think. Visual distraction increases cognitive load, which makes mental blocks far more likely.
If you find yourself struggling to think, give your desk a quick clean — and yes, that includes your computer desktop too.
5. Get someone’s else opinion
Two minds are better than one, right? If you’re struggling to move forward — whether that’s because you’re stuck in a repetitive train of thought or you’re stuck for new ideas — get someone else involved.
Talk to a colleague, try throwing your problem out to people on social media, read articles, or do research online — these are all valid ways of widening your perspective and breaking out of your current way of thinking.
6. Silence your inner critic
Most of us have a voice in our head that occasionally tells us we’re not good enough. This is what’s commonly known as imposter syndrome, and it can really make it hard to think to your full ability.
From perfectionism to pessimism, self-doubt in its various forms is a prime suspect where mental block is concerned. There’s no easy way to overcome this one, but a combination of actively silencing those critical voices, meditation, therapy, exercise, and positive self-talk have all been proven to help.
Sharpening your skills is another way to squash imposter syndrome. When you know you’re at the top of your game, you’ll feel confident and proactive and be better able to overcome mental blocks.
7. Lower your stress
Being overwhelmed and exhausted can cause mental fatigue, which can lead to a mental block. Take some time to locate stressors in your life, and take steps to reduce them.
Organizing your schedule, delegating work, taking a short break, keeping a tidy desk, and going out for exercise are all popular stress-busting techniques. If your stress is chronic, you might want to chat to a professional about things you can do to tackle the problem head-on before it leads to burnout, exhaustion, anxiety, and other conditions.
8. Get some rest
According to the CDC, one out of three Americans doesn’t get the sleep they need. Tiredness, stress, burnout — exhaustion in any form or shape increases your likelihood of suffering from a mental block.
Getting enough sleep per night (seven to nine hours is ideal), taking breaks, and making time for your own hobbies are all good ways to refresh your mind and body. If you push yourself without taking care of your own well-being, your mind will suffer.
9. Don’t take on too much
We all have limits, and while it might seem like a good thing to be that person who always takes on extra work, it might end up having an adverse effect. Pace yourself and look ahead. Try not to take on more projects than you can comfortably do.
If you end up eating into time you’d usually use for relaxing or working on side-projects, you could be headed towards disaster — namely stress and burnout.
If you work in a company, talk to your boss about schedules. Maybe they’ve given you more than you can chew, chat about restructuring workloads, or getting more people on the team to help.
10. Learn to focus
Sometimes, a mental block can happen because there’s just too much going on around us. Phone calls, notifications, and colleagues sending us emails can all contribute to cognitive overload.
Consider finding a quiet room to work in and turn off your email and chat app notifications once in a while. Even if you’re not reading your messages, simply noticing that you’ve received one will divert your attention away from the task at hand. Set an automatic reply on your email explaining you’ll get back to senders in a couple of hours — and if you have an office chat app, set your status to ‘do not disturb,’ so you can truly focus.
Almost everyone struggles with mental blocks from time to time. While they’re caused by a variety of things, stress in its various forms is the main culprit.
Getting enough sleep, switching off distractions, and managing a healthy work-life balance are your first line of defense when it comes to protecting yourself against those tumbleweed moments. We can’t promise you’ll never have a mental block again, but with the above tips and the right tools for the job, you’ll be in a better position to breeze past them without too much of a struggle.