What is a Creative Breakthrough?

Evidence-based strategies to help you move past your creative block and get into FLOW.


Creativity isn't just reserved for the select few deemed "creative types." It's a fundamental aspect of human cognition, accessible to all of us. Creativity propels us forward as we engage in the tasks of designing and building, whether it´s a pivotal work project or a morning routine. 


And creativity has no limits. No matter how many ideas we come up with, there are always more where those came from! Not only that, but we can improve our ability to both generate ideas and connect them in new ways, giving us endless opportunities to grow and contribute to the world. 


But understanding the potential of our imagination makes it even more frustrating when we feel stuck. If we have unlimited capacity, what turns off that flow of ideas? What´s getting in the way of our progress? How can we get things flowing again?


In this article, we'll explore the nature of creative breakthroughs, look at what gets in their way, and explore the strategies that can unblock you so that you can move forward freely and thrive both personally and professionally.



What is a creative breakthrough?


A creative breakthrough is a moment of insight or innovation that leads to a significant advancement in your creative work or decisions in general. It often occurs when you approach a problem or a challenge from a new perspective, allowing you to see connections and possibilities that were previously hidden. 


Creativity is sparked by a problem that needs a solution, a question that needs an answer. In order to have a breakthrough, there must first be some type of obstacle to overcome. This could be a mental block or mindset challenge, or it could be any issue that requires deliberate curiosity, experimentation, and persistence to overcome. 


A creative breakthrough is not due to luck, nor is it the result of a single moment. The reality is that a breakthrough actually requires a great deal of focused attention both before AND after that moment of insight, as you mentally build toward it prior and discover the implications after your ¨A-ha!¨ arrives.


But there is an element that feels like magic. You see, a creative breakthrough is the result of a combination of two types of processing that happens in our brains. In fact, it´s when these two types of brain functions work together that we are able to tap into our highest creative powers. (See What happens in your brain during a creative breakthrough? below to learn how this works.)


What are the different types of creative breakthroughs? 


Creative breakthroughs come in various forms, including subtle but key realizations, sudden flashes of insight, intuitive hunches, and paradigm shifts. It´s important to remember that all types of breakthroughs have value and the potential to create positive, meaningful, and lasting results, and should be appreciated and recognized as part of a vibrant creative process.


After all, most creative breakthroughs are not the mind-blowing, identity-shifting, ceiling-shattering experiences you may be expecting. The reality is that most creative breakthroughs start with a quiet revelation. Some of those revelations may lead to a major shift in your thinking that can substantially improve your creative work or your personal life. But this might not happen immediately. In fact, a creative breakthrough may seem inconsequential or even useless at first, until you later recognize a connection or application that gives it meaning and purpose. (Fact: Albert Einstein did have a flash of insight about what became his theory of relativity, but it took another six weeks of blackboard scribbling and chin stroking before it all came together.)


Creative breakthroughs are most commonly associated with some form of creative work in which your progress feels limited or blocked. This may be due to a limiting belief, such as a fear of failure, or the result of hyper-focus on details rather than stepping back to see the big picture. In this case, a creative breakthrough can be prompted by a range of choices that stimulate breakthrough thinking, such as a facilitated breakthrough session with a skilled coach, exposure to new ideas or experiences, or simply time away from your project to engage in relaxing or energizing activities.


A creative breakthrough in your personal life can have powerful, life-changing implications. It may prompt you to alter your beliefs or behavior in order to create more positive relationships. It may look like a moment of clarity about the root of your conflict with your sibling, or recognizing your attraction to someone you considered just a friend. You might have a creative breakthrough that leads you to solve a household problem, make a difficult decision with confidence, or begin a routine that ultimately improves your mental and physical health. These types of self-focused (rather than project-focused) creative breakthroughs can shift your life by opening new possibilities for connection and accelerating your own personal growth. 


What obstacles get in the way of a creative breakthrough?


The most common obstacle that gets in the way of creative breakthroughs is limiting beliefs, including the belief that it´s not possible to experience a creative breakthrough! This particular belief can be especially defeating because it drains your hope and prevents you from even trying. It can lead you to abandon a project or reject an opportunity that could open you to greater learning and success.


The most common limiting beliefs that can affect your overall creativity may be grouped together based on their common roots, such as:

  • perfectionism/fear of failure/people pleasing  These include an unreasonable focus on tweaking details that slows or prevents progress, worry about making a wrong decision that will ruin your project or prospects, or unrealistic expectations for yourself for fear of disappointing or upsetting others. These beliefs are rooted in a fear of being judged. They are attempts to avoid shame or humiliation, and can be debilitating, hindering both personal growth and professional success.


  • imposter syndrome/fear of success/fear of change  These beliefs are about how expectations, relationships, opportunities, finances, or status may change if your work is recognized or elevated. You might believe that it´s just a matter of time before others discover that you are unfit for your position or the opportunity you have been given. In your work, you may worry that becoming more successful will be stressful, that you will be seen differently by your co-workers, and that you will fail if given a higher position. In your personal life, you may worry that if you rise above your ¨station¨ you will be rejected by those you have known the longest, including your family. All of these are potentially paralyzing responses rooted in low self-worth


  • scarcity mindset This is the belief that there is not enough goodness in the world for everyone, that there are limits to resources, opportunities, success, and even happiness. It shows up as stay-small behavior and choices that limit your growth, such as avoiding applying for better positions in your work or avoiding dating because you believe ¨all the good ones are taken.¨ While also rooted in low self-esteem and tied to fear of success, a scarcity mindset is most commonly linked to the experience of having limited means or access that results in a pattern of self-restricting behavior.


All of these limiting beliefs reduce your confidence. They can pop up during a creative lull in a project or a challenging life stage, preventing you from moving forward. Learning how to see, understand, release, and rewrite your limiting beliefs is the most effective way to dismantle any blocks you have and avoid new ones that may impact your progress in life.


What happens in your brain during a creative breakthrough?


A creative breakthrough happens when the executive network in your brain takes turns with the default network. And in order for this to occur, you have to give your brain the conditions it needs to allow for a breakthrough. 


The executive network keeps you on task so you can get all kinds of work done. It also keeps you behaving in socially acceptable ways, and makes sure you can juggle various demands, such as remembering your daily schedule and getting your errands done. Your executive function makes things work smoothly and allows you to reach your goals, both big and small.


But when you´re not in executive task-focused mode, your brain switches to the default network. Think of this default mode as your ¨Ahhh" that leads to your ¨A-ha!¨ There are several important areas of the brain in this default network, including those that handle memory, awareness of your surroundings, empathy, prediction, choices about behavior change, and more. 


The default network is always processing information and creating a story about all that´s happening around you, even when you´re in executive mode. BUT, it can only operate at about 50% of its capacity when you are focusing on tasks. The only way to get it up to 100% is by stepping away from those tasks completely


How can I prepare for a creative breakthrough?


To prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for a creative breakthrough, cultivate a growth mindset and practice self-care to manage stress and anxiety. Stay curious and flexible, reduce your focus on a timeline (if possible), and be patient with yourself as you navigate the ups and downs of the creative process. Surround yourself with supportive peers and mentors who can offer encouragement and feedback (if needed), and remember that breakthroughs often come when you least expect them. 

Breakthroughs are most likely to occur when you create time and space for uninterrupted leisure, allowing your mind to wander and become receptive to intuition. Nurture your creative practice through regular reflection, and actively seek alternative voices and sources of inspiration.


In fact, collaboration with others can be a powerful catalyst for breakthroughs, as it brings fresh perspectives and diverse expertise to the creative process. Intentionally seeking out friends in other fields and meeting regularly to share ideas about your projects can lead to a cross-pollination process that results in new connections.


Most of all, it is critical that you carve out no-screen, no-page downtime. This time spent ¨doing nothing¨ gives your executive network a rest, allowing your default network to engage fully. 


How can I use my downtime to increase the chance of a creative breakthrough?


Protecting your downtime is a challenge in this age of constant connection. You may be tempted to engage in activities that, while they may seem relaxing, require your brain to go into executive mode as you complete tasks. Whether you scroll on your phone, read a book, watch Netflix, respond to a comment, send a text, or write an email, you are extending your executive mode. This prevents your brain from going into default mode, where it can roam freely while you rest or engage in repetitive physical activities like walking, folding laundry, or taking a shower. 


When you engage in activities that do not require you to focus on a specific task, your default network kicks in and cruises to all kinds of interesting places. This is why you may get your best ideas while taking a shower or running...unless you´re running on a treadmill while looking at a screen!


Remember that the highest levels of creativity arise when the brain is switching from executive mode to default mode and back again throughout the day. Breakthroughs happen when the insight that arrives while your brain is in default mode is followed by the processing that happens in executive mode. This is why taking a brief nap (20 minutes or so) during the work day can result in mini breakthroughs because the default network is cranked up to full power while you sleep, connecting all the little dots from the previous hours of work. 


If you´re already choosing to spend significant chunks of time offline, you are giving your brain the benefits of mode switching. This process of switching from executive to default and back again allows your brain to both be open to breakthroughs and process the new concept and make connections. 


But if you´re picking up your phone within a minute of waking up, jumping into a busy day of tasks, and falling asleep while watching a movie without ever getting time in your day to do things like relax while listening to music or go for a walk, your poor brain is ¨on task¨ all the time. The only chance it gets to go into default mode is when you´re sleeping, and if you´re waking up to check your phone or read, you´re even interrupting that limited time in default mode.  


Are there specific techniques or exercises to get past a creative block?

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to stimulating a creative breakthrough, there are many activities that can help you move past a creative block or establish the best conditions for breakthrough thinking





Meditate: Meditation can give you the perfect conditions to lead to a creative breakthrough. Being relaxed and open both during meditation and afterward can nurture greater insight. Developing a daily meditation practice has been shown to be an especially effective way to develop the ability to be open to thoughts without judgment, and this is a critical part of breakthrough thinking. 


Move: Whether you practice yoga, tai chi, qi gong, free-form dance, or any other physical activity that creates a strong mind-body connection, you are building optimum conditions for breakthrough thinking. 


Play: Mindfulness doesn´t require stillness. Find playful ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Paying attention to what is around you is an exercise in creativity. If you choose personal cues, such as a certain object, sound, smell, or sensation to remind you to be mindful in that moment, the simple act of noticing that you are noticing can become a skill that enhances your creativity.





Map: Creating a physical mind map (try drawing on paper rather than using an app) can help you see connections that aren´t showing up clearly in your thinking process. Once you have a mind map, you can begin to visualize specific parts of the whole, which can lead to clarity and novel ideas. 


Write: Writing in a journal is another way to both document your ideas and create new ones. Doing morning pages daily can be an effective way to boost creativity and lead to breakthrough thinking. Make journaling a part of your creative process to help in your work as well as your personal life.


Draw: Get out the markers, crayons, or anything else that appeals to you! Start drawing with your materials without censoring or creating a plan. Even the simple act of free-form drawing or sketching can give your mind that default-mode lull that enhances innovation.





Beat: Listening to music without lyrics can help us tap into subconscious thoughts and boost creativity. Choose instrumental pieces that are completely new to you. Rather than anticipating the next line of lyrics, you can simply relax and let your mind be carried along by the music.


Chirp: Don´t forget that the sounds of nature can have positive effects on our brains. If you can´t get out in nature, turn to Spotify or another app and listen to birdsong! This has been shown to positively affect our brain and nervous system. Wake up to (recorded, if necessary) birds singing instead of starting your morning news routine, or choose river or ocean sounds to give your brain the benefits of extended default mode.


Pod: While listening to a podcast won´t keep you in your default mode, it can give you insights that you can bring to your work or personal circumstances. This may be especially true if you listen to a podcast that is not related to your project or challenge in any way. Choose diverse voices and topics, and even if you listen for only a few minutes, you may get a glimmer of something that will inspire you. Catch the last five minutes rather than the first five minutes, or pick just one item on the outline. Listening to five minutes of five different podcasts can be a powerful addition to your creative practice.




Walk: This is the single most popular way to get your brain into that default mode, and for good reason. A brisk walk offers repetitive aerobic activity that increases your heart rate, boosting circulation. And because you don´t have to think about it, it frees your mind to wander and ponder. This is where the the breakthroughs happen, so don´t miss an opportunity to take a break for a walk, even if it´s just around the block. 


Look: There´s value in taking a walk along the same route you know well, because you´re more likely to go into default rather than noticing what´s around you. But if you´re looking for stimulation rather than free thinking, take a walk in a new place. It could be a new neighborhood, or it might be as simple as walking on the other side of the street than you normally walk. Shaking up your visual cues can inspire new ideas, so whether it´s a loop around your block or a stroll in a foreign country, take advantage of the opportunity to see angles, colors, shapes, textures, and compositions in a new light.




Ask:  Go to a Meet-up or other opportunity to talk with new people about a topic that´s new to you. Choose one that you´re curious about but are not yet familiar with, and focus on asking questions in order to learn more. The act of asking can stimulate your brain to come up with questions that can lead to a breakthrough in your own project or personal situation. 


Answer: Rather than ask the questions (as above), get together with others who may ask you questions about your work or life. Don´t underestimate the value of hearing questions you may not have considered! Get together with a colleague, relative, or neighbor who is up for a question swap. Sitting down with someone a generation (or two) older than you, someone twenty years younger than you, or even a child can be an excellent (and fun!) way to get new ideas. Go back and forth in a sort of speed-quiz session. This makes responses less crafted and more revealing. Take advantage of having humans around who will happily ask questions to get you thinking in new ways, and share their perspective as well.





Prune: Look for ways to reduce what´s unnecessary in your digital life. Start with your inbox. Create folders, and unsubscribe from as many lists as possible. Uninstall apps you don´t use or that suck up too much of your time. Delete documents, folders, and images you don´t need. The process of going through these may give you ideas! 


Pare: Get rid of excess stuff in your living space. Clothes you don´t wear, stuff you don´t need, furniture you never actually use is taking up space in your life and in your mind. If you want to feel lighter and more open to a creative breakthrough, pare down to what you love, what you need, and what inspires you. This process of sorting can lead to thinking about connections, memories, and experiences that may inspire you.


Pause: When you´re tempted to pick up your phone to Google something, take a moment to think about it instead. We get out of the habit of trying to remember information because it´s so easy to get answers online or asking Alexa. But just pausing for five minutes may surprise you. Even if you don´t come up with the answer yourself, you are giving your brain practice in looking at possibilities. This is a skill that can make you more receptive to a creative breakthrough. 




Blue: Being near in, on, or near water can heighten your creativity. The calming effects of water (referred to as ¨blue mind¨) put you into default mode. So, whether you take a bath, row a boat, or stroll along the shore, water can help your free thinking float toward a creative breakthrough. 


Elsewhere: Travel is a tried-and-true way to stimulate a creative breakthrough. Being in a completely new place, seeing new scenery or structures, hearing a new language/music/birds, tasting new foods, and smelling new scents can stir up ideas sparked by novel sensations. Add in encounters with locals, the chance connections of travel, and even the momentary frustrations, and you may discover correlations that inspire you. 


Silent: Choosing to surround yourself with silence can give your brain a rest. Without voices (including our own), you have aurally uncluttered space to listen to your thoughts. Time spent walking in nature, sitting in a backyard hammock, or simply sitting in your car for a few minutes can help you hear your thoughts and find connections between ideas. 



      How do I know if I´m experiencing a creative breakthrough?


      Creative breakthroughs may be experienced differently by each individual. For some, it may feel like a sudden surge of ideas, a feeling of excitement or inspiration, or a sense of clarity and confidence in your work. You may find yourself making unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, or solving problems with ease that previously seemed insurmountable. 


      For others, a creative breakthrough might start with remembering an experience, a conversation, or a dream. Recalling a memory might offer a flash of insight, or help you see a missing piece that helps to complete a puzzle. You might experience a moment of intuition that leads to further exploration.


      Whether you are feeling excited during a sudden influx of ideas or quietly noticing a tug of intuition, it´s important to pay attention to any inclination toward insight.


      And it may not be easy! While we often think of creative breakthroughs as sudden gifts of clarity and inspiration that lead straight to immediate success, the truth is that this flash of insight may need to be followed by focused effort. The boldest breakthroughs often come in a nonlinear path in which various bits of ideas and intuition are interspersed with experimentation and the discovery of novel connections.  


      Remember that many geniuses (like Einstein) of the past who created breakthrough ideas that changed the world may indeed have experienced a brilliant moment of insight, but also spent weeks or months figuring out how to make it actually useful. So, if you do experience a creative breakthrough, don´t get discouraged if your work or personal life don´t shift immediately.


      One thing we know is that we need to create momentum to turn any initial inspiration into something that can be used in practical or artistic ways. By jumping on an idea or inkling and actively pursuing it, we are much more likely to build forward motion that propels us toward a solution.


      How do I maintain momentum after experiencing a breakthrough?


      Successful creatives recognize the value of creating and maintaining momentum while also giving themselves time to rest and relax (that essential default mode.)  


      Overcoming creative blocks often involves experimentation. By exploring new techniques, challenging your assumptions, and embracing failure as a natural part of the creative process, you can create the conditions for a breakthrough to occur. Remember to stay open to unexpected (or even what seem like ridiculous) ideas without dismissing them immediately. They may pop up exactly when you need them!


      Successful creative breakthroughs require that you explore further, create new versions of your ideas, and seek feedback when appropriate. By staying curious, focused, and committed to your creative process, you can ensure that your breakthrough will lead to sustained growth and improved results.


      How can I overcome a creative block on a project that doesn´t excite me? 


      In addition to limiting beliefs, there may be other obstacles preventing you from getting creative to solve a particular problem. 


      These could be related to your workplace environment or circumstances, such as not having sufficient time or support to engage in creative thinking. Or it could be that you are using these challenges to rationalize your avoidance of working on a project that doesn´t resonate with you.


      Being assigned to a project that does not feel inspiring or worthy of your time and talent can make it difficult to sit down and get it done, let alone infuse it with your creativity.


      Even in these situations, however, it may be your limiting beliefs that are blocking you. The good news is that there are ways to become engaged that can lead to a positive outcome despite your resistance.


      For example, a fear of judgement can be a major block, even when it is less about how your work will be judged and more about your own resistance or embarrassment about being part of the project in the first place. (It might be time to get a new job or start something of your own.) 


      One way to manage this situation is to focus on your creative process rather than the outcome. If the result isn´t something you´re truly excited about, taking pleasure in the simple act of performing each step may help you find more energy and inspiration. This can lead to a better result that might surprise you and others! 


      What if you feel this particular project has no merit, and is actually kind of pointless?

      Here´s a trick: act as if you are someone else. Seriously. 

      By imagining yourself as a different creator, one who brings a different perspective and talents to the project, you might find you approach it in a new way. For example, let´s say you are assigned a project for a client in an industry that does not interest you. In fact, the real you balks at the idea of creating anything to support this particular business. (Again, time to find another situation, my friend!) 


      Instead of feeling annoyed about having to do this project, imagine yourself as the PERFECT DESIGNER/BUILDER for it. What would that person want to create? How would they approach it? What ideas would they find exciting? 


      This can be a playful way to bring yourself into the creative process, and it often ends up not only leading to a positive result, but giving you a broader perspective that can serve you on other projects. 


      If you find yourself stuck in avoidance via over-analyzing, this is likely to just extend the period of time that you´ll be working on the project, resulting in even more resistance. Instead, allow yourself to create imperfectly, but focus on a schedule and stick to it. Adopting a ¨done is better than perfect¨ perspective can create momentum, and you may find that there are parts of the project that inspire you once you´re digging into things.


        Can a creative breakthrough lead to long-term creative growth and success?


          A creative breakthrough can indeed lead to long-term creative growth and success. One common result of finding a way to break through your creative block is greater confidence. This may reduce the stress and anxiety you feel, and give you more informed expectations for yourself and your progress. And once you have experienced one creative breakthrough, you will have greater knowledge about what worked to prepare you and can repeat and tweak that process to get past any future creative blocks.


          In addition, your creative breakthrough might have led you to a more supportive environment for further exploration. This may make it more likely that you will continue to have creative breakthroughs, resulting in repeated successes.


          Remember that creativity is an ongoing journey, and each step moves you along the path to realizing your full creative potential. Build on your initial breakthrough, seek out new opportunities to learn, stay open to new ideas and experiences, and focus on continuing to evolve as a creative individual.




              Anyone willing to embrace curiosity, experimentation, and persistence can experience a creative breakthrough. If you are reading this, you are creative! Your brain has the same structure as any creative genius. What makes the difference is whether you are willing to access your creativity and stay motivated to continue learning.


              One thing to remember is that when you have an idea that excites you, that´s your brain actually telling you to pay attention and keep thinking about it. So keep noticing what thrills you, and dig there.


              Feed your brain, give it rest, connect to the beauty and people around you, and you will boost your creativity and your chance of experiencing a bold breakthrough.  



              Maya Frost is a creative breakthrough coach and the owner of Switch Transformations. She helps creative women over 50 achieve life-changing breakthroughs in just 30 days. Learn more at MayaFrost.com 


              Next, read this: 

              What happens during a Breakthrough Session?