5 Creative Coaching Techniques To Get Yourself Unstuck

5 old-fashioned keys

If you ever feel stuck on a problem or overwhelmed by the challenges you face, here are five powerful tools that can help you get unstuck fast.

I’ve tried and tested them with hundreds of coaching clients over the past 15 years, so I can confidently recommend using them when you’re facing a problem or adversity, and you need to draw on your reserves of creativity and courage to overcome it.

1. The Magic Word ‘Instead’

When you’re feeling stuck, it’s very easy to get caught up in problem focused thinking. The problem seems so overwhelming that it takes over your whole mental space, leaving precious little room for manoeuvre.

There’s also a well established school of thought that says that in order to solve a problem, you need to understand it thoroughly – where it came from, what caused it, what it means etc.

I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, because I’ve seen so many instances where dwelling on the problem only makes it worse. It’s surprising how effective it can be to STOP thinking about the problem and START thinking about options and potential solutions.

This is where the magic word ‘instead’ comes into its own.

I’ve used this word so often in coaching sessions, I almost expected to wear it out – yet it never seems to lose its effectiveness, as a way of getting clients to think about what they want as an alternative to the problem they face.

So next time you’re faced with a big hairy problem that stretches from horizon to horizon, and blocks out all the light, ask yourself:

What do I want instead of this?

What do I want to be doing instead?

What do I want to be thinking instead?

How do I want to be feeling instead?

What do I want to be saying instead?

Where do I want to be going instead?

And when you get some specific, concrete answers – start doing and thinking and feeling those things right now. You may be surprised at the results.

2. What Would You Do If You Had No Head?

Thinking is overrated. Sure, there’s a time and a place for it, but I’ve noticed overthinking is one of the classic ways human beings get themselves stuck.

You can think and think and think about a problem or situation, until you think you know what you think, but then you think some more, and you’re not so sure.

When it comes to the really important things in life, mere thinking doesn’t cut it. You will never create anything truly original by sitting round thinking about it. Real achievement requires unstoppable action – and unstoppable action requires passion.

Many times, when I’ve seen a client thinking themselves round in circles, I get them to ignore their brain and focus on the sensations in their body.

I’m looking for what Derek Sivers calls the ‘Hell yeah!’ response – the one that tells you you have to do this, and you will always regret it if you don’t. And you are never going to get a ‘Hell yeah’ from the cerebral part of you – you need to feel it in your gut.

So next time you’re faced with a decision and you’ve thought yourself round in circles, have a go at this four-step process, which is a variation on a Zen technique I learned from John Eaton:

  1. Stand in a balanced posture. Now imagine you have no head. I’m serious. Your body stops at your shoulders, there’s just fresh air where your head used to be. So there are no thoughts to distract you. Which makes it easy to be aware of the feelings in your body, right this instant.
  2. Imagine your options are spread out in front of you, occupying ‘magic circles’ on the floor – one circle for each option.
  3. Step into the first circle, representing the first option – as if you were taking the first step to making it happen. Don’t think. Notice how your body feels – Heavy? Light? Tense? Relaxed? Energised?
  4. If you get a ‘Hell yeah!’ response, that’s your path – no matter how scary your head might think it is. And if you get a sinking feeling, you must not do it – no matter how sensible your head might tell you it is.

3. What Would Your Hero Do?

We all have heroes – great artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, sports players, explorers. Or fictional heroes, from novels or the movies. Or maybe a friend, mentor or family member. Someone we look up to. Someone who embodies everything we admire.

And you know what? That someone is you.

You may project it onto someone else, but what you’re really doing when you admire a hero is tapping into your own unrealised potential. You actually possess the strength, daring, imagination and other qualities you admire in them, even if you’ve never used them.

Why else do you think their example resonates so strongly with you?

So next time you’re faced with a challenge and you’re wondering whether you’re up to it, ask yourself:

What would my hero make of this?

What would he/she have to say about it?

What would he/she do about it?

Why don’t I try doing a little of that?

4. Trust Your Fear

If thinking is overrated, then fear is underrated.

Some kinds of fear – especially anxiety – are paralysing, overwhelming, unproductive. But I’m not talking about those kinds of fear.

I’m talking about the kind of fear you experience when you contemplate following your dream and making it happen for real.

You know how it goes – at first you’re full of excitement, thrilled at the thought of finally going for it, and all the wonderful things you will do and see and feel and achieve and experience.

Then you feel your stomach tighten and your heart start pounding, and you realise you’ve stopped breathing.

At this point – if you’re not careful – your Internal Saboteur starts playing you disaster movies of all the things that could go wrong, and reciting a long list of sensible reasons why you should reconsider, abandon your plans altogether – or at least put them off for a little while, just so you can think things through properly …

Of course, this is the voice of Resistance, using fear as a lever to prise you away from your dream. Don’t let this happen.

Fear is uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The fear is there to keep you safe – to let you know you are entering uncharted territory, and you’ll need to keep your wits about you.

It’s there to give you a shot of adrenaline, to wake you up and get you to take action NOW to avoid disaster later.

As I’ve said to clients over and over again, the bigger the dream, the bigger the fear. This kind of fear is a sign that you’re on the right track, that you’re challenging yourself to stretch yourself in pursuit of something amazing.

So trust the fear. Don’t fight it, feel it – but in your body, not your head. (This is a very good time to have no head – see No.3 above.)

And use the fear as a cue to action – ask yourself:

What do I need to DO in order to neutralise the dangers and achieve my goal?

Make a list. Now go and do it.

And notice what happens when you take meaningful action – the fear subsides, leaving you with renewed confidence and enthusiasm.

5. Put Yourself on the Line

It’s easy to procrastinate when you’re only answerable to yourself. If no one else knows your dream, it’s easy to kid yourself it’s just a dream.

But when you tell the world – or even just one other person – about your goal, it suddenly becomes real. The cat’s out of the bag, and it’s your responsibility to take care of it.

Because when you announce your intention, you become accountable for your actions. You feel a subtle pressure to give an account of yourself, whether you succeed or fail. You feel like you’ll lose face if you don’t follow through on what you’ve said you will do.

No, you shouldn’t rely on other people to tell you what to do, or to get you fired up. The initial spark can only come from you. But when it comes to finishing, and doing what it takes to make your dream come true, this kind of peer pressure can be extremely effective. So why not make the most of it?

Here are a few options:

  • Tell a trusted friend about your goal, and arrange to meet with them on a certain date to report back on your progress.
  • Join a class where you will be expected to produce work for assessment.
  • Enter a competition, even if you don’t (yet) have anything to enter with.
  • Assemble a mastermind group of 3-4 peers, and commit to regular meet ups where you share your goals and hold each other accountable.
  • Tell your blog readers, Twitter followers etc and promise to report back to them by a certain date. (I did this a few years ago and it worked.)

How Do You Get Yourself Unstuck?

Which of these techniques can you see yourself using?

How do you get yourself unstuck when you’re facing a big challenge?

Any tips for someone feeling overwhelmed by a problem?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get unstuck and back into the creative zone. For more tips on creativity, productivity and succeeding against the odds, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Great post, Mark! Never tried imagining myself without a head, but I will now!

    #4 and #5 speak loudly to me. As a fiction writer, I always try to listen to my fear when I’m working on a story. If there’s a difficult element to write (like subject matter that’s dicey) and I want to dance around it, it usually means that that’s the very thing I MUST put into the story, because that’s where the powerful writing is. I love how you take that notion and apply it to life goals and dreams. Same lesson, even bigger level.

    With #5, I’m with you that making your goals public makes you more accountable, and more productive through that. I’m helping creative folks set up websites for their work, and the biggest hurdle I’ve seen isn’t the technology–it’s the hesitancy to show their work to the world! This is great advice you give. Going public will make us more productive, and by sharing our creativity, we can change the world, too. Not a bad bargain!

    Thanks, as always, Mark!

  2. This is a pretty huge question this time! I will respond only to a couple of parts right now.

    I like “instead.” Instead is a reminder that there are options, multiple possible paths to take and scenarios to spin out. Instead is about being open-minded. Instead is the opposite of being in a rut.

    I am really glad to have a head but extremely glad not to have a disembodied one. Wherever my head goes, my heart goes right with it. In my teaching training, our mentor advised us to “bring your whole self to school.” What he meant was that our head, heart, values, and everything we are is part of approaching any task, any challenge, in an authentic way.

    To me the question what would my hero do is very much like asking what my deepest principles say is the right way to go at this moment. I couldn’t agree more with the question interpreted in that way.

  3. Thanks, Mark. Wonderful ideas. Love no. 2. The gut feeling is a great advisor.



  4. I like question 2, ‘What Would You Do If You Had No Head?’. People often can’t decide whether to follow their head or their heart. I always say that the head is too rational, the heart is too emotional, so I follow my gut. Gut feel is my best source of direction when making a one-minute decision with a lack of information, or obvious direction.

  5. Great post!
    The #2 remembers me a lot the works I’ve done with Body Conscious Design, also called Body Thinking. The italian researcher Jader Tolja has wrote about it… I recommend it!

    • Thanks Nestor, I like the sound of Body Thinking! Will check it out.

      • It’s a pleasure!
        Specially in a blog like yours where you help us to get unstucked!

        If you need more info about body thinking, I’m the representative in Spain of ABCD (association for Body Conscious Design). Before turning my life into photography, I was working as an architect and teacher specialized in ergonomy.


  6. This is a very practical post Mark, my favourite is tip number 3: What Would Your Hero Do?

    I think this can be used for one’s personal development as I have found myself in my comfort zones at times. I know deep down if I put in more i will get more, but not having the mental energy to pull myself through what needs to be done at that time, I let comfort win.

    But with this tip, I can just switch places with one of my heroes and imagine how they would handle such a situation. In most cases, I am sure they would do the opposite of what I might want to do. So for me, this contributes to my personal development since I’ll be going outside my comfort zone to be like my heroes.

    Thank you for sharing. Great piece!

  7. Mark,
    “Instead” is like a drug for your exhausted mind. A distraction that will bring back the answer, or if not, feed your mind with such a nice imagined options that make you feel you need it so bad and got to do some thing to move out of this cage.

  8. Nice article. Let me just add my (exactly 2) cents:

    1. How do you get yourself unstuck when you’re facing a big challenge?
    Asking myself what exact actions should I take to make the problem worse. Then trying to find inspiration in reverse ones.

    2. Any tips for someone feeling overwhelmed by a problem?
    Be careful with peer pressure – it doesn’t always work as we intent:

    • 1. Great question! I sometimes ask ‘Why is the situation not worse?’ – it can be very empowering when people focus on what they’ve been doing (well) to cope with a challenge.

      2. I know what Derek means. Peer pressure can work well as long as you pick the right (trusted) people to tell, and at the right time – usually not right at the beginning, but at a point where you’re committed to action and want to nail down any possible excuses.

  9. I especially like #3 – I’ve got so many heroes and never thought why they appealed. A key I’ll enjoy turning.

    A possible version of #1 is what might be called the via negativa along the lines of Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” or Robert K. Merton’s idea of looking not at something’s manifest function but also at its latent function or functions. So, this is not a bedroom or maybe not just a bedroom – this is not just a mobile phone – this is not just a car – this not just a political party… It frees us to see things and problems in a new light, in their otherness.

  10. This is me!! So many ideas that I dont know which way to head and over analysying each one and worrying about what each outcome will be instead of just getting amongst it and seeing what happens

  11. Mark,

    Great post, thank you! Would you mind if I used your post in a directors meeting/ talk.
    I will off course use you as reference! I think this needs sharing among as many of us as possible.

    Thank you!