See if this scene sounds familiar…
It’s time to write. You’re at your computer with your favorite beverage half an arm’s length away. The lighting is just right – and you have the climate control set exactly the way you like it.
Conditions are perfect.
You put your fingers on the keys and…
At least, nothing exciting or original. You’re stymied. Out of gas – with no filling station in sight.
This kind of block can manifest itself in different but equally annoying forms.
You might have a few ideas, but even by your own judgment, they seem boring as melba-toast. Sometimes you might have too many ideas that don’t connect in any meaningful way. And other times, you have no ideas at all.
If you haven’t experienced this – then you probably don’t write enough.
The rest of the world likes to think of us “creative types” as fun-loving, free-living quirky folk who flit around without a care in the world. They have this idea that it’s easy (or at least, not hard) to be creative.
You and I know damn well that isn’t true. Being a “creative badass” is hard, and creating something significant is even harder.
Eventually there comes a time for all of us who write, when our brain decides it’s time for some R&R. Our brain checks out. It doesn’t want to play.
I’m not talking about just writer’s block here. I’m also talking about the pressure, self-imposed or not, to be creative day in and day out.
Whether you’re having difficulty getting the creative process started, or your mind is clogged with far too many overlapping thoughts and partial ideas from who-knows-where, the pressure to consistently create quality work is stressful. And stress just makes the situation worse.
So when you face these stumbling blocks, what do you do? Fortunately, there are some fairly easy fixes for creative droughts like this.
Start collecting interesting ideas from articles, books, blog posts you’ve read, funny things that come up during the day, and anything that catches your eye or makes you go “hmmm”.
Jot down notes whenever an interesting idea strikes you, clip articles and tape them into your notebooks, become an Evernote junkie. Save information, write down whole paragraphs, sentence fragments, titles, slogans – anything that strikes you as interesting.
It’s much easier to be creative when you’re surrounded by interesting ideas.
pen – noun
1. An ink-dispensing manual writing tool from the past.
Those were the days! I used to grab me a pen and some paper. Then hop on my horse and ride him to town. I’d visit the old general store or maybe the saloon and make a day of it.
Seriously, though – while I am as dependent on technology as the next person, I find that old fashioned pen and paper are best for note taking, planning, sketching, and thinking. It’s a more active, tactile experience that has a totally different feel to it than typing.
There is something about being able to hold those pages in your hand, set them next to each other, tape them together, draw arrows from one to the other, or manipulate them physically that gets the creative juices flowing.
Sure, I curate mountains of information on my computer, and I have a ridiculous number of PDF files saved just like everyone else does. The thing is: it’s hard to look at several of them at once or compare them side by side. Good old fashioned paper in combination with all your cool digital tools can help you be creative from a whole new angle.
Real creativity comes from intersections. Intersections of ideas, of cultures and of disciplines. We all have a pretty finite scope of experience. Just by the fact of being who we are, we develop a kind of tunnel vision.
Electricians think about watts and volts most of the day – so their mental world is heavily influenced by that type of thinking. Writers think about (among other things) words, structure and how to communicate ideas. So our world is influenced by that kind of thinking.
To be creative, you need to start looking at where your world collides with other worlds.
And how do you do that? I’m glad you asked!
Let’s say you’re an architect working on a project. While most of your research and preparation for the project would be architectural in nature, I would advise you not to discount other seemingly unrelated areas. Go read about water polo or gaming. Grab a book or magazine on a topic you wouldn’t normally read. Genius often happens when two unrelated areas collide.
The following story is a great example of how to be creative and generate great ideas from unrelated places:
In Zimbabwe, an architect designed a mid-rise shopping complex that stays cool without an air conditioning system. Think it’s hot in Zimbabwe? Yeah!
So how did he do it? Well, he didn’t do it with traditional architectural information. Not even close.
Architect Mick Pearce came across information on how the local termites in Zimbabwe used air currents to cool their termite mounds in their warm natural environment. The end result is a very big building in a hot climate that stays cool without traditional air conditioning.
I’m guessing that the study of termites in Zimbabwe probably wasn’t part of Mick’s college architectural curriculum. It’s probably also a safe bet that he likely would not have come up with this solution if he hadn’t been looking in what most people would consider strange places. In this case, entomology.
If you want to do some Googling, you’ll find that vaccinations and the theory of evolution were also inspired by “out of field” events. They were born of the collision of two or more disciplines – or intersections.
Look in weird places. Collect random information… and then look for intersections.
A great way to be more creative and generate some brilliant ideas is to do some mega-brainstorming.
Just get out a pen and paper or open up your laptop and generate as many ideas or thoughts on one given topic as you can – before you stop to evaluate any of them. Write every single idea down without thinking – even if they’re totally bizarre.
The important thing when doing this exercise is that you postpone judgment of your new ideas because if you judge it too soon, your brain will compare it only to what is already known within your established area of expertise.
“The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” – Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate in chemistry and peace
Learn to trust that your brain can spot the significant.
If something – anything – jumps out at you and makes you notice it, then it likely resonates with you on some level. It has some importance to some remote corner of your brain. That’s why you noticed it.
You may not know why it’s important just yet, but it will cross-reference with something for you in the future and possibly give you your next big idea. This is why if you want to be creative, it is vital to record your thoughts and ideas. You need to let your neurons make the connections for you… it’s their job.
We’ve all read how powerful the subconscious mind is and how we only use a fraction of our brain at any given moment. There’s a lot going on up there that you don’t consciously or fully understand. Let it percolate!
Over time, you will collect huge volumes of information. Make sure you review all your saved notes – not just the recent ones – on a regular basis.
Remember: if you made the effort to write it down or save it, it must have had some value to you. Going back over old notes and comparing them to newer notes will often result in an explosion of ideas from those interesting intersections I’ve been telling you about.
As you gather more information, you will naturally and immediately make the obvious connections. For instance, after clipping articles and writing notes for a few weeks, you might connect different pieces of information on, say time management – and a fresh, new angle for your writing will come to you.
The more information you collect, the more obvious connections you will make – generating a greater number of ideas.
If you’ve been collecting information from unusual places (remember our Entomologist-Architect?), go back over your notes and see if you can discover an overlap between your area of expertise and the new, unusual areas.
Hunt for intersections in the random and unrelated. It is in this intersection between the usual and the random that some of the best ideas are born. These ideas may seem weird or different at first, but don’t dismiss them. Instead, be ready to receive them when they come.
This is where having good relationships comes in. Having a trusted friend or colleague I can bounce ideas off almost always does the trick for me. You know the old saying that it’s hard to tell the forest for the trees? Well, it’s an old saying for a reason: it’s true.
When we’re immersed in our own work, we primarily see all the minutiae and details that we have to deal with. It’s easy to lose the big picture. Having someone look at our work from the outside can clear up our perception of the situation and help us let go of some of those details that are bogging us down.
When you have been stewing over a project and everything looks like a big gnarly knot to you, often the best thing you can do is to shut down, log off and let it incubate.
Go do something totally unrelated and come back to it later. Maybe later that day, maybe later that week. Just get away from it for a while. Ideas have a way of incubating in our brains when we stop actively obsessing over them.
The concept of an incubation period is well-documented in a fantastic book called The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson.
According to Johansson, the incubation period is the time between when one stops thinking heavily on a subject and the time when one suddenly and subconsciously comes up with a solution. It’s one of my favorite books, and a great read on the subject of creativity.
Sometimes when you want something to grow, you have to leave it alone for a while. You can’t make flowers grow faster by watering them 24 hours a day and screaming, “Grow, damn you!” at them. But that’s exactly what we often do with our creative projects, isn’t it?
Try stepping away from your project if you’re feeling blocked. Go do something fun, spend some time with friends and family or get some exercise. When you return to your project, you’ll find that you can see it from a whole new perspective.
Creative deadlines make it difficult, if not impossible, to be creative. I understand that this sounds wrong, but it’s absolutely accurate.
You’re probably thinking, “But I perform better in the 11th hour!”
No, you don’t. The Ivy League says so.
A Harvard Business School study by creativity researcher Teresa Amabile followed 177 employees in 22 different project teams for up to six months. And what she found might shock you.
Not only are people less creative under intense time pressure, but people believe that they are more creative during those times. One more time…
People under intense time pressure are less creative but incorrectly think they are more creative under pressure. There’s more – creativity didn’t just drop on the specific day of the time pressure. It dropped that day, and for three consecutive days thereafter.
The moral? Avoid creative deadlines when you can – and when you can’t, start early to avoid intense time pressure.
Hopefully you’ve got a few new ideas from this post – or a new angle on an old idea. Reading is well and good – but for positive change to occur, you have to implement.
Some of these tips are mere perspective shifts that you can put into play right now. Others are habits that you’ll have to make an effort to form over time. I can tell you that I personally employ each and every one of these techniques. And when I’m stuck, one of them always comes through for me.
At the risk of being redundant: Read The Medici Effect. Some of the concepts in this post (and many more brilliant concepts) are discussed in much greater detail in the book.
So what about you?
What’s your secret of how to be creative?
How do you get over your creative block?
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