How To Be Creative When Your Brain Doesn’t Want To Play

    Do you know how to be creative?

    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.

    But It’s Fun And Easy To Be Creative, Right?

    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.

    Diligently Collect Information

    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.

    Go Old School With Some Pen And Paper

    Remember pens?

    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.

     Maximize The Power of The Intersection

    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!

    Go Play In Someone Else’s Sandbox

    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.

    Try Mega-Brainstorming

    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

    Let Your Brain Do Its ‘Thang’

    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!

    Review Your Old Notes Regularly

    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.

    Make The Obvious Connections First

    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.

    Be Ready To Receive When The Weird Connections Come

    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.

    Phone A Friend

    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.

    Let It Incubate

    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.

    Whenever Possible, Avoid Creative Deadlines

    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.

    Go Implement Your New Knowledge

    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?

    If you enjoy this post, please share it on Social Media!

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Hamda says:

      Hi, Gary, this was very creative post…, i really like your thought and idea alot, thanks

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    • Amit Amin says:

      I guess I don’t write enough, because I haven’t had a problem coming up with ideas yet. My list of ideas grows faster than I can cross them out. Or maybe I’m the only one who thinks they’re interesting 🙂

      • Ha! You write enough, Amit.

        You make a good point, though. I have a ton of ideas as well. But sometimes when I begin to write, the words don’t come. Other times I can’t decide on the “angle” to take on the topic. Being blocked creatively takes on many different forms.

        And you’re not the only one who finds your ideas interesting 🙂

    • Great tips to inspire your creative brain 🙂 I espescially vote for “Let Your Brain Do Its ‘Thang’ “! It says something that we tend to get our best ideas as we:
      – Take a shower
      – Are about to fall asleep
      – When we’re calling it a day and put our feet up in the recliner
      – When driving..
      This is when our own wisdom gets some leeway to break through all our thought chatter that are going on in our brain all the time. As our thinking slows down, all the intelligence “in the back of our head” gets to come through and fire off the light bulb.
      So remember to use your best asset – by letting your brain do its ‘thang’ 🙂
      Thanks for an inspiring article!

      • That’s so true about great ideas coming at “down” times. That’s also part of “being ready to receive.” Great points. Thank you for sharing them with us all.

    • Hey Gary,
      I soaked up your inspiring post because I am always reviewing the best ways and rituals to boost my creativity as a self help writer and coach helping others break free with THEIR creativity in life and work. We creatives love stimulation and new ideas and never stop learning. The Medici Effect book is new to me so I took a peek on Amazon and glad you put me onto it! The brilliance of “intersectional innovation” came to me in Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way recommendation of the ARTIST’S DATE . And how about Natalie Goldberg’s first book, Writing Down the Bones as an example of mixing Zen Buddhism with writing?
      I find my expertise in EFT Tapping and other energy based ways of boosting creativity invaluable as well especially if combined with… getting into nature – lie on the earth, hug a tree, go barefoot on the beach.
      Your post is a keeper so I’m putting it into Evernote – and also on my Writers and Writing board on Pinterest which is even quicker! Cheers from sunny South Africa, Caryl

      • Thank you very much Caryl! I’m honored to have made your Pinterest board and Evernote! And thanks for the tips on some more great reading!

    • Celise says:

      1) I wait until I hear the voices of my characters in my head again

      2) Participate in Art House Co-op ( projects. They have Free Project Wednesdays and Sundays. I plan to open a nonprofit community-based creative writing center for youth and adults in my hometown and find that these weekly ideas would make good writing workshops.

      3) Read. I write YA, but don’t read the genre. However, I’m addicted to adult romance. 🙂

      • Good tips, Celise!

        #2 in particular is interesting. Would you have any advice (short of Google) how readers might connect with similar groups in their areas?

        Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thank you for writing “How to become creative when your brain doesn’t want to” Helpful article! 🙂

      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.

    • Loved this article. I try to avoid deadlines anyway but it was interesting to find they are proven to be unproductive. My favorite technique for staying fresh is simply living a balanced life. Having room in my life for good diet, exercise, meditation and play helps me pull in the creative thoughts when I do sit down to write. And I find creative ideas coming in when I least expect it. I’m off to read the Medici Effect. Thank you!

      • Hi Molly.

        Actually, the way it was worded in the study was “intense time pressure” was unproductive. I’m not clear on what the definition of “intense” was for their purposes.

        Thanks for commenting – and enjoy the book!

    • Great ideas, Gary. I shared this post with the Write Where It Hurts community and have WTD linked in the writing resources section of my website. Always honored to share WTD posts as resources, and I shared this one before I even finished reading it. No sense burnin’ daylight when others could be reading along with me. 😉

      I will be looking for a copy of The Medici Effect. Thanks!

      {I’m getting a commentluv heads-up that it’s having trouble getting a feed from my website, but the code gives me nothing but the html for the site and no warnings. Not sure what’s up with that.}

      • Well, thank you Lisa! That’s great of you to share the post with your community. I’m glad it made an impression on you. (You did eventually finish it, right?) 🙂

        Nice to meet you & thanks for contributing to the conversation.

        • I did finish it (before I commented). 🙂

          Oh, and I downloaded Evernote last night to my PC and my iPhone. Looking forward to using it. I’m one of those people with the constant barrage of imaginative swirling going on at any given time. It can be a real pain when I’m trying to go to sleep. 😛

          • I’m still fairly new to Evernote myself, Lisa – but so far I love it. A great place to keep information.

    • Great article, Gary. As you know, my sandbox is BO.LT and then I move over to Evernote and my drafts folder and after things have been put ‘on hold’ as you say, I have that flash of idea. I have had the Medici Effect in my wish folder on Amazon for awhile as I hear great things about it. Now even more! And I am glad to see research held up against any ol’ thinking on creativity. Something I am trained to do or not do as the case may be from my schooling.

      Love the “The Ivy League says so” line. I will keep this as a reminder when I have a deadline that I want to wait for next time 😉 Thanks again!

      • It sounds like you’re quite the curator, Lee! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Bobbi Emel says:

      Gary, this post is so full of creative ideas to be creative that my head almost exploded! Great job!

      I like how you reminded us about the old-fashioned use of the “pen.” Sometimes it helps me to get out a flip chart or some other big white expanse, get some colored pens and markers, and just have at it. I wish I had enough room for a big whiteboard in my office – that would be awesome! So, for me – white space and colors get the old creative juices flowing!

      • Thank you Bobbi.

        It’s been interesting to see how many people have gotten behind our old friend the pen here in the comments. Thanks for the comment!

    • thank you for the advise, really helpful tips

    • Kaylee says:

      Great ideas, Gary. I actually have an “Inspiration Drawer” in my desk at home… but haven’t reviewed it in quite a while. Since I put the stuff in there, actually… How inspirational. I LOVE putting pen to paper and writing in big, swirly letters – there really is something to that old-school method.

      New to me though is the idea of playing in someone else’s sandbox. I like that! Now to do it. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend. 🙂

      • Kaylee!

        I don’t think you’ve missed commenting on any of my posts ever! Thanks for visiting me here on Mary’s turf!

        And yes… you have criminally beautiful handwriting. It’s the only thing I don’t like about you 😛

        Looking forward to reading the next Kaylee creation soon.

    • Perfect timing. Thank you for the sage advice. Now to get my butt in the chair and do the ‘write’ thing.

      • I’m glad you found it useful, Paul. Thanks for stepping forward to say hello!

    • Excellent article! Your points resonate with me so much! I’ve always been a fan of paper and pen and it’s nice to hear someone agree with me that the subconscious makes connections and solutions and the importance of allowing it to do so!
      I haven’t read such a well-written and useful article in a long time. Again great post.

      • Thank you much, P.I. – I really appreciate the compliments! Very kind of you. I’m a little speechless and very happy that you enjoyed it!

    • Adan Lerma says:

      Especially liked the info about how crushing deadlines, well, crush creativity! Any here, all this time, I’d thought I was just being “resistant.” ;-). It’s like the idea of not eating after exercise, we “need” at least a small healthy snack, preferably within the first 30 minutes after exercise.

      Thanks so much, and am gonna check out that Medici link 😉

      • I know, Adan. I was one of those who thought I was good in a crunch… But after reading the Harvard study, I’m convinced. Interesting the psychological games we play with ourselves, isn’t it? Thanks for commenting!

    • Hi Gary. Great tips, all.

      I just had recent success with this idea, so I’ll mention it. One weird thing I do is go back to a book I read at another time in my life (I have a huge library) and flip through it. Looking back at stuff I read as a kid, teenager, young adult, newly married, etc. and recalling what touched me about it provides thematic continuity and structure to my current writing projects. If I’m really stuck I can usually find some inspiration that way. Of course sometimes that idea bombs, too.

      Another tip: get up early and write first thing in the morning.

      I’ll hunt down Medici Effect. Thanks.

      • I like that, Jen.

        Great point about it stirring up memories. It also might yield a new perspective for you many years later.

        Great ideas everyone! Keep them coming!

    • Great post! Many great ideas here.

      I typically keep a file folder of random thoughts, quotes, a dream I might scribble down, bits of dialogue. However, I don’t look at it as often as I should; I let it sit in the corner and when I’m stuck I go reach for it.

      You make a great point about intersections and ideas. I like Ron’s comment about going to a public area and people watching. That’s a great way to just free-think and get ideas on anything. Even when my computer died many years ago (as I was so close to finishing my first book – ACK!) I found that when I went to cafes or airports, even though I wanted to forget about writing, I couldn’t help but listen in and observe.

      Great post and blog!

      Elaine Calloway

      • Thank you, Elaine.

        I’ll bet if you go back to those old notes you saved, you’ll find some gold in there!

    • I use pen and paper to capture ideas day and night. Sometimes I find that if I just lay the project down, I’ll get a great idea for continuing the project in the middle of the night, when I’m somewhere between dreaming and being awake.

      This was a fun read. Now I’ve gotta go find “The Medici Effect.”

      Thanks Gary!

      • Thanks for the compliments Perry. I love the old pen and paper method too. Let me know what you think of The Medici Effect after you read it!

    • Gary, it’s so worth it. There’s even a recording feature. I use it when I do interviews because it connects what’s on the paper to the recording. I use it in my devotional quiet time. I use it for making notes on articles I’m writing. I also use it when I attend conferences and take notes in workshops.

      • That sounds great, Deborah. I’ll definitely need to look into that. Thanks again!

    • I like your pen and paper idea. I use the Livescribe pen. I use it with special paper and then I can upload all my notes to my computer as a pdf or I can convert it to text. It’s great for those times I don’t want to use a computer.

      As for how I get ideas, I look at something from every angle and ask a lot of questions. I find the ideas in the answers.

      • Thank you, Deborah.

        I’ve heard of Livescribe but have yet to use it or even research it. Very interesting – I’ll have to go do some reading on it. I like that! Thank you for mentioning it.

        All kinds of good ideas coming out so far!

    • Two things that often help me are reading blogs/articles and reading the backs of paperback novels.

      • Looks like this posted twice, Lorraine. I still like your idea 🙂

    • Two things that help me are: 1. reading blogs and then linking to other pages/blogs/articles and 2. reading the back covers of paperback novels. Others’ ideas often give me new ideas of my own!

      • Hi Lorraine.

        I really like the reading back covers idea. Thanks for sharing!

    • I go people watching. I sit in a busy area, like a shopping mall, and watch people. It doesn’t take long for my mind to wander…maybe that guy is stalking the woman at the Auntie Anne’s shop and… Or maybe the mall cop is really homeland security and the woman with the huge handbag is about to blow this place sky high.

      It’s a good way to stir up some creativity. And you get a Cinnabon out of the deal.

      • As someone who spends a lot of time in airports, I’ve become a big fan of people watching as well. I haven’t really thought of it as a creative device… but I like that. Thank you, Ron.

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