This article was originally written for and appeared on LinkedIn.
Creative block. Brain fart. Hitting the wall. Whatever you call it, every creative has experienced that deadening inability to come up with an idea, leaving you questioning everything you thought you knew while gently banging your head against your desk.
Being able to churn out creative ideas day in, day out, is not an innate ability. It’s a skill. And no matter how skilled we are, we all have off days. Or off briefs.
So when you feel like you’ve fallen down a hole of creative ineptitude, how can you drag yourself out of it? Here are 5 tips I use:
Take a break
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why this is a good idea. Pressuring yourself to continue struggling when you’re feeling totally frustrated is unlikely to produce the result you want. After all, pressure is a creativity killer.
Have you ever had that Eureka moment in the shower? I regularly think of great ideas when I’m in the car on my commute home, so much so that I have to leave myself voice memos so I don’t forget by the time I reach my destination. Your subconscious brain is working on problems long after you stop actively concentrating on them, and those moments when you’re alone, winding down, or performing a monotonous task allow your mind to wander, and find solutions to those problems that have been bugging you.
There’s also evidence to suggest that trying to work on a mentally taxing task for more than 4 hours is pointless. Some of the most outstanding creative thinkers are known to have only worked for 4 hours a day, and achieved amazing things within that time.
So go and put the kettle on. Chat to a friend or colleague. Or even better, take a walk in the park. Spending time out in nature has been shown to have myriad positive effects, including stress relief, improved concentration and, you guessed it, a boost in creativity.
Change Your Environment
This works in two ways. You can physically go and work somewhere else, or you can try and optimise the environment you’re already in.
The stereotypical image of a trendy author or social media expert working from a coffee shop is sometimes mocked, but the levels of ambient noise in places like coffee shops can actually improve your creativity. Where silence forces focus and loud noise or music can overwhelm, a moderate level of ambient noise increases abstract processing, and therefore, creativity.
If you can’t get to a coffee shop, apps and sites like Noisli can pump canned coffee shop ambience into your headphones for a similar effect.
Lighting is also important. Dim lighting can help you find focus by reducing distractions; and let’s face it, any excuse to escape the cold, sterile lighting of most offices is good news to me.
Getting comfy can work wonders for your creative brain too. Comfortable chairs where you can sit in close proximity to colleagues you’re working with can make you more creative, while maintaining a warm but comfortable temperature boosts creative thinking. For most people working in an office, the air con struggle is real, so if you can’t make the office warmer, invest in a good cardy or jumper to keep at your desk.
And if all else fails, head to the pub. As well as being comfy and dimly lit with plenty of ambient noise, drinking alcohol has been shown to improve creative performance. There’s even a Danish beer called Problem Solver designed precisely for this.
Being forced to employ oblique strategies can be frustrating, but it can also produce astonishing results. In Tim Harford’s Book “Messy” he describes how Brian Eno used the technique when working with artists like David Bowie and Phil Collins. He’d make the musicians draw a card with an oblique statement on it, and immediately do whatever the card said.
Commands include “think like a gardener,” “emphasise repetitions,” take away the elements in order of apparent importance” and “work at a different speed.”
Apparently, Phil Collins was so infuriated by the process that he threw a beer can across the studio, and while I don’t advocate getting into that kind of state, making your brain think in a different way can lead to ideas you’d never have had otherwise.
A former colleague of mine used to swear by a brainstorm technique called the Random Links Box. With your eyes closed, you would plunge your hand into a box and fish out an object. You’d then have to try and link your object to your brief, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes surprisingly effective consequences.
You might never use the ideas you come up with during these exercises, but the process of making your brain do something different can help you overcome your creative block when you get back to it.
This might sound counter-intuitive. If you’ve reached an impasse on one project, switching to a completely separate one might feel nonsensical, but it could be exactly what you need.
There’s anecdotal and laboratory evidence that suggests switching between projects opens up your mind to creative thinking, in a similar way that taking a break to do a monotonous task, as discussed above, does.
Tim Harford also discusses this in “Messy,” with examples of inventors and scientists who regularly switched between projects, often finding a breakthrough for one while working on another.
Forced collaboration can be bad for creativity, but choosing to collaborate with somebody you trust and work well with can really help. Chatting through a problem with a wise mentor, or getting an enthusiastic junior or intern on board can show you different perspectives and make you think outside of your own bubble.
Collaborating with people from different disciplines can also provide surprising results. If you’re working on a radio brief, talk to a designer about how they’d create a visual for it. Their visual ideas could get you thinking of ways to spark an image in the listeners imagination.
Talk to the target audience too. Really get under the skin of the people you’re trying to talk to. Understand their language, their needs and motivations – ask them what would make them take the action you want. In his book “We, Me, Them & It” John Simmons goes into great detail about the power of language, and about writing in a way that people speak and relate to, in order to drive action and brand loyalty. So if you’re not sure what your target audience will respond to, or how they talk about a subject, ask them!
These are my 5 tips to get out of a creative rut, what are yours?