13+ unusually simple techniques to get creative when you are in a rut

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In the early 1990’s, a few screenwriters proposed something that Disney had never done before. They proposed making an animated movie on an original concept. Despite much opposition and skepticism from the likes of Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Michael Eisner, the script was saved from the cutting room floor and eventually became “The Lion King”, the highest grossing film of 1994, winning Oscars and a Golden Globe as well.

What saved it from the cutting room floor was that the writers had to be creative. They had to begin with a novel idea to bring originality to it. So, they had to start with lions and then add a degree of familiarity with a Hamlet-like plot.

For businesses and content writers, such creativity and originality can often be a distant thought as we battle with deadlines and other pressing needs. Yet most people desperately want to know how to be creative. Especially on days that seem like you are totally uninspired or stuck in a creative rut.

get creative - austin kleon

Kenneth Stanley, author of “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective,” says the feeling is quite normal, so we shouldn’t despair. He says this pattern is at the root of the creative process.

The better question to ask yourself is – how do I be creative even on these off days when I don’t feel inspired?

The answer isn’t as mysterious as it may seem.

According to Robert Sutton, author and professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford School of Engineering –

“The truth is: creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.”

So let’s look at a few different research-backed ways to bring creativity into your life, marketing or blogs.

1. Be open to new experiences

Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, recommends being open to new experiences.

What does that mean?

Scott says that his research indicates that one’s personal growth is tied to the openness to experience. In other words, challenging yourself beyond that of your comfort zone, questioning assumptions, being curious and appreciating beauty. So try new things and experiences.

Research by Dr. Charles Limb over 10 years also supports the idea of making time for creativity via improvising or getting out of a routine.

2. Cultivate time for inspiration

It is easy to assume that creative people are just born with it and really talented.

The truth is that most creative people understand that creativity requires hard work and persistence while they tap into various sources of inspiration and methods of productivity.

Take for example the success stories of Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. In each of these cases is an individual that understands the following:

  • they understand sources of inspiration,
  • they know how to create moments where creativity can flourish,
  • they understand that behind every creative idea that comes to fruition is a lot of unwavering determination, productivity and hard work.

So what can you do to inspire yourself? Here are a few proven ways that you can make time for in your routine.

A. Go for a walk

stanford research

Researchers at Stanford have found that walking improves creativity by as much as 60%. They found that inspiration and creativity not only occur when out walking but also when you return to your desk.

B. Take a shower

Research also shows that there is a relationship between being relaxed and creative. According to Scott, 72% of people have new ideas while in the shower. Scott attributes the shower as an ideal place for creative thinking because –

“The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”

C. Take some “me time”

Existential psychologist Rollo May says

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

Austin Kleon also recommends sitting around doing nothing. The fact is, to be productive, you need to take a break from every task no matter what it might be and come back to it later. This allows you to come back to it refreshed and inspired.

D. Think like a kid

One of the best ways to be creative is to think like someone new to your field. In other words, approach a situation with a perspective shift. Children are often best at it, and are curious and willing to try and experiment.

So how can adults think like children?

Studies have shown that individuals imagining themselves as children subsequently produced more original responses and that it could help more introverted individuals who are less spontaneous.

E. Take time out for solitude or to meditate

A Dutch study has shown that certain meditation techniques can help improve creative thinking. Solitude or meditation has a similar effect as reading. The effect being that they are both stimulating yet relaxing at the same time.

Often people say they cannot be still to be quiet or meditate as they have too much to think about or do. However, they could benefit the most from meditation. It expands your awareness, allowing you to tap into what David Lynch calls the “ocean of pure, vibrant consciousness inside each one of us.”

These practices have been linked to better focus, emotional wellbeing, reduced stress and anxiety, as well as improved clarity, all of which lead to better creative thinking.

F. Sleep well

The benefits of sleep on our productivity and creativity have been well documented. It helps improve our memory by solidifying memories.

How?

It clears information out of our temporary storage areas and processes information.

Tip – Keep a notepad and pen next to your bed in case you come up with ideas and solutions to the problems you are tackling.

G. Consume less coffee

Most people, when looking for external sources to help boost creativity, turn to coffee. While caffeine has many benefits, research shows it can undermine one’s creativity rather than stimulating it.

Why?

Because it leads to impulse judgments and energy that allows for unnaturally long work sessions, which interferes with the natural incubation periods required for creativity in individuals.

H. Exercise daily

Henry Thoreau claimed that he was able to think better when his legs were moving. Research studies seem to indicate that Thoreau was on to something. People who exercise on a regular basis were found to outperform those that didn’t.

john ratey

So hit the gym, do yoga, go for a long walk or run, but be sure to make it a regular part of your daily routine.

I. Take a trip

At times getting away from familiar surrounds can help. It doesn’t necessarily have to be far, but a trip out of town could be just the thing to help you come back refreshed.

There have been numerous studies to show a connection between creativity and international travel. The key ingredients to stimulate creativity when traveling is multicultural engagement, immersion and adaptation.

Why?

Because new experiences, sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations and sights spark different synapses in the brain and can potentially revitalize the mind.

3. Change your environment

At times a change in environment may be called for. Research seems to support the habits of people who break away from order, tradition and convention. A messy desk, dim lighting and some ambient noise like that in a café can help boost creativity.

Why is this the case?

Because creativity comes from making connections and seeing patterns where others see chaos. So try creating a remix with a fresh pair of eyes or taking old ideas to new perspectives.

If a café or coffee shop is too far away, you can certainly recreate the ambient noise effect with one of these tools –

4. Play video games to prime your brain

According to Jane McGonigal instead of taking a break, playing video games can help you recharge.

How do they help?

Because they cause you to do something challenging, and that helps expend energy. Games, she says, also help you learn skills to be a better leader and achieve goals.

The dopamine hit that you get when you play video games is what helps drive your work ethic. Jane uses this effect to channel her creativity and work ethic to tackle everyday work and life challenges.

5. Seek out problems

Research shows that most creative artists tend to be not just problem solvers, but problem finders.

For example, Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google as a library project at Stanford to help prioritize book searches. They then realized that they could apply it to a larger problem.

get creative - daniel pink

So the quicker you find problems, the quicker you can come up with solutions. Such people are judged to have more creative work.

6. Experiment and develop your system

Be an experimental innovator. In other words, become a person who learns from every mistake and pieces together what ends up being something great. Frank Gehry, the famous architect, uses this approach. He uses crumpled paper, cardboard and duct tape to get crude prototypes going with a bunch of people he can bounce ideas off with.

Chris Rock, the comedian, also does something similar. He tests his routines out on small crowds. Thousands of ideas get refined and culled before he performs on a big show where it seems so natural.

So develop your system to get your creative ideas.

7. Read regularly

Reading is known to enhance connectivity in the brain and improve general brain function. In fact, good literature can provide an evocative, emotional and transporting experience.

Reading enables you to tap into the creative mind of another person and widen your thinking as you improve your ability to empathize with characters in the book, and arms you with information you did not have before.

Tip – Read paperbacks to retain more information as compared to reading from a screen or audiobook. Consider using a service like Bookmooch to save money.

8. Listen to a podcast

Do you run for exercise?

While music can distract you from the monotony of running and even improve your performance, evidence seems to suggest that people are more open to new information and are more creative when running. Dr. Chris Frisen, author and clinical psychologist specializing in performance psychology at Friesen Sport & Performance Psychology in Ontario, recommends listening to podcasts or audiobooks.

Why?

Because running creates space in your brain for processing ideas – your own or that of others. So why not get your exercise, improve your knowledge and creative thinking all at the same time?

Tip – Listen to your podcasts or audiobooks at a higher speed with the Overcast app.

9. Harness the power of collaboration

When Steve Jobs had to design the Pixar Studios campus, he wanted to encourage creative collaboration. So instead of going with the original design of 3 separate buildings to divide computer scientists, animators and directors, and editors, he designed a single building with just 2 bathrooms. This would make encounters between those at Pixar inevitable.

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works

He knew that the human friction makes the sparks, and that when you’re talking about a creative endeavor that requires people from different cultures to come together, you have to force them to mix; that our natural tendency is to stay isolated, to talk to people who are just like us, who speak our private languages, who understand our problems. But that’s a big mistake. And so his design was to force people to come together even if it was just going to be in the bathroom.”

Research shows that collaboration plays an important part in coming up with great ideas.

Why?

Because a collaborative group brings the sum of their skills and perspectives in a way that you alone cannot do. At the very least, having a conversation with one or more people with a different perspective could take your ideas on a new and exciting path.

So how can you collaborate creatively?

First brainstorm by not criticizing ideas; instead focus on quantity.

Then combine and improve on ideas produced by others you collaborate with.

Learn from Pixar

Another form of collaboration can be learned from Pixar Studios. According to Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Pixar follows a process to ensure their movies have the best chance of succeeding. At the idea stage they use “plussing”.

This is a take on improv, where in the team takes an idea and adds to it without criticizing or shooting the idea down. This process allows good elements of an idea to develop and become better until you get something close to perfection.

10. Look toward history

Use history to get creative ideas. It turns out that having a lot of not so good or bad ideas also means that you’ll have good ideas.

People are often afraid of bad ideas, but history proves that successful entrepreneurs, writers and musicians fail far more often than they succeed.

Seth Godin provides this example to illustrate the same point –

Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or 2 to come up with one, and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, “None.”

And there, you see, is the problem.

11. Build resilience

Kaufman says resilience is a prerequisite for creative success.

Ira Glass in the video below describes creative work as a process of repeatedly failing until you find the things that stick. The process can be daunting, but you should not take failure personally.

Steven Kotler on sharing his insights on Einstein says that creative geniuses fail often and have the most output.

12. Ask questions

A key habit to cultivate is that of becoming insatiably curious. Einstein has been quoted as saying he had no special talent other than being passionately curious. In other words, ask questions based on your observations and experiences. Studies have since shown that observation skills are a key ingredient to creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci said

Many people looked, but few people see – and that mindful seeing is the foundation of direct experience, itself the foundation of direct knowledge.

How can you develop the skill of creative observation?

Check out the tips from this Quora thread and this post.

13. Write, sketch and jot down your ideas

In the book “Zig Zag: The surprising path to greater creativity,” researcher Vera John-Steiner sought answers to what created ongoing productivity in the lives of creative individuals. She interviewed over 70 living creative geniuses and examined the notebooks of 50 dead ones. She found the great ideas never came about in a linear process but rather in fits and starts including many false starts.

Creativity started with the notebooks’ sketches and jottings, and only later resulted in a pure, powerful idea. The one characteristic that all of these creatives shared— whether they were painters, actors, or scientists— was how often they put their early thoughts and inklings out into the world, in sketches, dashed-off phrases and observations, bits of dialogue, and quick prototypes. Instead of arriving in one giant leap, great creations emerged by zigs and zags as their creators engaged over and over again with these externalized images.

So consider becoming an avid observer of the world around you. Pay attention to details and take notes along the way. For example, novelist Thomas Hardy, much like Marcel Proust, recorded all his observations in a journal that he carried with him at all times.

Joan Didion is another person who did this. She says in her essay “On keeping a notebook” –

We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

How does this help make you more creative?

Because it helps you reflect on happenings, spot patterns, practice healthier habits, and most of all, get to know yourself better.

Bonus:

Here are a few simple yet actionable ways to get started and develop habits that will pay dividends in the future.

1. Refer to your collection of creative sites

What sites have you visited in the past that left you inspired or filled with ideas?

Perhaps you have Pinterest boards. As a designer, do you look to Dribble or Behance?

Do you keep up with the world of technology by keeping an eye on Mashable or TechCrunch?

Whatever your interests may be, bookmark these sites and refer to them for creative inspiration when you seem to hit a roadblock.

2. Start a swipe file

Austin Kleon in his book – Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative suggests collecting good ideas for inspiration.

So if you haven’t already, consider creating a swipe file which is essentially a collection of good ideas that you spot or come up with. You can refer to them over time to stimulate your creativity. You can use Pinterest boards, an Evernote folder, a journal, or collect notes, articles, clips and photos.

You can also borrow from some good ideas to make something new and unique. For example, Steve Jobs drew inspiration from the Xerox Alto to build a personal computer.

Tip – Use your phone on the go to take photos, make notes and record ideas as they come to you. Alternatively, use a Word or Google doc to record websites, blurbs, etc. that resonate with you.

3. Have a mentor

Consider seeking out a mentor if you don’t already have one. They could be a friend, someone at your workplace or in your industry. Mentors are there to listen to the problem at hand and lend their expertise to help you move forward.

4. Seek out resources for inspiration

Dan recently wrote about people who have embraced their inner creativity despite their fears and adversity. He also provided a list of must read books to fire up your creativity. Check them out via the links below as you further your own creative pursuits.

Inspiring role models for unleashing your inner creative beast

13 books to read for creative inspiration

5. Most of all, show up

Entrepreneur and blogger James Clear says the creative process is a lot like strength training

You can’t selectively choose your best moments and only work on the days when you have great ideas. The only way to unveil the great ideas inside of you is to go through a volume of work, put in your repetitions, and show up over and over again.

Albert Einstein was a great example of this. He continued to work despite a painful medical condition that he suffered right up to the day he died. In fact, despite having won the Nobel Prize in 1921, he continued to work and contribute to the field for another 40 years.

Austin Kleon in an interview on Rainmaker.fm had a similar perspective on creativity –

Everybody thinks creativity is like Don Draper closing his eyes and then having a big revelation. I never feel like Don Draper. I always feel like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Phil wakes up every day at 6 am, and he’s got to do something with his day. He knows there’s no tomorrow. He knows all he’s got is this day. I love that movie because, at first, he cheats, he fritters away the day, and then he falls into despair. Then, at the end, he realizes, “I just have to work. I have to practice a craft, or I just put the work in every day,” and that’s when his life gets better.

Showing up also has an additional benefit to creativity, according to research by Modupe Akinola, a professor at Columbia Business School and Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales, Australia. Their research suggests that creativity could arise from the emotional strain of attempting to seek inspiration.

Over to you

So you now know over 13 ways to be creative when you aren’t feeling particularly inspired.

Regardless of whether you want to be productive and avoid multitasking or just get more creative, a key factor is your ability to channel your energy and focus without expending it on frivolous things. As you attempt to tap into your creativity, remember that what works once may not work every other time. So keep your mind open to new possibilities and experiences. To help get into the swing of tapping into your creativity, we have created a 13-day creativity challenge which you can download below.

get creative

About

Vinay is the content marketing manager for WP Curve. Follow him @wpcurve

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