Creativity is a skill, a practice, a method—it’s work, not magic. And yet there are times when it won’t flow, when your brain chokes up and refuses to bring you anything new or interesting. It’s incredibly frustrating to be dependent on something you can’t always summon at will.
Here’s why your current methods might not be working:
You’re in love with one perfect idea
It’s easy enough to prune bad ideas. But sometimes an idea is really, really good… and still totally wrong for the project. You can waste days trying to force an idea to fit where it doesn’t belong, and worse: you miss or dismiss other great ideas because they clash with the one you’re holding on to.
Attachment to the wrong idea can distort your thinking, like a lead ball on a rubber sheet. You lose the “beginner’s mind” that is so crucial to the early stages of a creative project. Even if you can’t bear to kill your darling just yet, at least try this thought experiment: “What would I do next if [idea] was off the table?”
Next time you notice yourself getting overly attached to an idea, acknowledge it and take action. Even if you’re sure something’s perfect, experiment with taking it out of the picture for a while. You'll be surprised at your newfound clarity of thought.
You’re only talking to people like you
Geoffrey West’s research on cities and innovation [PDF] has found that not only do the number of patent applications scale with the size of the city, but they also correlate to the speed at which residents walk. He puts it down to connections: the faster people walk, the more chance encounters for “productive social opportunities” they have. Scale that up to a population of millions, and you end up with greater creative output.
It can be hard to justify talking to people outside your discipline for no particular purpose when you’re knee deep in your work with a deadline looming, but it’s the best way to introduce totally new ideas and approaches into your ecosystem. Of the four types of knowledge, the “unknown unknowns”—the things you don’t even realize you don’t know—are the hardest to access, but offer the biggest payoffs.
So try to connect with creators and thinkers outside of your field. Keep enough space in your schedule to take advantage of chance encounters and watch the magic happen.
You’re trying to draw from an empty well
Nothing can come from nothing. The creative process involves seeing new connections, combining things in unexpected ways, looking at something that already exists and saying “What if…?” If you produce, produce, produce, but don’t take time to absorb new ideas, images and approaches, you’re going to get stale. Find some time to re-fill the well—check out an art exhibition, attend a Creative Mornings breakfast lecture or just noodle around Google Images looking for inspiration.
“Inspiration” can be a bit of a dirty word in the creative industries, but I’m not suggesting you sit back and wait for it. I’m suggesting you go out hunting. Dedicate a few hours to seeking out and compiling inspirational material. Re-supply your subconscious with new images, thoughts and ideas.
You’re not taking care of yourself physically
Your brain is an organ. It’s part of your physical body. As annoying as it is, if you want your brain functioning well, you need to look after your body: eat your vegetables, drink your water, lift something heavy.
And for god’s sake, get some sleep. People who are sleep-deprived—meaning they get less than 7 hours of sleep a night—perform significantly worse on cognitive tasks than well-rested people. And divergent thinking is the first thing to suffer. Even one night of bad sleep can make you less creative. The scariest part is, you might not even realize it’s happening. After the first couple of days, sleep-deprived people report that they have adjusted and are functioning normally—even as their performance continues to tank. Only a tiny minority of the population are true “short sleepers.” You’re probably not one of them.
It's time to take your physical health seriously as a foundation of your creative work. Practice good discipline around sleep, and don’t let it be the first thing you sacrifice when you’re crunched for time.