As freelance creatives, inspiration is our lifeblood. When a composer, writer, artist or other creative gets stuck in a creative rut, it’s bad news for their clients—and their wallets if we can’t produce work as promised. We may feel like our creative output is uninspired, derivative—or worse, we may stare at a black page or canvas and feel paralyzed with self-doubt.
Fortunately, studies show that creativity skills can be taught, even if they don’t always come naturally to us. While we tend to think of left-brained thinkers as being analytical and rational and right-brained thinkers as being creative and imaginative, scientists have found that both sides of the brain actually work together to support creativity. We use different regions of the brain depending on the task.
Neuroscientists and creatives themselves have found strategies to combat the dreaded malady of creative drought. Here’s how to get the creative juices flowing and avoid a rut.
Change Your Environment
Travel is a great way to spark new creative ideas, because you’re exposed to different sights, sounds, smells and other stimulus, not to mention the interesting people you can meet on the road, especially during immersion into another culture. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of several studies on the connection between creativity and international travel, told The Atlantic.
If you lack the time or money to fly around the world, look for new and inspiring surroundings closer to home. Instead of staring at your computer and feeling frustrated by a lack of imagination, try people-watching at a coffee shop or a train station. Give yourself permission to work outdoors or at least outside of your office and pay attention to the different sensory details around you. Take a weekend road trip to a new destination where you can try new foods or activities and meet new people. Write down or doodle about what you see and hear along the way.
Challenge the Status Quo
Innovative thinkers don’t accept the current parameters as unchangeable. They question whether things could be better if X or Y were changed, and they imagine improvements that others dismiss as impossible. “What if ___?” they wonder. Now, an oddball idea for a multimedia advertising campaign might not fly with a client who’s expecting you to design print ads, but could you integrate aspects of your quirky multimedia idea into a print ad? Or you could use that outside-the-box idea to inspire other ideas that are more in line with the client’s needs?
Walk Off Your Creative Rut
When you’re feeling stuck, get up from your desk and go outside for a stroll. Authors and other creatives have long used this strategy when they become stuck in a creative rut, but Stanford researchers conducted several experiments on the relationship between walking and ideation. They found quantifiable proof that walking can help boost creative inspiration. “Walking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase appropriate novel idea generation,” they wrote in the study. “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.”
Cognitive neuroscientist Heather Berlin, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Public Radio International, “you have to take in all the information and then go for a walk. Go out, do something else. Because those people who sit there and just obsess over thinking about it too much, using your prefrontal cortex you’re actually limiting yourself. So letting it go can actually help you get over, let’s say a writer’s block or a creative block.”
Walking can be a solitary pastime—for instance if you’re thinking through your novel’s narrative arc on your own—or it can involve a group brainstorming together. In fact, some companies now use walking meetings to reap the physical and creative benefits of walking rather than sitting. Be sure you have a way to capture your creative ideas along the way. Perhaps carry a small notebook with you for jotting down ideas or record a voice memo on your phone. That way you won’t have to worry about forgetting and you can easily access those ideas once you’ve back at your desk and ready to follow through on them.
Commit to Regular Artist Dates
In her famous book “The Artist’s Way,” playwright / poet / filmmaker / composer / teacher Julia Cameron recommends making time for weekly “artist dates.” An artist date is an outing you go on alone and and that lasts for at least two hours, as you immerse yourself in a new experience that’s unrelated to your work. Maybe you see a movie, wander a vintage market or take a cooking class. The point is to give your inner artist time to unplug and rejuvenate.
Another variation on the artist date concept is taking a class or trying out an artistic genre other than your own. Sometimes trying out a new genre or new format of self-expression can jumpstart more creative ideas in your primary medium. If you’re a graphic designer who mostly works with design software on a computer, would taking an oil painting class give you a new point of view on color and composition? If you’re an indie filmmaker, why not take an improvisational comedy class and learn more about bringing more spontaneity and humor into your films? If you normally write travel stories, could experimenting with writing children’s books bring a new sense of whimsy and childlike wonder to your work? Don’t be afraid to explore other genres, as they can serve your primary art form in unexpected ways.
Silence Your Inner Critic
Sometimes we’re capable of creating great work, but our inner editor or critic second-guesses us (“who said you could write?” “you think you’re an artist? Ha!”) and prevents us from getting anything on the page. When that happens, it’s better to let the words or notes or sketches tumble out and refine them later rather than keeping them bottled up unexpressed.
In her book “Bird by Bird,” author Anne Lamott describes these early attempts as lousy first drafts. They may be rough around the edges and lack a coherent flow, but you have to get that first draft on the page before you can get to good stuff that people actually want to read, hear or see. Give yourself permission to write, draw or create things without judgment or censorship. Letting go of inhibitions can help you achieve higher levels of creativity and imagination.
While a creative rut can be frustrating, it needn’t derail you for long. Often all you need to bring back that creative spark is a willingness to step back and look at your creative discipline in a new way. Once you’re more relaxed and uninhibited, you may be surprised by how easily your muse returns and your creativity flows anew.
Related: Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Stymy Your Success
About the Author: Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter @UrbanMuseWriter.