Sparking creative ideas when you need vs. want to

There are two instances I typically find myself unable to come up with creative ideas during. You’ve undoubtedly encountered each of them yourself at one time or another. Knowing which type of creative block you’re encountering is important for knowing which steps you can take to overcome it.

The first instance is when I need to be creative but the ideas just won’t come. I encounter this block more often than the other type because it’s my job to solve problems creatively.

The second instance is when I want to be creative but find myself unable to do so. This type of block typically takes place during the weekend or whenever I feel an urge to start a new creative project.

Both situations are typical for anyone, creative professionals or otherwise, and both require a different set of tactics to overcome them.

Let’s look at the ways to overcome each type of creative block.

When you need to be creative

I once heard this excellent insight, I want to say it’s by Merlin Mann, he said (I’m paraphrasing here):

“If you find yourself overwhelmed or stuck, more often than not what you need is a nap.”

Merlin couldn’t be more right. When you need to be creative but you find yourself stuck–unable to energize your mind or unable to think creatively–the problem is just that: you’re unenergized. What you need most in this instance is a way to re-energize yourself, most likely through a break. Sometimes a short break will do, sometimes you’ll need a much longer one.

Your mind can’t work at its best, no matter how important or time-sensitive the task at hand, if it’s not well rested.

Stress and lack of sleep are the two primary causes for this type of creative block. Thankfully there are proven methods for combating both issues.

The first is simply to get more sleep. Take a nap. Find a quiet room (or the back seat of your car) and get some shut eye for at least 15 minutes. Ideally you would add an additional 20 minutes time to your regular bedtime so you can get the much needed sleep when it makes the most sense to do so, rather than interrupting your waking hours with a nap. But whatever works for you will do just fine.

One mistake you might find yourself making when you need to come up with creative ideas but can’t: reaching for a cup of coffee.

I don’t recommend fueling up with caffeine if you find yourself unable to be creative when you need to be. Caffeine is great for faking energy in your body, but it does little to actually energize you.

The result of caffeine on a drained brain: you might get a temporary jolt of energy (even that’s occasionally unlikely), then the following energy crash will leave you feeling even less creative than before. Coffee isn’t an ideal method for boosting creativity.

Instead of reaching for that cup of coffee or can of Red Bull, try going for a walk (ideally in an open space).

Research has shown time and time again that taking a brief walk can re-invigorate your mind. Not only is walking great for giving yourself a physical energy boost, it also helps alleviate stress by removing you from the regular stressors (e.g. your desk).

We often fear getting away from our desk or office to take a walk because it can feel like we’re physically walking away from our priorities. In reality: staying in the same environment isn’t going to do anything to help re-energize your mind. The best thing you can do is get some new stimulus going while allowing your subconscious to do what it needs to do to help jump-start creativity.

In a recent article, Dr. Marla Gottschalk explains:

“You may not perceive fatigue, yet your mind may actually be exhausted. Rest of some form is required. In these moments, the brain may find the energy required to engage… Even at rest, our brains continue the quest to connect the dots.”

Gottschalk goes on to explain how walking can be a subtle form of rest that works, not only for our bodies (getting our blood flowing) but for the mind itself.

Now if I find myself unable to generate ideas when I need the most, I take a deep breath and get away from my desk for a bit. Closing my eyes for a moment in a quiet room, finishing a chapter from whatever book I’m currently reading, or going for a walk outside my office have all been tremendously effective for jump-starting my creativity.

But what about when you want to be creative but are struggling?

When you want to be creative

If you’ve ever found yourself inspired by something you saw, heard, read, or otherwise experience, you know how discouraging it can be to sit down to start a creative project only to end up staring at a blank canvas, computer screen, wall, etc.

The solution to generating ideas when you want to be creative is a bit different. In these instances the reason you feel blocked might be a lack of energy (as it is in the previous type of creative block), but more often than not: what’s blocking you is yourself.

Your expectations, your inner critic, and your self perception can all hinder the creative process when it involves something that doesn’t need to get done.

There’s a fun joke by Ruth Rendell where she says: “I get a lot of letters from people. They say: ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’ So I tell them to stop writing letters to me and get on with it.”

Anyone who has ever tried writing in pursuit of their dream will tell you this is an accurate reflection of their writing career.

When faced with the creative challenge of doing something because we want to do it, we find ourselves procrastinating, doodling nothingness on a page, or looking for bullshit “inspiration” in the hopes something will magically spark our muscles into producing the work.

To get over this block we must combat ourselves. Truly, we must face what Seth Godin refers to as our “lizard brain.” It’s the most basic, primal part of ourselves that weighs risk and reward before our consciousness has had a chance to even comprehend what it is we’re trying to do.

Because creative activities that we don’t have to do don’t have as much weight as something we need to do, our lizard brain tells us the time investing in them is time that could be spent doing other things; like eating or relaxing in front of the TV.

To combat our lizard brain we must take action in spite of it. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Alternatively our inner critic might occasionally speak-up and tell us why bother with a creative project? You’re not a writer, so why try writing a page of that book you’ve wanted to write for so very long? You’re not really an artist, why try watercolor? You don’t own a real camera, why bother going out into the city to take pictures?

Of course all of these reasons are rubbish. The only way anyone becomes a writer, or artist, or photographer is to do the work: to write, to paint, and to take pictures with whatever camera they have available.

In any instance where I find myself unable to be creative when I really want to I’ve discovered a technique that seems to work really well: ignore everything your brain is telling you and just do something.

For me that means writing when I’m not exactly sure how what I write will end up (this article, for example, started from this very approach). It means taking out my old paints, wiping all of the ancient crusty paint from my paintbrushes, and making a few marks on a sheet of paper. It means splattering food ingredients on a canvas (which resulted in the image at the top of this article).

When you have the desire to be creative you simply need to dive head-first into the work, whatever that means for you.

The desire to be creative is easy to overshadow, but the reward of at least attempting to be creative far outweighs any cost.

Yes, there are times when the resulting writing/artwork/photograph/whatever will be pretty much garbage. That’s ok! The garbage work is how we really learn what ideas are worth. Without making a few bad ideas we would never uncover the truly good ones.

I’ve written about this very point before, in the article creativity takes guts I state:

“You don’t need to come up with the next big idea. Your ideas don’t need to be the best, or even your best. What’s more important is that you have ideas, and that you have the guts to see them through.”

If you want to be creative, be. You can’t let anyone (including yourself) prevent you from at least exploring your ideas at some level.

In conclusion: knowing what type of creative experience you’re in, and what type of block you’re encountering, can help you find ways around it.

When you need to be creative but can’t, give yourself a break. When you want to be creative but are struggling, dive in anyway and see what comes of it.

One last thing:

Did you know I have a book coming out later this year, in August? It’s called The Creativity Challenge and features 150 unique challenges for inspiring your creativity. You can pre-order the book on Amazon today right here.

Photo by Daniel Tabas