What to do when inspiration doesn’t come

I often find myself in the middle of long sloughs where inspiration doesn’t seem to strike. And I never knew who or what to blame, until now.

Sometimes it’s days, sometimes entire weeks when I’ll really struggle to feel creative (let alone do anything about it). This feeling of being uninspired is no good for someone who makes a living and gets fulfillment from creativity.

You, too, probably run into brief times where inspiration just won’t come.

Then, almost as if by some unseen power, I’ll get a burst of energy or motivation that fuels me to dive into some creative work. It’s hard to explain how or why, but this routine happens more often then I’d like to admit. In-fact: before I sat down to write this very article I was experiencing a severe slump where inspiration was lacking.

Then, out of nowhere, I got an idea, sat down to write, and these words became the result.

But what happened exactly to me? How was I able to find my way out of the creative slump and back into the good graces of inspiration just like that?

To better understand what the right course of action to take is when creativity doesn’t strike, I want to look at exactly what creates inspiration in the first place.

Inspiration is a driving force. It’s a mental stimulation that moves us to do something creative, whether it’s writing, drawing, composing, acting, brainstorming, anything.

Our mood, our goals, energy levels, recent experiences, and knowledge all impact our feelings of inspiration.

Inspiration is not something that comes entirely from outside of our own heads. In-fact: I believe it’s too common a fallacy that creative inspiration is the stuff you search for on Pinterest or Tumblr, or at museums, or when having a stimulating conversation with someone who you look up to. It’s none of those things.

All of that stuff is simply tinder for the fire.

The real inspiration comes from within. Hear me out on this.

When we don’t feel inspired it’s not because there isn’t something outside of us that’s not stimulating. Creative stimulation is everywhere we look, particularly thanks to the Internet and how easy it is to access millions of amazing things that other people have created.

When inspiration doesn’t strike, the culprit, then, is something internal. It must be. Because, you’ll recall, inspiration is primarily a result of all of the stuff I mentioned above, which – you’ll note – are all internal attributes.

Let’s start with your mood.

Research has shown that our mood greatly affects our ability to not only act, but to think creatively.

When we’re in what scientists refer to as “activating” states (that is: states where we’re energized either negatively or positively, like angry or excited) we’re more likely to think creatively. On the other hand, if we’re in a neutral state (like depression or even feeling content) we’re much less likely to be creative.

Related to mood is our level of energy.

If you haven’t had a good night’s sleep then a lot of your brain’s energy that is commonly used for excess actions like brainstorming or remote association will be put elsewhere, like keeping yourself alert. Without enough energy to do everything you need to do, your brain isn’t going to have any extra fuel left over for creativity.

Apart from moods and energy, our internal goals make a big difference on our ability to encounter inspiration too.

If you don’t have a goal (even a minor, temporary one) then your brain is free to wander aimlessly. Which can be good, but some direction is better. Sometimes that aimlessness can yield interesting results, but if you have a set goal in mind (like, for example, my goal of writing this blog post) then you’re much more likely to encounter the types of things that will inspire that goal easily.

It’s like looking through a magnifying glass (remember those?). If you don’t have a focus, you may be looking in all the wrong places for ideas. However, if you know that you need to be looking in a certain, general, area, you’re much more likely to encounter something that sparks an idea.

Next on the list of things that impact inspiration are knowledge and recent experiences.

Your brain is so complex that there are things you notice that you don’t even realize you notice. And those tiny, mentally unnoticed things impact your ability to feel inspired.

There was a story I once read about a man who was trying to research how the brain recalls certain stimulus. When writing a paper he suddenly thought of the word “violet,” seemingly completely at random.

He stopped what he was doing and started to go over everything that could have spurred that word to come into his mind.

Was there something violet he had encountered that day? No, he had remained in his personal library for much of the day. Was it something he overheard? No, communication that day was limited. Perhaps it was something he encountered days earlier? He wasn’t sure.

Then, again as if by random occurrence, he glanced at a book on his bookshelf. The title that was printed on the side of the book, now dusty and barely visible in the day’s light, included the word “violet.” But the man hadn’t picked up that book in years, and he hadn’t consciously noticed it’s title for just as long.

But somehow his eyes had skimmed the title, without him consciously being aware of it, and when he needed ideas about how the brain recalls things the most, his subconscious was able to identify that exact situation and book and title and word for him. He later went on to produce a number of scientific articles on the subject.

Amazing, right?

So our experiences – even the bits of them that we don’t pay that much attention to ” impact our ability to think as well.

Too much of a routine can greatly hinder our ability to feel inspired, in-part because we’re not providing any stimulus whatsoever for our brains to work over.

We’re basically telling our brains: “Let’s be creative and find something new,” but we’re not giving it the fuel to do the job. So we end up feeling stuck.

When the inspiration doesn’t strike, it’s safe to assume that one or more of these variables may be the culprit.

Knowing this, we can see how easy we might shift the tide and bring inspiration back into our lives.

By focusing on a being in a more activated mood (by watching entertaining videos online, or thinking on something that makes us anxious or even angry), by setting a goal (like “write 1,000 words in one hour” or “draw ten faces in 60 seconds”), by ensuring that we’re well rested (a good night’s sleep makes all the difference, but a power nap can help too), and by being mentally stimulated (by going on a walk, reading a random book or magazine, or browsing a crazy new website), we can greatly drive our ability to feel inspired!

So, now that you know, what are you waiting for?

If you’re waiting around for inspiration: it’s probably a ways away. Go make your own inspiration right now. You’ve got the fuel to do it.

Photo by Laszlo Ilyes.