Why does creativity seem to come and go?

Creativity seems to come and go on its own terms, regardless of what we often do or don’t do.

We can either be completely lost in our work, forgetting about time and stress, or we can be utterly stuck, unable to move a brush across the canvas or fingers over the keyboard.

Ideas do come and go freely, but there is a lot that influences that flow. If we’re not in tune with what may be causing our creativity to rise and fall, we’re at the mercy of it, rather than using it as a tool.

Simply being aware of what makes creativity come and go is that first step to better understanding how your own creativity works. What’s really important is learning what to do when you start to feel creativity slipping away from you.

Mental obstruction is a huge culprit in hindering your creative flow. Picture your ability to think as a river current; it flows, constantly and endlessly.

Typically there are one or two major things that our brains are working on at any given moment, and outside influences are often what direct and prioritize those things. You can probably identify the most important things on your mind readily, without having to think about it very much. These things are commonly along the lines of: work or school, relationships, bills, what to do tomorrow, or something immediately impacting you.

When creativity occurs, it’s often a symptom of one or two things: freedom to think, or having a creative task to work on.

When you’re in the shower, for example, you are experiencing freedom to think. Often the one or two most important things going in your life at that moment will be running through your brain, subconsciously though. That’s because your conscious state is occupied with simple tasks: turn on water, scrub with soap, sit and feel the warmth of the water.

That freedom to think means your brain is going to be subconsciously working on all the little details that are your top of mind problems. If you have a big interview, for example, your brain is already working out what exactly to say, how to say it and whether or not you should wear your black pants or the gray?

The other side of this is having a creative task to work on. If you’ve got a big creative project you want to work on and you’re either staring at it or you’re thinking about it – again, for example, in the shower – then your brain is treating that as a top of mind objective. All of your thoughts will be flowing towards that work.

If there’s an emergency, or you’re exhausted and have a big day tomorrow, or you burned your finger, or something else, all of those things can take up the valuable real-estate that is top of mind.

So now your brain isn’t going to make an effort to freely flow from idea to idea in search of creativity. Instead, your brain going to focus on the most important issues at hand instead.

The things that end up affecting our creative flow are simple to spot: stressors, energy, and immediate necessities.

Creativity comes and goes because our stressors and necessities change often.

And there’s a delicate balance to all of this. You have to be just the right amount of stressed, but also content to have that creative flow working right.

Now, knowing this, what do we do?

When I find my creativity stifled or just completely missing, I’ll sit down with a pen and paper and jot down a list of everything that’s top of mind for me right then.

Am I stressed about my job? Are there any things going on in my relationships that are worrying or exciting me? Is there a big life event coming up that I am pre-occupied with?

Once I’ve written out my list, I’ll go down it and see if there’s justification for having those issues top of mind, rather than my creative work. Often I’ll discover a thing or two that I can do right then that helps free up some of my much needed mental flexibility. Removing obstructions will allow my creativity to return, and my thoughts to flow to what I deem most important.

Try the aforementioned exercise next time you feel your creativity slipping or gone. Write down whatever feels most important to you at that precise moment and see if there’s anything you can address or remove right then and there. If not, don’t fret. Your creativity will return the moment you get a few of those things off of your mental list.

You can count on it.

To quote Mark Kozelek:

“Throughout my life, there’s just periods when I write and periods when I don’t. I don’t feel like anything’s really blocked. It’s just not where things are at right now, and it’s just a matter of time until there’s something going on where I feel compelled to write. “Writer’s block” sounds so dramatic and worrisome, and I don’t worry about it. I know deep down that I’m a writer, and it’s just a matter of time until it comes back, and when it does, it’ll be good like it’s always been.”

Illustration by Thierry Feuz.