Creativity isn’t just what you think, it’s what you do with what you think

My life changed when I realized just how powerful simply showing up and trying things can be.

I remember one time coming into the office and, upon hearing how I liked to dabble with web design during the weekends, my boss asking if I could create a little project for the office. The deal was that if I could learn how to create an online game our customers could play in order to unlock special offers, I’d get a small bonus and an opportunity to keep doing that type of work moving forward.

The problem was: my job had nothing to do with design or development, I was a marketing specialist who spent my time writing web content. The other problem was I only had two days to design and figure out to program the game.

What did I have to lose? In my mind the biggest fear was merely coming up empty handed, maybe letting my teammates down, and wasting a weekend. I got to work immediately, browsing online tutorials and forums to figure out how to program a simple web game.

Come Monday, I had done it. We launched the game and customers absolutely loved it. That one small decision, to try something I had no place trying, changed the way I was perceived at the office. No longer was I just another marketing specialist, I was the kid who could do anything. That turned my entire career around. So much seemed possible suddenly.

Time and time again I’ve learned that showing up and trying something is immensely powerful. It’s the reason I regularly preach the notion that ideas are mostly worthless until we get them out of our heads to see what they can do.

Ideas are worthless until you get them out of your head to see what they can do.

Often what sets one creative person apart from the rest is not only their willingness to be open to new ideas, but their willingness to try things too.

I’ve seen what action can do in my own life, and it’s something I’ll never stop preaching. Even if what you act on doesn’t result in a clear victory, you still learn from the execution. The idea evolves or changes how your brain thinks about similar ideas. When we show up and take action, change is inevitable. It’s only by not showing up, by not trying, that nothing changes.

As an old peer of mine, Jez Burrows, once said: “If you do nothing, nothing happens.”

How to get out of a creative rut


Originally posted to Quora.

What does it mean to be “in a rut”?

By definition, a rut is a deep track made by the repeated passage of a person or thing. It’s like going out for a walk every day of your life and always taking the same path. Over time that path becomes worn and deep, no matter whether it’s over rock, dirt, snow, or sand. The path will show and its edges will be notably tall.

Your brain is filled with ruts. When you were younger you began to see the world and learn things, over time the more you saw similar things or experiences the same thing, your brain began to develop patterns or ruts to make accessing that information easier to do. Like waking the same path every day, the more you think in the same patterns the deeper those patterns get.

Over time the ruts we find ourselves thinking in have really tall walls in our mind (figurately speaking). Often these walls can be hard to break from or see over. We lead ourselves into believing that there’s nothing else outside of our tried and truth paths. We’ve been thinking this way for so long, and it’s worked out pretty well so far, why try anything else?

The result is of course we start realizing that the path we’ve been taking maybe isn’t the most ideal, or that it doesn’t get us where we always want to go. But the walls are so high now! How do you get out of a rut? How do you glimpse over the edges of thinking you’ve created for yourself?

You get out of a mental rut the same way you get a vehicle out of a real rut.

First, stop spinning your wheels. If you feel as though your efforts aren’t getting you anywhere, take a break and reserve your energy for what comes next.

Try rocking back and forth. When a car is stuck in mud or snow, it can be helpful to slowly rock the vehicle back and forth until you can get traction to get moving again. The same method can be applied to your thinking. Mentally rock back and forth by thinking about where it is you want to go (out of the rut, into a new space) and where it is you’re coming from (your past experience in this area). Keep jumping back and forth between where you want to go and where you’re coming from and you may find yourself surprised by what insights make themselves known as a result.

Finally, give yourself a wedge. Probably my favorite technique for getting out of a rut: find something sturdy to put under your wheels and help you get traction and point it in the direction you want to go. What’s this mean for your brain? It can be anything new or different, support from a friend or peer, or just a quick mental thinking exercise.

Go somewhere you’ve never been before and spend some time doing whatever it is you want to do there. Try a new dish at your favorite restaurant. Start a new hobby (I recommend trying Online Classes by Skillshare for a week). Pick up an old hobby. Try using a different tool or resource than you usually do before. Anything you can do differently to wedge a gap between where you are and the edge of your rut. My favorite thing in this arena is small creative challenges. I actually wrote a book filled with 150 of them to help you get unstuck (you can check it here: The Creativity Challenge if you’re interested, but you can also just Google “creative thinking exercise” online to find hundreds for free).

You’ll find that getting out of a rut is surprisingly easy to do once you understand what a rut is in the first place. A rut is simply a path that’s been dug deep, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get out of, it just takes a little work. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a great article on getting out of a rut for vehicles, I’d challenge you to try and see how the advice relates to mental ruts too: 4 Ways to Pull a Truck from the Mud.

Two ways to tackle creative procrastination

Any time I sit down to create something, I face an immediate sense of being overwhelmed.

My mind immediately races across everything that needs to get done. I have to organize my tools, make sure everything is up to date and working, ensure that I didn’t break or otherwise ruin anything the last time I sat down to work, and double-check the Internet to see if there’s anything that might inspire me while I’m working. The list of things that must be done in order to prepare myself to work feels endless, and has nothing to do with the list of things that entail actually doing the work.

Maybe you feel the same way whenever you sit down to work?

Whenever we feel overwhelmed like this, our minds are naturally drawn away from whatever it is we want or need to do and instead attempt to find relief in the act of procrastination. And to not to fool yourself, procrastination can take on many different forms: it’s not just watching videos on YouTube or Instagram.

Procrastination can disguise itself as spending a little too much time organizing your desk space, or of saying you need to “feel inspired” and then spending an inordinate amount of time browsing the web for something—anything—that makes the job ahead of us feel at least a little bit easier. Procrastination is really anything that doesn’t produce tangible results for the job at hand.

When we shy away like this from the work that’s sitting in front of us, waiting for us to explore it, we miss opportunities to get just a little more of the puzzle solved. To see a little more of the stone carved out. To make that small amount of progress that might actually end up inspiring us, or motivating us, toward a creative result.

Our attempts at somehow making the work easier by avoiding it tend to have the opposite affect. We burn precious hours and stumble on “inspirations” which aren’t often what we really need in order to do our best work.

If we want to deal with the sense of being overwhelmed any time we sit down to do creative work, there are two, more helpful, options.

The first is to simply dive-in. Don’t give your brain time to chicken out. Sit down and get started and see what happens as a result. It’s a way of faking it to make it happen, and doesn’t give the logical, un-creative parts of your brain enough time to realize what’s going on.

The second option is to really focus on breaking down what must be done into very actionable steps. Write it down. Each step should have a clear deliverable that you can cross-off. This is a way of being logical with what needs to get done while also creating a clear plan on how to do so. Once the list is created, the only thing to do is go back to the first option: dive in.

Any time I bring up the topic of procrastination, I have to mention the unforgettable quote from Merlin Mann, who said:

“We procrastinate when we’ve forgotten who we are.”

That is to say: when we have work to do but face the urge to instead flip over to Netflix, or skim across Tumblr, or open up Instagram one more time, it’s worth taking just a moment to remind ourselves of who we are and what we want to accomplish.

For me, I want to be someone who shares insights on how to be more creative and do more with your ideas. I can’t accomplish that if I’m watching videos or playing games all the time. It can only be done by putting the words on the page, or designing the work, and sharing it. That’s it.

Once I remember that fact, that I’m someone who shares insights into creativity, I can either dive right into the work, or create a clear outline for how I can get it done.

What about you? Who are you, what do you want accomplished, and if you were to drop everything right now and just dive into doing what you can, with what you have now, what would happen?

Don’t turn the TV off


Common advice among creative circles is that if you want to be more creative you need to turn off the TV.

Not only the TV, of course. You need to turn off your phone and computer too, step away from the digital world, spend more time being with yourself and your thoughts. Avoid the distractions that television and the Internet bring.

While there is certainly some truth to the notion that creativity can only come when we distance ourselves from distraction and allow ourselves to ruminate, we have to ask about what happens when we distance ourselves and realize we don’t have anything to inspire us or to really think about?

I often wonder where these people who tell us to disengage think the inspiration for ideas comes from exactly.

As Steven Johnson states in his book Where Good Ideas Come From:

“Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time.”

Ideas, particularly novel ones, are the result of our brains sorting through existing information put through the ringer.

The information we have to work creatively with is often brought to us by reading, watching television, browsing the web on our phone, having meaningful conversations, and playing video games. Then – only after we’ve absorbed enough to be meaningful in a context – we have to take time to ruminate, to let all of the input blend together like a soup, and experiment with all of the stuff our brains have soaked up.

The question then becomes not whether or not we should turn the TV off, but when to turn it off.

Photo by Anthony Kelly.

No more waiting


When we aspire to do something creative, we often end up waiting more than we should.

We wait for the right time, wait for an insight, wait for access to the right people or tools, we wait until the opportunity is right, or wait for permission.

Results don’t come from waiting though.

All waiting does is put the competition in front of you, invite doubts, and build on the stress of having to wait more or falling behind schedule.

So, starting today, no more waiting. Even doing something as simple as thinking deeply about a project is better than just waiting.

In-fact: if you feel as though you’re waiting for something, spend that time at least thinking on the project. Why? Well, when tackling a new project or problem, the most important aspect of that problem is that it’s going to be poorly defined.

So, while we wait for inspiration or motivation (or the ever-looming deadline) we wind up cutting down our ability to really understand what it is we’re trying to work on; or, worse, we fall into the trap of going with our first instinct or falling back onto what we already know will work, the results being subpar and certainly anything but creative.

When inspiration, motivation, or a deadline finally does strike, we’ve wasted valuable time that could have been spent ideating or further exploring the problem itself, allowing creative ideas to make themselves known.

Research studies have even proven that thinking about a project in-detail before beginning it often produces more creative and fulfilling results. As researchers from the American Institutes for Research, the University of Nebraska, and others demonstrated in their 2010 study Problem Construction and Creativity: The Role of Ability, Cue Consistency, and Active Processing.

After working with 195 students, the researchers concluded that: “problem construction ability was related to higher quality solutions as well as solutions rated as more original. ”

Even though waiting feels like the only thing to do right now, you’re better off taking time to really outline what it is you’re trying to do. You don’t need insights or inspiration to do that, you just need time and somewhere to write or draw out your thoughts.

Starting a new business, getting your paintings into a gallery, writing a full-length novel, becoming a published poet, making it to broadway, and revolutionizing an industry, all require creative solutions. But the absolute best solutions require that you think through the process before you even get started or before inspiration can even strike. The first step of starting then becomes thinking about starting, outlining the details and processes and ideals until you’re sick to your stomach with thought.

A result of defining the project or problem like this, first and foremost, is that inspiration will strike (even while you’re not looking for it). It will strike because you’ll be able to better see the various aspects of what it is you’re trying to do, all of the corners you would have otherwise skimmed over, or all of the interesting bits that everyone else fails to notice because they are still waiting to start on the obvious.

Don’t wait to start with the obvious. Rather than waiting, start now, with what you have. Outline what it is you’re trying to do in as much detail as you possibly can; right now, today. Write it down or draw it out and then expand on what you write or draw, and keep expanding until you have the inspiration, motivation, or full scope to move.

Don’t wait for permission or inspiration to move, even just a little. Start now.