Steve Jobs famously said that creativity is just connecting things. But anyone facing a creative block knows it’s a lot harder than grabbing ideas out of thin air.
Creativity is a complex process. There’s no “creativity gene” or section of your brain responsible for creative thought. We can’t choose to turn creativity on or off. And in fact, many studies have found that creativity happens unconsciously and beyond our control.
Yet despite its elusive nature, creative thought has become an increasingly important part of our lives. Basic tasks are being automated. Competition is getting more fierce. And your ability to come up with novel ideas is now one of your greatest skills.
So whether you’re feeling distracted, out of ideas, or are coming up against a creative wall, here are some creativity exercises to help get the juices flowing.
You’re distracted and can’t focus? Do something unrelated that makes you happy
One of the clearest signs that you’re hitting a creative block is that you can’t stay focused. Everything seems more important than what you’re actually supposed to be working on (especially doing the dishes or cleaning your bathroom).
However, there’s a quick way to bring back your creative focus. And it has nothing to do with work.
A new study by Malinda McPherson, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, explored how our emotional state affects our ability to be creative. McPherson discovered that, while we are drawn to sad movies, sorrow-filled songs, and tragic tales, feeling positive emotions actually draws us into a deeper state of creative flow.
Creativity exercise: Use your emotions to your advantage
Take one hour away from your current project and watch a good movie. If movie’s aren’t your thing, take your dog for a walk or call an old friend. Whatever it is, find something that brings you joy and will remove you from the frustration of your work.
Your self-critic won’t leave you alone? Set tiny goals with strict deadlines
There’s a nagging voice we hear when we hit a creative block.
This isn’t good enough. You’re terrible. No one’s going to like this. Why are you even doing this?
The self-critic is something we all face. But at times it can get so loud that it drowns out our ability to push through. However, there’s a basic tool you can use to shut it up (or at least quiet it enough to get back to work).
After finishing his first novel in 1847, Anthony Trollope would go on to publish 47 novels, 18 pieces of non-fiction, 12 short stories, and 2 plays in his lifetime. Trollope’s secret to never being blocked was simple: Stick to a strict schedule.
Specifically, he would write 250 words every 15 minutes, using his watch to keep him honest.
Not only did Trollope’s schedule force him silence his self-doubt, but it built creative momentum. The faster you complete a creative task, the more you put yourself in an attitude of productivity and accomplishment.
Creativity exercise: Set tight deadlines (and hit them)
Break your current project up into the tiniest possible increments and set short, strict deadlines for yourself. For example, say you’ll write down 5 new places to find customers every 10 minutes for an hour, or that you’ll write 250 words of a new blog post every 15 minutes.
You’re feeling overwhelmed? Use the Dr. Seuss technique
While a creative block usually comes because we simply can’t come up with any new ideas, it can also come from having too many.
The blank page is scary not only because of what’s not there, but because of all the potential it holds.
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the work, follow the Dr. Seuss technique.
Before writing Green Eggs and Ham, his beloved children’s book that has sold 200 million copies around the world, Theo Geisel (Dr. Seuss’ real name), had accepted a bet from his publisher, Bennett Cerf. There was only $50 on the line, but Cerf said Geisel couldn’t write an entertaining children’s book using only 50 different words.
We all know what happened. But why?
There’s a few reasons the constraint actually made Seuss more creative:
- It forced him of novel solutions: If you’re a photographer and don’t have a lighting setup, you think up new ways to get the shot you want.
- He wasn’t distracted by options: When your options are limited, you don’t fall victim to choice paralysis and can focus on getting things done.
- It made him think practically: When your canvas or toolkit changes, you have to rethink what you can actually do. This changes the conversation from “What should I do?” to “What can I do with what I have?”
Creativity exercise: Get rid of your options and tools
Set strict deadlines or get rid of some of your tools by writing by hand or sketching your design on a piece of paper. Another technique is to set a mental constraint. So, if you’re writing a novel, write the next chapter from a different character’s perspective.
You can’t come up with new ideas? Use a “thought prompt” for a mental curveball
Lastly, it’s common to hit a creative block when you feel like you just can’t come up with anything new. You’ve exhausted your options, gone down every path, and come up with nothing.
Unfortunately, this is where more effort actually leads to less results.
Much of creativity relies on what we call divergent thinking—connecting ideas that wouldn’t normally go together.
During the creative process, your brain first gathers inspiration and content before settling into a phase called incubation. At this point, your ideas shift below your consciousness and bounce against each other like bingo balls.
When the right ideas bounce together, you’re overtaken by the famous ‘a-ha!’ moment.
Now, this might seem like the creative process is out of your control. But it’s not. You just need to find ways to force those connections.
Multiple creative thinkers have come up with simple prompts to help speed up the incubation process. There are card decks like musician Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—with prompts like “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify,” or “Repetition is a form of change.” Or even iPhone apps like Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack.
Each set of prompts is designed to take you out of the normal “vertical” style of problem solving (reason and logic), and promote “lateral” thinking—where ideas come from unconventional connections.
Creativity exercise: Come at your project from a different angle
Use a lateral thinking exercise to change your tightly held beliefs about your project. This could mean making a list of things that are impossible about your project and then proving them wrong, or choosing a random word from the dictionary and using it as a lens to approach your problem through.
You can read more about common lateral thinking exercises here.
Creative thinking isn’t just for artists. To stand out at your job, do meaningful work, or simply come up with something novel and new, you need to be able to think in new and interesting ways.
What works for you when you hit a creative block? Let us know in the comments below.