After six years of working as a journalist, at the end of last year I hit a massive creative slump. I reached a point where I could write if I absolutely had to, but it didn’t come easily. In fact, I started going to great lengths to avoid it, procrastinating incessantly, and when I did write I was rarely happy with the results. Generally speaking, it felt like I was running on empty. Six years of long hours, constant pressure and relentless bombardment from emails and phone calls left me feeling burnt out and exhausted, mentally and physically.
After taking some time out, I started reading lots of books about creativity and the brain. It was a really eye-opening experience. I realised that a lot of the problems I’d had were as much to do with unhealthy working habits as a punishing workload. Of course I knew it was important to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat healthily, etc, but I wasn’t doing any of those things particularly well. I didn’t appreciate the extent to which the way we live and work affects our performance – especially when it comes to creative thinking and complex tasks.
So if you’re in a creative slump, don’t despair. It might take some time, but there are things you can do to rekindle your creative spark. Here are some of the strategies that have been working for me, helping me to get back into writing again, overcome creative blocks and get stuff done.
1. Creative work first
This has been one of the simplest but most effective changes I’ve made to my working day. The idea is that everyone’s body has a natural rhythm – a time in the day when our brains feel most switched on and able to think creatively. For me, it’s first thing in the morning. You need to prioritise this time for your most challenging, creative work.
Writer and coach Mark McGuinness sums it up in Manage Your Day-to-Day – a great book full of tips on how to encourage creativity from the folks behind 99U: “The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.”
Of course, he concedes, this isn’t easy in a world where people expect you to be ‘always on’. “It takes willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour. It feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset. But it’s better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to surrender your dreams for an empty inbox.”
2. Create every day
Another one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the brain is like a muscle (figuratively speaking). By repeating a task regularly you can train your brain to do it more efficiently. In other words, the more you create, the easier it becomes.
With this in mind, another strategy that’s helped me immensely has been getting back into the habit of writing every day (OK, most days) – even if just for half an hour. At first, this meant being really strict with myself and really pushing myself to keep going.
It wasn’t easy, but as the weeks went on I started to feel a difference, which motivated me to keep going. Then one morning, something clicked and I felt like I was back ‘in the zone’. Start small but create every day; you will improve.
3. Build a daily practice
Make life easier for yourself by building a daily routine that tells your brain it’s time to get creative and makes creativity a habit. As Manage Your Day-to-Day explains: “Routines help us [accomplish creative tasks] by setting expectations about availability, aligning our workflow with our energy levels and getting our minds into a regular rhythm of creating. Stick to the same tools, the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become associative triggers for you to enter your creative zone.”
The important thing is to find out what works for you. The more you practise, set the scene and tell your brain ‘this is my creative time’, the easier it becomes to focus on the task at hand.
4. Don’t wait for moods
Once you’ve experienced being ‘in the zone’, it’s tempting to chase that high. For me, the more I became burnt out, the more that feeling became a distant memory. So I’d say to myself: ‘I’ll look over this tomorrow, when I’m fresh’. Of course, tomorrow would come and I’d feel exactly the same. The result? Work built up, pressure mounted, and I became even more stressed out.
This blog by Seth Godin hits the nail on the head: Don’t wait for moods. “Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.”
Instead, he also advocates building a daily practice which creates the right framework for creativity.
5. Work in focused sprints
At the moment, I’m reading Be excellent at anything by Tony Schwartz. The book highlights four things your mind and body need for great performance, sustainability (physical), security (emotional), self-expression (mental) and significance (spiritual), and how understanding this is the key to achieving great things.
While everyone’s different, most people struggle to work at their optimum level for longer than 90 minutes at a time. One of the key messages of the book is that we perform best when we pulse between focused work and regular renewal. In other words, you’ll do your best work if you work in sprints without distractions, then take decent breaks to refuel and recharge.
6. Don’t multi-task
When we abandon a task to start something else, it takes time for our brain to get back into the original task. Research also suggests that the more we flit from task to task without finishing things, the more we compromise our ability to focus generally. So next time you’re stuck on an article or design and you’re tempted to quickly check Twitter or read your favourite blog – be disciplined with yourself and resist the urge. Try and stay focused on the task at hand, then reward yourself once you’ve reached a certain point.
7. Shut out distractions
Another interesting thing I’ve learned is that the act of resisting temptation itself actually takes a mental toll. It uses up energy – and we only have a limited supply. To avoid this, don’t leave Twitter, email etc open. Turn off notifications, pop-ups and pings. To take control of your life, you need to become more proactive and less reactive; and to do your best creative work, you need to completely focus on the task at hand.
8. Stop trying to be perfect
I’ve always found it hard to let go of work. Throughout my life I’ve wasted hours reading the same articles over and over again and making tiny adjustments. Generally, by agonising over a piece of work you become so bogged down that it becomes impossible to innovate or make any meaningful improvements.
Instead, try and take a more iterative approach. Get a decent first draft down, give yourself a bit of headspace, take another look, and if you’re not sure where to go from there then get feedback and use that to make your next version better. Remember, by withholding copy, designs or other work in the pursuit of perfection, all you’re often doing is messing up your client or employer’s schedule and causing them undue anxiety and stress.
If that doesn’t help, try these words of wisdom from Seth Godin instead: “Stop polishing and ship instead. Polished perfect isn’t better than perfect, it’s merely shinier. And late.
9. What can you give?
This is a really useful tip which was given to me by Penny Ferguson, who runs her own personal development consultancy, when I interviewed her back in 2008 for Growing Business. She revealed how reframing the way she thought about public speaking in terms of ‘What can I give?’ helped her overcome crippling nerves – to the point where she now trains other people to sharpen their presenting skills.
So rather than agonising over perfection, instead think: ‘What can I give?’ How can you help others – whether your client, employer or blog readers – by knuckling down and getting on with things?
10. Find a good task management system
As Leo Babauta points out in this useful post on the key habits of organisation, the key to a good task management system is to make sure everything gets put in its rightful place. You don’t want to leave things loitering in your inbox or desktop and playing on your mind. Once everything is in its place, you can focus on creative tasks instead of worrying about what else you have to do, safe in the knowledge that nothing’s going to slip through the cracks.
I’ve been using Wunderlist and Trello to capture all the things I need to do each week and in the future, and categorise my different to-do lists. Ultimately though, as Babauta says, the key is to find a system that works for you.
On that note, here’s another interesting article about how clutter affects your brain. In a nutshell, working in a disorganised environment and being surrounded by ‘stuff’ has a significant effect on productivity. The same applies if you’re working on a really untidy desk, have lots of clutter in your home or office, lots of emails in your inbox or the constant ping of social media messages. It’s amazing what an effect organising your workspace or home can have on your ability to focus and get things done.
12. Carry a notebook
You never know when inspiration will strike. Once, I was struggling to nail the intro for a feature and had put it off for about a week. Then bam – I woke up around 5am on Saturday morning with this sudden moment of clarity. I wrote the whole thing down on a piece of paper, then went back to sleep. When I woke up again a few hours later, I couldn’t remember any of it. Having a notebook to hand means you can capture your inspiration no matter when or where it strikes.
13. Get some fresh air
There’s a reason why great ideas come to us when we’re out for a walk (or in the shower) – not when we’re sitting staring at a blank screen. Creative solutions rarely come when you try and force them. Having some time away from a problem gives your unconscious mind time to mull it over and come up with a plan.
Being in natural surroundings – whether a park, beach or field, is particularly good for stimulating creativity (read this: Your brain really wants to be in nature). So next time you’re stuck on a problem, try getting up and taking a walk in the park. Your brain will thank you for it.
14. Take a lunch break
I know what it’s like. You’ve got a massive deadline, 50 emails to respond to, two meetings coming up and a to do list running over three pages. You can’t possibly take a break when you’ve got so much to do! Nope, you’ll just run to the nearest shop, grab a sandwich, come back and eat lunch at your desk.
If you take just one thing away from this article, please let it be this. This is a false economy! Yes, by having a decent break you’ll have less time in which to complete your work, but by taking just 15-20 minutes to stretch your legs and get some fresh air, you’ll be so much more productive in the time you do have. You know this already, of course. So why not try putting it into practice?
Yes, this is another obvious one, but for so many of us sleep is the first thing we sacrifice when we’re under pressure at work. Yet sleep (or lack of) is one of the biggest factors affecting how we perform. Again, sacrificing sleep tends to be a false economy. While you’ll have less time by getting more sleep, you’ll be much more productive and alert.
16. Are you sitting comfortably?
How you sit at your desk can have a huge effect on your ability to concentrate or create. As well as a creative slump, I also started getting lots of headaches, so I started seeing an osteopath. He found that my neck muscles were ridiculously tight, and explained that this can lead to headaches, fogginess and all sorts of other problems.
Not only has the treatment made a huge difference to my concentration and cured my headaches, I’ve also made changes to my workstation to make sure my neck and back are protected going forward, and I’m (slowly) strengthening my back and core muscles to improve my general health and wellbeing.
As mentioned, having some time away from a creative conundrum can help your unconscious mind to mull it over and come up with a solution. But if you can relax and focus your mind on something else entirely – all the better. Playing helps rejuvenate the mind, sparks the imagination and can help you see things from a different perspective.
18. Do something else
You also have to know when to admit defeat. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious and the magic just isn’t happening, it’s not a great time to be attempting a creative task. Stress can be paralysing, so rather than doing nothing at all, choose something simple on your to-do list and do that instead. It’s difficult when you’ve got a list of important tasks that need doing, but it’s better than spending hours fretting in front of a blank screen and achieving nothing. I often find that doing something helps to calm my mind, makes me feel more on top of things and ultimately helps motivate me to get on with the bigger, more important tasks.
19. Fill the tanks
I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan, so I was thrilled to discover an interview with him on Fast Company recently, (How to be prolific: guidelines for getting it done), giving insights into his creative process – and how he manages to produce such a high volume of work at such a consistently high standard.
One of his top tips is to “fill the tanks” – ie consume lots of different creative material. Read books. Watch plays. Visit galleries. Soak up as much inspiration as you can and don’t just go to the same old sources. Consume things you wouldn’t normally consume and expand your mind. That’s how you start to see things differently and come up with new ideas.
20. Start a blog
One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me get into the swing of writing again. I wanted somewhere I could write about stuff I know and love, in my own time, without the pressure of creating for a client or employer.
I’d recommend it. It’s not easy to fit blogging around freelancing or a full-time job, granted. But if you can set aside a few hours each week, it can be well worth it. Whether you’re battling through creative blocks or just trying to hone your craft, blogging can help you to develop your own style and get feedback on your work, as well as potentially attracting new clients and opportunities too.