You’re a fountain of originality. You don’t need recipes in the kitchen, icebreakers in social situations, or workout plans at the gym. So why, when you sit down to draft a tweet, do you struggle to come up with something fresh?
The trouble isn’t you; it’s the fact that creativity can’t be forced. Unlike physical labor or rote work, social media content — original content, anyway — can’t be “powered through.” At the end of a long week, it’s easy to find yourself stuck in a creative rut.
How do successful creatives escape theirs? A few strategies stand out:
1. Dig into the creative process.
When you’re feeling creatively stale, it can be tempting to wait around for inspiration to strike. Paul McCartney famously woke up from a dream with the melody for “Yesterday” in his head. But McCartney’s “miracle” was, in fact, the product of his hard work.
In one of the best new books on creativity, author Allen Gannett points out that McCartney credited the artists he listened to with his father, like Fred Astaire and George Gershwin, in at least one interview about the song. “The things we view as unexplainable genius often have a genesis of some sort,” Gannett writes in “The Creative Curve.” He notes that McCartney also enjoyed a community of supportive musicians and spent the next year and a half developing the song.
If McCartney hadn’t understood the work of creativity, his melody might never have made it out of his head. Instead of pressuring yourself to be creative on the spot, follow Gannett’s four-part creative process of consumption, imitation, community, and iteration. Checking out others’ work isn’t a distraction from your own; it’s a critical first step in the creative process.
2. Get some rest.
Another essential ingredient for creativity that can feel like a distraction is rest. “I believe creative ruts are often related to overtiredness and being overloaded,” explains Melissa Veal, wig and makeup designer for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “Rest, breath, laughter and nature for rejuvenation are my go-to solutions.”
Veal encourages creators to interpret “rest” broadly. Although sleep delivers physical rest, Veal also highlights the importance of emotional rest. “I often spend time with kids playing because it cleanses my mind and starts me at a free, playful, creative place,” she continues. Other artists echo Veal’s suggestion of low-stress social activities for creative cleansing.
“I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking,” says Sir John Hegarty, a founding shareholder of Saatchi & Saatchi. “Looking at a screen will never unblock your creativity. What I always say to creative people is, unplug the computer and have a conversation with somebody.” Hegarty also recommends walks as great ways to get some space from a creative challenge.
3. Create something “bad” on purpose.
If studying or avoiding the work of creativity isn’t cutting it, try deliberately creating something you dislike. Your expectations for yourself and your work may be choking off the creative impulse you’re trying to let out. By lowering the gates of acceptability as much as possible, you increase the odds that something inspiring will tumble out.
“You can make awesome things later,” Los Angeles-based copywriter Michael Lopez reminds uss, “just get moving.” Although he warns writers against writing on topics they dislike because negativity can hamper creativity, he makes clear gibberish is perfectly acceptable. “If you’re a musician, just play noise — let it pour out,” Lopez urges. “Keep playing over and over again, sooner or later you’ll come up with a progression or melody. Or you won’t, but at least you’re doing something.”
4. Immerse yourself in beauty.
Much as we might like it to, creativity cannot be forced. Freelance writer and editor Jane Porter likens it to squeezing an empty tube of toothpaste: No matter how hard you try, you’re unlikely to get more than a drop. Instead, Porter seeks out beauty in poems, museum pieces, and music, in part because it reminds her how taking creative risks can pay off. “There’s something liberating about knowing there are artists out there making portraits out of hamburger grease,” she jokes.
For filmmaker and marine photographer Nikita Mor, beauty breaks down creative blocks for another reason. Mor looks for beauty in small things because it makes her grateful for her own capacity to consume and create beautiful things. “We understand that our perception of things is what changes them,” she notes. Appreciating beauty helps her see creative problems as pathways to something new.
5. Make an external commitment.
If study, rest, silliness, or beauty can’t seem to budge your creative block, you might need some external motivation. “There are many nights I feel lazy and don’t want to paint,” admits Jolie Guillebeau, a painter who specializes in storytelling. “But I’m reminded that there are people on the other side of the screen expecting something from me. And so I pull out my brushes and get to work.” Guillebeau says the tactic helped her escape an especially deep rut in 2009, when she did little painting.
The next year, Guillebeau committed to creating 100 paintings for clients in 100 days. She held herself accountable by emailing a photo of her painting each day. “It was a little intimidating at first, but the project ended up being so successful that I continued daily painting logs long after the initial 100-day commitment,” Guillebeau says. If you’re intimidated by such a commitment, like Guillebeau herself was, share your plans with friends or family instead to lower the stakes.
One of the best and worst parts of creativity is that there’s never just one path forward. Every person’s process may be similar, but the ways each creative renews herself are unique. Trust that you’re creative enough to find your own — because you are.