This past few weeks I’ve been working on a new body of artwork. While I’m happy with what I’ve finished, it was a much harder slog than I’d like. The ideas just weren’t flowing. Everything felt like an uphill climb.
I thought it was just me, but I’ve been hearing the same sentiments echoed from others: a lackluster feeling, a creative funk. (Nothing good ever comes from funk.) We’ve all been there, and there’s probably a pandemic reason why many of us are there right now.
But nevermind the why, what you want to know is how to get out of it.
So here is my list of 11 ways to get your creative back.
1. A new spin on an old idea
Old ideas don’t typically excite us because we’ve already experienced them. But when new ideas are hard to come by, one way to jump start the creative process is to revisit an old idea and give it a new twist. That way you’re not dealing with the intense learning curves of something completely new; you’re just adding a tiny bit of new to something comfortable.
See, the thing about creative ideas is that they feed on each other. When you have none, it’s hard to get going. That’s not just in your head, by the way – that’s physics. It’s called starting friction. But once you have one or two, even if they’re not perfect, you start to say “what if…”. Ideas start to build off one another. Pretty soon your creative brain is percolating with more than you need.
2. Go for a walk
…and bring a camera or sketchbook. Find interesting details in the world around you. Notice things you typically overlook. Inspiration is everywhere. Capture it and see what develops.
This is a highly effective technique because, again, you’re not starting from scratch. When you’re staring at a blank canvas of any sort, you’re starting from nothing. That can be uncomfortable, even intimidating. When you’re noticing things in real life, you’re not inventing the stuff around you. It already exists. You’re just observing it – and there’s always something to see.
Which leads me to…
3. Use your senses – all of them
Did you know you have more than five senses?
It’s true. Sure, there are the standard sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. But then there are the lesser appreciated ones: the senses of pressure, equilibrium, and direction. Hunger and thirst are senses that allow your body to monitor its physical needs. Then there’s propioception, the sense of where your body is in space. There’s thermoception, the sensation of heat, and nocioception, the sensation of pain. There are the ones I can’t pronounce, like the sensation of whether a muscle is being stretched or flexed. Or the hard to define ones, like the sense of someone’s presence or intuition. There are delicate internal senses that regulate our body’s hormones, and the delicate external ones, like the ability to detect magnetic fields. And then there are the ones we know must exist but don’t fully understand how they work, like a sense of attraction or a sense of time.
Here’s the point. You are far more receptive to creative input than you ever realized. Experience the world from a fresh perception and see what happens.
You know this one – time to do it. Pull out a creative material you haven’t used in a while, or buy a new one – and play. This time-worn method of getting you back in the game is called aesthetic motivation. And it works.
Play and creativity are closely linked – they live in the same part of your brain. Because play is not bound by formal rules, it can lead to creative thinking, where questions are open-ended rather than multiple choice. We often think of children when we talk about play, but that’s only because they’re better at it than adults. Because they aren’t saddled with decades of rules and processes, it’s easier for them to shed those norms and get back to a purely exploratory place.
You can do it too – with a bit of intention.
Dance like no one’s watching. Or, like everyone is. Put on music, or don’t. Get moving and get unstuck. In pedagogic terms, this is called kinesthetic motivation. The reasons it works are numerous, but it’s akin to warming up before a sport. It gets your blood and creative juices flowing. Your body and brain are connected, and when one gets moving, so does the other.
6. Learn something new
Take a class, read a book, or watch a video and learn something new. Learning stimulates you in so many ways. At its best, it is a shot of creative motivation that can last for weeks. Just remember that learning is an active process, not a passive one. Mindless scrolling or internet searching doesn’t count.
This works for a number of neurological reasons, and also because the act of doing something new feeds our physiological need for variety. You don’t need to relive 2020 to remember why that’s important.
7. Buy a new planner and some fancy pens!
I can’t cite a study, but I’m pretty sure a fresh new planner is scientifically proven to give you a creative jolt of energy. Pair it with a mug of hot apple cider and your favorite fancy pens and watch what happens.
I’m only half joking about the science here – there actually is brain science to support this type of activity. It has to do with where motivation physiologically comes from. (Spoiler: it doesn’t come from a spreadsheet.)
8. Finish something you’ve started
Dig out one of those half finished pieces you have lying around and finish it. And don’t sweat the details. It doesn’t have to be good; it just needs to be done. Finishing something that’s already in progress gets you past starting friction because you’re literally not starting anything new. It gives you the motivation that comes from a sense of satisfaction from having completed something. Then roll from your newly finished piece into a brand new one.
9. Make a creative Venn diagram
I’ve written about Venn diagrams before; they may be one of my favorite creative tools. Here’s how it works:
Take two (possibly mediocre) ideas you’ve had floating around your head and combine them into something new. Or, use two new ideas. It doesn’t matter where they come from. Open a dictionary to a random page and pick out a word. Or use those word refrigerator magnets to make a new combination. Take two of anything and see what happens when you put them together.
Cross-pollination of ideas is where innovation comes from, and innovation lives in the same part of our brains as creative motivation. The reasons this works are physiological and powerful.
This is one of my favorite techniques for getting back into creative mode. The trick is not to clean until you have a pristine space, just until the clutter and distractions are gone. Too much of anything – or everything – can be hard to navigate. Clutter takes up space, and empty space is where creative ideas live. That’s why you sometimes get your best ideas while in the shower or while driving to a familiar place – your brain isn’t preoccupied with stuff. The clutter around us reminds us of all the nagging shoulds… clear your space and your mind will follow.
Rest is just as important for creativity as stimulation – and we don’t do nearly as much of it as we should. Sometimes you’re tired, stressed, and overworked. Rest is a critical part of our creative cycle. If you’re struggling, maybe all you need is a really good nap. (And really, is there any such thing as a bad one?)
Whatever creative lull you’re in, give one of these tricks a try and let me know how it works for you!