It was a sunny Wednesday morning about 9 years ago and I had just been hired. I was sitting at my desk waiting for a kiss of a muse. I knew I had to come up with a creative solution in order to organize a plan B outing for the weekend of the boarding school with over a hundred students. Plan A only worked if the weather remained beautiful, but the forecast was for rain, and in Ireland you don’t make plans without checking the forecast. After 30 minutes of creative constipation I gave it up. There was no way I could make progress that morning and there was an important meeting I had to attend later on. Little did I suspect that sitting down to finish the same task later on that day I would eat my frog within less than 5 minutes. Yes, less than 5 minutes! That was the fraction of what I had spent on it earlier, and it was now done.
In a way it was a devastating experience, because I thought all the company needed was me in order to solve all of their problems when it came to organizing events for teenage schoolboys. Week after week coming across that same creative constipation problem soon made me realize that I probably wasn’t a wild card after all. Not only that. I also realized that even to do the bare minimum I often needed advice and help from others.
Everybody knows what a relief it is when you complete a task or finish a project a within minutes where progress seemed impossible at first.
A few months after that first experience I started analyzing what I did between those before and the after moments, and what triggered my brain to get into creative mode. I realized that in the moments of “creative diarrhea” not only did I work faster, but also enjoyed being involved. In fact, it was the enjoyment of being involved that made even big tasks seem like a piece of cake. I found out that there are ways that can help get in the zone and be creative.
I’ve found that there are some immediate and some long-term cures for creative constipation. The immediate ones will help you here and now (that is when you’re stuck), while the long-term ones either prevent those moments from happening, reduce the occurrence of those moments, or just help you get in the zone.
Focus on the problem, not the solution. As one famous author said:
the definition of the problem is three-quarters of its solution.
If you can formulate the problem you will often find that the solution becomes so obvious that it doesn’t require much creative input. If after several weeks you’re still looking for a solution you probably didn’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve in the first place.
Just do it. Sometimes you wait for the perfect idea to come because you’re not happy with the one you have. You may think it’s not good enough or outright horrible. Often you will find though that something you came up with in one of those moments are actually far better than you thought at the time, and turns out to be the final idea or very close to it. Procrastination sometimes comes in the form of “I know I could do this better later when I have a more creative idea”.
Revisit work you did in the past. Old ideas often inspire new ones. Adapting old solutions to new situations doesn’t necessarily mean you’re regurgitating the same thing; it can actually be very interesting and creative. Think about an architect, for example, who wants to make the best use of the available space and keeping in mind the customer’s wishes. He can go back and take a look at the work he had done in the past and see if anything moves his imagination. Since he was so intimately involved with the thinking process of his work, he will know exactly how solutions can be implemented in new projects.
Check out other peoples’ works. Don’t just copy-paste or plagiarize, but tap into great minds to find great ideas. In fact, you shouldn’t use this only as an immediate cure. If you manage to turn keeping an eye open for interesting ideas into a habit, you will find that it has a long-term effect as well.
Go out for a walk or do some exercise. This will get your circulation going, which in turn may lead to enhanced creativity. If you work at a computer don’t just take a Facebook break. It may distract you from the problem, but it won’t actually help you make progress when you get back to the project.
Work on an unrelated project or perform a task, which is of a different nature than the problem you’re trying to solve: make a phone call, talk to one of your collaborators, etc. This activity switches your brain into a different mode, all the while your brain subconsciously works on the problem, and quite often comes up with solutions.
Take a nap. You will be amazed what a 10-20 minutes slumber is capable of when you need to recharge. Just make sure it stays within that range. If it’s shorter than 10 minutes you won’t be able to rest; if it’s longer than 20 you will take too long to boot up.
Use pen and paper. This is especially useful if you’re trying to figure out how to fit things together in either time or space. Draw a timeline or a map and use your hand to visualize what’s on your mind.
Change location if your creative constipation is caused by either a lack of or too much stimuli (e.g. you work from home and your office is your wardrobe, or you share office with others and there is a constant flow of people).
Jot down your ideas/inspirations. Every brilliant solution and product started with an idea. A study suggests that for every brilliant idea written down and acted upon 87 equally brilliant ideas are lost. You don’t need to act on every single idea that strikes you, but why not incubate them in a notebook? They could be the perfect solution for a future problem you may encounter.
Interact with real people. Virtual interaction is not real interaction. Healthy discussions with real people keep your brain stimulated and broaden your horizons in surprising ways.
Read in order to nourish your mind and soul, and stimulate your imagination. Why is every novel more interesting than the movie made based on it? Because when you read you are the director; you co-create the story with the author. People who read find more creative solutions than those who don’t.
Listen to instrumental music, knit, tinker, etc. Pick an activity that doesn’t absorb you completely and lets your mind wander off. Eureka moments often happen in the midst of those activities.
Sleep properly. This is different from taking a nap, which can only help you if you’re habitually well-rested. Coffee, tea and energy drinks will only lend you some energy from later on in the day. Nothing can substitute a proper 7-8 hour long sleep.
Hydrate yourself. 80% of people confuse thirst for hunger and start to snack when they should reach for a glass of water. Keep a bottle at your desk and make it your business to finish it by the end of the day.
Exercise regularly. Your physical fitness should go hand-in-hand with your mental and spiritual fitness. If you’re capable, challenge yourself and push yourself to the limit at times. If you can’t, then commit to what you’re able for. Don’t neglect your body.
And finally, two bonus tips, which aren’t properly speaking cures.
Always put yourself under pressure, but never finish under pressure. We’re wired to procrastinate until the last moment, which is not a bad thing as long as you procrastinate on purpose. Chronic and uncontrolled procrastinators tend to produce lousy results when it comes to work. If you don’t have time to review what you’ve done mistakes are inevitable. Give yourself a deadline prior to when the project is due. This will give you the opportunity to review and make amendments if necessary.
Don’t multitask. You can’t focus on more than one thing at the same time. Multitasking is quickly switching between two tasks, neither of which receives your full attention.
Have you found other cures for creative constipation? I’d be delighted to hear them.