Trying to force creativity doesn’t work.
That’s not necessarily a radical idea. But when you’re sitting at your desk or maybe in your favorite chair, racking your brain to try and find just one more or three more ideas, it can feel like the energy has been sucked right out of you. The fatigue is the aftermath of a vampire swooping down and draining you dry of all the cool and boundary-pushing ideas you had before. And like a vampire, it feels like you’re fighting a monster. And you just need to get one or two more hits in to turn it to dust and keep going to make your deadline.
The problem with trying to punch through the creative block is that you might just end up exhausted and in a worse position than where you started. Instead of pushing through our block, you might end up just burning out.
So, what do you do when you’re out of ideas?
Work With Intent
“Working with intent” sounds like a vague, unhelpful turn of phrase when you’re already trying to find something new to say. But intent can be as simple as reorganizing how you work, where you work and when you do the work itself.
It can be tempting to throw yourself headfirst into the task that’s demanding the most of your attention at the time. But if every task is time-sensitive, mission-critical, and has to be a priority, then trying to tackle them all with the same amount of attention doesn’t work.
If you have a deadline looming and you’re tapped out of ideas, working with specific intentions can help with some of the heavy lifting. If you find ideas flow more easily in the afternoon than the morning, then that’s the time to be productive. Some people work better at different times of day, and sleep can have a huge impact on whether or not you can get into a state of creative flow. If you can break down a mammoth project into smaller pieces, it’s even easier to cross those tasks one at a time until you’ve crossed the finish line.
Working with a clear intention and priorities based on what’s really important (as in, the absolutely crucial things) and what can perhaps wait until the next day takes the pressure off you so you can get back to a state of healthy productivity.
Remember that Overthinking Is the Enemy
Research shows that we can only really sustain productivity for 90 minutes. Your brain takes a lot of energy to work, and sodium and potassium are two things it needs if you want to get your work done. But if you’re constantly on high alert and trying to be as productive as possible, you disrupt the delicate balance in your brain of sodium and potassium. This looks like fatigue, tiredness and an inability to concentrate — but a lot of us call it the “3 pm slump.”
Trying to push yourself when your brain is putting the brakes on productivity will leave you more drained than anything else. When your brain slams the brakes, you can’t keep going without bringing on stress, anxiety and non-productivity. The solution then becomes giving your brain enough of a rest that it can get back into gear. That could look like more sleep, a walk outside or anything that really helps you “reset” and come back to your task with a fresher state of mind. Overthinking can literally be your enemy.
Hit the Pause Button and Come Back
Along with taking a break for your brain, revisiting something the next day can be one of the best things you do in a creative process. When we leave a task and come back to it, you can have a completely refreshed perspective, making editing your work easier. It can be part of your larger plan of working with intent, centering your attention around editing in the morning and producing fresh content in the afternoon. Not only does your time have structure, but you can work with clear priorities.
There’s no sense in trying to tap a dry well, even if you’re pressed for time in your day. Working for the sake of it doesn’t mean you’re doing your best work either, especially if you’re stressed and tired. But if you can rack up a few quick wins while you’ve hit pause on your project, you might find that sense of accomplishment alone to be motivating enough when you get back to your original work. Small wins matter!
Tap Into What Helps Your Flow
Flow is a state where you’re both attentive and focused, resulting in high productivity or high performance. What triggers your flow state can depend on different factors, but tapping into this state of mind whenever you really need it involves being mindful of your surroundings.
Getting yourself into flow can come down to finding a space to work without constant interruptions and things competing for your attention. This could involve cranking up your favorite lo-fi hip hop beats playlist, listening to a podcast or just turning on a white noise machine. When you can focus on a task that’s challenging to you in an environment where you can give it your full attention without draining your brain, you have a much better chance of getting into a state of mind where ideas start flowing again. Once you become more familiar with what triggers your flow, you can build an environment that consistently works for you.
Use What Works for You
Your brain can be fickle when you need it, but that’s because it’s already doing a lot. Creativity isn’t a switch you can flip and keep on all day, every day. You need to turn it off so your brain and body can take a break and get the rest they both need.
Creativity and productivity can be a matter of how much you let yourself rest and finding a rhythm that works for you instead of you working with it. Whether you’re a night owl or a morning person, you can still get things done without running yourself ragged to the finish line.