Being Creative When You’re Just Not Feeling It
I have a confession: I used the tips outlined for this post to write it. I wasn’t feeling inspired or creative enough to just sit down and start writing. Sometimes that happens, but as a designer with deadlines and teammates relying on me to execute great work, there’s no possibility of pushing off a project because I’m not feeling 110% up to it. When I’m not feeling that creative, I just have to suck it up, push through, and do the work anyway.
We’ve largely been tricked into this notion that a low point in creativity is a block, like an impassible boulder in a trail, and that great work comes from moments of divine inspiration. When we don’t have that inspiration we sit around, lost and frustrated, waiting for it to appear in a lightning-like moment that’ll bring about clarity. In reality, these aha moments strike about as often as lightning and most of us don’t have the luxury of waiting.
I like to think of inspiration as a short cut in the process of creating, like an easier switchback up the mountain. Without it, the journey is straight up, fighting against the tough climb in elevation. Through perseverance, both paths still lead to a magnificent view at the top. There is no secret to creativity: it’s just about not giving up. Instead of sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike, do something about it and fight back.
Here are three tactics I use to reignite and keep my creativity flowing, so when I’m not feeling it I can still execute great work.
1. Change your perspective
Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change. — Milton Erikson
Rethink what creativity is
When I show my work to friends, I am told all the time, ‘I couldn’t do that, I’m just not creative enough.’ This really irks me. The lie commonly told about creativity is that it’s an innate ability: some people have it and some don’t.
In the article 5 Creativity Myths You Probably Believe, Christian Jarrett writes:
Not only is it a simplification to label creativity as the exclusive domain of the right-brain, it’s also mistaken to claim that some people are right-brained and some people left-brained. In 2013, researchers scanned the brains of over a thousand people and found no evidence for this way of categorizing people. Calling someone right-brained” or “left-brained” is as useful as saying that someone is Virgo or Pisces.
Creativity isn’t the preserve of one side of the brain, and it isn’t a talent confined to people with a special kind of brain. Real neuroscience says: if you’re human and you’ve got a brain, you’re capable of being creative.
Science proves it: you can’t blame a lack of creativity on something you do or don’t have. I always respond to those who claim they aren’t creative by saying that perceived creativity is more a matter of hard work and practice. If you work at being creative everyday, over time you’ll realize that your creativity levels aren’t constant. Some days you might feel completely inspired, and others it’ll be hard to work, but it’s ok as long as you continue practicing creativity and feel more comfortable beginning projects, large or small.
Literally change your perspective
When I’m feeling stuck, I pack up my computer and set up at a different location. Usually it’s going to a coffeeshop or the library and working for a couple hours, but if I’m feeling especially uninspired, I’ll go to a different city for a week. If you aren’t remote, move from your desk and try a new spot in the office. Sometimes even a simple move can do a lot for making you feel less stuck.
I use this method of changing locations a lot. I’ve learned that getting out of what I consider comfortable is a great way to explore new ideas.
The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close” — and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional — get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful — it allows us to focus on the facts at hand — it also inhibits our imagination.
— Jonah Lehrer, Why travel makes you smarter
Imagination is exactly what I sometimes need to start an illustration for part of a page or think about how a new layout could enhance an experience. When I’m forced outside of my comfort zone, my brain is pushed to respond in new ways, and those new ideas are what’s needed when I’m starting a project.
2. Make it a habit
I started a new experiment a few weeks ago to see if I could gradually increase how creative I felt. For thirty minutes every day, I do something creative that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. I’ve mostly been hand lettering, doing watercolor landscapes, and woodworking. I have a tendency to overthink problems before I start them, which can be useful for some UX problems, but other times it can backfire. Honestly some days I miss doing my thirty minutes, but overall it’s increased my drive to just start creating.
Other designers have taken thirty day challenges when they’re in creative blocks with wildly successful results. Jessica Hische started doing a daily illustrative drop (or initial) cap in September 2009 to keep her motivated and inspired when work was slow which helped launch her lettering career. If you’re not feeling inspired to start, How Design has a 30-day challenge with an idea every day.
By allowing myself to just create for the sake of making, I’m more open to let ideas through that I’d otherwise ignore. By making it a daily habit, I’m assured that I’m capable of executing creative work, and have ideas to draw from when I get stuck. The more I feel I’m creating regularly, filling in those gaps when work is slow and boosting creativity with short projects without expectations, the more confident I feel to start work projects.
3. Get out from behind the screen
Halfway through writing this, I got stuck staring at an unchanging screen and thought it would be a perfect time to recharge with a short walk to the library. After all, it was sunny outside and having just gotten through an entire Seattle winter, it’s been a rare sight. Removing myself from the problem gives my brain enough time to think about other things and be inspired by different surrounds.
In fact, in a March 2016 study called Insightful Solutions Are Correct More Often Than Analytical Solutions, a research team tested participants in their strategies in finding solutions. They found that participants who gave their ideas time to develop by were more likely arrive at the correct answer than participants who forced through a problem with analytical thought, which sometimes lead to sloppy and rushed mistakes.
Even if it may seem counterintuitive to put aside work and seek out inspiration in other forms, it can often lead to better results. So go take that walk. Go for a run. Give your brain a short break.
If you’re still uninspired, work through it
When I’m beginning a page design, I like to start by outlining all the components of the page I think I need. It helps to wrap my mind around all the pieces that’ll make up the whole. Sometimes the act of starting, whether that’s the whole layout or an illustration in the page, is enough of a push to get me inspired to complete a project.
It also helps to go low fidelity and start sketching basic ideas (even if you don’t think you can sketch well). There’s a good reason why logo designers fill up pages full of ideas before arriving at a solution. Sketching is a low pressure and a faster way to get ideas out. Even if you feel silly sketching an idea, remember it’s only living in a sketchbook you’ll see.
Another quick tactic is scrolling through inspiration. As much as Dribbble is criticized for delivering pixel perfect work, it still serves as a great way to get inspired. One of my go-to ways is to search by color, which helps me understand quickly which colors look great together instead of going through a trial and error in Sketch or Illustrator.
Finally, get feedback. If you’re absolutely stuck, you probably haven’t asked for help yet. Colleagues can look at work with fresh eyes and introduce new ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of, which can be exactly what you need when you’re stuck in your own head.
I want to end with this quote from Jonathan Fields that reiterates how starting a project is never completely easy, but that’s ok:
Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.
— Jonathan Fields, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance
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