This article contains everything you need to know about what causes a creative rut and how to overcome it.
So you’re sitting in front of your computer staring at a blank screen and the creative part of your brain is as dry as the Kalahari desert. Some might call this writer’s block, others a creative rut. But whatever you chose to call it, it’s terrifying.
And you’re not alone. Even legendary writers like Ernest Hemingway dreaded staring at a blank piece of paper. He was once asked, “what is the most frightening thing you’ve ever encountered?” He responded with, “a blank sheet piece of paper.”
Keep in mind that this is a man who drove an ambulance in World War 1, received a medal for his bravery in World War 2, and survived two plane crashes.
So, how do we overcome this feeling that’s more terrifying than having your plane shot down at 6,000 feet? Let’s find out!
- Realize That A Creative Rut Doesn’t Equal A Lack Of Creativity
- 1. Exercise And Shower Before You Write
- 2. Clean Your Room Or Office Space
- 3. Dress In Professional Clothes
- 4. Eliminate Distractions
- 5. Work In a New Environment
- 6. Change Your Routine
- 7. Avoid Judging Your Work
- 8. Meditate
- 9. Refill Your Creative Fuel Tank
- 10. Find a Mentor
- Final Word On How To Get Out Of A Creative Rut
- Creative Rut: FAQs
Realize That A Creative Rut Doesn’t Equal A Lack Of Creativity
A neuro researcher named Alice Flaherty conducted a study in 2004 where she scanned people’s brains who said they were creatively dry. Her results were astonishing.
Her brain scans showed that these participants had decreased activity in their frontal lobe, which is responsible for language faculties and expressing yourself. However, they had increased activity in their temporal lobes, which assigns meaning to language.
This is an important distinction to make when overcoming a creative block. Your brain is bursting with ideas, but it’s speechless. A creative rut doesn’t equal a lack of creativity, it’s simply a temporary inability to properly express that creativity.
1. Exercise And Shower Before You Write
Exercise Is Like NZT For Your Brain
If exercise could be compressed into a single pill, it would be the closest thing to NZT, which is that magical drug in the movie Limitless that allows people to be geniuses. And even if there were no physical benefits to exercise, you can bet I’ll still exercise at least 5 times a week.
Exercise is known to be great for weight loss, but its benefits for your brain and thinking power is 10 times more compelling.
Exercise and creativity go hand and hand. They prime your brain to think and learn. This is because it triggers a protein called BDNF and without getting too sciency, just know that it’s like gold for your brain. Dr. Smitha Patel has even called BDNF “Miracle-Gro” for your brain.
So instead of loading up on coffee in hopes of beating that creative rut, consider running around your neighborhood.
Showers Help You Think Better
Whenever I’m in a creative rut, I know that if I take a nice, long shower, I’ll express my ideas perfectly.
This is because creative ideas never come to you when you’re actively thinking about them. It pops in your head when you take a break from work and there’s no better way of getting creative ideas than by taking a shower.
So why not kill two birds with one stone. If you’re feeling dry, go for a jog around your neighborhood and hop in the shower afterwards. This is guaranteed to get your creative juice flowing.
2. Clean Your Room Or Office Space
Nothing kills my creative thinking quicker than working in a cluttered and chaotic environment. Simply walking into a dull workspace is unpleasant, not to mention sitting down and working there.
Luckily, the solution is easy.
Before you start working, clear your office space and make it look nice. Feel free to put up some decorations. It doesn’t have to be sparkling. It just needs to make you feel good while working.
Cleaning your room also clears your head and boosts creativity like no other activity. Whenever you’re cleaning or doing the dishes, it’s almost like you enter a state of flow. And before you know it, your room is clean. This can also boost your creativity the same way a shower would.
Now that you’ve worked out, showered, and cleaned your room, it’s time to get dressed.
3. Dress In Professional Clothes
Everyone who works in a corporate office would love to work from home because you get to work from your bed in your pajamas. No need to get dressed, simply whip out your laptop and get to work. But this is the wrong mindset.
Even if you’re working from home, you must respect the work you're doing. This means not sitting in your pyjamas working out of bed. You want to separate your work and home life because if you don’t, you’ll get distracted easily which can hinder your creativity.
The solution to this is easy, set aside a set of professional work clothes and get dressed before work. You don’t have to have a three-piece suit. A simple shirt, pair of slacks, and dress shoes will do. You’ll feel like a professional doing professional work and your creativity will shoot through the roof.
If you’d like to take this a step further, get in your car, take a drive around the block, come home, and start working. This will trick your brain to switch from entertainment mode to work mode.
Now, let’s talk about the biggest creativity killer. Distractions!
4. Eliminate Distractions
We are constantly surrounded by distractions and this can make it impossible to work. Do you think any artist or writer has produced a quality piece of work after checking Facebook every 15 minutes?
A great book about removing distraction and getting into that creative flow state is “Deep Work” written by Cal Newport. But if you don’t feel like reading it, here’s the basic idea;
- Complete your work in a quiet room with no external distractions like TV and video games.
- Let your family or roommates know that they shouldn’t disturb you for the next few hours.
- Leave your phone in the next room.
- Close your email inbox and social media news feeds.
- Get to work.
This method of working will allow you to close yourself off from the rest of the world for a few hours which gets those creative brain juices flowing.
5. Work In a New Environment
So you removed all distractions and wrote for a few hours without judging your work. You might start to feel like your ideas aren't flowing as they used to and most people will stop writing and watch Netflix or browse Facebook.
Remember, nothing happened to your creativity. It didn't disappear into thin air. Your ability to express those creative ideas has simply diminished and this is your cue to change locations.
Get in your car and drive to a cool coffee shop, library, or even beach and start working there. It'll feel like you've received a second boost of creativity. And once your second wave of creativity diminishes, it's time to call it a day.
6. Change Your Routine
Routine is the friend of writers and creative professionals. If, for example, you create an early morning writing routine, you won't have to waste mental energy wondering if you'll write today.
Instead, you can get up, go on autopilot, go to your place of writing and do your day's work.
But what if you're stuck in a creative rut?
Adhering to a strict routine sometimes places boundaries around your ideas and solidifies what you think is and isn't possible.
If you're feeling creatively blocked and uninspired, changing your routine will help you see the problem you're tackling in a fresh light and become more creative.
- Write or create at a different time of day
- Use a different tool, for example pen and paper instead of a computer (or vice versa)
- Try dictating ideas to yourself while walking
7. Avoid Judging Your Work
This is the biggest reason for the infamous writer’s block.
Most writers sit behind their keyboard and expect to write pure magic. Anything else they judge and delete.
Instead of doing this, allow yourself to write anything that pops into your head, and don’t judge your work. I don’t care how terrible you think your writing is, don’t delete it, yet.
Once you’ve completed your entire post, it’s time to be super judgemental and edit or delete anything that doesn’t make sense. But don’t put the cart before the horse and start judging your work while you’re writing.
Let it flow.
Meditation might sound like Eastern woohoo pseudoscience, but it has legitimate brain benefits backed up by scientific research. Harvard researchers have found meditation to help patients suffering from depression.
Meditating for even 5 minutes after a long and creative workday will give your brain some time to properly recover and this will pay dividends the next day as you’ll feel more energized.
Most people will browse social media after work and while this is relaxing for them, it isn’t for their brain. Your brain still has to work overtime to deal with all this stimulation and you’ll feel it in the morning when you’re tired and creatively dry.
I’m not saying you must cut out social media altogether, rather make meditation a habit as it’ll give your brain a well-deserved rest.
9. Refill Your Creative Fuel Tank
Creativity is as much about combining of lots of different ideas as it is about coming up with something original.
Often when people say they're feeling blocked or stuck, what they're actually describing is an ‘input problem' or a lack of incoming ideas.
Like the car that's almost out of fuel, the next time you feel stuck on a particular project consider when you last filled up on ideas.
- Listening to a podcast
- Subscribing to a popular blog outside your area of interest
- Reading a book outside of your comfort zone
- Interviewing one of your readers or an expert in your niche
The former helped me with the technique of story-telling and the latter with procrastination and having to turn up every day and write.
However, I wouldn't have much to say if all I did was focus on technique and the writer's mindset. So, I also read outside of my comfort zone.
The sci-fi novel Wool by Hugh Howie gave me ideas for a short story, and I learnt a little of sentence construction from Charles Bukowski's poetry collection The Pleasures of the Damned.
Consuming books and ideas outside of your comfort zone is the best way to refill your creative tank.
10. Find a Mentor
The traditional definition of a mentor is someone who takes a personal interest in your work and in your personal development.
When you're creatively blocked, your mentor will be able to offer a solution because this is a problem they've faced before and they can see the problem more clearly than you based on their experiences.
But, how exactly can you find a mentor? You can pay someone a lot of money or you can change the traditional definition of what a mentor is.
Here's the thing:
Did you know it's possible for anyone (living or dead) to mentor you?
If there's an author you admire, you can turn them into your mentor by reading everything they've ever written and then by reading the works and teachers of people who influenced them.
This will help you understand their thought processes and use this understanding to ask answers questions you have about your work.
Several years ago, I studied the works of John Cheever for months. For a long time afterwards, when faced with a writing challenge I visualised John and asked him ‘What would you do?'
This may sound crazy but in the popular personal development book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill describes keeping an “imaginary council” every night with nine of his mentors including Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin.
“Just before going to sleep at night, I would shut my eyes, and see, in my imagination, this group of men seated with me around my Council Table.”
“I had a very definite purpose in indulging my imagination through these nightly meetings. My purpose was to rebuild my own character so it would represent a composite of the characters of my imaginary counselors.”
Final Word On How To Get Out Of A Creative Rut
Every writer struggles with creative ruts. They’re terrifying and leave us sitting at our desks staring into blank space wondering how we got here. But by implementing a few brain-boosting activities like exercising, showering, and meditating, we can kiss creative ruts goodbye.
Creative Rut: FAQs
What Causes Slumps In Creativity?
A decrease in creativity can be caused by multiple factors. These include perfectionism, distraction, procrastination, lack of inspiration, and fear. To counteract this, don’t think about what you’re writing and write whatever comes into your head. Doing this will allow you to get past creative slumps and you can always edit your work later.
Why Do I Experience Creative Ruts?
By far the biggest reason why you’re in a creative rut is that you spend too much time in your head, thinking, and not enough time working on your draft. You’re not going to write a perfect draft the first time. Your first draft will have problems and that’s fine because a few rounds of editing can easily fix that.
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