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How to dig yourself out of a creative rut

By on October 17th, 2019 in Design

Creative Idea Loading

It’s inevitable. You’ve given it your best – all that you have – and now you’re stuck. As a creative professional, I feel defeated when my mind can’t produce the results I expect. Sometimes I have a dozen ideas swirling around, and other times I struggle to come up with even one solution. I can feel it – I know I’m in a rut. Oh, there are times that I don’t want to admit it, but I can look at the three signs below and own up to the fact that one or more apply to me.

You know you’re in a creative rut when…

  • You constantly doubt yourself and your abilities
  • You are constantly judging or criticizing your creative process
  • You are always on the defensive

Here are some suggestions to help dig yourself out of a creative rut:

Switch tasks – put aside your project and turn your attention to something else, even if it is only for a little bit. I find that switching to what I call a “no-brainer job” can give me just enough time to put aside my previous train of thought and give new perspective to a stalled project. Any job that doesn’t require a lot of thought and can easily be completed without spending too much time is what I find to work on. Maybe there are multiple jobs or tasks that fit this description.

If you can accomplish now what you’ve been putting off because you’re spinning your wheels on something else, then by all means go for it! I usually find that a sense of accomplishment can be a confidence builder for picking up where you left off on that other project.

Take a break – don’t sit in front of your computer and spin your wheels all day – take a break from what you’re working on and find a change of scenery. Sometimes just taking a short walk can revive a tired mind. I find that a little fresh air and the warmth of the sun’s rays beating down on me have a restorative quality like no other (well, next to walking barefoot on the beach – but I live in North Central Illinois, so that’s not an option).

Studies have found that taking a little walk can give you a creative boost. Not only is it an effective way to beat a creative block, but it also relieves physical symptoms of stress. In some cases, it’s what you see on your walk that can be the inspiration you so desperately needed.

Downtime – give yourself a break from everything that’s going on around you. Close your eyes for five minutes and let your mind roam aimlessly. Concentrate on your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths. When we’re stressed, our breaths get shorter and quicker, which keeps us in a tense state. Taking in deep breaths can combat stress and improve mental clarity. Don’t believe me? Try it! Experts say when you inhale, make sure your stomach expands. It sounds funny, but apparently it makes all the difference.

To illustrate the difference between nostril breathing and diaphragm breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Take a deep breath with your nostrils and feel your lungs expand. Your chest will move but your stomach will not. Now take a deep breath and let your stomach expand out. Feel the difference? Your chest does not move, but your stomach does. Did you happen to notice how feelings of anxiety seem to have faded just a little? With consistent breathing exercises like this, you’ll be more relaxed and more importantly, more focused.

Don’t fear failure – you will avoid taking chances whenever self-doubt and fear set in. We’re our own worst enemies when it comes to being over critical. Negativity seeps in and wipes out any creative thought trying to surface. Let go of your preconceived ideas and be willing to explore areas you haven’t even considered. Don’t let your inner critic stop you from taking some risks! Even successful people experience failure. The difference is they learn to deal with it and don’t let it define them. Through trial and error, they eventually find success.

When you’ve exhausted all the possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.

– Thomas Edison

Turn up the volume – my creative mind can’t take silence. I work better with music turned up so that I don’t get distracted by the sounds of everyday life around me. Of course, for every study that states music improves creativity, there is another to counteract its positive attributes and claim that quietness is more beneficial. Maybe it’s not music that your ears need, but rather inspirational messages. Maybe renewing your energy or finding new enthusiasm for a project is only a podcast away. Experiment on your own. See what works best for you.

Ask for a critique – send a PDF of your project in its current state to other creatives and ask them for their thoughts. Sometimes just swallowing your pride and putting yourself on the line gives the best results. You become so attached to the work you’ve put in that it is easy to overlook the obvious. I’ve found that good suggestions for a new approach can immediately breathe new life into a stagnant project.

Find outside inspiration – grab a magazine and flip through the pages, or go online and search for creative fuel. Read design blogs or start following a designer or design company on social media. See something you like? Start an inspirational “library” that houses the imagery, layouts, photographs, or really anything that excites your imagination. Go back to this collection whenever you need to be reminded of some good ideas you found elsewhere.

Don’t forget to check out your surroundings too. On your daily commute, pay attention to billboards along the route. Dining out? Check out the menus and advertisements at your table. Shopping at the big box store? Don’t forget to check out the point of purchase displays. You’ll be amazed at how often you spot something that triggers an idea that had previously eluded you.

Inspiration comes and goes; creativity is the result of practice.

– Phil Cousineau

I can’t promise that once you’ve made it out of the rut you won’t fall back in later. But if you do, I hope you’ll remember these suggestions.