Article first published as Seven Techniques For Getting Creatively Unstuck on Forbes.
If you solve problems for a living, you’ve probably had it happen. Just when you least expect it — and just when you need to be brilliant — you’re suddenly blocked. You pour on the coffee and tell yourself you’ll power it out. But all you produce is the jitters. You try burning the midnight oil, and all you do is exhaust yourself. Face it: your “idea factory” has decided to shut down. You’re stuck.
The condition can be so jarring that authors have a name for it: writers block. For them, it’s the inability to produce satisfactory new work. In some cases, it can last for years, as it did for such luminaries as Stephen King, Harper Lee, and Truman Capote. For the rest of us, it’s usually a temporary condition, but no less frustrating if you’re coming up on an important deadline and your well is suddenly, inexplicably dry.
Getting stuck doesn’t have to become a personal crisis. Not if you have a few tools in your toolkit for just such times. Here are seven surefire ways to avoid the time- wasting, agonizing period of non-productivity known as being stuck — and get quickly back on track:
1. Recognize that you’re stuck. But don’t panic.
“Getting stuck is all part of the process,” the senior engineer at a defense contractor remarked recently. “It doesn’t scare me like it did when I was younger.” Don’t let it scare you either, but learn to recognize the symptoms. If you find yourself aimlessly surfing the Internet and avoiding the project you’re on, this could be a sign. If you draw a mind-map but can only come up with several options, this could be a heads up that you’re stuck. If you call a meeting to discuss solutions to a problem and silence fills the air –your team is stuck.
Try this: Interview yourself: why do you feel you are stuck? What’s happening in your work or your personal life that may have precipitated this state? What has worked for you in the past to get back on track? The simple solution might be to get a good night’s sleep. Focusing on something else for a day or two can also work. But if the condition persists, your strategy needs to be to shift and keep shifting until you get your groove back.
2. Consciously shift your environment.
Start shifting your environment, your perspective, and your approach to the problem you’re working on till you get back into a flow state. How? Start by changing where you’re working on the problem. Change your physical environment. Go work in the conference room, or at the coffee shop down the street. Work from home.
In a recent session I led for an engineering firm, one participant said this: “If stuck, I’ll put [the project] aside, take a walk, visit a museum, or sleep on it. I often awake with complete solutions. I keep paper and pencil next to my bed and in my car at all times.”
Other ideas: Visit a toy store with your kids and let them lead you around. Go to a museum. Go for a walk in the woods or take a spin on your bike. Nature is God’s environment to help get us unstuck. Use it.
3. Consciously shift your approach.
Tried and true problem-solving steps can sometimes be ignored as we try to cut corners and produce brilliant work on the fly. If you’re feeling stuck, revisit these steps: identifying the problem, setting goals, brainstorming possibilities, and assessing alternatives. Solutions to the bigger problems and projects often come, not when we command them to appear, but because we’ve incubated ideas for a period of time. They are the result of gathering inputs from others, mulling over alternatives, and seeking inspiration to carry us to a higher level.
Here are comments I’ve heard:
• If stuck, I’ll talk with a creative colleague in another field.”
• “If stuck, I work at my white-board or sketch pad. If I’m still stuck, I’ll switch to another task and allow the first one to go in the background for a while.”
• “When I get stuck, I walk out and clear my head and then query somebody on the idea. This isn’t easy at my company because I have to find someone with enough technical knowledge to understand what I’m talking about. And they’ve got to have a mind open enough to hear something that is not completely thought out.”
4. Shift your perspective.
“If stuck, I try to bounce the problem off others, thinking out loud,” observed one manager. “This always worked for me when I used to do software development.” Assumption assaulting is necessary because the human brain is designed for efficiency. It takes what neuroscientists call “perceptual shortcuts” to save energy. Only by forcing our minds to move beyond habitual thinking patterns can we imagine truly new solutions.
Years of experience in an industry, profession or job can give us invaluable experience. But they can also be a block. “It’s always been done that way” or “we already tried that” are often a sign that you and your team need to shift perspective to move beyond habitual thinking blocks in order to imagine alternate possibilities. To get unstuck and spawn fresh thinking, ask such questions as “I wonder if we…” or “what would an entirely different way of handling this situation look like?”
Try this: Bombard the brain with alternatives and possibilities. Actively challenge assumptions. Invite new thinking.
5. Avoid using the pressure of deadlines to ignite creativity.
Harvard professor Teresa Amibole studies creativity in the workplace. At the end of each day, she asks participants in her studies to report on their creative experience, by writing about it in their journals. After reviewing over 12,000 days of diary entries, Amibole made a surprising discovery. She found that people universally believed they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But their diaries showed otherwise. They were actually least creative when fighting the clock. “Time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem,” Amibole told one interviewer. “People need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.”
Key message: We’ve all used a tight deadline to motivate us to get creative. But suppose you wait till the last minute and develop a case of stuck? Research indicates this is a bad habit worth breaking.
6. Develop creative muscle.
For much of my professional life, I’ve been involved in an ongoing study of the creative habits of highly successful innovators and the organizations they lead. In personal observation and countless interviews, I find they develop what I call creative muscle almost every waking hour. That is to say, they have or develop a conscious internal process to stimulate the input, throughput and output of ideas on a constant basis. They use a series of routines, habits, and techniques to keep their idea factories operating at peak levels day in and day out.
To take one example, Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna told me about his personal process for generating ideas. Whether attending board meetings, relaxing with his family, or conversing with colleagues, he takes along a moleskin idea notebook and jots down ideas as they occur. “You’re sitting there in that meeting, and something is said that relates to something else you’re working on, and boom – you get an idea. I’m always in this mode of looking for better ways of doing things.”
Action step: Become “idea-oriented” as you go through your day. Ideas are everywhere. Avail yourself to them by observing and being curious.
7. Know when to multitask and when to unitask.
It’s important to recognize the difference between being stuck, and simply being distracted. We may think we are more productive when we work on multiple projects at once, but research shows otherwise. Comparing multitaskers with non-multitaskers, Stanford professor Clifford Nass concluded that multitaskers performed poorly on a variety of tasks, were easily distracted, and had difficulty focusing.
It’s a challenge to cut out multitasking when creative concentration would serve us better. We all get a sense of being productive from being able to keep several balls in the air at once. But sustained periods of multitasking can lead to burnout, and increase the risk of getting stuck. So if you’re doing routine work, multitask to your heart’s content. But when you’re doing important non-routine work, make it a point to eliminate distractions and work on one project at a time. During these periods, put your phone on silent mode; close all web browsers and shut your door. Even when your thoughts wander, or you get sidetracked, remind yourself of the importance of focusing singularly rather than scattering your mental force across multiple issues.
Conclusion: There are lots of different ways to get unstuck. Use the ones that work for you.