Creative slumps: 5 ways to snap out of it

February 5, 2015, 4:48 PM UTC
fork road uncertainty
Businessman at fork of stone pathway in water
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Dear Annie: What can you do if your job depends on coming up with a steady stream of fresh ideas, but you hit a wall where you just can’t seem to come up with anything new? I’m working for a design firm where I got hired because, as an intern for two summers in college, I always thought of original ways to approach the challenges clients had brought to us. But lately I’m just not feeling it. Even worse, the harder I try, the more my mind seems to go blank. It’s what I imagine writer’s block to be like, except that I’m not a writer. This can’t be that unusual, but I don’t see any way past it. Do you have any suggestions? — Sleepless in Soho

Dear Sleepless: “We’ve all been there,” says Cassie Hughes, co-founder of Grow Marketing, a San Francisco firm that counts Google, The Gap, PepsiCo, Levi’s, and Lincoln among its clients. “It can be startling and unsettling. You feel like a starting pitcher with a bad case of the yips.”

Gabrey Means, Grow Marketing’s other co-founder, agrees that, now and then, “the creative juices seem to flow more like a slow trickle than like a river.”

The best way to end a creative rut is to change your routine. “It makes perfect sense if you think about it,” Hughes says. “Human nature pulls us toward predictability, but habit is the enemy of creativity. You need to shake things up.

“If you always lead certain meetings, turn the reins over to someone else on your team. Ask people from other departments to join in, and ask the opinion of the quietest person first,” says Hughes. “Whatever you usually do, try doing the opposite.”

Here are four more ways to snap out of a slump:

  • Take a field trip. “It’s counterintuitive to give yourself a day off when things are going badly,” Means says. “But sitting at your desk, dwelling on your dry spell and stressing out, is not going to help. You can’t think your way out of this.” Instead, go to an art gallery opening, a movie, a lecture on a subject that intrigues you, or “whatever moves you and inspires you,” says Hughes. “Relaxing and having experiences that you enjoy can loosen you up and open your mind to innovative thoughts.”
  • Do something physical. “Some of our best ideas happen when we’re in motion, whether it’s swimming, running, or doing yoga,” Hughes notes. “Exercise engages your body but lets your mind wander.” Even just taking a walk — especially in a neighborhood with lots of opportunities for people watching, or to a spot with an awesome view — “can provide the spark that leads to a fresh idea.” It’s okay if what comes to mind is vague, maybe even just a word or a mental image, she adds. “Put a little notebook or a pad of stickies in your pocket and jot down whatever comes to mind, so you arrive back at the office with a few things to noodle on further.”
  • Get other people talking. “Colleagues can help,” says Means. “Sometimes we mix up our teams and have people work together who usually don’t, or put little groups together and let them bounce ideas off each other.” Grow Marketing also brings in “outside experts from entirely different fields, who can give us a whole different perspective,” Hughes adds — a food-and-wine copywriter and an environmental activist, for example, to help spark ideas for branding a line of menswear. You can do something similar by making a lunch date with a friend who’s in a completely different line of work from yours, and letting him or her do most of the talking. You never know what might catch your imagination. “Great ideas can come from anywhere,” Means adds.
  • Use all five senses. “Human beings are highly visual, and sight is often the sense we rely on most when we’re trying to generate a new idea,” says Means. There’s nothing wrong with that. One room in Grow Marketing’s headquarters is a library where “people can browse through different kinds of images, because you never know what will resonate for you — a color, or the shape of a chair.” Even so, she adds, “What about scent, or touch, or sound? Each of our senses can trigger different emotional responses. So sometimes starting with a sensation other than sight, and letting the visuals follow, can open you up to a completely different approach.”

Luckily, dry spells are almost always temporary. Here’s hoping yours is, too.

Talkback: If you’ve ever experienced a creative dry spell, how did you get out of it? Leave a comment below.

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