We are all familiar with writer’s block, the times when you just can’t seem to generate any ideas and your creative output dries up. It should really be called creative block because it’s certainly not exclusive to writing. Despite this we know people who never seem to run out of creative juice and are always putting new work out and coming up with new ideas. So why is this? Do they possess a special gift or talent that we don’t have? Luckily the answer is no, they don’t have any special powers, they are just doing a few things that allow them to have a high creative output whether they realise it consciously or not. In this article I want to share some techniques with you that have allowed me to maintain fairly high levels of creative output and generate new ideas regularly. Even if you just use one or two of these techniques you will see an increase in creativity and will find it much easier to overcome those creative blocks.
1: Put yourself in a creative state
Often our best ideas come to us when we least expect, it might be in the shower, as we are drifting off to sleep or even when driving or something more impractical. Because of this we tend to think that we have no control over that state and that when we are feeling creative we should create and when we are not then we shouldn’t. However research has suggested that we can actually put ourselves in a state that is conducive to creativity. We recognise this state when we are in it and all refer to it differently. Some people call it being “ in flow “other say that they are in “the zone”, but however you identify it, it’s not as mystical as you might imagine. There are some techniques that we can use to put ourselves in that state whenever we want;
Get some headspace
Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, whatever you want to call it, making time for mental space is one of the keys to not burning out and being able to maintain consistent creative output. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness on general health and wellbeing have been backed up by scientific research and one of the main advantages of quieting the mind is that it allows for ideas and creative thoughts to manifest themselves. If you find the thought of meditating or doing Yoga a bit “new age” or “airy fairy” then check out an amazing app called Head Space. Starting with just ten minutes a day, it’s simply about taking time to be aware of our thoughts and observe our mind’s internal chatter. If you do nothing else on this list apart from this you will see great benefits, not only from your creative output but your health and wellbeing in general.
Once you have set a base of being mindful on a daily basis you can actually cultivate a practice of putting yourself into the flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is recognized as one of the thought leaders in this field and has some really interesting research around it, check out his TED talk here. Below is a simple visualisation exercise which I sometimes use and it only takes a few minutes. The idea is to use it to get into a peak state of flow when you are struggling to generate new ideas or get on with a project.
Start by finding a quiet place where you can sit down and won’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Take some deep breaths and let your mind and body relax, with each out breath feel your body softening and relaxing deeper into the chair. Notice how your body feels and pay attention to the contact points on the chair. Notice the weight of your body pressing into the chair, slowly scan down and observe each sensation, from your head down to your toes. There is no need to judge the feelings, just notice them, if thoughts come into your head just watch them and allow them to come and go. Next close your eyes and remember a time when you were in a flow state, fully return to it now, see what you saw, hear what you heard and remember that feeling of flow. Make the colours bright, the images big and the sounds loud. As you start to feel the feeling of flow give it a colour, move that colour throughout your body, to the top of your head and down to your toes. Each time you breath in imagine that colour getting more intense and increase that feeling with it.
The first time you do this exercise it might seem a bit odd but the more you practice the easier it becomes and the easier it will be to get into this state. I sometimes use a technique called anchoring which involves squeezing my thumb and finger together when I am in this peak state. This then allows me to trigger this flow state without going through the process of the entire exercise.
2: Create rituals
Most prolific artist have rituals which allow them to output creative work consistently. Whether it’s forcing themselves to write or make music every day, their rituals are the things that allow them to be consistently creative not just their mindset or state. Elmore Leonard once said:
“I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.”
The more I speak to artists in different fields the more I realise that consistent action really is the key to high levels of creative output. You don’t always have to publish everything you create but the actual process of creation is the important thing. It depends how organised you are but for me, finding time for creativity requires me to block it out in my diary. If it’s in my diary I take it seriously and make it part of my day, however if it’s just on my to do list it gets missed out.
Here are 2 key principles that will help you stick to your creative rituals (and any other rituals for that matter):
(i): Make a public commitment
Whether it’s to a friend or a wider audience, making a commitment that involves someone else is one of the best ways to ensure we follow through on things. If you want to go even further why not use an app like Stikk
(ii) Start small and create winnable goals
Instead of setting yourself the goal of writing 500 words a day, start with 150 crappy words a day. Why? Because if we break goals down into smaller chunks they are much more manageable and we don’t feel overwhelmed. Once you get into the habit of sitting down to write everyday you can write more if you feel like it. However when you are not in the mood to write, you know all you have to do is bash out 150 words it doesn’t seem so bad. The secret really is in the process and the consistency rather than the volume. Ultimately sticking to your creative rituals is about committing to it mentally and deciding that it will take priority seat in your life.
3: Separate your “capture” and “create” time
This is a concept that I only recently discovered but now seems glaringly obvious (like many things) but separating the capture process and the execution process is really important. Time spent generating ideas is actually quite different to time spent implementing the ideas and by separating the process you ensure that they don’t interrupt each other. The capturing process refers to things like brainstorming, gathering data, planning and the general accumulation of ideas, whereas the creation phase specifically refers to when you are executing the work and utilising your creative skills. For example, by gathering the majority of the material you need before you start writing, painting or making music, it ensures that the flow is not interrupted and you don’t switch out of the creation mode. A simple concept but a very powerful and important one.
The second part of the capture and create process is making sure you always have something to capture your ideas with. Some of our biggest and best ideas often come at the most inconvenient times and if we don’t have something to capture them with they can be lost forever. Luckily we live in a time where there is an app for pretty much anything you can think of. So whether you get a riff in your head or have an idea for a new photo montage you can get the basis of your idea down quickly. In terms of just gathering ideas my favourite app is still Evernote. The reason I rate it so highly is that it allows me to get half formed ideas out of my head and into an organised format that I can refer to later. I have different notebooks for different subjects and then use tags to organise each category. I would highly recommend downloading it for your phone, the free version is more than adequate for my needs.
4: Lucid dreaming
This is a fairly big subject in its own right but I wanted to include it on this list as it’s a technique that is not that widely discussed within the context of creativity but can have some pretty amazing results. Essentially Lucid dreaming is just when you realise you are dreaming and can control or influence what happens in your dream. Im sure you have experienced it at some point in your life but it probably didn’t last that long. We have the tendency to get excited when we realise we are dreaming and often wake ourselves up. However there are things we can do to help induce lucid dreams and access our inner most creativity. Research has shown that when we dream we are able to communicate with our subconscious mind in ways that we can’t when we are awake. This is a fairly significant discovery in terms of generating ideas and increasing creative output.
There are a few basic techniques that allow us to enter a lucid state whilst dreaming on a more regular basis. Firstly we have something called “reality checks” this is where we repeat a specific action throughout the day that would generate a different result in real life than it would in a dream. My technique of choice is to simply look at the back of your hand and then turn it over several times. The way this works is that our brain cannot replicate integrate detail quickly whilst we’re dreaming, therefore if you do the same action in your dream, you will find that you will be missing a finger or your hand will look very strange in some way whilst our brain tries to recreate the detail. Ultimately if you do something consciously and consistently throughout the day, eventually it will start happening in your dreams, once it does you realise you are dreaming!
Another technique is to set an alarm to wake you up throughout the night. This one isn’t quite as practical but does have good results. We dream mainly during REM sleep which makes up roughly 20-25% of our total sleep. We usually enter this phase of sleep towards the end of the night and one of the ways of creating the lucid effect is to wake yourself up and keep the intent of lucid dreaming as you are falling back to sleep.
This may seem like quite an extreme way to be more creative but it is actually how some of the most famous ideas that changed the world for the better have been conceived, intentionally or not. Check them out here.
If you are interested in finding out more about Lucid dreaming techniques and how it can help you to become more creative then this is a great book to start with this one.
5: Block out down time
Countless research has shown that we are more productive when we designate down time to relax and unwind. Often we think that the busier we are the more we are getting done but more often than not this isn’t the case. As Tim Ferriss always says make what you do effective not just efficient. Doing things with low impact efficiently is simply a waste of time.
It’s easy to fall into the “busy trap” and not give ourselves enough time to do something unrelated to what we are working on or even just relax. Often our best ideas come to us when we are involved in activities that are completely irrelevant because of how our brain works. Our conscious mind is actually a very small part of our overall brain processing power and our unconscious is much larger and more powerful. If we put problems out of our conscious mind, it allows our unconscious to work on solving them more effectively, we then have that “aha moment” where the solution presents itself or we have a moment of divine inspiration. This is an important part of the creative process and is often referred to as the “incubation phase”. I would advocate taking at least 6 weeks off a year, just for holiday time, then scheduling playful and unrelated activities with friends throughout the month to ensure we are not burning out and exhausting our creative fuel.
I am currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic” where she makes the observation that our culture and society has the habit of praising artists and creatives more if they achieve success through struggle and suffering. Gilbert refers to this as “creative suffering” and states that it is the most common contract that we all enter into with ourselves. We feel that if we create great work and destroy ourselves in the process we have somehow achieved more than the artist that creates great work and has a balanced and fulfilled life. Gilbert advises that “if you choose to enter into a contract of creative suffering, you should try to identify yourself as much as possible with the stereotype of the Tormented Artist”. I would also add the question; what is the point in making things harder than they need to be and causing ourselves unnecessary pain and suffering?
Treat your creative output like a marathon not a sprint, the more you can pace yourself, take adequate breaks and foster your creative mind, the more great work you will be able to create. So go forth and create! Let us know what you get up to, tweet us here. or write on our wall at Facebook here.
What techniques do you use to increase your creative output? Let us know in the comments below!