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What to do when you’ve run out of ideas.

At a time when we’re feeling more uninspired and “meh” than ever, is there anything we can do to jumpstart the imaginative parts of our brains?

Living through a creative drought can be infuriating, especially when you need a steady flow of ideas to pay the bills. Whether you’re making art, music or coming up with fresh content to promote your business, when inspiration dries up it can leave you demotivated, wracked with self-doubt and, annoyingly, less able to create than ever.

 

 Humans and our frustrating, brilliant brains

Creative people have always been prone to getting stuck in thought ruts — writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon. But living in times of uncertainty or stress can make creativity even more elusive.

That’s because our brains like to conserve energy and stay safe when things get challenging. And when we’re dealing with a lot of change or pressure over a sustained period of time, ol’ grey matter really starts battening down the hatches. 

This running on power-save mode is helpful in the short-term — it allows us to survive. But long-term, we can find ourselves struggling to make the creative connections that we used to find easy and, well, kind of fun.


Here comes the neuroscience part

Author of The Neuroscience of Creativity, Anna Abraham, says there’s a significant, scientifically proven difference between the habits of creative and uncreative minds: 

“The uncreative mode involves walking firmly along the ‘path of least resistance’ through the black-and-white zone of the expected, the obvious, the accurate or the efficient. Whereas the creative mode involves turning away from the path of least resistance and venturing into the briars so to speak in an effort to forge a new path through the gray zone of the unexpected, the vague, the misleading or the unknown.”

So sticking to the same, safe routines can land us in uncreative waters. And recently, many of us who would normally be out there hacking through the creative briars have retreated into a more cautious, simple way of life, mainly to stop our heads from exploding from overwhelm. So it makes sense that, eventually, we may find it challenging to get into our normal creative flow — because we’ve been training ourselves out of the habit of taking the road less travelled. 

Luckily, thanks to the plasticity of our brains, we should be able to take it back the other way.

 

Slow and steady beats the overwhelm

The problem with that is, of course, that life is nowhere near back to normal. We may still not be feeling particularly adventurous. We’re still frazzled and overwhelmed. The idea of boldly going where no person has gone before – or merely deciding how to promote our latest service or piece of work online – just feels exhausting.

Couple that with a culture that encourages us to “hustle” and flaunts achievement as the pinnacle of human experience, and you can see why we might be feeling we’re just not cut out for this shit.

It’s time for a reframe.

Forging new paths doesn’t have to mean big life changes, new hobbies, careers or finally writing that novel.

As Brené Brown said: “Joy comes to us in moments — ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.” So put down your long lens, stop looking at what everyone else is doing and think hard about how you’re spending today, this afternoon, this hour, this minute. 

Can we be more adventurous in doll-size ways?

How small can you go?

Which way do you walk to the shop or to work? What do you make yourself for lunch? What clothes do you decide to put on in the morning? 

Shake up your routine. Go left instead of right, take the train instead of the bus, ask for the special instead of your usual, wear your “best” shirt on a Monday.

What radio stations do you listen to, who do you follow on social media, which books do you read, which music do you listen to?

Switch the station, cull the dull and follow inspiring accounts, try a new genre, learn about something completely different, get a friend to make you a playlist (genuinely, some of us live for these moments).

Whatever choices you have to make today, instead of mindlessly doing the same thing you did yesterday, ask yourself what you *really* want to do. What would light you up? What could you try that you haven’t tried before? What used to be your favourite as a child that you haven’t revisited in years? 

Commit to it. Do it. Then – and this is the important bit – keep doing it. 


Retraining the creative brain

As incredible as it sounds, it is possible to change your brain with regular practice — in some cases you could change its shape entirely. A landmark study looking at the brains of London black cab drivers found the posterior hippocampus of cabbies was significantly larger than other people’s — and the longer they’d been in the job, the bigger and more well-developed that part of their brain had become. The phenomenal amount of learning required to acquire “the knowledge” (the ability to navigate the streets of London without a map), then access that information every day, had literally expanded their minds.

So, while small changes in routine might initially spark only a moment’s joy, a conscious and consistent effort towards the new – practised every day – may start to have a deeper impact.

As time passes, the theory goes, taking the unexpected option should start to feel less strange. Our brain begins to assimilate the behaviour as normal. And so our thoughts become less constricted, our creativity reemerges, and the green shoots start to appear again. 

New connections are made, ideas are formed, and inspiration returns.


Now go forth and have lots of bad ideas – so you can get to the good ones

Once your idea-energy starts returning, quantity over quality is the key. It has been proven that the more ideas you come up with, regardless of how good they are, the more likely you are to come up with something brilliant. There is clearly something very powerful and freeing in giving yourself permission to throw out whatever comes to you – and to keep doing it until you strike gold.

As Seth Godin said, “You can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones. Painters, musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, chiropractors, accountants – we all fail far more than we succeed.”

So go and come up with as many ideas as you can, the more terrible the better. Write them down as soon as they hit you – don’t let them get away. Intentionally practising creativity without worrying too much about how good what you’re making is liberating. 

Ultimately you’ll create more. And that means you’ll get to the good stuff faster.

There is light at the end of the “meh”.

 

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