This is part I of a two-part series on tackling creative mental blocks. Read part II here.
Considering the copious amounts of information we consume the minute we get out of bed (and even before that, for those of us who check our phones first thing in the morning), you’d logically expect it to be easier to synthesise all of it into new ideas today than it was pre-Internet Revolution.
If we’re now more connected and informed than ever before, surely we should also be more creative?
Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be true. According to Dr. Kim Kyung Hee, one of the world’s foremost creativity researchers, creativity has been on a constant decline since the 1990s in America alone. It’s taken an even steeper nosedive in the last decade.
At the same time, the value of creativity is now higher than ever. A 2010 IBM poll of 1500 CEOs indicated that creativity was the most vital factor for future success. It’s clear that as we approach the fourth industrial revolution, creativity and innovative thinking have become one of the most sought-after traits in prospective hires.
All is not lost. Society might still conceive of creative genius as something you’re either born with or not, but science tells us otherwise. Creativity, just like the muscles in our body, can be trained.
Unlike productivity, though, it’s not as straightforward as simply cutting out all distractions and getting yourself to focus. In fact, sometimes doing that might harm the quality and quantity of your creative output. So what happens when you want to be creative, but it’s just not working? How do you get out of a creative rut like that?
Here’s the thing. If you’re stuck in quicksand, moving around excessively will only make you sink faster. Similarly, when you’re having a creative dry spell, trying to squeeze every last drop of brain juice out is only going to exhaust you, without having much of an effect on your creativity. There are two ways you can deal with this:
First, we’ll look at why and how taking a break can help to get you out of a creative dry spell.
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When you’ve been staring at a blank page for hours on end, racking your brains to no effect, frustration and adamance can drive you absolutely up the wall. You know you have it in you, but somehow the ideas just aren’t coming out. Worse, your deadline is looming closer and closer which each passing minute that you spend in this creative limbo.
So you try to force it. Unfortunately, this is perhaps one of the worst things you could do when you’re trying to be creative. At this point, your mind is probably experiencing “cognitive exhaustion”. Research shows that in this state, your ability to ideate is greatly diminished.
Instead of opening itself up to previously unconsidered possibilities, your mind begins to narrow its options down to maximise the efficiency of your mental resource usage. In other words, at this stage, the more you try to force your brain to think creatively, the less effective it is.
Here’s what you should do instead.
At its core, creativity is really about allowing your brain to make the necessary links between the ideas and mental precepts that are already floating around in your head. For this to happen, though, you need to first allow yourself to access all the information that your brain has gathered, categorised, and stored away in your mental “warehouse.”
The psychological term for this is “cognitive disinhibition.” Simply put, this is when our minds remove the mental filters that sift out “irrelevant” information away from our attention. Numerous studies have shown that this is the underlying process for creativity. These mental filters ensure that we don’t get overwhelmed on a daily basis with the amount of information our brains are bombarded with (especially so in the digital age.)
When you’re trying to come up with unconventional solutions and think out of the box, though, mental filters work against you. To come up with truly original ideas, you need to mentally access as much information as you can.
To encourage this process, it’s essential that you allow yourself to enter a relaxed state of mind. When that happens, the mind slowly begins to remove its filters, leaving more room for the connection-making that powers creative thinking. This is why people often get their best ideas in the shower, or even when they’re sleepy.
Another vital element of the creative process is the period of incubation. After you’ve accessed and gathered up all the information you need, you need to give yourself time to soak it all in. This incubation period is what allows you to extract and develop meaningful patterns from the maelstrom of white noise in your mind. The mental connections and links you make at this stage are what will eventually progress into fully formed, novel ideas.
The problem is that when we’re experiencing a creative drought, we tend to focus only on a few ideas and modes of thought and exclude everything else. This is counterproductive for incubation; what you need to do here is to distract yourself.
According to Harvard researcher Shelly Carson, distractions provide a welcome change for the mind to free itself from being mentally fixated. After allowing yourself to be distracted, you can return to the same problem having mentally refreshed yourself, thus facilitating the incubation period.
Not all distractions are created equal, though. Some forms of distraction that have been scientifically proven to assist creativity include: