There are times when you really have to be creative. In many of these situations, you may feel stuck. Nothing is coming to mind. Every time you think about the problem, you get frustrated. And since frustration is painful, you procrastinate. Time ticks by. The deadline creeps closer. Still, inspiration eludes you while the anxiety crowds in.
The problem is that you’re waiting around for creative inspiration to strike. And who can blame you? The experience of a breakthrough insight is thrilling. One moment you’re lost; the next, you’re off to the races. No wonder the Greeks invented the Muses to personify this flash of creative energy, seemingly from on high.
The only thing, of course, is that’s not how it works. You can still be creative without being inspired. In reality, inspiration can be coaxed out of nothingness through your own deliberate effort. Here’s how to do it as painlessly as possible.
First, Be Patient
This is the hardest thing in the world when you’re on deadline, but there’s no way around it. For many of us, years of schooling instilled the idea that steady progress is the way to get anything done. Need to write a 10-page paper? Knock out two pages a day for five days. Each day you’ve got two more pages to show for your efforts.
When you need real insight, though–particularly for creative work–progress is discontinuous. For a long time, you have nothing. Then, after a moment of inspiration, you’re on the road to solving your problem. So it helps to realize that you actually are making progress on the problem, even though you have nothing to show for it.
I was given two years to put together the introductory course for a new degree program, called Human Dimensions of Organizations, that I’ve developed at the University of Texas at Austin. For the first 12 months, I had no idea how I was going to teach it. But I kept a smile on my face and tried to stay patient. I knew the problem was gestating somewhere in the back of my mind, and eventually I’d hit upon an idea. By intentionally working to maintain a positive attitude, my subconscious mind was able to keep working on it unimpeded by anxiety, even though I had no tangible proof that was actually happening. Patience isn’t passivity–it’s part of the creative process.
Go Read Something
The tasks that really require inspiration are typically ones that nobody has solved directly before (otherwise you could just Google it). But that doesn’t mean that nobody knows anything that can help you to solve the problem. Chances are there’s a lot of work out there that might prove useful–you just haven’t realized it’s useful yet.
So stop waiting for inspiration and start researching. Find articles, books, and academic papers on topics that touch on whatever you’re working on. If you’re still stumped and feel like your research quest is leading you down a bunch of pointless rabbit holes, don’t stop–keep reading. Sure, in the process you might stumble on something that gives you a foothold. But even if that doesn’t happen, you’ll get a sense of the language people use to talk about the domain you’re working in. Often that involves describing a problem in a new way, which can remind you of something else you know that might emerge as the source of your inspiration.
In my work on the intro class, I asked colleagues to recommend lots of books and articles relating to people and organizations. Immersing myself in this material didn’t feel like a particularly creative exercise, but it led me to notice themes that eventually became cornerstones of the class.
Write And Talk
When you get stuck on a project, you’ll often ruminate about it–cycling through the same set of thoughts until all you can do is continue thinking about the issue in just one way. The best way to break that cycle is to get those thoughts out of your head. Write them down. The beauty of externalizing your thoughts is that your brain no longer feels on the hook to hold onto them. That frees up your short-term memory to think differently–and, hopefully, more creatively–about the problem it has to hold on to those thoughts.
Same goes for talking about the problem with colleagues. Don’t be afraid to let your coworkers see you’re struggling with it. These conversations can help you hear your colleagues reflect your own language back to you, making you realize that you might not be describing the issue in the best way–and that there’s a way to reframe it so it’s easier to tackle.
With the intro class, I spent a lot of time keeping notes about the class and chatting about it with anyone who would listen. Eventually, those discussions helped me start to see that I kept talking about the human element to negotiation, resolving disputes, and motivating others–rather than their cold, hard mechanics. Even though they emerged slowly, not in some flash of creative insight, these themes became the anchors for the class. And that didn’t bother me a bit.