You sit down for a blissful hour of writing.
You carved out this time and everything worked out perfectly. You’ve got a private place to work, your favorite tea (or other drink) beside you, and your work-in-progress pulled up on your laptop.
An hour later, you’ve managed little more than a paragraph. Or maybe you’ve written a few pages, but everything looks dull, routine, and unimaginative.
What happened? How could you manage to waste that beautiful hour of time?
More than likely, there were other factors at work you weren’t aware of. We’re often sabotaged by other things we don’t realize are connected to our creativity—until it’s too late.
Below are seven ways to get past common imagination destroyers and charm your creativity out of the box.
1. Keep it focused with healthy food.
What have you been eating for the past few days?
Food affects the brain, plain and simple. In 2008, Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science who analyzed over 160 studies on food’s effect on the brain, stated:
“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain….This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging.”
Foods that slow productivity and creativity are bad for you anyway—fatty, fried, junk foods and processed foods that have little real nutrition. These foods will literally slow your thinking (research has found they also screw up learning and memory).
To enhance brain power, get more omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, fatty fish, flaxseed), folic acid (spinach, lentils, citrus fruit), and antioxidants (all fruits, veggies, and dark chocolate), and choose foods with a low glycemic index (think high fiber, whole foods). They break down more steadily in your system, keep your blood sugar even, and optimize brainpower and focus.
To make healthy foods like these more enticing, charm yourself with garnishments like cut up oranges on salads, nuts in your yogurt or oatmeal, or cut-up apples or celery dipped in cottage cheese or peanut butter.
2. Wake it up with physical activity.
How long has it been since you exercised?
I know a lot of people groan at the thought of exercise, but if you’re neglecting it, it’s no wonder your creativity has taken a hiatus.
We have a ton of evidence that shows exercise affects cognition (mental power). In 2009, for instance, researchers showed that exercise directly improved blood flow to the brain and enhanced the activity of neurotransmitters involved in cognition.
And a 2013 study found that those who exercised four times a week were able to think more creatively than those who were more likely to sit around on the couch.
There are a number of other studies supporting the connection. You’ve probably experienced it yourself—a lot of writers, for instance, get their best ideas while walking.
If you haven’t exercised regularly for awhile, try to get back into it. Charm yourself into it by making it more enjoyable. Watch a fun video while on the treadmill, listen to an audio book while walking or running, turn on your favorite tunes, or pair up with a pal. You’ll likely notice a jump in your creativity and writing productivity.
3. Entice it near with low expectations.
Are you expecting too much from your work?
High expectations ruin creativity.
Ask yourself what thoughts you have right before you go to work. Are you thinking about how this new book needs to be better than your last? Or about how this is the book that will put you over the top in your career, and bring you everything you’ve hoped for? Or how if you don’t get this one right, you’re going to give up writing?
Expectations have a way of making the muse vamoose. You may not even realize you’re doing it.
If you’re a perfectionist, expect that this problem is going to creep up now and then. Perfectionism destroys creativity and productivity because it requires your work to be perfect out of the gate. But you need room to play first.
Next time you sit down to work, check in with your thoughts. If they’re all about your expectations, make a point to change them around.
Charm your brain with playful writing instead. Play with words, settings, characters, and dialogue. Make your writing time about having fun. Put all your expectations aside. Promise yourself you’ll deal with them later.
Do whatever you have to do to get your brain out of “I must perform” mode and back into “let’s have some fun” mode.
4. Keep it cool.
Are you stressed out?
Stress kills creativity.
Rick Hanson PhD, a California based neuropsychologist and author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, told Forbes that chronic stress screws up the whole creative process, making it more difficult to think “outside the box,” and limiting mental nimbleness and dexterity.
It’s impossible to eliminate stress completely from your life, so try instead to incorporate a stress-relieving practice into your writing time. Charm your creativity into the room with five minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of yoga poses, or a few minutes making your favorite cup of tea.
If you’re still staring at cardboard walls, switch to your journal and spend five minutes free writing about your worries, then put it away and try again on your story. See if that doesn’t free up your muse to come play.
5. Allow it to wake up calmly.
How did you start your day?
Mornings are often the best time of the day to be creative.
But the way most of us go about our daily routines, we’re killing creativity from the get go. We get up with the alarm clock and jerk ourselves awake with caffeine, which researchers say destroys that gold mine that is morning grogginess (when insights are likely to occur).
We get stressed right away with our morning chores or commute—again discouraging creativity—and we often drown ourselves in social media, which if we’re not careful, can be depressing. (Read more on stress and creativity here.)
It can be tough to change morning routines, especially if you’re expected at the office, but there are a few things you can do to stimulate instead of kill creativity.
- Set your alarm 10 minutes earlier and give yourself that 10 minutes to gradually wake up, jotting down any ideas that occur to you during that time. (Don’t be surprised if there are several, especially as you get used to this routine.)
- Try to relax your morning by giving yourself just a few more minutes to eat breakfast or enjoy your shower. Consider 5-10 minutes of meditation before you leave for work.
- If you have to commute, think of it as time to enjoy rather than wasted time. Listen to an audiobook or relaxing music on the way, or use a recording app on your smartphone to talk out your ideas for your latest writing project.
Ask yourself how you’d like to start your day, and then make changes. Even small ones can help coax your creativity to show up more often.
6. Change it up.
Are you in a rut?
Routines can encourage regular writing output, but they can also lead to boredom.
When was the last time you did something unexpected? Went somewhere you hadn’t been? Tried something new?
“Novelty is inherent to creative processes,” write the researchers of a 2013 study on creativity. It primes originality, helping us to come up with new ideas.
If you’ve been doing the same thing over and over for several weeks or more, expect your creativity to sink back inside that box. It’s time to shake things up. Plan a trip somewhere new for the weekend. Take a class, change up your daily walk, call up a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, or try learning a new skill.
Ask yourself how you can add some novelty into your day. Even something as simple as changing around the furniture can do the trick.
7. Make it happy.
Has all your feedback been negative lately?
Writing can be a long, dark slog, particularly if you haven’t received any positive feedback in awhile.
Maybe you’ve been the victim of a run of rejections, or your work has failed to get any traction in the contests you’ve submitted to. Maybe your book didn’t get the reviews you hoped for.
Whatever the situation, if you haven’t received a pat on the back lately, your creativity may be feeling unhappy and unsuccessful.
Watch out for thoughts like “I don’t know why I’m wasting my time on this,” or, “Whoever thought I could be a writer?” If you suspect you may have fallen into this trap, it’s time to give yourself a good dose of self-love. That means for three days straight, you need to ask yourself how you can make yourself happy.
“Self, how can I make you happy in this moment?”
It may seem strange, but what you need is a good dose of positive emotions. Creativity fades on negative thinking, but it feeds on energy and positivity. Since you can’t control what others think or say about your writing, you have to come back to the source—your own feelings.
Treat yourself with something special for breakfast. Go out for a movie on a weeknight. Pick up that new album you’ve had your eye (or ear) on. Get some new writing tool that will make you happy.
Keep asking yourself: “What will make me happy right now?” and then do it if at all possible.
At the end of the three days, you should be feeling good enough to tackle your writing again—for fun.
Remember, writing is supposed to make you happy, and happy creativity can’t stand to stay in the box.
How do you charm your creativity out of the box?
Stuart Wolpert, “Scientists learn how what you eat affects your brain—and those of your kids,” UCLA, [Press Release}, July 9, 2008, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/scientists-learn-how-food-affects-52668.
Viatcheslav Wlassoff, “Can Physical Exercise Improve Cognitive Abilities?” BioPsychoSocial Health, February 4, 2015, http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/04/can-physical-exercise-improve-cognitive-abilities/.
Sarah Knapton, “Lacking inspiration? Exercise found to boost creativity,” Telegraph, December 3, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10491702/Lacking-inspiration-Exercise-found-to-boost-creativity.html.
Amy Novotney, “The Science of Creativity,” American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/01/creativity.aspx.
Judy Martin, “Employee Brain on Stress Can Quash Creativity and Competitive Edge,” Forbes, September 5, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/09/05/employee-brain-on-stress-can-quash-creativity-competitive-edge/#741ca0de1500.
Marleen Gillebaart, et al., “Unraveling the Effects of Novelty on Creativity,” Creativity Research Journal, 2013; 25(3):280-285, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2013.813781.
Annie Murphy Paul, “Why Morning Routines are Creativity Killers,” Time, February 1, 2012, http://ideas.time.com/2012/02/01/why-morning-routines-are-creativity-killers/.