12 Ways to Defeat Creative Block and Generate New Ideas

A lack of ideas – it happens to the best of us.

It even happened to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his thirties. “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O Sorrow and Shame. I have done nothing!”

A constant stream of novel ideas is important for anyone working in a creative industry. Not only will your clients or bosses want new designs, solutions, or theories regularly, you yourself will want to be innovative to show your creative spirit.

But as anyone with that spirit will tell you, sometimes it escapes you. This artistic block can be soul-wrenching for anyone whose livelihood is dependent on their wits and creativity. But, in truth, writer’s or artist’s block can easily be overcome.

01. More Ideas = Better Ideas

This is first on the list for one reason: the best way to generate great ideas is to have as many of them as possible.

If you have 100 ideas and 99 of them are terrible, you’ve still got a winner.

Unfortunately, a lot of people fall for the Eureka myth. They think that big ideas come from nowhere, and that true geniuses have singular, exceptional thoughts.

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Actually, the geniuses throughout history, though definitely smart, were all really hard working as well. They had countless ideas, and it is only because most of these were nonsense that you know nothing about them. For some, however, we do. Einstein published hundreds of scientific works throughout his lifetime, and while he is famous for only a few ideas, it is the totality of his thinking that made him a genius.

02. Scratch Your Own Itch

A great way to come up with ideas is to start looking at what your needs and wants are.

People often want to come up with the “Next Big Thing”, focusing on big ideas instead of looking at the small details.

Recent multi-billion “sharing economy” companies started out just because a few people needed somewhere to stay cheaply, or wanted a better way to get around the city.

Look at how you can help yourself before helping others. If you are a developer, you might have an overriding need for a certain piece of software or an app that just doesn’t exist – start there. If you are a writer or an artist, write, paint, draw, sculpt what you love first and you will find a wealth of ideas generating from that as you brain is so engrossed in the problem.

03. Keep Track of Your Ideas

It’s all well and good having ideas, but, if you are anything like me, those ideas will vanish out of your head as soon as you get distracted. Some people have great memories, and then there is the rest of us.

Write things down. Now that smartphones are ubiquitous, there is no longer the excuse of not having a pen and paper handy.

You can use any of the myriad of apps designed to help you keep track of ideas, such as Evernote, Notes, or Keep. Personally, I also like to have post-it notes or a small notebook nearby as well, especially on the bedside table. Everyone has had those great ideas just as they doze off, only to completely forget them the next morning (or worse – remember you had a great idea, but not remember what that idea was!).

But it isn’t enough to just collect ideas, you have to implement them in some way as well. Sit down every week or month to go through the ideas you have collected and sift through them, tossing out the ones that you haven’t got time for, and concentrating on the ones you do.

04. Observe The World Around You

This may seem obvious, but a lot of people spend too much time in their own heads when they are trying to come up with new ideas. If you chose to lift your eyes away from the screen for five minutes you will generate far more ideas in that five minutes than you would in an hour staring at a blank piece of paper.

If you are in a coffee shop or other public place, use that five minutes to take note of your surroundings and what is happening around you. If you are a writer, try and describe, if you’re an artist, sketch it out. These thoughts, notes, and sketches may not be immediately helpful, but somewhere down the line you might need exactly this scene for an idea. The more your brain takes in, the more thoughts it can have and the more ideas it can generate.

05. Break Routines

We have talked about routines and how helpful they are before. However, once you settle into a routine and your brain starts to work on autopilot you can sometimes stop looking for new ideas and make do with the ones you have. Breaking a routine now and then is like a shock to the brain. It has to re-assess what is happening and will start to work a heightened ability.

If you are usually a late sleeper, get up early one morning to see how your brain copes. You might find yourself a little fuzzy, but that fuzziness and the new sensations (what is that? Birdsong?) that come with the early hours will allow for new focus and new ideas that you might have slept through previously.

You can also see this as questioning your assumptions about the world. As we all live on autopilot for a significant part of our lives the downside is that we often decide something about the world and then set it in stone, never questioning our assumptions or using new evidence. If you break out of your routines, you will often see the world through fresh eyes and have a chance to question what you base your thinking on. For there, you can start to think differently, and generate new ideas that you would not have thought before.

06. Doodle

We will cover this in more depth soon, but doodling isn’t (necessarily) the sign of a wandering, idle mind. Instead, doodling can improve cognitive performance on tasks such as memory retention. How it does this is still a mystery, but the added focus for your mind might help it to stop wandering, rather than make it wander.

07. Trial and Error

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There is a Japanese proverb: 七転び八起き.This literally means “fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Everyone wants to be right first time, but that is unlikely to happen. A significant reason for people not pursuing ideas is that they are afraid to fail.

Failing is part of the process. Everyone who is or has ever been successful has failed at some point in their life.

You are going to fail at some point and it is only a matter of how you treat that failure that determines your success. If you learn from it, generating new idea along the way then it is difficult to see it as a failure, but rather as important part of your success.

Make a ‘bug list’ as you go through your creative process determining what works for you and what doesn’t. It could start as this list. Use the ideas here and cross them off as they don’t work, or highlight them as they do. They add new ideas as you continue and work out how you, personally, generate the best ideas. Success won’t come immediately, but it will come as you get better and better.

08. Seek More Experiences

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This should seem obvious, but again, many people do not seek out new experiences that can generate new ideas. Just as you have to break routines, one of the best ways to come up with new ideas is to see and experience new things.

The better travelled you are, the more art you take in, the more fun you have, the more people you meet, the more senses you assault, the more your mind will work and the more ideas you will have.

You do not have to book a trip around the world on a Dhow tomorrow. But consider what new experience you could have tomorrow. You could see a play, or talk to a stranger, or simply go for a walk on a path you have never been.

09. Take a Break

The novelist Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Booker Prize believes vehemently in taking a break when inspiration dries up: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem.”

As we say, exercise works wonders, but so does almost any break. Though it can be difficult to step away, especially when you might be under pressure, you have to do it for the sake of the ideas.

Though you might come up with your craziest ideas when whacked out on caffeine, you’ll quickly discover that those ideas are the most likely to thrown out.

When you feel mind start to seize up, take that break, be it for five minutes or five hours, and you are likely to find that your mind will oil itself in that time ready for more development.

Hilary mentions meditation as a way to relieve the cognitive strain and generate new ideas, and see is not alone.

A productivity hack often attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld is the idea of ‘Don’t Break the Chain’ – i.e. work on your ideas every single day.

Seinfeld has said though, that if he was to attribute his success to one idea, this would not be it. Instead, he thinks meditation is what has brought him the most benefit. Paul McCartney, Rupert Murdoch, Hugh Jackman and Oprah Winfrey all meditate and swear by it. And they might be right.

Meditation has been shown to induce functional changes in prefrontal cortices, possibly allowing meditators to focus more. Buddhist monks, long-term practitioners of meditation, can alter their own brain waves to act in synchrony, in effect training their minds over time to be more attentive.

10. Make Connections

John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: “As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible”

This is a great example of what can happen when you make connections that no one has tried before – you can give birth to entirely new thoughts. If you want to generate new ideas, try bringing together ideas that have never been coupled before and see what they spring. Again, it might be 99% terrible, but it only has to have that 1% to work.

The other way to make connections is between people. Networking and talking to people is one of the best ways to generate new ideas. Every person is a wealth of information, and has a unique viewpoint that you will never have heard before. Additionally, you cannot expect to come up with all of the answers yourself. It is good to ask questions and to be inquisitive. If you are stuck on an issue, look at the way other people and other organizations have solved similar problems. Sometimes, simply changing the way you view a problem can produce insight and generate new ideas.

Make sure you are taking your time over an issue and are asking the relevant questions. Sometimes you will only have one chance to get the correct answers, so make sure you are asking the correct questions.

11. Brainstorming

OK, so we haven’t exactly been enthusiastic about brainstorming in past articles, but that is for good reason. People often treat brainstorming sessions as if they are the best, and sometimes only, way for a group of people to come up with ideas. However, brainstorming sessions are nearly always a time suck for the people involved.

They may seem productive, but better ideas would be generated by allowing people to focus on their own ideas and then reporting them to the group.

But brainstorming session can work, if they are run correctly. If you must have brainstorming sessions, then make sure you give adequate time to the participants to generate ideas beforehand, and make sure the session is a critical one. Brainstorming sessions are often seem as ‘safe zones’ where no idea will be shot down. Instead, teach your group to criticize constructively, by asking questions, debating and discussing, and given more time and effort to ideas that win the group over.

12. Make Decisions

In writing, there is a term “Kill your babies”. It means that sometimes you have to delete jokes, passages, or thoughts that you might love but just do not fit. You have to do the same with any ideas that you have.

A killer for any creative is becoming absorbed with an idea that just isn’t going anywhere.

Of course, it can be very difficult to determine which ideas are winners or not early in the process, but that is why you have to be constantly critical of yourself, deciding what is worth pursuing, and what not.

As we said, when your livelihood is dependent on your wits, it is normal to question those wits at some point. One day, you will find yourself out of ideas and suddenly it can feel like your world is coming crashing down around you. But breathe, take that rest, take that walk and then come back again. Suddenly you will find that the idea just out of your grasp an hour before is fully formed in your mind and you are ready begin again.

Andrew Tate is a freelance writer and neuroscientist who has worked on understanding the brain and how it learns in the UK, Switzerland, and the US. His interest in design stems from a passion for proper presentation, especially of data, his love of doodling, and his inability to draw anything more sophisticated than a stick figure (and his awe at anyone that can).