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Get out of your creative rut

Written by Justin on November 18, 2016

A woman feels the effects of depression

These past two weeks have been awful.

It feels like my creative energy has been stamped out.

One day I woke up and I could feel it: I was in a rut.

It scared me.

I earn my living off my imagination. And when ideas don’t come, I get desperate.

“C’mon brain! Give me something!”

Usually, I have the opposite problem. Ideas come pouring out of me like Niagara Falls. But this time, I held out my cup hoping for a drop of inspiration; but none came.

Have you felt like this? Your motivation to work, create, and make goes away? (If yes, tell me about it here)

Gradually, over the last few days, I’ve been able to regain my momentum.

Here are a few of the things that helped me:

Get uncomfortable

When we’re feeling down, our inclination is to hibernate. We want to get under some warm blankets, eat cereal, and mope. Or, we seek solace from sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Don’t seek comfort. You need to give yourself a jolt of the unfamiliar.

I forced myself to drive 45 minutes to a neighboring town to watch a documentary.

I knew it would be good for me because:

The quickest way to get out of a creative rut is to make yourself uncomfortable. This means:

Discomfort is like jumper cables for a dead creative battery.

Help someone else

Lacking motivation, we turn inward. We try to nurture our creative soul.

But self-focus isn’t the answer; outward focus is.

My friend Dave needed a website. I can make websites.

Normally I don’t have time to do projects like this for friends. I’m too focused on my own stuff.

However, because of my lack of inspiration, I didn’t have any current projects.

So I helped Dave build a simple static site for his business.

We spent the morning together. I could tell that launching this website represented significant progress for Dave and his new business. Seeing that gave me energy.

Helping others renews your spirit.

Get outside

Too often, when I’m in a rut, I’ll force myself to stay at my desk. “I’m not going anywhere until I accomplish something,” I’ll say.

It’s like trying to squeeze water from a rock.

Leave your desk. Go outside. Take a walk. Lay on the grass. Sit by a river. Breathe.

I try to practice a light form of meditation, where I won’t focus on anything particular, and I’ll just focus on breathing. I’ll start with ten breaths: in slowly, and out slowly.

Your brain isn’t your slave; you need to let it roam.

Re-focus on your destination

Once I felt my creative energy returning, I took out a piece of paper, and drew something like this:

What stands between you and your goal?

On one side I wrote: “Here’s where I am now.”

On the other side, I put: “This is where I want to be.” For me, this destination represents a specific revenue goal for my business.

In the middle, I asked: “What are three things I need to do to get there?

Re-centering on the gap between where I am, and where I want to be, was motivating. It also helped me to come up with specific actions I could take.

When you’re in a rut, action creates momentum.

Ask these two questions before you go to bed

With renewed momentum, I was able to start tracking my progress.

The most efficient way I’ve found for doing this is to ask these questions each night:

  1. What did I accomplish today?
  2. What am I going to do tomorrow?

Tracking each day’s accomplishments is a visual reminder of your velocity. After I’ve listed them out, I’ll go back over them and mark an “X” or a checkmark. An “X” is for anything that doesn’t help me move towards my goal. The checkmarks are actions that are helping me make progress.

Asking yourself “What am I going to do tomorrow” creates the intention for your next day. What three big things do you want to get done? Now, when you wake up, you won’t ask: “What should I do today?” You’ll already know.

Healthy habits

My friend Corey reminded me about the importance of habits.

When we feel down, we want to drink beer, stay up late and eat junk food; this just makes you feel worse. You can’t control what’s going on in the world, but you can go to bed on time, eat your veggies, and go for a run.

There’s also professional habits. Start work at a reasonable hour. Do your creative work in the morning. Answer email in the afternoon. Write tests for your code. Keep your desk clean. Backup your hard drive.

Double down on healthy habits. They’ll sustain you when you’re in a rough patch.

I hope these ideas have been helpful for you. These originated as a discussion thread in the Product People Club. Thanks to all the folks there who contributed. This post is also available as a podcast episode here.

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