I first gave this talk: Still No Eye Deer (or things to do when your imaginary friends refuse to talk to you), back in June 2020. Throughout late 2019, and early 2020 (pre-lockdown), I ran a number of creative training sessions for both agencies and inhouse teams, and I noticed a recurrent theme – at every single session I ran someone asked me this:
What do you do when you get stuck?
Of course the question wasn’t always phrased exactly like this. But I was consistently asked either this question, or a version of this question in every single training sessions I gave. And it makes sense that people would ask this – almost everyone experiences the feeling of being “stuck” from time to time, but how do you get yourself unstuck?
Creative block is something that’s been written about an awful lot, but I found that I wasn’t wholly satisfied with anything that had previously been written. For example, often the advice was aimed at artists as opposed to those doing commercial creative work – this of course doesn’t make the advice redundant, but commercial creative work is different. Its purpose is different. The pressures involved are often different.
But for me at least, there was actually a bigger problem:
We often talk about creative block as if it’s a specific, singular, concrete problem, however I think that the truth is, creative block is a catch-all term for a whole bunch of very different problems.
With this in mind, I set out to put the talk together.
As we’re here I feel like it’s probably worth saying that the way in which I put talks together is frankly a bit chaotic.
Most of the time it starts with an idea like this. First up, I’ll read just about anything and everything I can lay my hands on about the topic, and I make a bunch of notes. I quite like this bit. I don’t feel much pressure at this point because I’m not really writing the talk, I’m just doing research.
So I did a bunch of research, and I had a list of creative sticking points that I wanted to include. I popped the individual sticking points on index cards and laid them out – essentially I was looking to identify core themes, and figure out some sort of structure for the talk. But I felt like I was missing something important, and I found myself feeling a bit stuck. (The irony of this was not lost on me.)
Realisations rarely come to you when you need them. Sitting and thinking hard about a problem (for me at least) rarely yields a solution.
I decided just to write the talk anyway.
I often do this. Most of my initial slide decks are many hundreds of slides longer than the final version. For me, writing is a way of figuring out how I really think and feel about stuff.
Happily, as I was writing the talk, something occurred to me. I’d defined creative block:
Creative block is when you have no ideas, and no idea what to do next.
But what is the opposite of creative block? I’ve defined the problem, (in this case an undesirable state), but what’s the solution? What does the desirable state that we want to get to look like? What does it feel like? What’s the opposite of creative block?
I started thinking about how I felt when I was doing creative work which was going well. People (myself included) often refer to this as being in “flow”. Flow states feel magical. When you’re in flow, anything is possible. I concluded that being in “flow” might well be the opposite of creative block, so I set about trying to define the characteristics of flow – here’s what I came up with:
The characteristics of “flow”:
you know what to do
you know how to do it
you know that you’re doing it well
you’re enjoying what you’re doing
I also wanted to come up a more concise definition – after a bunch of attempts this is the definition I settled on:
You’re in “flow” when work feels like play and ideas come easily to you.
Finally the talk started to make sense to me. Rather than a huge list of creative sticking points, and a bunch of solutions (some of which I wasn’t entirely happy with), I would instead structure the talk around moving from creative block to “flow” – how do we go from having no ideas, and no idea what to do next; to having our work feel like play, and ideas coming easily to us.
Identifying the characteristics of flow provided a structure for the talk that I figured I could work with. Of course this meant I had to do a whole bunch of rejigging, rewriting, (and indeed deleting) of what I’d already done, however that’s pretty standard for me – maybe one day I’ll write up some of those deleted scenes.
What follows is a collection of further notes and thoughts on that talk – my intention is to provide a bit more context to the slides – I hope you find it useful 🙂
We often talk about creative block as if it’s a specific, singular, concrete problem, however I think that the truth is, creative block is a catch-all term for a whole bunch of very different problems. As such, if you want to unstick yourself, and go from creative block to flow, perhaps the best place to begin is to consider what sort of creative block you’re suffering from – is one or more of these things the problem?
- Do you know what to do?
- Do you know how to do it?
- Do you think you’re “bad” at this?
- Are you constantly being interrupted?
- Are you enjoying what you’re doing?
I’ll deal with them each in turn 🙂
Do you know what to do?
My original creative sticking points for this section of the talk were:
- Debunk this myth: “Constraints fuel creativity” (ugh)
- External blocks:
- Creative brief is too narrow
- Creative brief is too broad
- Internal blocks:
- Too narrowly focused
- I don’t know where to begin! (too broad a focus = no damn focus)
- External blocks:
Let’s kick off with the myth: I often hear people say things like “constraints fuel creativity”, which is somewhat true, but as with many a short, pithy soundbite it’s woefully incomplete. Whilst having some constraints provide a much-needed focus for creative work, what actually fuels creativity is a balance between freedom and constraint.
Constraints are great because they provide focus. They give clues about where we should begin. They guide us. But if there are too many constraints, or if the constraints are too strict, they limit possibilities.
But having unbounded freedom is no better. Having too many possibilities can also limit creative work, because we become unfocused at best, or utterly overwhelmed at worst.
This is perhaps best explained with some examples, so let’s kick off with the creative brief.
Have you ever received a creative brief like this?
Come up with creative ideas about motorised window blinds.
It might be possible to come up with some sort of creative piece which is about the product or service that a particular company is peddling, but is it something that journalists will want to write about? It depends on the niche of course, but the example above makes for a very restrictive brief.
What about a creative brief like this?
This client is open to anything, you have complete creative freedom – WOOP!
When I get a brief like this, something inside of me dies.
This is not a brief at all. This is the absence of a brief. You have been given quite literally nothing to go on, so of course you have no clue about where to begin. Plus of course it’s simply untrue. The client is not open to anything. There’s a whole bunch of things they absolutely won’t agree to, you just don’t know what those things are.
All those things are securely locked up in the clients’ head. For what it’s worth, the client hasn’t done this deliberately to be an ass, it’s just that they think that all the things that are in their head are obvious and there’s no need to mention them to you. If only you could see inside their head (creepy weirdness aside) all your problems would be solved.
In my experience both an overly restrictive brief, and an overly open brief (or, more accurately, the absence of a brief) both cause creative blocks. Typically, they also lead to less effective creative work.
Having worked with a number of clients over time, I know how tricky it can be to get a clear brief. Here’s what I think you need as a minimum:
- 5-10 sites (or sections of sites) where the client wants coverage
- This gives you a sense of which sites they consider to be “good”. It also gives you an excellent starting point for your research – you can kick off you own ideation process by looking at what those sites already cover.
- A list of topics they absolutely won’t entertain
- This saves you a bunch of time. It means you’ll be less likely to come up with a bunch of ideas which will automatically be rejected.
With just those things I find I can work pretty effectively. Without them, I can’t.
Whilst I’m not saying you can’t do creative work if you don’t have those things, it’s definitely the case that it’s far more difficult.
There’s a bunch of other stuff that’s also nice to have:
- A list of topics they are keen to explore
- This frequently goes awry, when I’ve asked for stuff like this previously I’ve received lists of product or service offerings
- More information on the customers they’re looking to attract
- Sometimes this is helpful, but many clients are seeking to attract pretty broad audiences
- Some examples of content they wish they’d made
- Great if you can get it, but in my experience it can be tricky to get an answer to questions like this
In short if you get either a brief that’s too restrictive, or one that’s too open, go back and get a clearer brief. Even if all you’re able to get is that list of 5-10 sites, plus a list of topics they won’t entertain. It’ll save you a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
However, sometimes the problem isn’t the brief – sometimes the problem is in your head.
In the past I’ve been asked to:
“Come up with creative ideas for a company that sells contact lenses”
But on dark days, when I can see only limits, I hear this:
“Come up with creative ideas about contact lenses.”
That’s not what I’ve been asked to do, but it’s where my head goes in any case. The problem is, thinking like that limits me unnecessarily.
If you find yourself stuck in a headspace like this, you might find it useful to think beyond the product or service offering of whatever client you’re working on. I included a few examples in the deck for how you might go about this.
For a contact lens company I elected to think “bigger”:
For a VPN provider, rather than thinking about the product itself, I spent some time thinking about why people use a VPN:
For a mattress review company I thought about what’s connected to the product:
Clearly these aren’t ideas that I’m generating here. What I’m generating is further topics which I can explore. Also, these examples are heavily sanitised. For me stuff like this works best on paper as opposed to in front of a screen. I have notebooks filled with hastily scribbled pages like these.
Conversely, sometimes the problem isn’t that I see only limits, the problem is that I have too much freedom.
This is most likely to happen when I’ve got a client that’s open to exploring a fairly large number of topics. For example, I’ve had travel clients that are open to creating content about history, culture, language, sport, food, drink, books, movies, TV and more.
With clients like this, sometimes I find myself flitting from one topic to another, (to another, to another, to another, to another), but not actually getting any concrete ideas down. The range of possibilities cause me to lack focus.
In instances like this, I set my own constraints, and force myself to focus on one topic at a time. For example, I’ll set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes and focus on one single topic. If I find myself thinking about another topic I’ll jot down a quick note, but I won’t allow myself to disappear down an unrelated rabbit hole during that time period.
Ok, let’s wrap this section up.
Some of this stuff can be solved for with a balanced brief, but some of this stuff you have to solve yourself by altering either your mindset, or your approach.
“You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.”Trey Speegle, mixed-media artist
So that’s section one down; four more to go people! This post is long isn’t it?
Do you know how to do it?
My original creative sticking points for this section of the talk were:
- Debunk this myth: “Creativity is the ability to conjure ideas from thin air” (more ugh)
- Are people trying to conjure ideas from nothing?
- Talk about the creative process: inspiration, generation, validation
- Process sticking points –
- Too much inspiration, or too little
- Do you have a swipe file? You probably need one.
- Validation mindset problems
- Too much inspiration, or too little
- Process sticking points –
Again here, I’m going to kick off with the myth: Many people believe that ideas just come to you – essentially that creativity is the ability to conjure ideas from thin air.
But that’s just not how this stuff works. Sure, sometimes it’s the case that a great idea seemingly just comes to you out of nowhere (more on this later); but if you stick a blank sheet of paper in front of me and holler: “IDEAS – GO!” it’s likely you’ll get nothing good from me.
Creativity is part process and part practice. The true challenge here is developing a creative process that works for you, then practice, develop, and refine your process.
For obvious reasons I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can share a little about my own process.
For me, there are three stages – inspiration, generation, and validation.
This is really about seeing what’s already out there – what interests me, excites me, or sparks my curiosity.
Most of the time I’m just trying to uncover resonant topics at this stage – I’m not at all worried about generating specific ideas. Perhaps you’ll recall that in terms of a brief, I like to ask for 5-10 sites where the client wants coverage? This is why you need this stuff. Most of the time I’ll kick things off by looking at those sites:
- What are those journalists are writing about?
- Why are they writing that stuff?
- What seems to be shared a lot?
- Why is that being shared?
- What’s resonating?
- Why is that being shared?
At this stage I’ll also look at stuff like this:
- What are competitors doing?
- What seems to be working?
- Why is that working?
- What seems to be working?
- Data sources
- What’s publicly available?
I use a few different tools for inspiration – Buzzsumo allows you to quickly identify the most shared content on any given site (or section of a site – depending on how the site’s structured). You can also search by topic to find the most shared content on a whole range of sites, plus you can search individual sites by topic too. Buzzsumo is the tool that I use, but I’ve also heard great things about ahrefs’ Content Explorer. I also use Pinterest search, regular Google, Google News, and Google Image search.
I also have a swipe file (or, more accurately, several of them), which I often refer back to. These swipe files contain a bunch of content examples which I’ve previously found. My reasons for saving content examples are varied – sometimes I’ll save a content example because I think the topic’s really resonant, sometimes it might just be that I really like the execution.
For the most part I use Pinterest for this (but you should use whatever tool works for you):
I also have a bunch of sector, or topic specific Google docs which contain links and notes on a bunch of resonant content examples which I keep fairly up to date. I find these pretty useful to refer back to.
If you regularly do creative work, but don’t have a swipe file, I’d definitely recommend starting one now.
So that’s inspiration – essentially seeking out things which are resonating right now.
Generation (or making connections)
Here you’re taking all the stuff that inspired you, and thinking about what you could do with it. I tend to kick off by thinking about things like this:
- What can we do which will feed into what journalists are writing about?
- What could we do around the most resonant topics?
- Is there something a competitor has done which we could do better?
- Or do differently?
- Is there anything we could do with a public data source?
- Is there a way we could get data that isn’t readily available right now?
I’ll also think more broadly:
- Is there a topic which resonates with me, which I could explore within this space?
- Is there something that’s been created in a totally unrelated field which I could apply here?
Again, this is all heavily sanitised – in reality, the process of generating ideas is frequently very messy. I did a whole talk about this, you can view the slides here.
This phase is all about figuring out whether or not an idea is possible to execute, if it makes sense, and how successful (in terms of generating coverage) it’s likely to be. I’ll think about things like this:
- Is this possible?
- Has this been done before?
- What’s new or different about this idea?
- What evidence do I have that this will resonate?
- Is this right for the client or company?
- Is this on-brief?
Again, I could (and probably should) write a whole post about this topic – one for another day, this post is a beast as it is.
So right now you’re probably thinking that this process is linear – you do ideation, generation, and then validation. Of course you certainly can work like that, but I don’t.
Sometimes I jump quickly back and forth between inspiration & generation. Sometimes I’ll jump from inspiration to generation to validation for a single idea. Other times I’ll just seek inspiration, and leave generation for another day.
Sometimes I’ll generate 20 ideas before validating anything. Sometimes, the process of generation will lead me to seek further inspiration. Sometimes when I’m validating one idea, it’ll spark a totally new one.
I’ve found that what works best for me, is to let myself play in each of these spaces, in whatever capacity seems to be working for me that day.
I can jump around however I want, but I still need to be mindful of potential blocks:
- Too much inspiration can leave me overwhelmed, unfocused, and ultimately blocked
- Generation without inspiration often leads to a block (because there’s not enough there for me to make connections)
- Validation when I’m in the wrong mindset can lead to blocks – I reject all of my ideas
Having a process won’t solve all your problems, but it helps. And in my experience following a process yields more reliable results than sitting around trying to conjure ideas out of thin air.
Here’s a wrap-up slide for this section:
Sweet! You’ve made it through two out of five sections. Let’s move on to section three.
Do you think you’re “bad” at this?
Another recurring theme in various training sessions was this: People told me that when they compared their own work to that of others, they felt like they were coming up short. They felt like other people were ‘better’ at this than them. I’d actually heard this so frequently, that I wrote a whole post about it last year.
As such, my original bullet points for this section of the talk looked like this:
- Remind people that: Other people’s “bad” ideas are invisible
- Give some tactical tips to help people shake off this mindset
Ok people – let’s do this 🙂
In this industry, we share our most successful content pieces. The trouble is, because we only share our successes, we are inadvertently presenting a skewed version of reality.
You only see other people’s “good” ideas, their “bad” ideas are invisible (partly because they’re not shared, but mainly because they don’t get coverage). It’s important to remember that you are not comparing yourself or your work to reality. You are comparing your whole body of work (i.e. all the successes and failures), to only the most successful work of others.
If you do find yourself in a place like this (i.e. you’re thinking you’re ‘bad’ at this) – here’s a few things you can try to shake off this mindset:
- Build yourself up
- Remind yourself of successful work you’ve done before
- We have a tendency to remember failure and forget success
- Remind yourself of successful work you’ve done before
- Spend 5 minutes coming up with the worst ideas you possibly can
- Do this because it’s fun, and it takes the pressure off
- As an added bonus, you may find that you’re able to flip these bad ideas into something good later
- Do this because it’s fun, and it takes the pressure off
- Do a creative exercise
- Here I recommended 3 books: The Steal Like an Artist Journal by Austin Kleon, How to Have Creative Ideas by Edward de Bono, and Mess by Keri Smith. All three books include a bunch of great creative exercises.
I wanted to add an additional note about creative exercises here. For the most part, I feel like people utilise creative exercises pretty sub-optimally. In my experience, creative exercises don’t act as great idea generators.
But to my mind, that’s not what they’re really for.
There really aren’t any shortcuts for this sort of work. Coming up with ideas which are likely to yield coverage for clients takes significantly more time, research, and rigour than 3 minutes spent playing word association games or similar.
That said, what creative exercises are really great for is nudging you back into a flow state. They force you to play, and in playing you’re often able to shake off some of what’s blocking you creatively.
Creative exercises are great for unsticking you when you’re stuck.
They can also be useful in terms of uncovering resonant topics, or making connections which you might not otherwise have made. But they don’t enable you to quickly generate fully-fleshed out ideas.
Time for another summary slide:
I also wanted to drop a note about a deleted scene here. This section essentially covers off the dangers of comparing your work to that of others, and insulating yourself from failure.
However, there’s a core point which I couldn’t squeeze into the talk, thanks mainly to time pressures, but I think it’s something worth noting.
In truth, I think we need to insulate ourselves from our failures, but also from our successes too.
Your own successful work can also become a creative sticking point. It’s something I explored a little within issue two of my newsletter (you can read it here), but I feel like it’s something I really ought to explore in more depth at some point.
Success actually leading to increased pressure isn’t something we talk about much, but we should. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that reminding yourself of your past successes, is bad advice, it’s just incomplete. I think it’s definitely good to remind yourself of your successes, but it’s definitely not good to allow yourself to be ruled by them, or indeed to let them define you. Yet another post for another day, huh?
Let’s move on to section four 🙂
Are you constantly being interrupted? Or interrupting yourself?
This was a section I came close to dropping, partially due to time pressure, but mainly because I figured it was so obvious that it almost wasn’t worth mentioning.
I eventually decided to keep it in because whilst I feel like everyone accepts that people in some roles (e.g. developers) definitely need to protect their time to enable them to do focused work, there’s a pernicious myth out there that not everyone has the need, or indeed the right to protect their time from interruptions.
This is bullshit. Everyone, regardless of the type of work they do needs to protect a portion of their time from interruptions. Some of the work you do might benefit from collaboration, but not all of it. Whatever your role is, whether you’re a technical SEO, a designer, a PR person, an account manager, there will be specific tasks that you do which require focus.
Slack is a poisonous hellscape that steals your time and robs you of focus*. Other project management tools are the same. Email and social media in all its forms also do the same job.
*I know I’m going really hard on Slack. I also know that some people like it. In fairness, I’ve worked for some companies where there’s been a very healthy culture around Slack (and similar project management tools), but I’ve also worked for companies where there definitely hasn’t been.
Here’s why these distractions can be problematic:
[when you’re interrupted]
“…it takes an average of 23 minutes
to get back to the task”~Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California
This means if you’ve set aside an hour for ideation, and you’re interrupted twice, you’ll likely get only 14 minutes of focused time spent on your task.
As most of us are currently working remotely, and are therefore more reliant on collaboration tools like Slack, interruptions have likely increased rather than decreased, so perhaps this is more important now than ever.
I think the biggest problem with Slack (and other similar tools) is that they can force other people’s priorities to become your priorities, which effectively de-prioritises your work.
I’ve also noticed that people’s expectations around Slack responses are different. If someone sends you an email (most of the time) they’re not expecting an immediate response. But if they send you a message on Slack they often are. As a result, people often feel compelled to respond to a Slack message immediately, i.e. they often view these messages as requiring a more urgent response than messages via other mediums.
And there’s a further problem – the nature of Slack channels is that they are messy. If you were tagged in something on a very active Slack channel 3 hours ago, responding becomes even more of a time suck, because you can’t just respond to whatever you were tagged in, you also have to go through all the subsequent messages to figure out what’s going on now. I suspect experiences like this also lead to people responding to Slack messages quickly in order to avoid situations like this.
It’s not necessarily the case that theses tools are a problem, but the ways in which we use them can be. I suspect we’d all benefit greatly from being a little more respectful of each others time and priorities.
I’d like to see more companies normalise focused work.
By this, I mean normalise the notion that it’s totally appropriate for people to set aside time for focused work, and when they’re doing so, they should close email, Slack etc, so they can work without distractions.
Obviously this requires communication so people know what’s what, but that’s easy to do. For example, when I was working at Verve, I’d often just drop the team an email to let them know that I would be off Slack and email for a couple of hours. If they needed me really urgently they could call me, but otherwise, I’d respond to their messages when I was back online. I would also encourage them to work in a similar way when they needed to focus too.
Ok, Slack rant over.
Distractions kill focused work, so kill all the distractions 🙂
Are you enjoying what you’re doing?
If the answer is no, I can definitely relate. This is a tough one to unpick, so here I’ll talk about some of the things I’ve struggled with, and what seems to have helped me.
My original bullet points for this section of the talk looked like this:
- Ways of working that just don’t work:
- How long does it take to come up with ideas?
- When are you most productive?
- Space (when ideas just “appear”)
- Solo vs Team working
- Pressure of deadlines
- A more general, non-specific discontent
Are you trying to work in a way that doesn’t work for you?
How long does it take you to come up with a set of ideas?
In my experience, creative work in many SEO agencies is often subject to bizarre time pressures which aren’t levied on other types of work. I’d suggest it would be unusual for an SEO person to be asked to deliver a comprehensive technical audit of an enterprise-sized site in an hour or two. And yet, there’s often an expectation that well-thought out creative content ideas can be delivered in that timeframe.
I suspect it’s because there are a lot of pervasive myths about creative work – i.e. people think that ideas just come to you, and they’re simply not aware of the work involved.
There’s also a secondary challenge in agencies around the extent to which ideation is billable. I’ve worked in an agency that billed for ideation, and I’ve also worked in an agency that didn’t. (Again, this is a massive topic, and probably a post for another day).
For what it’s worth, I do think that some of this is on us. I think we need to work harder at demystifying the creative process – we need to show and explain all of the work which is involved.
We also need to get better at answering the question: “How long does it take you to come up with ideas?”.
Do you know the answer to that question yourself? You really need to know. If you don’t know you won’t be able to plan your time effectively. If you’re not sure how long it takes you, I’d recommend using a time tracking tool over a few rounds of ideation to figure it out.
Over time, I’ve figured out that it typically takes me around 17 hours to come up with a set of ideas for a client. In 17 hours I can come up with 4-6 workable ideas. Sometimes I’m faster, sometimes I’m slower, but I know that if I give myself less than 17 hours my output isn’t as good. This may mean that either I generate fewer ideas, or lower quality ideas.
Is when you do the work important?
I’ve also noticed that when and how I schedule ideation work seems to impact quality. I’m most productive between 6am-9:30am*. So, I try to schedule any ideation work between 6am-9:30am over 5 days.
Your most productive time of day may well be different. If you’re not sure, try scheduling creative work at different times of day to figure out when seems to work best for you.
*I work for myself, so I have the freedom to work whenever and however is best for me. Your employer might not be quite so flexible on this front, but again I’d really love to see more companies being open to different ways of working – ways which allow their employees do their best work, as opposed to being tied to a strict 9am-5pm work day, which, for the most part, sucks for pretty much everyone. This, of course, is harder for companies to implement than it sounds – I’d acknowledge it would be extremely difficult to run a company effectively if everyone was working wildly different hours, but I feel like many companies could offer their employees more flexibility than they currently do.
Our brains are amazing – they go on working without us even realising it. Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself – an idea just comes to you, seemingly out of nowhere. You weren’t consciously trying to come up with an idea – it just appeared.
I think you can game the system a little. I’ve noticed that when I do creative work in short bursts of time over 5 days, ideas frequently appear like this. When I try to cram all the work into just two days, ideas rarely just come to me.
Try changing up your routine a little, see if more ideas just appear.
There’s also a further point here, which I didn’t include in the deck (again, time pressure). I think you need time away from an idea in order to be able to evaluate it more objectively. Of course it’s probably not possibly to ever be truly objective about an idea you come up with, but a little distance helps. I sway from extreme to extreme when I’m close to an idea – I’ll either love it and become convinced it’ll perform amazingly, or I’ll hate it and conclude it has no merit at all. Returning to ideas allows me to better evaluate them – when I’m reviewing my own ideas from the previous day I’ll often find that the ideas I loved are actually pretty flawed, and the ideas I hated had more merit than I initially thought.
Last year my friend Gary shared a story with me. He used to run an agency with his brother, and they had a client, who, in a former life was in advertising. Way back in the 1980s (before British Gas was privatised), this client of Gary’s was involved in pitching an advertising campaign to them.
This is the strapline they came up with:
Punctuation is important, however in this instance, I don’t think even a well-placed comma, or colon can save this strapline.
How does stuff like this happen? How did this advertising concept make it to the pitch?
A lack of time and space is how stuff like this happens. That’s why this stuff is important. You can read more on this here.
Solo versus Team Working
I don’t play nicely with others, I’m a solitary person and I do my best work alone.
Brainstorming sessions are hell for me.
I, and many people like me, can mask these feelings, and (most of the time) I’m able to do a pretty convincing job of appearing to engage and contribute. But I rarely get anything out of the sessions personally – by this I mean, those sessions do not help me come up with ideas. They don’t energise me, they exhaust me. For me, they’re a total waste of time.
But that’s not the case for everyone – some people work better as part of team, and to come up with ideas they need other people to bounce off. If you try to force people who feel like this to work alone, they’ll feel like you’re punishing them. They will become exhausted, likely feel sad, and be unable to do their best work.
As such, it’s really important to figure out not just when you do your best work, but how.
Possibly you’ll find some sort of combination works best for you – for example, maybe you’ll find that you’re best of seeking inspiration alone, but when it comes to generation, you work best with others. Or perhaps you’ll find that for you both inspiration are generation work better as solo activities, but for validation you need input from others.
Again, it’s important to figure this out so you can schedule your time effectively, in order to deliver your best work.
Is pressure the problem?
Some people find that it’s the pressure of a deadline approaching that enables them to perform. The deadline spurs them into action, they are energised by it. If that’s the case for you, that’s cool, you can skip this section.
If deadlines don’t energise you, read on friend 🙂
Coming up with ideas in a commercial environment is high pressure. There are deadlines, people are relying on you to deliver, your job, or other people’s jobs might ultimately be on the line.
That’s a really heavy load to carry.
I’m increasingly of the belief that my best work happens when I’m playing. For me, “flow” is not so much about work feeling like play, in fact, I’m only able to get into a “flow” state when I’m able to play. When I’m feeling relaxed, open and curious.
But it’s very difficult for me to feel relaxed, open, and curious when I’m under pressure. As such, I frequently find deadlines paralysing.
As I approach a deadline, this often happens:
I have no ideas
I have no idea what to do next
I have no time to do anything
My mind gets stuck in an interminable loop: there’s no time, there’s no time, there’s no time, there’s no time, there’s no time – you get the picture.
I’m not able to think clearly, and play is the furthest thing from my mind.
But, if I remain in this mindset it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be able to come up with anything workable. So, I try to flip my mindset.
Here’s some things that I do – if you too struggle with deadlines, you might find these things helpful too:
#1 Sit with the Feeling
Someone once told me that a feeling lasts for a maximum of one minute, unless you feed it. I’ve no idea whether or not this is actually the case, or even how one might go about proving or disproving this theory, but for me at least, this seems to be true.
Here’s the thing – my mind spinning in an interminable “there’s no time, there’s no time, there’s no time” loop is feeding that panicky feeling. Not only is it prolonging that feeling, it’s heightening it. I’m increasing my own panic levels.
When I catch myself doing this I try to sit with the feeling instead. I acknowledge what I’m feeling, but I don’t feed it, I just accept it. When I’m able to stop feeding the feeling, I find that it quickly passes – often it doesn’t even take a minute for that feeling to fade.
Try it and see if it works for you too.
If it doesn’t, try suggestions 2 and 3 below.
#2 Write it out
Give yourself two minutes to write down all of the things that will happen if you don’t deliver these ideas. Then go back and read what you’ve written.
If you’ve gone seriously apocalyptic on this exercise, ask yourself – is this really what’s going to happen? Probably not, right?
If your list is less apocalyptic hopefully it’ll give you some perspective.
At this point I’d like to point out that we’re not actually working in a life or death environment – it might feel like it sometimes, but it’s really not the case.
#3 Go outside
Get away from your desk for 10 minutes.
This sounds counter-intuitive – you’re panicking because you’ve no ideas and you’ve running out of time, and I’m suggesting that you stop working.
Here’s the thing: you’re no doing any good work anyway. Your head is spinning, you’re not focused, staying where you are right now pointless. You’ll be able to get yourself in a better frame of mind faster if you get away from your desk now.
I often find that just getting up and moving is enough to shake off a mindset like this. A ten minute walk outside is often all it takes.
#4 Force yourself to play
Once you’ve done one or more of those things, you’ll hopefully be feeling a little calmer.
Time to get yourself back in “flow” 🙂
For me, the fastest way to get back in “flow” is to force myself to play. As I mentioned previously, whilst I don’t find creative exercises a particularly good way to generate ideas, I find them to be excellent tools to get back in “flow”.
Spend a couple of minutes doing a creative exercise (ideally one that’s unrelated to what you’re doing right now). As I mentioned before, I recommend: The Steal Like an Artist Journal by Austin Kleon, How to Have Creative Ideas by Edward de Bono, and Mess by Keri Smith. All three books include a bunch of great creative exercises.
Are you feeling a more general sense of discontent?
Is this work just not satisfying you in the way you thought it would? If so, I can definitely relate.
I feel very fortunate that I have a creative job. I suspect that doing something other than what I’m doing would make me sad. But here’s the thing, whilst client-work is often fulfilling, there are frequently compromises which have to be made. Over the years it’s rarely been the case that I’ve been paid to make whatever I want.
So now I make things just for me.
It took me a long time to realise that having a creative job wasn’t enough, and that I needed to make things just for me – things which weren’t compromised in any way. These things I do are deliberately not a side-hustle. It’s stuff that I’m extremely unlikely to ever be able to monetise effectively. And that’s the point. It’s an outlet that exists only for me.
I’d strongly encourage you to consider if this is something you need to do too.
Time for another section wrap up slide people!
You made it friends! This post is really damn long, huh?
I hope that you’ve found some of this stuff useful.
I’m slightly worried that all this might make you think that I’ve totally got a handle on creative block and every day for me is sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, glorious fun, and fulfilling work.
That’s definitely not the case. I am definitely not consistently in “flow”.
I have days when work feels like play and ideas come easily to me; but I also have days when my creative work feels like pushing water up a hill – an endless, pointless, soul-crushing grind.
Even though I know what I need to do to get in “flow”, I’m not always able to get there.
Nevertheless, I think that something “good” is happening, even on those “bad’ days.
Because it’s often the case, that the following day, when I review what I’ve come up with the previous day, I can see tonnes of possibilities; and a “good” day (where work feels like play, and ideas come easily) often follows a “bad” one.
I wish you all many, many good days, and the tenacity to get through the inevitable bad days that come your way.