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Creative Thinking: Ideas for Getting Unstuck

Today I'm going to talk about brainstorming and embracing your creativity. I will give you some ideas to get unstuck when you're feeling a little less than inspired. Grab a pad of paper and a few markers or pens to doodle or write down any ideas as you read, and let's get started.

Before we jump into my 7 tips to getting unstuck, take a moment to think about what is making you feel so stuck in the first place. What gets you stuck creatively? What are you currently struggling with? What kinds of situations, requests, tasks, or experiences typically get you stuck? Some common answers are perfectionism, over-researching, overthinking, limitations of having to work with others, procrastination, transitioning from one opportunity to the next, etc..

I've come up with 7 tricks to work through being stuck, and get you back on your creative track. We will map these ideas to the human body to help you remember.

Use your mind

In Creative Problem Solving, there are two types of thinking modes - divergent thinking and convergent thinking. In divergent thinking, you are generating ideas, making lists, and casting the net wide. This is also known as brainstorming. The point is not to evaluate your ideas, but rather let your thoughts and ideas flow freely. Divergent Thinking is about getting all your ideas out of your head and out into the world, on paper, or into a conversation.

The next step is convergent thinking, where you take all of your newly generated ideas and look for themes. In this step, you may have to make choices or filter some of the ideas you had before. You're being deliberate and checking the objectives of what you're trying to solve. You're being affirmative and trying to improve upon your ideas, and searching for novel ideas.

Both steps are important here and should not be overlooked.

"It is much easier to tame a wild idea than it is to invigorate a dull one." - Alex Osbourne, Founder of Brainstorming

Divergent thinking is about coming up with all of the ideas, and convergent thinking is about making sense of them and taming those wild ideas to meet your objectives. It is important that you do not use divergent and convergent thinking at the same time. Converging before you're finished diverging can hamper your flow of ideas. It is far less fun and not very encouraging for a group or an individual.

This also applies to writing - if you're constantly trying to edit your ideas while you're writing, it can cause you to feel incredibly stuck. Try getting all of your ideas out on the paper/document and then going back to rein them in once they're out of your brain. Have you ever heard of the phrase "write drunk, edit sober"? While we aren't telling you to bust out the cocktails for every creative session, we are telling you to break your thinking (and your writing for that matter) into phases and don't diverge and converge at the same time. This should help you feel a little less stuck, to start.

Use your hands

This trick is all about trying to unplug and use a physical mode to work through ideas. Get out your pens, markers, crayons, tape, stickies, cardboard, pipe cleaners, junk mail, recycling, etc. Just start making marks on the paper, create random things with no purpose, practice mixing colors, building something with your hands. The most important part here is that you just start! Personally, I do this a lot when I'm planning workshops and deliberating about how I'm going to keep the session stimulating, meaningful, aligned to the client's goals, and cohesive. When I am feeling stumped, in a rut, or overwhelmed, I like to take what's in my brain and let it flow out into the world through my hands. If you are keen on visual learning and kinesthetic processing, this strategy may work really well for you.

Use your heart

This trick is about having empathy and listening to people. When you're feeling creatively stuck, talk to someone else about it. Listen to someone else's experiences. Imagine what you would advise someone else if they were in your shoes. Step outside of your own challenge and help someone else to find more clarity in your own situation. Maybe you want to do some user research to inform your next steps? Maybe you just need a fresh perspective on a personal challenge? You can talk to anyone - they don't need to be involved in your problem or project.

As a friendly reminder and a nod to our first tip, be sure that when you are asking for advice or feedback that you don't converge while they are diverging. Deeply listen to people when you ask for ideas and feedback and try to avoid shutting down their ideas. Even if you don't like the ideas or they are not useful or practical for your unique situation, don't shut them down. You can take the ideas and converge on your own time or as the conversation starts to shift into convergence, naturally.

Use your feet

This is probably my favorite of the techniques. It is all about changing your environment. Take your ideas on a walk and go out into the world. You don't have to necessarily leave your office or home, but it's typically better if you do. At the very least, just move out of your current space - go wash your dishes, go on a walk, prepare a meal, say hi to your garden, get water, take a shower, etc. Forcing yourself to stay at your computer and push through a task without a quick (or long!) break can take you more time and keep you stuck longer. I can almost promise you that there is no glue in your seat, so get up and move around a bit! You can take a break for 5 minutes, the remainder of the day, the weekend, or even just go to the bathroom. Come back when you are feeling more inspired or when you're feeling more rested.

This works really well for me and I hope it helps you too! Whenever I'm having trouble solving a problem, I step away from that desk, table, or meeting. I step out of the room and I come back with so much more clarity from just taking a pause from what I was thinking about so closely rather than continuing to stare at my computer and wait for the next dose of inspiration to jump out at me.

Use your watch

This tip is all about time boxing and constraints. Constraints can be seen as a negative thing, but they can actually be pretty helpful. This trick involves putting mini (fake) deadlines on yourself, allowing you to enter into that “be brief” state of flow for a small amount of time. Our creativity can really thrive when there are constraints. I will challenge you to set your timer for 10 minutes and see how much progress you can make. I think you will be surprised. This is a helpful technique for generating quick ideas and not giving your brain the chance to ruminate forever.

NOTE: This is a good technique for ideation and quick task-based sprints, but not so great for refinement and detail-oriented work.

Use your memory and imagination

When was the last time that you observed something that inspired you or was creative? Have you recently seen a funny or clever commercial? Reflect on how you think they came up with that idea. Recording these types of ideas for a rainy day can help inspire you to be more creative and push your thinking. Use this as a treasure chest of ideas and energy for when you need a boost. Seek and record that kind of novelty and creativity when you notice it and are feeling really creative and capture it somewhere.

I have a post-it inspiration wall in my office, where I jot down quick ideas every time I see or hear something inspiring. I can refer back to this wall during meetings, if I am feeling a little stuck, or if I simply need a turbo-boost of inspiration. Sometimes inspiration can come to you in weird ways, so don’t filter what you add to your wall of inspiration.

Feed your belly

Feed your body and mind with creative fuel. If you are feeling creatively stuck and your brain feels drained, you may be hungry! Get a snack! We can sometimes forget to take care of our bodies when we are feeling stuck. Step away, make a nice dish or a small snack, and address your hunger. Also, make sure you’re staying hydrated and drinking enough water to keep your brain functioning properly. You have to make sure you have the fuel for your brain to work. I don't know about you, but you do NOT want to see me when I am “hangry”.

Important takeaways and food for thought

  • Don’t diverge and converge at the same time. Where can you utilize these two thinking techniques (personally and professionally)?

  • Time and other constraints can be good. Can you learn to see constraints as more helpful rather than hurtful/stressful?

  • Novel experiences breed novel ideas. When was the last time you challenged yourself to break outside your norm? When was the last time you did/tried something completely new?

  • Cross-functional inspiration. When was the last time you got to be creative without a purpose, goal, deadline, client? Consider opportunities to express your creativity in ways that are not need-based or job-based.

Dessert for thought:

"When we learn to open our eyes to the world around us, we can source creative inspiration from anywhere. There is abundant creativity and inspiration everywhere as long as your open your eyes to see it." - Abby Wilkymacky, Founder of Mindflower Studio


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