10 Surefire Ways to Get Out of a Creative Rut
We tried to write the introduction to this blog post but we got stuck in a rut.
That’s not a cute joke.
Writing from the bottom of a rut, here.
Right now. Not kidding.
Let’s see what we can do about it.
Do This First, When You’re In A Rut
The best first move is to stay calm. Or find your way back to calm.
For real. The best thing to do when you find yourself in a creative rut is to actually do less.
Reduce the things that are clanging around in your head.
In more direct terms – don’t panic.
Take a deep breath. Turn on the noise cancellation and listen to some music.
Or go for a walk.
Or do both.
Then get ready to try out one of these tactics.
Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: A Popular Method for Rut-Breaking
One Oblique Strategy: Use an old idea.
Famed musician and record producer Brian Eno created Oblique Strategies, in collaboration with artist Peter Schmidt, in 1975. In the decades since, the simple card deck of creative prompts has inspired countless artists and leaders both within the music industry and outside it.
Bowie used them. Need we say more?
The strategies themselves are a collection of cryptic, sometimes abstract phrases or instructions that are presented on the cards written by Eno and Schmidt.
When faced with a creative challenge, you can draw a card and consider how the strategy on the card might apply to your situation. The unexpected or oblique advice can help spark new ideas and perspectives, helping you find a way forward.
To use Oblique Strategies, simply shuffle the deck and draw a card (or click a button) when you're feeling stuck. Read the prompt and take a few moments to reflect on how it might apply to your creative problem.
The goal is to push your thinking into uncharted territory, opening up new possibilities and solutions. If one card doesn't do the trick, try another. The key is to keep an open mind and explore different angles.
Ruts hate open minds and different angles.
Here – we’ll flip a card with you:
Card: Magnify the most difficult details.
Okay…the present difficulty we’re facing is how to get out of a rut.
So, instead of trying to find just one solution, we’ll look at another nine more, as well.
9 Other Ways to Break Out of Your Creative Rut
The tricky thing about ruts is that they’re clever. Even when a tool like the Oblique Strategies deck seems to be working, future ruts are huddled in the other room. Scheming. Developing workarounds.
It can help to have more tools to throw at the problem.
- Go for a walk: Sometimes, all you need to clear your mind is a change of scenery. Take a stroll around your neighborhood, or a local park, or find a nearby trail and go for a hike. Give your brain a chance to reset. The simple act of moving your body does wonders for the mind.
- Try "The Artist's Way": For really major ruts, you might need a complete reboot. The good news is there are tried-and-true methods for doing this. Julia Cameron's book, The Artist’s Way, offers a 12-week program designed to help you rediscover your creative self. The daily writing exercises and weekly tasks in the program can be a great way to break through your creative block.
- Revisit a favorite album, book, or movie: Return to a work that has always inspired you, and let it remind you why you're passionate about your craft. Pick a quiet place, make sure you’re geared up for optimal listening (if taking the album route), and melt into someone else’s art for a while.
- Focus on repetitive tasks: Engaging in simple, repetitive tasks like housework or gardening can provide a meditative space for your mind to wander and find new ideas. Let go of the fears and obsessions that might be tethering you to your rut. “Boring” tasks that get your body moving and distract your mind can help bring a spark back to your creative thinking.
- Help someone else: Offer your creative skills to assist a friend or colleague with their project. Sometimes, focusing on someone else's work can help you gain fresh perspectives on your own. Helping another person also gets you out of your own head. Ruts hate that! They prefer you stay in your own head and ruminate. No-thank-you.
- Change your environment: Rearrange your workspace, try working in a different room, or visit a local coffee shop to create a new setting that could spark inspiration. Be careful with this approach, however. Changing exterior variables doesn’t excuse us from addressing interior problems. A single tricky day or week could be solved by a new environment. But compulsively switching environments won’t get you out of a deep rut. At the same time, science has illustrated the value of proactively taking care of your work space. Cleaning your desk could create the room your mind needs to free itself from a rut.
- Take a break: Give yourself permission to step away from a given project or problem for a day or two. Sometimes, a little distance is all it takes to gain a fresh perspective. This is a good method for combining with others on this list. But you need to take the first step first. And really do it. Eliminate distractions and take a true breather.
- Collaborate with others: Connect with friends, colleagues, or fellow creatives. Ask for help, or invite them to offer feedback or suggestions concerning the task at hand that’s proving sticky for you. Collaboration can help generate new ideas and solutions, and reestablish momentum.
- Introduce new limitations: Borrowing from the spirit of Oblique Strategies, try imposing new constraints on your project or task. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this can help bring a new perspective to the problem and help you to think more creatively about possible ways out of your rut. Try limiting resources, time, or tools, and see how you adapt and innovate within those boundaries. Before you know it, you might be back on track.
Now, how should we end all this.
Let’s flip another card.
Card: Be dirty.
Woah. The Oblique Strategies just went there.
Creative Ruts Feel Awful – Don’t Be Afraid to Get Dirty
The Oblique Strategies recommend getting dirty.
Structures and systems surround us, wherever we go. They tend to involve a lot of rules. Guidelines.
Even our most successful gonzo creatives, from the art world and beyond, over time developed patterns of working and thinking.
There’s a natural and understandable drift, as we proceed through a career (or even a project), to formalize. Organize.
Maybe, if you’re in a rut – forget all of that.
Roll around in the mud, like a dirty, primal human.
Take that literally, if you feel so inclined.
The important part, though, is to remember that ruts want you to stay stuck.
Don’t let them.
Stay safe, but don’t be afraid to get dirty.
To break things.
So. Yeah. Draw a card.
Bend some rules.
Take a different path.
Before you know it, you just might feel free again.