• Advice

How to find inspiration when your brain has turned into oatmeal

There are lots of wonderful moments when you’re a freelancer in a creative field. The work is often interesting! You earn money for expressing yourself! Your skills build every day!

The less-wonderful times are when you’re expected to produce creative content on a deadline… and nothing is sprouting from your fertile little brain.

You’re staring at a blank page. The minutes tick by. You doodle a little. More minutes tick by. Nothing is happening, even though you’ve created this kind of work a million times before… maybe you’re too tired, or too overworked, or slowly going insane?

It’s moot, my friend, because you have to get this project done.

So how do you find inspiration when your brain. Will. Not. Cooperate?

1. Take a little break

That clock is ticking away – but your subconscious is in full 5 year-old-tantrum mode, and it’s not going to play nice until you give it a time-out.

Set a timer for half-hour or an hour, and walk away from the project. You are not allowed to obsess about the work. Watch a stupid show on Netflix. Nap. Eat some pudding. Odds are this small break will reset your overloaded mind – and inspiration will strike.

2. Absorb something creative

Nothing kick-starts a stalled noggin like absorbing someone else’s creative work – and it doesn’t have to be at all related to the work you’re doing! Listen to some interesting music, Google great paintings, read a chapter of a well-written book, watch a really good movie or part of a dance piece (hello, YouTube). Often, a creative impulse will be triggered – whether you can directly connect it to your “source” inspiration or not.

3. Map it out

I find that outlining a skeleton structure for a piece (even if I initially have NO idea where I’m going with it) causes ideas to pop into my head. This step is especially effective if I can call up a friend and explain the project’s outline to them. By answering their questions, I’m forced to clarify concepts and improvise solutions on the spot – and that often translates into creative, playful work.

4. Just start

Is your poor brain rebelling because it’s scared of failing? My creative subconscious sometimes has to be coaxed into cooperation… because my perfectionism has chased it into a hiding place.

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Just start, even if it’s cruddy and unusable. Just start, without being sure where it will go. Forcing yourself to play in those moments when you’re feeling most self-judgmental is good practice for ceding control – and it signals to your brain that frustration is not a game-ender. Just start the work. Most of the time, you’ll end up with something you can polish and refine, at the very least.

5. Give up and go to the next task

Okay, so you’ve tried everything on this list – and you’re still irrevocably, undeniably stuck.

Give up. Surrender. Go and work on another project. Turn away from your computer and clean the house. Call your mother. Take a shower. Tick off something else on your to-do list. Abandon the project entirely for a day or two.

It is my experience that when I throw up my hands and walk away from a project, I inevitably wake up at 3 AM with a host of brilliant solutions exploding in my head.

Really, Step #5 is just a long-term version of Step #1 – and that’s because your poor brain needs a break.

Creativity is, thank God, not an entirely harness-able talent; that’s what’s so wonderful and frustrating and mysterious about it, and what differentiates it from, say, knowledge of tax policies. Play by your subconscious’ rules for a little while, and see what results. Odds are, your mind will cooperate sooner than you think!

What about you, fellow freelancers? How do you find inspiration when your brain is overtired?