What to do when you're out of ideas

Mar 11, 2015

Is there any angst so particularly irritating, so absolutely maddening, as the angst you feel when your own brain betrays you?

Many freelancers have to formulate and implement brave new ideas while operating on tight deadlines. Most of the time, one’s creativity hums along pleasantly, cooperating with project specifications.

But then, sometimes, you’re left staring at a blank page… and your mind is equally as blank.

What do you do when your brain won’t work – when you are absolutely out of ideas?

Step Away

Immediately trying to muscle through these frustrating brain-blanks rarely works. Instead, step away from the task at hand for a few minutes. Read a few blog post articles, go to the bathroom, wash dishes. Sometimes changing your environment can help; make your bed or re-organize your workspace. It’s productive procrastination, and with any luck, it’ll also reduce the pressure you’re putting on yourself.

Return to your work after a couple of minutes. If you’re lucky, this mini-break may have triggered your creativity.

List Anything

So you’ve reorganized your sock drawer, and still nothing is coming. Despair not! Sit yourself back down and start a list of potential ideas – but not just any list.

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Odds are your brain is not actually blank, it just feels that way because your inner editor is in charge and is not letting any creativity flow. Let’s circumvent that by embracing absurdity.

Write down every idea you have, even the most stupid and unfeasible solutions imaginable. At the worst, you’ll re-access your sense of humor (which you desperately need in times of frustration). At best, another idea will pop up.

Some of my best creative ideas have their roots in stupid non-solutions like “run away to desert island, avoid client’s calls on coconut phone forever.”

Phone a Friend

Speaking of phones, this is another good way to move through a creative block.

Calling a colleague to spark inspiration is a great tactic, although I’ve had just as much luck asking friends who work outside of my field if I could “think out loud” to them. There’s something nice about having to explain your problem in simple terms, and getting an outsider’s perspective.

Have a ten or fifteen minute chat with a buddy. Your brain may kick into gear.

Try Something Else / Move

Still no luck? I’ve been there, my friend.

Move onto another task for an hour or two, or even a day if your deadline isn’t too tight. If you have an unstructured work schedule, it might also be a great time to slip in some exercise. Nothing unclogs the mind like moving the body.

Whenever you return to your work, change your circumstances. Do something as simple as moving your chair, working from a coffee shop, or changing the music you listen to. Signal to your brain that this is a new project; it may just play along.

Take a Nap (Yes, Seriously)

This is completely unscientific, but I’ve found that when all hope is seemingly lost, it helps to take a nap.

Something about relaxing my body in this way and letting my subconscious take over is really effective. I can’t tell you how often I’ve drifted back to alertness, immediately rolled over to a notebook, and written down a new idea. If you want to try this, make sure to have a writing implement handy!

All of our brains sometimes malfunction. Know that you’re not alone in your despair. Run through these steps next time you go blank – somewhere along the way, you’ll catch a spark!

Freelancers, what do you do when you’re plain out of ideas?

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.