Run out of fresh ideas? Don't despair

NEED A BREAK? Have a clear process to deal with the problem. Don't sit doodling on your pad for hours or writing the same sentence 10 times.
NEED A BREAK? Have a clear process to deal with the problem. Don't sit doodling on your pad for hours or writing the same sentence 10 times.

Do you suffer from frustrating, stressful creative blocks that make you wonder if your once fertile imagination has permanently turned into a desert of dullness? Or worse, do you fear that a creative block can lead to lost work and money because you run out of fresh ideas?

We've all been there. You curse your brain for choosing to wear its grey cardigan, just as a deadline approaches and a client or your boss expects colourful creativity. No amount of coffee, chocolate or other stimulants, or doodling or walks in the park will fix it. You are creatively spent.

It's even more stressful when you are a freelance designer, journalist, advertising copywriter or in any number of creative jobs where good ideas are the currency. Unlike in big companies, you can't just ask for more time, test colleagues for ideas, or outsource the challenge to an agency.

I thought about creative blocks after reading an article in Fast Company, where creative types gave their best idea for overcoming the problem. Some suggestions were just silly, such as "check into an expensive hotel", "drink coffee before bed' and "watch Law & Order marathons".

We always seek a magic cure for creativity when none exists, or eagerly generalise about creativity when it is such a personal process. Quirky creativity tips make for snappy stories but I doubt they help stressed-out freelancers who hit the ideas brick wall and fret about getting paid.

I won't presume to tell readers that what works for me will work for them. I have had lots of experience creating ideas. When I was a magazine editor, I had to come up with a steady string of ideas each week under intense deadlines and, in my present role as a freelance editor and writer, there is no time for writer's block. But again, everybody is different.

For me, creativity is a process rather than a quirky technique. I have too many deadlines and need too many ideas to hope for a bolt of lightning or big idea in the shower. I don't have time for Law & Order marathons or hotels, and drinking coffee before bed would send me to a creativity asylum.

That's not to say these techniques won't work for some. I've just found that a disciplined creativity routine - which almost sounds counter-intuitive - works best.

Here are 11 suggestions to consider for a creativity process. Add yours to this blog.

1. Know yourself

I wonder how many freelancers step back and consider when they are most and least creative, and the conditions at the time? Some people intuitively know when they are most creative; others waste time trying to force creativity at the wrong time because they do not know themselves.

2. Break in case of emergency

Step one: recognise when you have a genuine creative block. Step two: ask why you are struggling to create. Maybe you need a break. Step three: have a clear process to deal with the problem. Don't sit doodling on your pad for hours or writing the same sentence 10 times. Know what works best for you in these situations and break it out in cases of emergency.

3. Consume with a purpose

You might read several daily newspapers, visit art galleries, or surf the internet for creative inspiration. Rather than passively consume this material, be proactive and set a target. For example, your goal might be to come up with five or 10 ideas, even if some are weak. Forcing yourself to develop ideas can be extremely useful, although it does not work for everyone.

4. When creativity and routine collide

If creativity is your currency, build it into a routine. This might include blocking away a few hours each week where you immerse yourself in deliberate creative thinking, with the phone and laptop turned off. Note the emphasis on deliberate - rather than hope for random ideas, creativity is a task in itself.

5. An ideas spreadsheet, anyone?

Those in the ideas business simply cannot afford to let good ones slip. They need a process to capture, record, rank, revisit and evaluate ideas. It could be as simple as a notepad, emailing yourself, making a voice recording on your smartphone, or even creating and managing an ideas spreadsheet.

6. Avoid the milkmen

I've found many creative types eagerly share ideas because they have little trouble coming up with new ones, and suggesting the ideas gets their creative juices flowing. The trap is that less creative people praise the ideas and make you feel good but are just milking your creativity.

7. Know your creative well

All good creative people have several sources of inspiration and from time to time dig into the digital well to rework existing ideas. This could be an advertising copywriter following their favourite agencies in another country, or a musician who follows others. What are your top 10 sources of creative inspiration and do you have a regular process to follow them? Do you have a clear, easily accessible record of past work so you can dive into your creative well for inspiration?

8. Talk is cheap ... thankfully

I find the easiest and fastest way to overcome a creative block is picking up the phone and chatting with trusted contacts about ideas. For others, it may be attending regular events, talking to other freelancers in the same field, or using their Facebook page or Twitter account to obtain group feedback. Who are your five go-to people when fast ideas are needed?

9. Put it back on clients

I was always surprised in big business how some agencies take it upon themselves to do 100 per cent of the creative work, when the client is eager to contribute. Ask if there is more scope to co-create with clients or whether they can be a greater source of ideas.  If the client wants you to develop the ideas from scratch, so be it, but consider if there are ways to share the creative load.

10. The creativity toolbox

If you Google "creativity tools", a seemingly endless list of idea-generation techniques appears. I teach some of these at university but personally find the process is more important than the tool. If a certain creativity tool works well for you, by all means share it in this blog.

11. Ditch the creative ego

It's easier said than done but smart freelancers know what matters most is pleasing the client, not stroking your creative ego. Take pride in your ideas and stand up for them but not to the point where only you can suggest them and even mild criticism feels like a slap in the head. This is week-to-week business, not fine arts. The genius is in being able to develop a steady stream of good ideas for clients over years, without losing the spark.

Sydney Morning Herald