How to get out of a creative rut : Life Kit Do you ever try to be creative, but no matter how hard you try, struggle to access that spark in your head? This episode explains how to escape that creative rut — and it all starts with taking intentional breaks.

Creativity can't be forced. Take breaks and zone out to find new inspiration

Creativity can't be forced. Take breaks and zone out to find new inspiration

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Scott Bakal for NPR
Illustration of a head with the skull opened up and flowers growing out of concentric circles where the brain is with designs flowing out of the right side. Illustrates the idea of fostering creativity and getting out of a creative rut.
Scott Bakal for NPR

Do you ever try to be creative but despite all your efforts, struggle to access that creative voice in your head? If you're anything like me, you may feel the pressure to immediately snap out of this creative rut — kind of like the artists we see in movies, who overcome their slumps by magically finding a new source of inspiration.

But as Sarah Urist Green points out, that's easier said than done. Green is a curator, an arts educator and the producer behind the PBS series The Art Assignment. She is also the author of You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation.

"I would get intimidated if creativity and making art was something where you had to have this great inspiration," she says. "For me and for most artists who I know, it doesn't work like that."

Overcoming a creative rut isn't easy. But it isn't at all impossible — and it doesn't require a eureka moment. Here are tips from our experts to help you recharge your creativity.

Remind yourself that everyone can be creative

The first thing to remember is that we're all creative people. As Green says, creativity isn't just about visual arts or music or literature, and you don't need to be some sort of a savant to use it.

"I think we are already creative beings and how you use that [creativity] is up to you," she says. "You don't need to have particular skills; you don't need to have particular materials."

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Using your creativity, for example, can look like finding a quicker route to get home, managing your team's schedule or adding an ingredient to a familiar recipe. Working with a more expansive definition of creativity can help you embrace these different creative activities.

Understand how creativity works in your brain

Once you've reminded yourself that you're a creative being, the next step is to learn how creativity functions in your brain. Understanding this can help you make wiser decisions that nurture creativity, rather than those that fuel burnout.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the New York University Center for Neural Science. You may have heard that creative people are right-brained, but Suzuki says this isn't always true. Instead, she says research and brain scans show that creativity involves three major parts of our brain: the salience network, the executive control network and the default mode network.

Research also shows that mind-wandering is a critical step in creative thinking, especially for those who have hit a roadblock. According to the American Psychology Association, mind-wandering happens when your brain starts thinking about things unrelated to the task at hand. This includes doodling in a meeting or thinking of random scenarios while you're standing in line. These moments may feel like a nuisance to you, but it may be creativity working itself out in real-time.

Your brain, quite literally, needs time to relax and wander to reignite that creative spark; conversely, not having enough time to mind-wander may fuel a creative rut.

Illustration of a person stuck in a ravine, peeking their head up out of it and peering at a bright red tulip at eye level.
Scott Bakal for NPR

Take intentional breaks

Setting aside time for your mind to wander sounds great in theory but can be difficult in practice.

Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and the host of The Thought Experiment, says this isn't your fault. She says we live in a work-obsessed culture that shames people for taking breaks. The premise of her book is that creativity is a stop-start cycle, meaning if you're pushing yourself to hustle, you must also take time to float and take breaks.

Harfoush also says there are different types of rest, and some are more critical to our wellbeing than others. "What our brains actually need is periods of destimulation, which means no screens, no emails, no audiobooks. Your brain needs a second to breathe, to catch up, to integrate all the content that we've consumed."

One suggestion Harfoush has for people who want to work through a creative rut, and incorporate moments of rest into their lives, is to stare at a wall for 15 minutes every now-and-then. No phones, no TV, no music. These 15 minutes on any busy day can make a huge difference in your wellbeing.

Don't force yourself to keep going

Another factor that fuels burnout is high levels of stress. I'm sure most of us can think of a time when a quickly approaching deadline reignited our creativity and allowed us to push through.

But Harfoush warns that using stress and pressure to get things done can't be a long-term solution. Relying too heavily on them as motivators can cause or worsen your creative rut, anxiety and depression. And to make things worse, it can lead to chronic burnouts in the future.

When you feel well-rested, start by doing something

Once you know what creativity is, how it works and what fuels a creative rut, you may wonder how you can escape it and move forward.

Nerissa Bradley is a multi-disciplinary artist who acts, sings, does voiceover work, as well as improv and live comedy. Before she performed on stage, Bradley struggled with a years-long creative rut. When she decided to engage with the arts again, she invited friends over to paint with them for fun. Soon, she started attending improv classes, which eventually led to her live performances.

It was that simple: Bradley stepped out of a creative rut by engaging with creative activities that felt good to her.

So if you're hoping to reconnect with your creative voice, start by doing something: write a new joke, take a one-day class, doodle something silly. Just make sure you're enjoying the process, rather than trying to meet any expectations.

Remember, you have to trust yourself and believe that creating something is the first step to working through a creative rut.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.

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