Unconventional Strategies to Get Unstuck from a Creative Rut

Proven Exercises for When Your Creativity Hits a Wall
Herbert Lui (Wonder Shuttle)
▪︎ 13 minutes read time

Great ideas aren’t found. They’re made, through consistent creative practice. Creative thinking comes from creative doing.

Influential painter Chuck Close said in an interview for Inside the Painter’s Studio:

Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will—through work—bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great “art idea.”

Or, as Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”*

I have been obsessed with the mystery of the creative process for over a decade. Successful artists had figured out how to do great creative work. Why couldn’t I?

Creative Doing is the book I wish I had at the beginning of my journey, one with prompts that would encourage, stimulate, and strengthen the creative process.

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Here are three of my favorite prompts that you can try when you feel stuck at your creative work.

Roll the Dice6 links

Letting go of control, and introducing chaos into an environment, is one of the keys to cultivating creativity. If you’re ever experiencing blockage or a sense of stuckness on a decision, try opening the door to chance in order to support your creative work.

In The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, authors Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber quote the late Professor Salvador Luria of the University of Illinois as praising “controlled sloppiness, which states that it often pays to do somewhat untidy experiments, provided one is aware of the element of untidiness.” In any case, the idea here is to trend toward chaos, entropy, and randomness in your work—a sense of controlled sloppiness.

For example, if you’re feeling stuck on what to write, you can take a chance with a dictionary or a random word generator. In literature, there is a constrained writing movement called Oulipo. Several of their techniques are set by constraints and involve chance. For example, the N+7 technique involves creating a new poem through taking an existing poem and replacing each noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. In the 1920s artistic movement Dada, a common game to manufacture inspiration involved cutting up newspapers and pulling words and sentences out of a bag.

In the board game Letter Tycoon, each player starts their turn with a limited set of vowels and consonants, with the goal of spelling out the highest scoring words. You could replicate this game by picking eight letters and write as many words as you can with the set as possible. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even compose a poem or write a sentence with the letters.

Similarly, in The Creative Habit, legendary choreographer and author Twyla Tharp shares an exercise where she throws a group of coins on a table. Based on how they land, she draws ideas from the arrangement, occasionally rearranging some of them to be in a more pleasing pattern.

Anytime you experience reluctance at leaving something up to chance, consider that Donald Glover developed his stage name, Childish Gambino, through a Wu-Tang Clan name generator. (He has succeeded perhaps in spite of the name, saying, “If I had known it was going to be something for real, I wouldn’t have used it.” The lesson I chose to take is there’s perfect vision only in hindsight, and you can make mistakes and still get to where you want to go!)

Chance plays a huge role in creativity and can be a useful generative constraint. If you want to make fewer decisions, enlist chance as an assistant. Whenever you need to make a decision, write out your options and let a coin toss, a dice roll, a results generator, or another person’s selection of multiple choice, to decide what you’ll do.

Relinquish Results3 links

Throughout the years, we are conditioned to do things well and to constantly improve. If we’re not doing that, we’re led to believe we’re getting worse. If we regress, we are failures. These beliefs are all based on the flawed assumption that progress is linear.

At an extreme, this could lead us to chase perfection. If we can’t do something perfectly, we just won’t do it. Perfectionism creates an impossible standard for us to meet. This is just one of many reasons we start procrastinating and get blocked.

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recalls an art class when he was instructed to draw without looking at the paper. He was impressed with the results, noticing a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work. He knew that it would be impossible to draw well without looking at the paper, so he didn’t consciously try. He writes, “I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.” The solution is to do something without caring about the results.

The immediate goal is for you to take a very small step closer to the thing you want to do. You already know your form’s most essential element; now it’s time to build something with it. If you want to write a book, then write at least one sentence in a notebook today, building up to a daily writing practice. If you want to draw, sketch out a person or an object—don’t think too hard, just choose something in front of you and draw. If you want to make music, hum a melody into the voice memo in your phone and try to create it on an instrument or in your computer.

If you’re uncertain, then follow the first thing that pops into your head after 30 seconds. Or do the thing you think you want to do. Or do the thing you think your best friend thinks you want to do. Or write a list out and roll dice. Don’t make your goal to “finish a thing”; make it to “start with anything.” By design, the task should never impose on your schedule. It should be small enough that you can do it within a minute or two. That short time makes it difficult to do anything well, so hopefully you will put that possibility out of your mind and focus on the process. There will be a time and place to care about results—but it’s not while you do the work.

Draft, Demo, and Sketch5 minutes, 6 links

No creative work emerges finished. Preliminary work is rough, and often bears little resemblance to the polished, completed product released to the public.

Mozart would often start a piece, set it aside, and then pick it back up months or years later. Musicologist Ulrich Konrad called these beginnings “departure points … a delineation of intellectual places to which Mozart could return as necessary.” Each field has different names to describe preliminary creative work. In writing, a preliminary work is called a “draft.” In recording arts and software, preliminary work is called a “demo” and often used to demonstrate the artist’s or group’s capabilities and the work’s possibilities. In visual art, preliminary work is called a “sketch,” and used to assist in making the final work.

Preliminary work is not optional, and every version of preliminary work is crucial for improving the work we’re making. This stage is far too early to demand perfection; it’s best to keep expectations low, to refrain from self-criticism, and to support psychological safety (the feeling that it’s okay to make mistakes) to allow every single detail of the idea to flow out.

One of the most fascinating properties of the creative process is, every version of a piece of work can be seen as preliminary work. While you can finish different versions and variations of a project, there doesn’t have to be a final sense of completion. Pablo Picasso said, “If it were possible … there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.” And here’s W. H. Auden paraphrasing a line of Paul Valéry’s: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

Dacoury Natche and his collaborators worked on the song “Time” on Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 album for nearly two years. Natche said there are multiple versions of the song, including one that sounds more like a party, and another that sounds more like a live version. He was willing to commit that time because the song held potential. He described his mindset: “Let’s just try as many versions as we can because I know this song feels like something special.”

Our goal here is to practice not worrying about whether or not something is perfect. Instead, it’s about creating one version of a project that will likely either be improved upon in the future or serve as inspiration for something else. The key is to cultivate the commitment and conviction to declare that something is done, for now.

“Anything you do is basically a demo until it comes out, or it’s present,” said Dacoury Natche. “Sometimes even if it comes out, it still can be a demo.” It’s fitting that Natche brings this up, since iterating on final products often takes place in music through remixes, samples, and covers.

It might sound counterintuitive, or even painful or scary, to your inner craftsperson to complete work in so little time that it doesn’t feel ready. That’s the whole point. Your judgment of your work may not reflect how somebody else interprets or experiences it. It’s fine to know something that you made isn’t your best, and still declare this version of it complete—or to release it to the world. The work that resonates with the most people may not be the one that you declare to be the best; still, it can make an impact on people.

This prompt requires that you focus on starting something and finishing a version of it. Think of everything you make as a demo, a sketch, or a draft. Remove all ideas of expectations and goals, and focus simply on the process and taking a draft to a state where you declare it finished and acceptable as a working version. With every end comes a new beginning. It’s only by finishing a preliminary version of your work imperfectly, that you can start a new one.

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This post is an excerpt from Herbert Lui’s Creative Doing.

A collection of the tactics covered in Part I: Process. Graphic is available for download and may be shared freely, with attribution to Herbert Lui and Holloway. Infographics are also available for Part II: Action and Part III: Purpose.

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