Four keys to overcoming “creative block”

Yes, sleeping and painting a barn can help you -- and those you lead -- unleash the imagination.

Fast Company’s design blog recently posted a set of reflections from 11 writers and designers on overcoming “creative block.” Strikingly, this diverse group converged on a few basic guidelines -- and the list doesn’t include putting your head down and simply trying to work through it.

1. Get a slow boil of classic prose swirling in your subconscious. For instance, when Rian Johnson set out to create and direct his new film, Looper, he didn’t watch 12 Monkeys or Terminator: instead, as he told the New York Times Magazine, he read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, diagrammed the plot of the 1980s crime thriller Witness and meditated on the witches’ time-bending prophecies in Macbeth.

2. Learn to embrace frustration. Graphic designer Lotta Nieminen suggests that “ruts [are] actually crucial to performing better and coming up with more innovative ideas.” Creative practice and neuroscience confirm what Christians have known for two millennia: just as the true life of Easter lies only on the far side of Good Friday, so true success incorporates failure and frustration.

3. Get some sleep. In The Social Animal, David Brooks describes a study in which participants were given difficult math problems, and were either required to work continuously until they found an answer, or were allowed to sleep for eight hours between sessions: the latter group had success rates twice that of their exhausted peers. Allowing yourself to rest from your labor can be a gesture of dependence on the Lord, without whose assistance “those who build labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).

4. “Go do something relatively mindless and repetitive,” says philosophy professor Daniel Dennett. He paints the barn, cuts firewood or picks blueberries. Graphic designer Khoi Vinh sketches, without worrying about the final product. These activities, they suggest, free your mind to make unexpected connections in a way that stewing over a problem won’t.