Your brain is an intricate, roaring engine powering you from one idea to the next. It takes you down wondrous roads and pushes your imagination farther than you ever thought it could go. But sometimes, you rev the engine and there’s no vroom at all. Just silence.
When your ideas run dry, this impasse can feel like being stranded on the side of the road. So how do you get out of a creative rut and find your way back to flooring the gas pedal? First, let’s locate the source of the shutdown.
There isn’t a cruise control setting for creativity. (If there is, please send the owner’s manual!) But after asking a few creatives we admire, there appears to be a common thread that causes brain engines to stall and visions to blur: uncertainty.
The weight many creators put on themselves to release new work is unmatched to the heavy burden of not knowing where, when, or how inspiration will strike. Translation: focusing on the unknown can often lead to a false sense of entrapment. It’s a worry game developed by the ego. Its key player? Fear, which often prevents us from moving forward.
In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, political unrest, systemic racism, and the worsening effects of climate change, there’s a lot of fear happening. Pair all of these concerns with any major life change—losing a job, moving to a new state, ending a relationship—and it’s the perfect storm for disturbing our natural flow state.
But instead of rushing your way back to creating, maybe the best way forward is to take a moment to redefine what it means to be in a creative rut. Is it an uninspiring, dull period, or is it a learning opportunity? See what your fellow creators have to say.
First, soften the definition of what it means to be “in a rut”
Elisa Valenti, an artist changing the view of female bodies through painting and sculpture work, sums up this idea beautifully. “I would consider omitting rut from our vocabulary. It’s a term that leads to feelings of ineptness, fosters negative energy, and traps us in cycles. It’s not a creative rut as much as it’s a period of development. Perhaps we could call it creative expansion?”
Allow yourself to take a daily break (or multiple!)
Giving yourself permission to expand by taking a break, going inward and grounding yourself before sitting down to create isn’t always inherently obvious. Especially after days, weeks, or months of inactivity, you may not even recognize that a break—even an extended one—is actually what you need.
For Raydene Salinas Hansen, a web designer and creator of RSH Collective, it helps to add “take a break” to her calendar. “I realize the thing I need to be most creative is space—mental clarity, clean surroundings, fresh open air; it comes in many forms. Meditation has become an important part of each day for me and it helps me cultivate that space and therefore fuel my creativity. I also put ‘go outside’ on my to-do list every day.”
Similarly, Dianna Cohen, founder and CEO of Crown Affair, uses a combination of meditation and nature to massage her creative muscles. “I stretch and foam roll for 30 minutes every morning. Stretching is my form of meditation. It makes me feel connected to my body and breath. I also try to get out in the sun for 20 minutes every day—a quick walk or sitting outside without my phone is the best reset. Even when I don’t think I need it, I take the time.”
Understand that it takes time to grow
Ah, time. It’s essential for healing and certainly necessary for finding one’s way back to their flow state. But when living in a hustle culture society, where there’s constant pressure to create the next best thing, eagerness, and impatience can stifle your chances of making something meaningful and worthwhile. In other words, if you do not allow yourself to take your time, whether it’s five minutes or even five months, how will you grow?
For this, Valenti has an analogy. “I equate the creative process to planting a seed. We don't unearth the soil every day to check on the status of the roots. We trust the roots are working feverishly to establish the foundation of the plant. The Earth will show signs of growth, and in a beautiful moment, a leaf will appear. My painting, Woman in Bloom, is the embodiment of this idea. There are seasons for everything, including creativity. The creative understands this and takes advantage of their blooms but knows that they must continue to work and build the foundation throughout the growth periods. Rest and dormancy is essential for this process and for ensuring a lush and fecund practice.”
Watch, listen, or do something that inspires you
Taking time to rest also gives you the opportunity to view and appreciate other forms of art and use them as catalysts for creativity. This is a method photographer Lila Barth recommends, but urges you not to force. “Try to think less about creating. The more your search for it, the less likely it’ll come. Just be open to everything as inspiration. Go see a movie, look at architectural books, listen to music, and allow yourself to just experience art without feeling the pressure to make something.”
Create for the sake of fun, not perfection
If taking a break and admiring other art forms isn’t lighting your creative match, sometimes challenging yourself to create—and it can be anything—can generate a spark. It worked for jewelry designer Morgan Thomas, the founder of Yam. “At the beginning of lockdown, I was unsure if my business would survive. I was in a limbo state and didn’t see the purpose of buying more supplies and creating new designs. I decided to turn this uneasy feeling into a fun puzzle. I would create and design as many things as possible with what I had in my room, like extra beads and unused metals. During this time, I ended up creating a necklace, Floral Unlimited, which is now a permanent part of Yam’s collection. I think this method worked for me because it was low-risk.”
Cut out anything that doesn’t align with your values or your dreams
On the opposite end, sometimes taking a risk and leaping into the great unknown is just what the doctor ordered. It worked for Jillian Anthony, writer of Cruel Summer Book Club. “After getting laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, I realized I no longer want to do unsatisfying corporate jobs or work for companies that have no soul. Now, I’m building a life as a freelancer and making time for my creative pursuits, including my newsletter and podcast.”
Whether you identify as an artist, work in a creative field, or own a brand or business, it’s important to remember that a creative rut—or expansion—is only a phase. This, too, shall pass. You will get into a groove again and who knows? Maybe the current of your flow state will be even stronger and you’ll appreciate your resilience and abilities more than before. Says Barth, “When you lose something, even for a short time, the value goes up. You won’t take your creativity for granted when you get it back.”