Whether you find yourself producing similar work over and over again or you are simply out of ideas, there are ways to bring back what seemed so easy not so long ago.
What does it mean to be creative?
The skill of creativity is somewhat taken for granted - whilst it is recognised as valuable and impressive, little consideration is given to just how much is involved in creating something. Making something entirely new, which was not there before, whether it’s tangible or not, involves putting yourself into the creation. Unfortunately, yourself can be a finite resource. Fortunately, that resource is renewable. What do you do when your creativity is at a low? Whether you find yourself producing similar work over and over again or you are simply out of ideas, there are ways to bring back what seemed so easy not so long ago.
Incubation simply involves stepping away from a problem for a while in order to develop insight for that problem. It’s a cliche, but there is empirical evidence that just walking away and coming back to a problem later can greatly assist creative problem-solving. Why? There are several theories as to why it works. Walking away from a problem can allow you to forget misleading aspects of it which were holding you back. Certainly, not walking away means that you end up focussing on strategies which aren’t working, resulting in the task taking far longer than it should as you fight with yourself to dismiss these ineffective strategies while at the same time you keep coming back to them. And of course, doing something else for a bit, even if it’s just staring into space, may give you a deus ex stroke of insight (Dr. House style!) and the perfect solution. Some activities which have been shown to help include walking and meditation.
How many times a day do you spontaneously think “what if…?”? This is an example of the everyday imagination that everyone has. It’s known as counterfactual thinking, and is simply defined as thinking of things as other than how they are. In Psychology, counterfactual thinking is usually regarding events which have already happened and people feel regret about (“what if I’d studied harder? I could have passed that test!”). However, you can use counterfactual thinking as a thought experiment in order to explore a potential solution all the way to its conclusion, without necessarily wanting to or even being able to carry it out. You can use it regarding a problem you are facing right now in order to approach it in a different way - a shortcut for thinking outside the box. If you have difficulty in doing this yourself, find someone to bounce your “what if?” ideas off of - chances are they’ll come up with a few themselves for you to mull over.
Aleatoricism is the use of randomness in the process of creation. Often used as part of lateral thinking, introducing randomness can be astonishingly helpful or incredibly useless - but that’s a sign of some good randomness. It’s reliant of the power of associative thinking, in which random data (whether it’s sound, images, words, or something else entirely) can spark memory retrieval or pattern forming. Use coin flips, dice rolls, or randomly generated numbers to determine which avenue you’d like to explore next. Blindly select a word from the dictionary and try to associate it with your problem. Do some free drawing and try to derive meaning from your odd shapes. This is a very hit-and-miss solution, but one of the simplest ways which can potentially be extremely useful. Or not.
These are three very broad techniques for creative problem-solving. Whilst there are a great many specific techniques, often they come down to simply using the principles of distraction, thought experiments or randomisation (or a combination of the three) in various structured or semi-structured ways. The next time you find yourself stuck for ideas, try one or two of these and they might just help you out.