How to Break Free from a Creative Rut

If you’ve been engaged in any sort of artistic or entrepreneurial endeavor for a substantial amount of time, it is only a matter of time before you will feel stuck in a creative rut.

Don’t freak out. You’re not alone. It happens to everyone eventually.

In the old days of the American West — before the invention of cars and trains — the best way to quickly traverse the open plains was by covered wagon or handcart. The fastest way was to follow the well-worn path of those who had gone before. In time, these repeated crossings carved deep grooves into the soil, and sometimes even into stone. These ruts often became a hindrance to the early pioneers by limiting their mobility. Once you get in a rut, it is difficult to get out. What started out as a blessing turned into a curse.

Our creative habits are much the same way. It is human nature to repeat what we’re good at. It feels nice. It feels safe. It gives us a feeling of control and competence. These are all good things. But this constant repetition, which helps us perform at high levels, can also carve ruts. These ruts then begin to hinder our flexibility. It becomes increasingly difficult to extricate ourselves if we’re not careful.

For example, earlier in my career I worked for a high-volume, high-pressure, online design company. We created custom design for small businesses. In order to keep up with the massive workload, the designers developed what we called their “bag of tricks.” This was a mental vault of reliable font and color combinations, layout shortcuts, and trendy visual eye candy guaranteed to wow less savvy clients.

The clients were usually thrilled with the results, but the designers often went home empty inside. I know I sure did. It felt like I was stuck in a narrow, uninspiring channel doing the same layouts over and over again. I was living in a creative vacuum.

Here are a few practices I have used (not all of them) whenever I need to break free from a creative rut:

1. Disrupt your daily routine. Drive a different way to work. Go for a short walk during lunch. Eat at a new restaurant. Wake up super early. Stay up super late. Do pushups in your cubicle.

2. Expand your media range. Listen to music outside your preferred genre. Trade your novels for comic books. Trade your comic books for biographies. Research a style or period of art unfamiliar to you. Watch less television. Take a day off and binge watch your favorite series. Go to a museum. Take up photography. Sign up for open mic night at a comedy club. Audition for a play. Write a poem. Sing in the shower. There is no right or wrong way to do this — just get out of your comfort zone.

3. Alter your environment. Go for a long drive on the weekend. Go alone. Clean your work station. Clean your closets. Get a bold haircut. Paint a wall in your apartment. Plant flowers. Change your curtains. Move across town. Move to a new city. Move states. Move to another country.

The purpose of these exercises is not to wreak havoc in your personal or professional life, but to expose your mind to new stimuli and get the synapses firing again. Creativity is a well that needs to be filled regularly in order to draw out buckets of inspiration. The best material for filling that well might have nothing at all to do with your creative project. The good news is most of these can be done for free.

Remember, ruts can kill your spirit, and even your career. Break free and blaze a new trail.

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