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Creative Blocks

The Cure for Creative Blocks? Leave Your Desk.

Feeling stuck? New research suggests that leaving your desk, traveling to far-flung places, and spending time alone all improve your creative thinking.


Everyday between 8:00 and 8:30am writer Stephen King arrives at his desk with a cup of tea. He turns on some music, takes his daily vitamin, and begins to work – exactly as he began the day before. Using this routine, King has produced well over 50 books, averaging 1-2 novels a year since 1974 when he published Carrie. Clearly, daily routines can be incredibly valuable. That is, until they’re not.While familiarity, organization, and discipline can be powerful agents of productive creativity, there is a “tipping point” – when these same once-fruitful qualities transform into creativity killers. In his great TED talk on time off, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister recounts the feeling of stuckness that prompted a massive change for him:

“I originally had opened the studio in New York to combine my two loves, music and design. And we created videos and packaging for many musicians that you know… [But] I realized, just like with many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to it. And I get, over time, bored by them. And, in our case, our work started to look the same.”
 
But how to battle this stagnation that ultimately sets in with most any creative endeavor? Sagmeister decided to take a yearlong sabbatical every seven years – for the first he stayed in New York, for the second he went to Bali. Of course, there are smaller, more accessible ways to spark new creativity. But they all have one thing in common with Sagmeister’s sabbatical: It’s all about putting some distance between you and your desk.How to battle the stagnation that ultimately sets in with most any creative endeavor? As Jonah Lehrer writes in a recent Guardian piece, “Several new science papers suggest that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking.” Certainly, we’ve all experienced the feeling that work concerns are just less important the farther away we get from the office. Now there’s proof to back up the classic “out of sight, out of mind” expression.
 
Lehrer goes on, “The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel ‘close’ – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.”
 
Going even further, another study sparked by the productivity of expats like Nabokov, Hemingway, Yeats, Picasso, Gaugin, and Handel showed that not just traveling but living abroad for an extended period of time can improve our capacities for problem solving and creative thinking. It turns out that being exposed to cultures that function differently from our own – from language to social customs to public transport – awakens the brain, alerting it to a much broader range of possibilities for being, living, and making. For a fine example, look no further than German photographer Thomas Kalak’s photographs of “found technology” in Thailand – old CDs used as bike reflectors, discarded socks as mops, water bottles as brake lights.

After observing the impact of living abroad, scientists concluded, “It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to ‘think outside the box’ but also the capacity to realize that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities.”

Being exposed to cultures that function differently from our own – from language to social customs to public transport – awakens the brain. Another useful byproduct of travel is solitude. At our desks, we are never alone. Even if you work from home in complete isolation, an ever-growing stream of communications are constantly chattering away. Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc compete for our attention and focus, scattering our minds and fragmenting our productivity. And even if we have the willpower to turn these channels off, their “closeness” can still impede our thinking.
 
Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta argues that solitude is the single most predominant habit of productive creatives, and research on particularly creative teenagers has showed that an enthusiasm for spending time alone is a common trait of the most talented adolescents.

Though we are more likely than ever to be tethered to others by our iPhones and Blackberries, it’s more important than ever to carve out periods of uninterrupted contemplation. To take our brains out of their scattershot Internet patterns and navigate a new city, take in nature on a long walk, sit quietly and read a book, or have a serendipitous conversation with a stranger.
 
Does this mean we should all move abroad and live in isolation? Of course not. You don’t have to cross the world to find a change of scenery or to place yourself in an unfamiliar environment. Particularly if you live in a large metropolis, world travel can be as close as hopping on the subway to a new neighborhood. The point is to explore, to try something new, to drag yourself away from your computer and get moving. As psychiatrist Milton Erickson put it, “Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change.”

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (37)
  • skyrill

    how about clear and clean your work space, I see that as a different kind of change which also frees the mind…

    nice read!

  • mr-okokokok

    I would comment on this post, but I have nothing to say.. maybe I’ll go for a walk and figure it out?

  • Ayush Kumar

    This reminds me of some points in my post: http://aharmonyofhues.blogspot

    But you seem to have explained the things in a better way. Great work!🙂

  • Tom

    True, true, true. I have moved from Poland to London then after spending 5 years there I’ve gave up my job and moved to Wales and opened my creative agency. Constant changes are powering my fresh way of thinking. If I’m stuck then the alarm sound in the back of my mind shouting “Get away” and I go up the mountains without any planning – just closing the door behind me.

    I know one thing. If work doesn’t move forward this means you don’t really want to do that, so you better stop doing this and go for something you love to do – at least you not gonna waste your time. You’ll spend some time enjoying something instead of forcing yourself to produce poor quality outcome of your work that will make you feel even worst and also put negative influence on your professional image. World can wait – your life can’t.

  • Tom

    True, true, true. I have moved from Poland to London then after spending 5 years there I’ve gave up my job and moved to Wales and opened my creative agency. Constant changes are powering my fresh way of thinking. If I’m stuck then the alarm sound in the back of my mind shouting “Get away” and I go up the mountains without any planning – just closing the door behind me.

    I know one thing. If work doesn’t move forward this means you don’t really want to do that, so you better stop doing this and go for something you love to do – at least you not gonna waste your time. You’ll spend some time enjoying something instead of forcing yourself to produce poor quality outcome of your work that will make you feel even worst and also put negative influence on your professional image. World can wait – your life can’t.

  • Leanne

    I so agree with you! Nothing like a journey to a far away land to spark creativity.

  • Chris

    I like the idea of getting away, but if you’re getting away for creativity purposes does this mean no thinking about work or problems to solve while you’re away? i get stuck a lot and want to get away but being that my mind is always thinking work how can I really “get away”?

    Any advice is appreciated.

  • david

    So tru.
    When I didn’t know what to do for a professional career, i looked for inspiration. So I moved to the US and lived in a small city in Colorado for a year. I knew no one or even spoke the language. It was the best creative outlet I had.

  • Justin Roberts

    Creativity is a state of mind. To undertake any creative endeavor one must control their thoughts, emotions and receive inspiration from everything around them.

    Getting away from your desk and going for a short walk helps me. I find looking at a view from a lookout or window grounds me and brings my focus back into perspective

  • Julian C.

    No wonder I so love traveling. I just can’t stop! As a graphic/packaging designer, I get my best inspiration from the most unfamiliar settings. This makes keen sense to me . . .

  • Helen

    This is so inspiring.
    I want to get away too, but how can you support yourdelf to get away for such a long time?

  • Michael Plishka

    Getting away comes in different forms. It’s about putting distance into the equation: http://zenstorming.wordpress.c

  • Matthew

    The articles on this site continue to impress me. Thanks for all the hard work and the wonderful insight; It’s been truly helpful.

  • Timos

    absolutly i rather wait for the day where creatives realize that their work is not happening in front of the pc but outside and that’s the cool thing!

    If mankind someday reaches the point where it does not have to bother about ressources and stuff it’s the creativity which will stay

  • Tracey

    One does not need to travel out of the Country, or one’s State to get such inspiration. Sometimes, traveling to a different neighborhood, perhaps sitting at a park, or going to a local restaurant in some other ‘hood could be enough to open our eyes and spark new creativity. Try it.

  • Joe McCarthy

    Nice overview of strategies for cultivating creativity.

    In a recent segment on the PBS NewsHour, Poet Benjamin Saenz offered a related perspective, suggesting that we have to move out of our comfort zones – or into discomfort zones (in his case, Juarez, Mexico) – in order to be our most creative:

    “This is the place that really defines me, because it is such a difficult terrain to negotiate, because there are no sense of certainties, the fixed ideas of one’s identity, of one’s natural boundaries, the way one uses words, that they come from all sides. And, sometimes, they come at you like bullets.

    It’s not a comfortable place to live. And, if you want to be a writer, you don’t want to live in a comfortable place.”

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb

  • Faith

    At the very least, you gotta get away from the Web 2.0 or else it becomes all-consuming! If you make things, it is critical to pull away from the computer and work with your hands. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing new to blog about!

  • akira

    Yeah, the new ways to obtain information that constrain the ability for think or look far away of the reality is caused by a explode of information irrelevant and sintetized. That is the worse focus for thus the Information Technology.

  • eilish Bouchier

    This might just explain my bohemian nature. I love to travel regularly and I have lived and worked in many countries. I find it feeds me. It makes sense as each culture not only think differently, they move differently, their body language is different, the way they dress, what the eat the way they eat, their values, their sense of humour. One of my favourites games while waiting in an airport is to guess the nationality before i hear the person speak.

    There is beauty everywhere but it can become ordinary when we see it everyday and we begin to take it for granted. Going away allows one to see home differently

  • Karin Miller

    Thank you for your new section called “Tips”.
    I have been working on my own for many years and really believe that Behance is an amazing concept and an amazing site.

  • Stephen Bradley

    Taking yourself away from life – ie into yourself, through meditation (this could be a walk in the country, with a fix of being closer to nature) helps blow the tiredness and mental stagnation away from this particular individual. Meditation (as a form of taking yourself away from the norms of life) also strengthens your mind (and resolve) by training you to focus your thoughts. Resulting in clearer thinking.

    peace,
    Stephen

  • apartmentsdirect

    It makes sense as each culture not only think differently, they move differently, their body language is different, the way they dress, what the eat the way they eat, their values, their sense of humour.

    holiday homes ireland

  • David

    Good to know my penchant for solitude and propensity to wander aren’t the worst thing in the world.

  • julia jean

    Keep in mind that your actual creativity mirrors your mental prosperity. With that said, get out! Forget all of that and have some Fun!

    Online Saree

  • Dre

     Great article. I do also believe that going out in a place where you draw your comfort zone will surely awaken your sense of being. 

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