Brainstorming Block? Here’s How to Work Through It

It’s time to put creativity in focus so you can stay on task and inventive even under pressure.

Does creative brainstorming leave you feeling stressed? If you find yourself wondering where your next big idea is going to come from and why it hasn’t arrived yet, you might be having a hard time being creative. Perhaps that’s because you’re stuck thinking about how you need to be creative.

Expectation: Creativity strikes like lightning! It comes from nowhere and magically zaps an innovator to life, bringing fresh ideas to the world.

Reality: Brilliant ideas don’t drop from the sky. However, they do need to come from somewhere. Let’s put your creative process in perspective. Creative pressure doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

If you have certain expectations for yourself, but feel too much pressure to deliver, you could be setting yourself up for creative failure. Well, it’s time to take a step back. For creativity to happen, there must be a balance between work and play. Even if the final idea seems to fall into place, that’s because of the years and many experiments spent searching for it. After all, Thomas Edison allegedly said, “I have not failed, but found 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.”

But, while you might be able to take comfort in knowing you need a little time to generate your next lightbulb-moment, that doesn’t solve all your problems.

There’s this push and pull to the creative process—you want to be inventive, original, fun, productive and hardworking all at once. You might also be worried about working with others, feeling pressure from a manager, or generally disheartened by outside factors. It’s exhausting! It doesn’t have to be.

Does Stress Make You More or Less Creative?

Checking tasks off a to-do list feels good. Under pressure, you’re a productivity machine, jumping from one task to the next. You’re focused. But are you creative? Under pressure, you may be very productive but not very creative. That’s why it’s important to leave room for creativity—schedule a break, take a walk, chat with a coworker. 

Of course, there are also the examples of high-stakes scenarios that call for creativity to happen. In an examination of creativity under pressure, the Harvard Business Review pointed to Apollo 13, and the on-board explosion that damaged the air filtration system mid-flight. NASA engineers needed to be creative. Within a few hours—working with whatever materials were available—a life-saving solution came together. 

But that same article on innovation also considered drama and pressure are not needed to force creativity. They can also inhibit it if the stakes are not right. Pressure, a lack of energy, and frustration with managers and coworkers can lead to a drop in creative thinking.

Perhaps it comes down to meaningful stress. This kind of stress helps you perform better because you’re invested in the cause and solution. Think about the motivation you find in a deadline or the commitment you find in a certain challenge.

How to be a Healthy Creative

Stress and creativity have a complicated relationship. So, how can you be prolific, creative, and healthy? That’s the question creative leadership expert Todd Henry asks. Get the wrong combination and you could end up fried or fired.

“We panic about the problem, we explore the first option that comes along, we choose that option, and we execute. We are great at executing, but in so doing we short-circuit the process by which the best ideas can come. We don’t venture out into the uncomfortable places,” Henry says in his TEDx Talk on “Creativity Under Pressure.”

In researching top creatives, he realized many had practices that helped sustain them and the creative processes. That element of routine helps “because things always get crazy.” Additionally, one important element Henry zeroed in on is the myth of the lone creative. In fact, it’s important to utilize your network, teammates, or fellow creatives to stay sharp. Look for inspiration.

In order to foster these vibrant relationships with others, Henry suggests gathering in a cross-group of creatives to brainstorm together and asking these three questions:

Creative Process Cycle: Research, Ideas, Brainstorm, Solution

  • What are you working on?
  • What can I do to help?
  • What’s inspiring you?

When you chat about your big ideas and passions, you make connections. If you feel pressured to be creative, resist the temptation to lock yourself alone in your room until you have a solution. It’s okay to lean on others for advice and suggestions. In fact, it can help expand your creative process and make you feel less stressed. And that will help to generate more thoughtful and inventive designs and solutions, even under pressure.

If you share in a comfortable and welcoming creative space, you help solve each other’s problems and get your own creative juices flowing.

Why Be Creative Anyway?

When you’re surrounded by negativity, it might not feel good to play. You still have your to-do list to get through. Your focus is simply on getting things done.

You should still leave time to be creative. It will make you feel better and could have a positive impact on others as well. Ideas bring about hope and change through new practices and products. On a more personal level, creativity can make you healthier—and, yes, reduce stress. “Just like physical exercise, creative stimulation engages and focuses our minds on the task at hand—and distracts us from feelings of stress and anxiety,” Deepak Chopra and Kabir Sehgal wrote in Entrepreneur.

So, don’t leave your brain fried. Instead, invest in yourself and in your creative process. When you rest, you open your minds to opportunities to be creative and productive. Going for a walk or finding a helpful distraction can put you back on track.

Although where lighting strikes cannot be certain, there are scenarios that make them more likely. Think of taking a mental break or scheduling time for a brainstorm as your own personal lightning rod to creativity. Creative problems rarely have a quick or perfect solution. And, fittingly, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to brainstorm. But having goals, routines, and a creative group can help. Lower your stress and let the creative juices flow.

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