How to stop running out of ideas

How to stop running out of ideas - a drawing of a woman holding a pencil to her mouth, thinking.

There’s nothing worse than running out of ideas.

Normally, for me at least, I run out of ideas after I have had a good innings creatively. I’ve gone all cylinders, blasting out prose like a mad person.

Only to get toppled by writer’s block.

Running out of ideas, from my perspective, isn’t only about not having anything to write, either. I have a stockpile of hundreds of blog titles to write up.

Sometimes, however, the timing feels a bit off. Or I don’t think I’ll be able to write those ideas up to the current standard (don’t laugh – even this site has standards).

So what do I do? I take a breather.

How taking a breather stops you from running out of ideas

I suppose I was first given the idea at uni. I was working through my first degree and went looking for a critique about my work.

During conversations with my tutor, I was taught about planning. I learned to make nice spider (or cloud!) diagrams. They all interlinked in ways that would probably make 37-year-old me scratch my head.

And during that advice, one simple gem of information was passed my way.

My tutor said I should plan what I was going to write for a section, move on and then come back to it.

And I should do the same thing with exams.

Plan out an answer, plan the next one and then come back to it. Don’t just start writing your answer after you have planned it. Move on first, then come back.

Come my finals, I wrote lucid, detailed pieces about 20th century novels. I waxed lyrical on subject after subject. Hell, it worked so well I found I had only 15 minutes left to write a whole essay at the end!

How taking a breather works

Y’see, what I did by moving from planning one answer to planning the next one – rather than just answering each essay question in turn – was take a breather. The idea is the subconscious starts to formulate ideas while you do. It starts to play with notions in ways it never has before. It works on things we are not conscious of.

And that’s not all.

The time this takes also gives us a bit of critical distance. How many times have you slept on something and then come back to the problem – only to suddenly have a totally fresh perspective?

For me this often happens at late-o’clock – as if the subconscious presents its reports most dutifully when we have relaxed. About 12am I’ll suddenly have lots of thoughts about what I’m planning, business ideas etc. Perhaps, my wife suggested, it’s because that’s the first time I’ve let myself chill out that day.

How you can stop running out of ideas by taking a breather

Well, the answer is to take breaks. Journalists often have a trick for thinking up that all-important first line in their articles. They write everything up, and then they go and make themselves a coffee or a cup of tea. Then they get chatting to someone else about some other matter. Consequently they get to relax their work-nerves and think about something else.

When they come back, coffee in hand, they have the idea for their first line. This is because three things have happened: 1) The journalist has concentrated on a new task (coffee/tea-making) 2) They have taken some time out, allowing for critical distance and 3) They have relaxed a little.

Obstacles

There’s every chance you know this, or have heard of it before. But why then do we not constantly have creative thoughts bursting out of our ears? Why do we often feel like we’re running out of ideas in a world full of almost endless possibility?

I believe the reason is fear. Fear makes us keep our heads down and not take a break. It makes us tense. It narrows our state of mind so we only concentrate on what is right in front of us.

That could be the fear of our bosses or the fear of messing up.

So, if you work in that kind of environment, the trick is to be bold. Set a precedent. Take a coffee. If anyone looks at you funny for standing up from your desk, tell them you just need to clear your head – lie if you like and say you have a headache on the horizon. Maybe offer them a drink.

Taking the brunt of the coffee rounds will certainly buy them over. If it doesn’t, offer them something from the sweets machine – might as well make the evils of sugar work for you.

In practice

I don’t always stick to this myself. But I have today and it’s worked really well.¬†This article feels looser – feels more like the sort of thing I want to write. As I work from home, I’ve incorporated a few things into my routine. I’ve gone on the exercise bike, or forced myself to watch some YouTube after a task.

This is not easy, because if you’re like me you’re a ‘self starter’. That often means you’re like some slave driver from a silent black and white movie, lashing workers to keep going.

Except you’re also the worker.

And the worker is get more and more tired as a result.

Working this way has also given me space for initiative. When you are running out of ideas in one area of your work, the chances are you’ll run out of them for everything else as well. I’ve been able to get a much more global view of this site, as well as some other exciting projects I have been working on.

So I dare you: make a coffee. Stand up, proud, and begin to brighten your day with a breather and a blast of much-needed creativity.