Those pesky creative types love their coffee, and being a pesky creative type myself, I love it too. But unlike most creative coffee snobs, I’ll drink any sludge around (especially if it’s free). What I’ve discovered is that I don’t drink coffee for the taste or even the caffeine. I drink coffee because the process of making, or buying, or filling my mug, or taking those first few sips gives me a minute to just be.
Whether you work in a creative field or not, your day is filled with solving a series of small problems (or if you make a lot of money, solving a series of big problems). The tricky thing about working in a creative field or pursuing a creative hobby, though, is that the problems you’re trying to solve often don’t have an obvious or even correct answer.
Two years ago, I was working on a huge pitch to win a chunk of advertising business from Monsanto, but I was having trouble coming up with a good headline for the proposed campaign. I sent option after option to my creative director who had to, dishearteningly, send me back to the drawing board. My confidence was shot. All of the good ideas had been wrung out. Finally, she told me to go home, sleep on it, and try again tomorrow. Strangely enough, the next day, I nailed it on my first shot.
The common strategy to solving difficult problems is to think really hard about them. You research, write down your ideas, think things over, second guess, and hope to come up with the perfect solution. But the longer this process takes, the more frustrated you get. There are serious diminishing returns when it comes to thinking things over.
The harder you think, the harder it becomes to solve the problem at hand.
For me, when I finally throw my hands up in disgust and walk away from my desk to get coffee, the solution often hits me out of nowhere.
Ideas only arrive when you make space for them. That’s why people always talk about their best ideas coming in the shower, or on a walk, or when they sleep on it, or when they take a short coffee break.
When you put down your smartphone and give your brain some breathing space, you might discover that there’s some accidental brilliance in there.
Unfortunately, you can’t just do nothing and expect to stumble upon brilliance, so here are four ways to set the stage for unexpected creativity.
READ AND LISTEN WIDELY
As I discussed a few weeks ago, you should be deliberate in choosing what you read. You can’t expect to put junk into your brain and have accidental brilliance pop out. Your inputs influence your outputs; so reading a diverse range of books and listening to podcasts that fall outside of your typical interests may just be the spark you’re looking for. You never know when a theory or idea from one discipline can help you see a problem in a new way.
KEEP A PHYSICAL NOTEBOOK
When you write by hand, you have to pay more attention to what you’re doing. You can’t just copy and paste. A physical notebook is more permanent and it keeps you present and focused. Plus, it looks much cooler.
I keep two separate notebooks – a small one for my daily 10 ideas exercise and a larger one for…everything else. It’s freeing to write down scraps of ideas, doodle, and experiment. The computer is so final. It’s not a good place for rough drafts.
And, of course, you’ll never stumble upon a digital collection of notes and start flipping through. When you page through old paper notebooks, you might come across an idea that will help solve the problem at hand.
MAKE FORWARD PROGRESS SOMEWHERE ELSE
“If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else…Any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
When you’re stuck, don’t throw more time or energy at the problem. Throw in the towel. Practice productive procrastination. Take on another task that needs doing – anything from cleaning the house to working on a different creative project. As you focus on something else, your subconscious will have the freedom to wander, and when you get back to what’s stressing you, you may discover that the problem’s been magically solved.
DIGITALLY DISCONNECT AND MOVE YOUR BODY
Have you ever left your house (or just gone to the bathroom) without your phone? The boredom seems interminable. But that time you have alone with your thoughts is incredibly useful. It’s a mini meditation session.
If you’re feeling stuck, put down your phone and go for walk (or just make yourself some coffee). As you do nothing, your brain might just entertain itself by solving your problem for you.
If you run three miles, your legs get tired. So you rest and let your energy replenish before you run again. You don’t go another three miles.
Your brain is a muscle too. Pushing it harder and harder by overthinking a problem won’t bring you closer to your goal, which is why pulling an all-nighter is often less effective than sleeping and working in the morning. Chaining yourself to your desk in the pursuit of success is often the least productive thing you can do.
If you follow the steps here, you won’t have to worry as much about finding the perfect solution. Set yourself up for accidental brilliance, and let the perfect solution find you.