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When Your Job Requires Brilliant Ideas, But Brainstorming Feels Like Pulling Teeth

It sounds terribly cliché, but sometimes coming up with ideas really does feel like pulling teeth. It feels painful and frustrating. It feels messy and hard. And it’s the last thing you want to do.

But maybe your job requires you to come up with great ideas. On a regular basis.

Maybe you’re a writer, speaker, designer, artist, podcast host, publicist, teacher, researcher, or entrepreneur. Either way, idea generation is a priority in your position.

And, unfortunately, you feel utterly and completely uninspired.

Mary Potter Kenyon, an author, certified grief counselor, and program coordinator at the Shalom Spirituality Center, typically feels uninspired when she’s tired or overwhelmed, and after she’s submitted a manuscript or big project.

“I feel spent, as if it took everything creative out of me,” Kenyon said.

For author and productivity expert Paula Rizzo lack of inspiration comes from lack of structure. If she doesn’t plan for creativity, it’s hard for her to “think of anything!”

Alexandra Franzen, a prolific writer who helps clients complete all kinds of creative projects, feels uninspired when she spends too much time sitting in front of her computer and not enough time moving her body. She feels uninspired when she’s been too isolated and “shut off from the fascinating and beautiful world.”

That’s one way to kick-start our creativity: Find out why the heck you feel uninspired—and work to turn it around. Be honest about what’s going on and be compassionate with yourself, Franzen said.

For instance, maybe you’re tired or lethargic because your lifestyle leaves little room for leisure. Maybe you’re bored of your career or afraid to take an emotional risk, she said. Maybe you’re not getting enough sleep. Maybe you’re saying yes to projects you’re not even interested in.

Franzen also suggested getting help, whether that’s from a close friend, creative partner, therapist, or coach. Below you’ll find eight other ways to feel inspired and ignite your creativity.

Carve out creative time. “Oftentimes creative people think that adding boundaries or structure will make them less creative but it’s simply not true,” Rizzo said.

She puts her creativity sessions on her calendar—and sticks to them. When she started writing her second book Listful Living: A List-Making Journey to a Less Stressed You (published in September 2019 by Mango Publishing), she carved out Fridays for researching and writing, and wouldn’t schedule any other calls or appointments.

Now that the book is finished, her Fridays are devoted to other forms of creativity. She tries to assign a project or theme for each session. For example, a few weeks ago, she wrote about a funny scene from her vacation in Greece:

When she and her husband were in Santorini, they decided to walk to the next town, which people told them would take 25 minutes. It turned out to be one hour. “[T]he signage was terrible and we weren’t sure where we were going half the time. But on our way, I kept joking about why they didn’t give us better directions when we would come across something on the path [like] ‘Then you’ll come to an abandoned flip flop—just keep going.'”

File it away. Kenyon keeps a file folder with magazine articles on topics she finds interesting—everything from research to random facts. She also has a file folder with book ideas. Years ago, she considered writing a book about exploring and expanding creativity as an adult.

So, she started collecting fascinating articles and quotes on creativity. If she read a book about creativity that resonated with her, she jotted down the title, and put it in the folder, too. In 2020, Kenyon will be publishing a book on creativity with Familius Publishing.

Reconnect to your world. Instead of getting stuck inside your own mind, Franzen recommended having conversations, being in nature, and looking up at the sky (“not down at a digital screen”).

For instance, Franzen cited research that found that spending 3 days immersed in nature “acts like a ‘neural reboot’ and significantly boosts creativity.” “I’ve definitely experienced this myself,” she said. “For me, even just 3 hours in nature can make a huge difference in how I think and feel.”  

Play with prompts. At her writing classes and retreats, Franzen loves to assign small writing prompts, “not to write something ‘glorious’ or ‘perfect’—the point is just to have fun, wake up your brain, and flex your creative muscles in a new way.”

Here’s one she recently made up: “Imagine you’re a detective in a small town. A new client walks into your office with a very unusual mystery for you to solve. He’s willing to pay cash up front, and you could definitely use the cash. Set a timer for 5 minutes and write a fictional scene featuring you and this client. If you don’t ‘finish’ the scene, no worries. Just see how far you can get!”

Rizzo also uses prompts to create stories about people she sees on the street or news headlines she reads. For instance, she’ll ponder “What if?” as in “What if the homeless man I just saw on the street used to be a CEO on Wall Street?”

“Even if I don’t use the story for anything, it’s fun to think about,” Rizzo said.

Read. A lot. Kenyon reads about 30 to 40 books on a topic before, during, and after she’s writing a book about that topic. “Part of it is research that I might include in my book, but it also helps me clarify what I do, or don’t want to do with my own writing,” she said.

Another practice is to read books that you normally wouldn’t pick up to shake up your routine, and therefore shake up your thinking. This could be anything from children’s books to political thrillers to poetry.

Wander (and wonder) around. If you’re able to, take a day off work to meander without a strict agenda, said Franzen, author of several books, including You’re Going to Survive. “Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea to write Hamilton while on vacation—proof that unwinding and unplugged leads to genius, creative ideas.”

Maybe you take a day trip to the botanical gardens or the beach. Maybe you browse a museum, bookstore, or library, focusing on whatever catches your eye (and leave your phone in the car).

Think in circles. When Kenyon needs to plan a speech, write an article, or work on a new book, she makes a mind map. Start by jotting down the core concept or topic in a circle in the center of your paper. Next draw lines from that circle for other ideas, which you also put in circles. Kenyon does this quickly, and some of the words, phrases, and ideas don’t even make much sense.

However, she finds that the farther she gets from her main topic, “the more creative and innovative my ideas are.” In fact, this technique has helped her on different occasions to come up with ideas that a traditional outline just couldn’t coax out.

Turn to others. For Kenyon, being around others who are creating jumpstarts her own creativity, so much so she formed two groups: a monthly writer’s group and a lifelong learner’s creativity group. “We feed off each other’s creative energy. I always want to go home from a meeting and start writing,” she said.

Rizzo often gets together with a friend to bounce ideas off each other. As a former television producer, she’s used to working collaboratively and sometimes needs “someone else in the room to get the creative juices flowing.”

It can be hard to play when you’ve got the pressure of producing useful, profitable ideas. However, as Rizzo pointed out, sometimes it’s OK to write (and create) without a purpose.

“I think all of us are focused on the finished product and the fastest way to get there. But some of the great stuff happens in the in between.”

When Your Job Requires Brilliant Ideas, But Brainstorming Feels Like Pulling Teeth


Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.


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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). When Your Job Requires Brilliant Ideas, But Brainstorming Feels Like Pulling Teeth. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 17, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-your-job-requires-brilliant-ideas-but-brainstorming-feels-like-pulling-teeth/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Aug 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Aug 2019
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