10 ways to get out of a creative rut
My creative juices certainly weren't flowing — what I had was a mere trickle and that wasn't going to cut it. One of my most valued personal resources was depleted but in the end, I got insight into how to bounce back from a creative rut.
Sep 21, 2019
Sinead Mulhern is a Canadian travel and lifestyle writer who lives in Ecuador. In 2018, she quit her editorial job to pursue a career as a full-tim...
In the fall of last year, I had a distinct feeling that I had hit a creative rut.
I live in Ecuador and I freelance write full time to make my living. Outside of writing, I'm an extremely creative person: the concoctions I create in the kitchen are rarely born from a recipe, I often unwind by sketching with a stick of charcoal in hand and I can lose myself for hours putting inky traces on paper to replicate the lines that makeup someone's face. As for writing, I've always been in love with the process of creating a narrative, crafting a story from start to finish and using language to articulate a message to readers.
Without my creative outlets, I'm just a shell of who I am. It sounds dramatic, but it's true.
During the last months of 2018 though, I found myself without these hobbies. I was zapped. I had let my creativity burn out without even realizing it and as the final three months of the year passed by, it worsened.
I wasn't creating art. I was bored with my assignments. I took on work I knew I wouldn't like. I was spared from a total creative drought by continuing to whip up my signature stews, sauces and pasta dishes in the kitchen, but still, the creative juices certainly weren't flowing — what I had was a mere trickle and that wasn't going to cut it.
At the time, I had no idea how I got there. Looking back on that time now, a year later with my creativity now well and good, I have some ideas about how it happened and how to get out of a creative rut in the future.
After bouncing back from that recent period where one of my most valued personal resources was depleted, here are my insights as to how to bring yourself out of a creative rut.
10 ways to break out of a creative rut
- Take a break
- Do more of what you love to do outside of your creative pursuit
- Scrap a money-focused mentality
- Explore the work of other creatives
- Make your home into an inspirational place
- Power off for 48 hours
- Go on a mini vacation
- Go on a Netflix hiatus
- Give time to creative activities you don't normally do
- Exercise without technology
1. Take a break
In order to get yourself out of a creative rut, you have to realize that something about your current situation isn't working. Only when you get that full view will you be able to make a change.
For me, I realized that it was time to take more breaks. I had been pitching like crazy, trying to keep up with deadlines, working to win new clients and always keeping my mind open for new ideas. At some point, I had used up all my creativity which is especially concerning for someone who makes her living off of writing.
Only when I took breaks did it come back. I took an afternoon off when I felt like it. I slept in for an extra hour when I was tired. I took the time to spruce up my apartment and get my house cleaning done and just spend time eating good food with friends.
The thing about creativity is that it doesn't flourish when you're constantly switched on and demanding high volumes from yourself. For most creatives, inspiration strikes and our best work happens only after the mind has had a chance to rest. I now understand that breaks are necessary for my livelihood. I simply can't produce my best work without them.
2. Do more of what you love to do outside of your creative pursuit
When I think about the blockages that often happen to those with artistic inclinations, I often think back to a conversation I had a couple of years ago with my older brother.
My brother is culinarily gifted, well-read and he has the same knack for art that I do. When, a couple of years ago, I found that I had been drawing less, he told me to just let hobbies ebb and flow in phases.
In other words: it's okay if you're in a rut in one area — use that period to reconnect with other passions. For me, that's things like running, hiking, reading fiction or watching well-made documentaries. You'll bounce back in no time.
3. Scrap a money-focused mentality
Looking back, I now realize that one of my problems late last year was that I was taking work mainly for the money it offered. As a full-time freelance writer, that's a tricky situation.
If I don't get paid adequately for my pieces, I cease to be able to do this job. I won't be able to support myself. At the same time, taking writing gigs purely for the money is not mentally sustainable.
The same goes for other artistic professions: graphic design, illustration, podcast production, photography... you name it. Exploiting your talents purely for the paycheck is draining and you will burn out.
At one point, I was setting the alarm for a gig I didn't enjoy in the mornings and in the afternoons, I was working on copy I found extremely dry for a tech company that didn't match my expertise or interests. No wonder I found myself in a creative rut — I was waking up in the morning already disenchanted with everything on my to-do list for the day.
While money is obviously a necessity, I would have done better to hold out for more suitable clients. Thankfully, I figured that out eventually.
4. Explore the work of other creatives
One of the best ways to break out of a creative rut is to take time to appreciate the work of other creatives. I'm a writer so if I'm experiencing a creative block, I'll often read essays and memoirs of other young, female writers.
To let myself fully absorb the creative talents of other women who do what I do is something that always leaves me feeling energetic and inspired. I don't suggest only sticking to your creative realm though.
Follow new photographers on Instagram and take work breaks to view their work. Go to a local art gallery. Watch an award-winning documentary. Spend an evening reading poetry on the couch with a cup of tea. Find new artists and play their music as you cook eggs first thing in the morning.
5. Make your home into an inspirational place
Your living space has a lot to do with how you live your day-to-day life. It impacts your happiness, your productivity and your creativity. If your home is dark, depressing and untidy, how will you ever conjure up the inspiration to create?
If I have a big deadline, I know I have to be sitting in an organized home. Make your living quarters a zone that breathes energy into you with potted plants, artistic prints, photographs of your favorite places or paintings produced by local artists.
Even small things like playing classical music quietly on a dull and moody day or displaying books with beautiful covers on your coffee table (both things that I actually do) will make all kinds of difference.
6. Power off for 48 hours
I just got back after spending the summer back home in Canada. After being abroad in South America for a year and a half, it was an incredibly busy time and though I loved being home and seeing my country again, I found it exhausting trying to check off so many boxes during a limited time (I think a lot of travelers can relate to this but that's another story...).
I started to fall into a bit of a rut during this time. Just before that creativity drain set in though, I went to a cottage up north for a weekend and spent 48 hours without wi-fi.
The powers of shutting off really are amazing. When I said no to the constant barrage of email, text and Instagram notifications, I instead gave my attention to lakeside views, the scent of fresh pine, and conversation with my friends. I solemnly swear that a 48-hour tech break will do a lot to cure most ruts, creative or otherwise.
7. Go on a mini vacation
To that last point, just go on vacation already. Even if you don't quite have the urge to switch the phone to airplane mode, getting a few days away from home with different scenery is one of the best tips for getting out of a creative rut.
If a vacation is not in your budget, doing a work exchange is a cost-effective way to explore dream destinations, step out of your comfort zone, learn new skills and get some fresh inspiration. You'll save money while traveling, but more importantly, have an incredibly unique travel experience.
Worldpackers offers some truly amazing opportunities to work around the world. Whether you want to try your hand at permaculture, work in a hostel, volunteer at an NGO, or learn how to surf while helping out a surf camp, Worldpackers has you covered.
Again, it's only when you give your mind a break that it can do its best work so give it a chance to do something different. Learn a new skill, sample new flavors, go on long walks, drink in new scenery, listen to live music, and take the pace down several notches.
8. Go on a Netflix hiatus
I'm pretty sure I can safely say that few people have come away with a major dose of inspiration after binge-watching Friends or eating takeout while watching Hollywood's latest rom-com. If your creative juices have somehow turned into a stagnant swamp, do yourself a favor and feed your soul with something other than a mindless Netflix binge.
I've already suggested exploring the work of artists or writers you love but if that doesn't work, spend an evening making homemade tomato sauce or light a bunch of candles and do an evening meditation. If you're really missing your true crime Netflix habit, draw a bath and listen to the latest murder mystery podcast series.
9. Give time to creative activities you don't normally do
Sometimes the best way to feed a stagnating creative passion is to give time to those which you do less frequently. I'm kind of obsessed with hiking in the mountains and snapping the perfect shot that embodies that day's experience in one single image.
It's something I do purely for myself so that I can preserve that memory. But by keeping my eyes peeled for the perfect scene and framing multiple shots in the mountains, I'm being fully present and appreciating the natural beauty that I'm surrounded by.
This practice is one of my essential steps for getting out of a creative rut and has frequently put an end to writer's block when I've been struggling to come up with a theme for a personal essay or a fresh angle for a travel story. All I have to do is look at the recent photos in my phone and then I've got my next story idea.
I've also found that in cooking up a new dish, I let my mind wander and suddenly the best idea I've had all month comes to me just like that.
10. Exercise without technology
When I'm experiencing writer's block, I overthink. I rewrite sentences and paragraphs that were just fine and dandy to begin with. I spend way too much time agonizing over the perfect pitch. I restructure stories that don't need restructuring.
If you're experiencing some sort of obstacle that's preventing yourself from doing what your talented self does best, chances are you need to get out of your head. My suggestion: go work out WITHOUT your phone.
If I'm ever stuck on a draft, I run by the river for half an hour. When I return, it almost always feels like I'm starting fresh.
I'm happy to say that my creative rut came to an end and was followed by a really successful time in my freelance writing career. I traded the clients and projects I didn't like for stories that reflect my personality (you can read many of them on this website).
These days, I start and finish my workday feeling inspired nearly every single time. If the creative juices ever fade to a trickle again, I guess I've just given my future self a short manual to get them back.