There’s a particular type of dread that creatives know all too well.
It starts like this: you’re trying to come up with something unique and original for your client that sets them above the competition.
You’re sitting at your computer screen, staring at something blank that’s not supposed to be blank, and which, worryingly, isn’t getting any less blank.
You’ve analyzed your target audience, read up on industry trends, watched a cat video or two, and even phoned a friend, but even though you’ve done all the groundwork, nothing’s clicked yet — and you’re meeting with the client tomorrow to pitch your big idea.
So what do you do?
It’s difficult to stay creative when you have deadlines to meet, clients to please, and a growing mountain of work to get through. But even though creativity is often portrayed as a magical well from which great ideas spring fully formed, that’s simply not true.
The reality is that creativity can be fostered with the right work environment, clever processes, and hard work.
Here are our dos and don’ts when it comes to staying creative under pressure — and quick ways to put them into practice next time you’re in a pinch.
1. Don’t let fear of failure limit your success
No one wants to turn in something less than their best, especially when they’re trying to impress an important client. Creative work is subject to a lot of scrutiny, and the fear of failure that comes with this can be paralyzing.
Research shows that this fear of failure actually limits success by making you more likely to procrastinate and less likely to innovate. Ironically, it makes us do what we’re most afraid of: produce mediocre work.
It makes sense. If your creative bandwidth is taken up by visions of things going disastrously wrong, you’ll only explore safe ideas.
And you don’t want to be safe. You want to be brilliant.
What you can do: Workshop your most out-there ideas with an internal audience
When you’re brainstorming, take a tip from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and countless other comedic geniuses by testing out your ideas internally in a “yes, and” environment.
The concept of “yes, and” comes from improv comedy, in which you’re given an idea and challenged to roll with it (“yes”) and then contribute something of your own to expand on it further (“and…”).
No one shuts the idea down, no matter how ridiculous it is. There’s no picking it apart or immediately second-guessing it.
Instead, you’re all tasked with developing the idea in creative, collaborative ways.
Not only that, but it encourages people to share their most out-there ideas more freely, because they know it’s a criticism-free zone.
Even if you’re crunched for time, you can do a quick run-through with a colleague who has a few free minutes and an open mind.
Maybe the original idea you “yes and”-ed will become something totally bizarre and unusable by the end of the workshop. But more than likely, it’ll have sparked lots of little sub-ideas for the whole team along the way — and given you the confidence you need to innovate and try things that can actually break the mould.
2. Do break things down to their simplest components
If you’re struggling to find direction, go back to the start. Revisit the original brief and any notes you have from your client. What are you being asked to do? What are you trying to achieve?
With creative projects, things can quickly start to snowball — and scope can quickly start to creep. One idea leads to another, expectations get muddied, and before you know it you’ve lost sight of the actual deliverable that you’ve been tasked with delivering.
Breaking the task down to its simplest form can help you to make sure you’re still on track, at any stage of your creative process.
What you can do: Explain it like you’re talking to a friend
Need to quickly recenter your focus and get back to the core of what you’re trying to do?
Imagine you’re talking to a friend. Someone smart, but with no prior knowledge of what you’ve set out to achieve with this task. You want to explain it to them.
Where do you begin? What do you say? What kind of language do you use?
There are a few reasons this tactic is so helpful. For one, it forces you to identify the most important elements of your idea and think strategically about how to communicate them to someone who might not have the same level of context or familiarity.
And because they’re your (hypothetical) friend and you (hypothetically) respect them, you’re not dumbing things down. Rather, you’re trying to find the most efficient, succinct way to explain things so they can get up to speed as quickly as possible.
What’s more, describing things conversationally can help to make complex ideas feel less intimidating. When you’re talking to a friend, you don’t need to worry about saying everything perfectly. Instead, you can focus on the key message you’re trying to get across.
Once you know that, you’ll be able to adapt it for any audience.
3. Don’t wait around for your “Aha!” moment
Let’s be real: in creative industries, waiting for that elusive “aha!” moment is a luxury you just can’t afford.
With such a high turnover of clients and projects (not to mention deadlines), you don’t have time to wait around for inspiration to strike. You need to strike it yourself.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But the thing about creativity is that it’s a muscle, not a mood. And like any muscle, you can build it — but you need to put in the work.
What you can do: Create now, edit later
To keep the workout theme going (and borrow from one of the most successful ad campaigns in history): just do it.
Take any one chunk of the project and just start working. Don’t be afraid to start somewhere other than the beginning; the most important thing is that you start.
If you’re writing, for example, this might mean doing a stream-of-consciousness dump of bullet points, then jumping into whichever section is calling to you.
Don’t edit. Don’t second-guess. Indulge everything that passes through your brain. Even if it gets silly. Even if you start writing notes to yourself about how difficult you’re finding it or what you want to eat for dinner.
Don’t break your flow. Just keep doing the thing.
This has two purposes. Firstly, it’s about getting all of your ideas out, instead of keeping them inside your head where they don’t have enough room to stretch and grow. Once you put them to paper and give them free reign, you might find that they start to develop in ways you weren’t expecting.
And secondly, it’s about the literal mechanics of writing, drawing, or whatever. It might sound strange, but you’d be amazed at how often going through the motions of the physical act of creating can spark actual creativity.
4. Create the right environment
It’s hard to get into the zone when colleagues keep stopping by your desk with questions, or you’re getting pinged on your work chat tool every few minutes.
They’re not trying to sabotage your productivity; in fact, they probably don’t even realize they’re doing it.
But all the same, if you’re constantly distracted, you’ll never really be able to get into the kind of flow that’s necessary for creative work.
Creating the right work environment and setting up some best practices for distraction-free periods can go a long way towards reclaiming your time and keeping your creativity on schedule.
What you can do: Go off the grid
Make an uninterrupted digital space for yourself.
Let the team know that you’re going to be offline for a little while. Close your inbox. Turn off your notifications. Put your phone into Airplane Mode so you’re not tempted to slyly check Twitter.
You might even want to block out a recurring chunk of time in your calendar every week as “Creative time”, so you can really make a habit of it.
And while you’re doing your (temporary) digital detox, there are a few things you can do to create a distraction-free zone IRL, too.
If you have your own office, close your door. And if you don’t have a door, find some other way of indicating “Please do not disturb”, like obvious headphones or even a small sign for your desk. (Just make sure that the significance of whatever signal you choose is communicated office-wide, so that your coworkers understand you’re in a flow state and to come back later.)
If your office has breakout spaces, use them.
If you’re constantly getting distracted by chatter, plug in to some ambient background noise like RainyMood.
When you’re ready to rejoin society, give yourself a few minutes to catch up on your notifications and reward your progress with a coffee break with a coworker (as long as you’re not interrupting their flow state).
5. Give yourself time to incubate
Ideas are like eggs: they’re not always ready to hatch straight away. Sometimes you need to sit on them for a while and let them develop.
That’s why building creative downtime into your routine is essential to a productive, happy workflow.
And not only does that buffer give you the time and space you need to make sure your ideas have fully matured, but it’s essential for preventing creative exhaustion, too.
As any creative knows, you can’t be “on” all the time, and consistently generating ideas is pretty exhausting. A constant pressure to produce can easily lead to employee burnout — and shoddy work.
What you can do: Work on something else
In the long term? Build incubation periods — that is, time when you aren’t actively working on your idea and can just let it percolate in the back of your mind — into your timelines.
This makes sure that you build time to review your work in to the creative process from the outset, so you can avoid any last-minute frenzies, while still giving your clients accurate and reliable turnaround times.
And in the short term, like when you’re in the middle of a project, getting nowhere, and need a quick fix?
Stop and do something else. Switch to a different task or even a different project. Get through some admin that needs to get done but which doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. Or even (gasp!)…take a break. Stand up and walk somewhere. Go make a coffee. Take 15 minutes to do something that isn’t looking at a screen.
It might feel like cheating, but forcing yourself to push through isn’t always the best option.
Investing a few minutes in something totally different, on the other hand, can pay off nicely. You’ll be thankful for the break, and thinking about something else for a while can help you to come back to your original idea with a new — or at least refreshed — perspective.
How do you keep your creativity flowing under pressure? Do you have any tips to share about how to break through creative block? Let us know in the comments.