How to Get Out of a Creative Rut…
At one point or another, we all face a creative rut. It’s the stage where we’ve been doing something and all of a sudden we don’t know how to continue. You can call it writer’s block. Or creative fatigue. Perhaps burnout. Maybe it can be even as severe as depression. A creative rut has levels of asperity. It can be mild or dire. Ideally, you’d be able to pull yourself out of a creative rut before you spiral into a deep existential crisis. But let’s be honest with each other, sometimes a creative rut can lead to that where you’re questioning your sense of purpose. In fact, it happens to a lot of people who find success. It’s called the achiever’s curse. It leaves the person feeling with a sense of what’s next? Where’s it all heading? What’s it all mean? The good news is there’s many ways to overcome creative ruts. Many of these methods are individual to you. Some will work, others will not. You might need to combine certain ones. And they may change over time. But it is my goal in this lesson to present as many techniques as I can to help pull you out of your creative rut, no matter what depth you’ve found yourself in. In this lesson, I (Phil Svitek) will even pull references from Legally Blonde (starring Reese Witherspoon), author Neil Gaiman, Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer and investor Ray Dalio. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe for more lessons. And please comment below with any tricks that you’ve learned from your own experience – they may benefit someone else. As always, thank you.
-Mark McGuinness Interview: https://philsvitek.com/the-mindset-of-a-21st-century-creative-interview-with-mark-mcguinness/
-Daily Artist’s Challenge Lesson: https://philsvitek.com/daily-artists-challenge/
-A Very LA Birthday Short Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9SHJaepE0c
Available Platforms to Watch/Listen to Show:
I get it – your life is busy and you’re constantly on the go and so it might not be very convenient to keep visiting my website for every new lesson. I myself listen to a lot of podcasts and audio books while driving. So to help you keep up to date with all my episodes in a fast, simple and easy way, here’s all the apps and direct links you can use.
Welcome dear creative. My name is Phil Svitek and it is my mission with this series to help you master mental fortitude because it takes way more than just skills and talent to succeed in the entertainment industry. If you don’t then the proverbial wheels will come off the wagon.
In this lesson, I chose to discuss something that we all face at one point or another and that is the creative rut. It’s the stage where we’ve been doing something and all of a sudden we don’t know how to continue. You can call it writer’s block. Or creative fatigue. Perhaps burnout. Maybe it can be even as severe as depression.
This is what I’m referring to when I speak about mental fortitude. A creative rut has levels of asperity. It can be mild or dire. Ideally, you’d be able to pull yourself out of a creative rut before you spiral into a deep existential crisis. But let’s be honest with each other, sometimes a creative rut can lead to that where you’re questioning your sense of purpose. In fact, it happens to a lot of people who find success. It’s called the achiever’s curse. It leaves the person feeling with a sense of what’s next? Where’s it all heading? What’s it all mean?
The good news is there’s many ways to overcome creative ruts. Many of these methods are individual to you. Some will work, others will not. You might need to combine certain ones. And they may change over time. But it is my goal to present as many techniques as I can to help pull you out of your creative rut, no matter what depth you’ve found yourself in. Also, before I forget, I invite you to comment afterwards with any techniques that you may have come up with that I forgot to include – that way everyone can benefit from your suggestion, including me. And if you haven’t yet subscribe to this show, I invite you to do so now. Thank you if you just did.
So let’s begin with option one. Many people who get stuck creatively do so because of routine. Don’t get me wrong, having a routine can be extremely beneficial. By sticking to a routine your mind gets in a creative rhythm. But there can come a certain point where doing the same thing over and over diminishes the returns. You might feel like you’re just going through the motions and able to predict everything that comes. And because of it, your mind gets stuck and can’t think of anything exciting or new. It’s always the same thing. What was once fun now begins to be viewed as a laborious cycle. This phenomenon is a symptom of the law of diminishing returns.
To counteract this repetition, vary your routines and try new activities. Part of the reason you can’t think different thoughts is because you’ve trenched yourself in and now need to take a more bird’s eye view of the situation. Science has shown humans crave variety. Having habits calms us and can set us up for success, but our minds need to be stimulated with new experiences. That’s the goal of switching things up – to engage your mind. If you take the same walk every day with your dogs, stop. It’s become a default where you don’t think about it. Take a new route instead and observe the world around you.
There are so many ways to ignite your brain. It can be little things, like moving your desk to a new part of the room, to bigger alterations such as working at night instead of in the day. Whatever you can think of, try it. Maybe you eat the same breakfast everyday. Stop and enjoy some new flavors. I’m sure you can think of other ways to vary your day. So go ahead. Write them all down and test them out. It doesn’t matter how many of them you try. Just alter something because as my mentor, Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer likes to say, “If you do tomorrow what you did today, you’re stuck.” Isn’t that after all why you’re listening to this lesson? Because you’re stuck?
Now let’s discuss option two which is to do physical activity. Our bodies carry our tensions in the form of stress. These need to be released so they don’t bog us down. There’s a great quote form Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde that goes, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”
The last part of that is a joke, but it does ring true if you think about it. You can’t be in a creative rut if you’re happy. Being in a creative rut is synonymous with low, sluggish energy. Even people who aren’t so intuitive can read a person’s body language and know if someone is in a state of emptiness. The passion is gone from them. But if you’re happy, it’s the opposite. You look vibrant and excited. There’s a joy to what you do.
Plus when you exercise, you’re giving your brain a rest. You’re focusing on something else entirely which activates other parts that are integral to creating breakthroughs. Many people state that they gain insights because of exercise. This is true because as I said, you’re not only releasing the stress you’ve been carrying but allowing new perspectives to enter. You begin to focus more on the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future. Exercise is a great way to essentially unlock yourself while maintaining better health. Which, don’t get me started on the benefits of health in terms of a creative lifestyle. Just trust me that there are many. I mean, without our health, what have we really got, right?
But anyway, the point being, get out there and do something. Doesn’t matter what – hiking, biking, golfing, ultimate frisbee, basketball, swimming, bowling, soccer, whatever. The point is do it. And here’s my suggestion to you – I’ve never been someone who likes to go to the gym. In fact I hate it. It feels like a chore. A means to an end. What I much rather enjoy doing is being competitive with people and playing something. Pick-up leagues are great for that. I find a lot of groups on the Meet-up app that I get together with and enjoy playing with. It’s not to say you can’t do the gym, it’s just not my cup of tea and it may not be yours and so I wanted to offer an alternative. Because to me, playing sports with people is more fun than me on a treadmill. There’s that added human element. Again though, up to you.
Number three – gain a fresh perspective. Part of why we feel stuck creatively is because we haven’t seen ourselves progress. There’s a sameness associated with all the things we do. To rid yourself of that sameness, it helps to be able to see the world in an altered light. Sometimes I literally lie down on the floor and think because it forces me to examine the space around me differently. How often do you stare up? Probably not a lot. Most of us are either looking eye level or down. This is just one small example of being able to shift your perspective.
Other ways to expand your horizons as some call it is to watch a documentary, read a book, whether fiction or nonfiction. Watch a TV show or see a movie. But if you do the last two, I encourage you to do it undistracted. Really focus on the content, rather than looking at your phone or anything else because it dissipates your level of involvement.
The idea is that you’re not paying attention to yourself, you’re observing things around you.
Gaining a fresh perspective is in a way about slowing things down. You can gain new perspective by stargazing at night. It doesn’t matter.
See what’s happening is that after a certain point creatively, you’ve given it all you got and expended yourself. So you need to now inhale because for far too long you been exhaling. Creative coach Mark McGuinness during my interview with him talked about this idea where the last 20% of creative work is for your audience and not for you. I encourage you to listen to the full interview if you haven’t done so already. But anyway, the idea being that when you’ve worked on a project mentally for an extended period of time whether that be 6 months, a year, a year and a half, two years, maybe more, well, you’ve gone through that mental exercise for yourself but the project is not finished. You need to drag yourself to the finish line for the audience’s benefit, not yours. It’s this disconnect that creates a feeling of drudgery and why you’re losing passion and finding it hard to overcome small hurdles with the project. But finish it you must because a true artist must bring his or her work to life.
Seeing the world in fresh ways allows you to be reinvigorated and remind yourself why you started the project in the first place. It fills your lungs with the air you need to finish out this so called marathon.
A subset of option three is to go on vacation. Doing so allows you to explore new parts of the world and see a life you don’t experience daily. That’s the definition of a fresh perspective. Take a guided tour and learn the culture and history. If you don’t, that’s okay, but have a childlike sense of wonder and walk-about yourself and be curious about everything in sight. See, you’ve been so go-go-go and strictly aimed towards your creative project that a vacation might be what you need to rejuvenate yourself. We all need one from time to time. It is a false notion perpetuated by American culture that work is the end all be all. You can’t just work 24/7. It’s unsustainable and if it’s unsustainable then it’s impossible. Think about that, right? I know, I know, nothing’s impossible. No, but I believe there’s more to life than working yourself to death. You can enjoy it and the only way to do that is to make it sustainable. Part of what leads creatives into despair is that they go after something so wholeheartedly that once it’s over they feel like they’ve lost their sense of purpose or place in the world. They never stopped to put that goal into perspective. It goes back to that phrase – the achiever’s curse. Many people are left empty once they accomplish something. Don’t let that be you. Enjoy the ride. Take that moment to be part of the world instead of isolating yourself from it to do your work. Your work has meaning. It does. I believe that. But you do to. And you need the world as much as it needs you. So explore it from time to time. Take a vacation.
See how all these are interconnected? I hope so because the fourth option ties in with each of these and that’s to get into nature. The outdoors has such positive effects on our souls that it’s ridiculous. Beyond the idea of how we’re not meant to be just indoor creatures, nature allows us to see the interconnectivity of the world, to inhale fresh air that we may have been missing, to feel the sun on our skin which nourishes the body. On and on the benefits go.
The fifth option I have for you may seem contradictory but once we explore it, I promise it’s not. The fifth method is to continue working on your craft and/or project daily. Set aside time and even if you don’t get a lot accomplished, just sit there for that time. Author Neil Gaiman adheres to this principle. He makes it a rule where he can either write or do nothing. It’s okay if he doesn’t write, but he can’t go on social media. He just has to sit. Or write.
What you’ll find in time by doing this, is even if you’re not getting much done, the act of trying will create habit and momentum, however small.
Many people talk about the importance of showing up. This falls into that category. You must show up to work. We all have bad days but like with our regular jobs, we’re expected to clock in and clock out. Treat your art the same way.
A good rule of thumb is that anything can be changed or adjusted provided that there’s something to begin with. You can’t revise something if there’s nothing to tweak. So no matter what amount you accomplish, do it. Make yourself accountable and tackle your creative passion daily.
Number six – spend time with people. This is a loose term on purpose. People in this instance can mean friends, family, creative groups or even your therapist. We are social animals and need human connection to feel content. Furthermore, we can only do and see so much for ourselves. We need that human contact to allow us feedback, whether spiritually or creatively. And especially in more severe times when you’re feeling really low, you’ll need to call upon your circle for support. There’s this idea that whenever we’re facing a problem we need to be strong enough to pull ourselves out of it. It’s a sign of good character. That’s bullshit. No man walks alone. Do not be afraid to ask for help. We all need it. Be honest and truthful. Let people know how you feel. When you’re in a sad emotional state, talking with someone is a great way to begin to heal. And maybe the issue you’re facing may seem trivial like I can’t figure out how my main character will get his goal by the end of the story. Don’t fret. Ask for advice on it anyhow. You’d be surprised at the amount of creative ideas others can provide you with if you just ask. Never be ashamed to reach out.
Method number seven is tied with my sixth piece of advice and that is to help others. When it comes to human interaction, it must be reciprocal. It’s a give and take. Interestingly enough, often the relationship becomes exponential, meaning that the more you give the ever increasing amount you’ll get in return. True value in life comes from helping. Entrepreneurs say that to people starting a business all the time – solve a problem. The greater the problem you can solve, the more wealth you’ll accumulate.
That might sound intimidating but it doesn’t have to be. Start small. Be there for your friends and family when they need you. Volunteer at a local charity. It will give you a sense of purpose and take away focus from yourself. It can literally make you feel you have a sense of purpose on this earth. Why do you think so many people love volunteering? For this very reason. And because of the connections you can make and the bonds you can strengthen, the more support you’ll have around you in turn. That’s the beautiful thing about helping others. They’ll want to help you when you need it.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, let me be fully clear. Getting out of a creative rut is all about a fresh perspective. As humans we’re meant to progress and fresh perspectives allow us to make that progress. Each piece of advice I’ve shared has that common threat.
But a lot of these techniques that I’ve introduced to you are also about the external. There are ways for you to rid yourself of your creative rut through internal methods. These methods are meditation, journaling, drawing or sometimes catching up on the necessary sleep. Apart from sleeping, which has so many advantages, each of those suggestions allow you to reflect. To gain clarity about yourself. Remember, we start going into a state of despair when we can’t see beyond ourselves. Doing something like journaling or meditation allows a third person perspective in a sense. It calms your mind enough to notice aspects of life that it couldn’t during the regular pace of your day-to-day. Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors, says, “Our most painful moments are also our most important. Rather than run from pain, we need to identify it, accept it, and learn how to use it to better ourselves.” This is exactly what self reflection is about. You must explore your emotions and understand why you’re feeling them. Do not suppress them. They will resurface later and have a greater negative impact on you versus confronting them upfront.
Which brings me to a key point – I’m highlighting all the things you can do to get out of your creative rut. I’m trying to add more tools in your toolbox so that when you’re faced with a wall you know you’ll have other options besides just running through it. You can bypass it so to speak. As I mentioned, if you have some methods that I haven’t yet mentioned, please add them in the comment section. Anyway, what we also must discuss is what not to do because it’s equally as important.
You cannot numb yourself through alcohol, drugs, sex, movies or any other form of escapism to release yourself from the creative rut. If you do, it will be short lived and the tidal-wave of negative effects will approach you soon after. Sure, there are many artists who have medicated and created great art. But why not strive to be good and happy? There are plenty of examples of that kind of artist as well. You don’t need to be a tragedy to be considered a genius. So avoid recklessness. Addiction is really anything that disrupts your life to the point that the outcome is overall negative. Gambling can be fine as long as it doesn’t control your life. Having a beer or wine is fine so long as you’re not craving it all day everyday. You get the sentiment, but please, understanding it is one thing, adhering to it is another. I don’t mean to get preachy on you but there’s so many people in the world that suffer from isolation, loneliness, depression and any other kind of suffering and that very well may be you. And I want you to know that you’re not alone. The human condition, which is life itself, is something we’re all navigating as best as we can and trying to figure it out. Ask for help, seek help if you’re at a really low point in your life. There is no shame in it. You are loved somewhere by somebody. I guarantee it. You and I don’t know each other most likely, but you have my compassion, my sympathies, my support. If nothing else, connect with me via my website or social media and I’ll help however I can. But I am almost certain there is someone else in your life that cares. Perhaps someone you least expect.
But let’s not end this lesson on a low note because as I started, the good news is you can get out of a creative rut. Here are two more ideas for you to try if you’re stuck creatively which I think you’ll get a lot of benefit from.
The first of the two is to look to other industries for inspiration. Perspective yet again. But seriously, sometimes there are solutions to our problems that exist in other trades that don’t exist in our own. Studying them may be the key to unlocking what you’ve been missing.
And the second of the two is to create daily challenges for yourself. Part of why you may not be able to overcome something is because you haven’t ever done it. But try testing it in a small scale way and learn. Or just come up with limitations on small projects and see how you overcome them. Doing so will gain you new insights and tricks for future use. For more on this advice, check out my episode called Daily Artist’s Challenge where I go in depth with it.
All right, that’s a wrap! But don’t you click away to another lesson just yet because I want to remind you that you can read the transcript of this episode and access other free resources on my website. Links are provided below. Also, recently I released a short film my friends and I made called A Very LA Birthday. It’s only 5 minutes and it would mean a lot if you saw it and commented. Lastly, a huge thank you to the people that helped make this episode possible. If you too would like to support this show, you can either head on over to my Patreon or sport some merch from my store. Thanks for tuning in. I’m @PhilSvitek on social media and I’ll see you next Wednesday with another lesson. Bye!