If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re an idea person. And you’re waiting for inspiration, but there’s a big problem with that.
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. – John Updike
While this quote from the late author might seem harsh, it suggests that the idea of passive inspiration is just another myth. A word we use to poorly describe something very abstract—how we get ideas. It’s often used as an excuse–“I’m just not feeling very inspired today…” “I’m not inspired by this work…”
If you read about inspiration, it’s always connected to some other activity—walking, reading, painting, etc. It doesn’t happen when you’re doing nothing. That’s the trick.
Inspiration has to be drawn out, and we’re going to help you find ways to do just that.
Inspiration Has its Own Schedule
If you block off time on your calendar to get inspired, you’ll be disappointed.
However, if you make time in your life to do things that you enjoy, challenge you, or put you outside your comfort zone, you may find that inspiration shows up to the party more often.
Don’t Fall into the Burnout Trap
A lot of people with big ideas suffer from overworking.
But recent studies about work-life balance and productivity show that working long hours is detrimental to creativity. In fact, in the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim suggests that time off from work should be filled with activities that stimulate you in different ways from your typical work.
…engaging hobbies do more for you than sitting on the couch binge-watching television.
Could this be why it’s so hard to find inspiration burning the midnight oil?
Forcing yourself to work longer is like trying to fall back to sleep when you’re wide awake. You can’t, so you might as well focus on something else.
It’s the same way with inspiration—if it’s not there, you’ve got to find something that brings it out of you.
Give Yourself Projects
How do you break out of work when you’re so focused on getting stuff done?
A method that works for many is starting a project that takes your attention away from your day to day responsibilities.
Somehow that sounds negative. But that’s because we’re wired to think that way—work, work, work until the project is done.
But, what if you take a second to work on something else, something you enjoy, which frees your mind from the pressure.
For example, Steve Tobak, a former executive who wrote Real Leaders Don’t Follow, describes how a project at home helped him thrive at work.
I once spent an entire fall and winter season designing and building a large greenhouse in my spare time. And you know what? I’ve never been so productive at work.
Creating a project for yourself prevents you from passive rest, and gives you something to stimulate your mind in another way.
Ideas Happen When You Move
With modern sedentary lifestyles, it’s a wonder we have any good ideas. Two of the most famous poets, William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens, attribute their inspiration to walking.
Wordsworth says “walking is indispensable from the act of making poetry. One begets the other.”
Similarly, Wallace Stevens would think up a poem on his walk to work, and “he enjoyed matching the words in his head to the rhythm of his steps.”
A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition suggests that we are 60% more creative when walking, rather than sitting.
When you’re in need of an idea, then, a walk could be the thing you’re missing.
Distractions May Be Fueling Your Creativity
When we’re working, we try to rid ourselves of distractions and focus on the task at hand. This, of course, is a great way to stay focused, and if you need a lot of piece and quiet, it may suggest something about your perception of the world.
Northwestern University ran an experiment that measured creativity in the face of distractions, or as they put it, “irrelevant sensory perception.”
The results suggest that those of us who have a harder time filtering out the irrelevant stuff around us may have a wider focus.
If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety.
What this may suggest for inspiration is that exposing ourselves to more media, sensory experiences, and distractions will give us more creative ideas.
However, the key is that it has to be “funneled in the right direction.” In the case of Northwestern’s study, they point out that famous creatives who may not have been able to filter out distractions required complete sensory deprivation to work.
For example, Czech novelist Franz Kafka described it as “[needing] solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’—that wouldn’t be enough—but like a dead man.”
So while your distractions may be the source of inspiration, you have to know when to shut them out and focus on putting the inspiration to work.
Curate Your Distractions and Give them a Purpose
If distractions, hobbies, and wanderings bring the inspiration, it’s up to you to harness it.
There’s a wildly overused Picasso quote that comes to mind: “Good designers copy; great designers steal.”
In a way, I think the root of this lies in seeking inspiration. By looking at other people’s ideas, we start to come up with our own. Rarely do we come up with ideas out of nowhere; they’re usually sparked by some weird association.
One way to focus your distractions, then, is to curate them. When you watch videos on YouTube, watch stuff that’s relevant to your job, your passion, or an idea that you’ve had. See what’s already been done, and you’ll have a better idea of where you can take it.
By surrounding yourself with people you want to be like, copying their ideas, and absorbing information, you will internalize things that will come to the surface in the form of inspiration.
Many creative exercises, for writing, art, design, problem solving, ask you to replicate something in the style of another creative. For example, the prompt write a short story the way Faulkner would.
The reason we do this? Attempting to replicate someone else’s work teaches us how they do it. And it adds another tool to your arsenal of creativity, which you can then make your own.
Resources to Harness Your Inspiration
We’ve discussed the nature of inspiration, and the unlikely places where you can seek it out. But to really get the most out of these ideas, you’ll need to apply them somehow.
The way our memory works, just hearing or reading things doesn’t ensure that we’ve learned anything. U.C. Berkeley psychology professor John F. Kihlstrom explains that ingesting ideas and repeating them to ourselves, what’s known as maintenance rehearsal gets us nowhere.
Instead, we need to practice elaborate rehearsal, where “we learn progressively, building new knowledge on old knowledge.”
And he also explains how learning from other people is much more efficient than figuring it out ourselves, if possible.
I think we can combine these two ideas. Take what you know and absorb what other people are doing. Then, point that knowledge to a specific task, for example a project, like we talked about at the beginning of the article.
Here are some resources to help you bring it all together.
- Make your daily tasks more manageable with the 135 list.
- Use a timer app like Tomato Timer to stop yourself from working too much on one thing.
- Create a routine that allows you to explore hobbies and exercise.
- Check out what others are creating on Kickstarter, Etsy, Behance, Dribble.
- Listen to stories about entrepreneurs on How I Built This.
- Follow people doing work that you like on Pinterest and Instagram, and make time to look at posts each day.
- Network with people on LinkedIn and attend live events related to your interests.
- When you set to work, strip away distractions with a minimal writing app like Bear and white noise and brainwave music with Brain.fm or Noisli.
- Help retain your information by writing about it every day in 750 Words.