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How to Break Out of a Creative Rut

Not producing your best work? Facebook design director Julie Zhuo explains how she works through a mental block.

Eventually, everyone unwittingly falls into a creative rut. Whether you're a designer by trade--and "creativity" is literally in your job description--or you're simply inventive on a daily basis as running a startup often requires, you've no doubt experienced the equivalent of writer's block.

Product design director at Facebook Julie Zhuo calls it the pit of discomfiture. In a recent post on Medium she recounted several times that she wound up there, and she also explained how she made it out. 

As she described it, one of two things happens when you hit a mental block. In one case, you're in denial, convincing yourself that nothing is wrong with you. "It’s the environment conspiring against you--the shitty weather, your boss, that meeting, the whole stinkin’ culture of this place," Zhuo wrote. 

In the second case, it's the exact opposite. You've started to believe that absolutely everything is wrong with you. It's at the very least debilitating, if not paralyzing.

Two Ways Out 

You can take one of two routes out of the pit, Zhuo said. The first option is to go back to where you started. Just scrap everything and begin again with a clean slate. It's the easiest way, and despite that fact, there's no shame in it.  

Zhuo was recently in the pit of discomfiture after she decided to take up drawing again for the first time in years. "The process wasn't fun or liberating. I grew more and more frustrated with myself," she said. And with that, she gave up. 

The alternative is to muddle through with the awareness that nothing will come easy. "Everything you produce while on this path will be garbage. You may even be gripped by the ugly vice of jealousy when you see others bound past you on some alternate road high above, one that seems well-lit and smooth and lined with daffodils," Zhuo wrote.

But like many processes that are extremely painful, this path can be incredibly rewarding. "At the end, know that there is nothing like it," she said. 

The Steps to Take

Zhuo's description of the journey out of the pit, though metaphorical, is quite illustrative of what it's really like to break out of a rut. But for those who are looking for some more concrete advice, Inc.com contributor Geoffrey James tackled this issue in a recent post. Here are some of his tips: 

Believe that you can pull it off. "The mere fact that you're seeking a breakthrough means that your brain is capable of creating one.  Your "sense" that something is wrong or that something can be handled more creatively is a certain sign your brain is ready to deliver the goods," James writes. 

Brainstorm alone. This will let you to come up with as many ideas as possible--even if some are dumb. The best part is you won't worry about them being dumb because you're the only one who will see them. 

Seek a change of scenery. You might be struggling to come up with new ideas because your mind is associating elements of your workspace with the good ideas you've already had. Therefore, "get yourself out of the physical location where you feel comfortable and into some place that lacks associations," James advises.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Mar 11, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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