If you’re working hard but not getting anywhere – or if you want to work but can’t – you may be stuck in a rut.
You need to take your foot off the pedal and get out of your vehicle. This can be difficult to do. Sometimes, stepping out of the car feels like giving up. But you have to stop to assess the situation.
Are external circumstances hampering your progress? There may be problems outside your control that you need to deal with: maybe you need to grieve or take care of someone else. It might be hard to find time for your work. Could you become a night owl or an early bird to create time? Can you work in very short stints? Even briefly checking in with your work on a regular basis can give rise to insights at unexpected moments. Or do you simply need to take a break?
Alternatively, you might be stuck because the work itself has reached unstable ground or a dead end. If this is the case, you may need a fresh idea that builds on your original proposal or takes you in another direction.
Ideas are new destinations. They are novel territory on the fringes of our thinking — and they are visions we can try to manifest. Like a distant light in a dark landscape, an idea may not be our final destination, but it can set us off along a different track.
Here are some methods to generate ideas and help you get out of a rut.
Challenge your assumptions
You may need to let go of an old, entrenched idea to make room for others. Ask yourself:
• Is the main idea not the main idea?
• Does it need to be this shape?
• Does something not belong?
• What could change?
Ideas tend to come when we’re not racking our brains. They surprise us when the mind is relaxed and wandering over our material.
This is not how we’re taught to think. We’re encouraged to be fast, efficient and certain, and to know where we are going. Even when we stop, our minds keep shuttling back and forth down automatic channels.
But if we create small windows of time in which to think slowly, let our minds wander and daydream, these can be our most productive moments.
So, contrary to what your teachers always told you, it’s good to daydream.
• Hold the whole project loosely in your mind.
• Look without wanting anything.
• Look simply to see what’s there.
Create thinking space
Here are three ways I create space to daydream:
1. I’ve started leaving my phone downstairs at night, so I can’t check it on waking.
This means that I lie in bed for several minutes, imagining the day ahead and visualising my work. I have a notebook by my bed so that I can note down any thoughts.
2. For about 15 minutes each morning, I sit in a reclining armchair with my coffee, my notebook, and my dog on my lap.
It’s the only time my dog sits on my lap, so I stay for as long as he remains. Meanwhile, I drink my coffee and think about my work or my day ahead. I think loosely. My mind wanders over the work I was doing yesterday. I turn my thoughts to what I might work on today. I don’t interrogate it. I look at it without wanting anything. I see if I can visualise anything a little more clearly. Inevitably, I see a detail or addition that I note down to incorporate later.
3. If I have an appointment somewhere, I try to arrive half an hour early.
I spend this time strolling in the street, thinking about my work and looking at the buildings. This is how I trap myself into creating slack moments or pauses in my schedule. You can make the most of moments like these to turn your mind – gently – towards the landscape of your research. You’re just looking at it. You’re daydreaming about it.
Regularly checking in like this keeps the material live and primes the unconscious to look for fresh connections. Try this if you have ten minutes to spare before a TV or radio programme begins, or while you’re in the bath or on a train.
Go wider still
They say that with bereavement, our grief doesn’t diminish, but we become larger. Eventually, we grow around the grief until it’s a part of us, instead of something that engulfs us.
When we’re in a creative rut, if we keep our foot on the pedal, the rut becomes a trench that engulfs us. To escape it, we need to grow bigger; we need to imagine what’s beyond it. Is there something that interests you beyond this subject, this discipline — even beyond academia itself? Is there a new notion that links with your original idea?
Take a break and give your research time to incubate. Nourish yourself by doing things that inspire you: read, bounce ideas off others, listen to a lecture or go for a walk. And keep your notebook handy.
The process of creation itself gives rise to fresh perceptions, so take action even before you have a destination in mind. Use freewriting to explore your thoughts. Talk about your research. Collaborate. Let ideas lead you this way and that. Follow your heart, your hunches, your curiosity — even if you can’t see the point, initially.
Don’t grab on to your first thought; there might be more beyond it. And the more ideas you generate, the more chance you have of recognising a new destination. A photographer takes many pictures to increase the likelihood of finding one gem among them. Sooner or later, an idea will ignite an inquisitiveness that will lift you out of your rut and set you moving in a different direction.