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If you do any creative work, I’m sure you’ve experienced this dilemma: Should you ever work when you aren’t inspired, or should you wait for inspiration?
I’ve had to face this situation many times, whether it involved designing a new computer game or writing an original blog entry. Sometimes inspiration strikes me at the most inopportune times, like at 3am while lying in bed, but if I’m smart enough to take advantage of it, I can crank out volumes of productive work in a short period of time. Those experiences often feel timeless and transcendent, as if I’ve been tapped on the shoulder by some higher creative power. But other times as I sit at my computer, I feel empty, distracted, or uninspired, and if I tried to push through it, I’m still be able to get some work done, but I won’t produce solutions and ideas that are nearly as elegant or brilliant as the inspired work. Sound familiar?
I place a premium on the value of inspired work. Although I have degrees in computer science and math and have been trained in many left-brain problem solving techniques, I’m also left-handed and approach technical subjects from a right-brained perspective. I rarely use methodical, left-brained, step-by-step processes to solve problems. In high school I would often try to solve math or physics problems without using any of the formulas that were taught in class that week. I’d dismiss the left-brained solution I was expected to regurgitate and tried to approach problems creatively, especially the most challenging and complex ones. I’d take an advanced calculus problem and attempt to solve it using other tools like algebra or geometry or the laws of physics. And the interesting thing is that my solutions were often shorter and far more elegant than what the textbooks had intended. I believed there would be little value in learning to solve problems the same way everyone else did; such people would be a dime a dozen. But there would always be a treasured place in the world for the person who could solve problems creatively.
On the other hand, I also value hard work and discipline. I certainly have the option of barreling through and working even when I’m not inspired. But I greatly dislike using self-discipline for creative work. Discipline is fine for repetitive or highly uncreative work though, but it rarely creates elegant solutions. My left brain may be satisfied with a disciplined approach, but it’s anathema to my right brain.
I’m also impatient, so I don’t like waiting for inspiration to strike, especially when it seems to be taking an extended vacation.
One day I became curious and questioned why sometimes I felt inspired and other times I didn’t. Why would inspiration seem to abandon me for weeks and then pay me a visit when I was five miles into a 10-mile run? Was there some kind of pattern?
And most of all, could inspiration be created? Did I have to wait for it to arrive, or was there anything I could do to invite it? I studied creative problem solving techniques, but none of them seemed to work consistently, and sometimes they would take a long time to generate results.
Eventually I figured out that inspiration can definitely be created. I’ve been using this technique for many years, and it’s one reason I never run out of ideas to write and speak about. I feel as if I have an infinite supply. It’s very simple too.
Whenever I want to feel inspired to do creative work, I stop and take a moment to clarify my intent. I get really clear about what it is I want to do, and then I verbalize that intent. Then I let go and wait, usually a few minutes at most.
An example intent would be the one I used for this blog entry. At first I sat down to write at 4:30am and felt wholly uninspired. I had a list of ideas to write about, but none of them seemed too inspiring to me. So I formed the (very simple) intent, “I intend to write a creative new blog entry that will benefit many readers.” Then I released the intent and waited. Within about 30 seconds, I had the idea to write on this topic, and the words flowed with effortless ease.
Here’s my current theory on how this works. My intent acts like a thought wave that projects out into the universe, and after a short period of time, that wave reflects back to me in the form of creative ideas. It’s like a dolphin using sonar to echo-locate objects, except that I use it to echo-locate creative ideas. I feel as if I’m putting out a specific form of sonar into some imaginary world of pure thought. When my intent collides with an idea that resonates with it, it creates a reflection wave back to the source, which I perceive as an idea or impulse. The first ideas that pop into my head are the ones I go with.
Intents don’t work the same way as goals. If you constrain your intent too heavily, then you won’t receive any reflection back because nothing will resonate with it perfectly. So try to keep your intentions open-ended and high-level unless the specific details are truly important to you. If you create intents that are too rigid, you may eliminate the possibility of a holistic solution. For example, if you focus on the intent to solve a low-level problem, and your creativity still feels blocked, it could be that you aren’t supposed to solve that problem at all – you need to rework something at a higher level to eliminate the problem entirely.
I find this approach works incredibly well. Whenever it seems like it isn’t working, then I know it’s because my own thoughts are creating an interference pattern and canceling each other out. I’m putting out conflicting intents – understand that every thought is an intent. That’s when I need to back up and form a higher-level, more general intent that can escape the low-level noise. If you toss a pebble into a calm lake, you’ll see waves rippling out from the source. But if you toss a pebble into rough waters, the ripples will be gobbled up with the existing waves. So in that case you need to go to a place where the waters are more calm, rising above your own conflicting thoughts, especially those involving fear, worry, or stress.
For example, if I came up with a blank after putting out an intent for creative writing ideas, I’d step back and form a new intent, like, “I intend to use the next hour in service to the greatest good of all.” That’s a more general intent, and it can help bypass any blocks. Perhaps I’m feeling blocked because I don’t feel I should be writing at all right now. Maybe there’s something more important I need to do. Intents work holistically, so it’s important to allow for plenty of flexibility.
So begin with a specific intent, and if you don’t like the reflections you’re receiving, keep backing up and forming new intents until the reflections suit you.
Once you master this process, you should never have to push through creative work when you aren’t feeling creative. While you can still produce some output during those times, you probably know that the work will seem lifeless and uninspired when you look back on it later. Clarifying and focusing your intent only takes a few seconds most of the time, and you’ll begin to see that your intentions always manifest when you’re completely clear about what you want.
So don’t wait for inspiration. Use this simple technique to actively invite inspiration and unleash the flow of creative ideas.