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Five Things to do When you’re Stuck

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Working on a big project is much like running a marathon. There is a lot of preparation required, you’ve got to work out a game plan ahead of time, and once you get going you need the stamina to keep pushing through. But just like marathon runners who come up against the infamous “wall”, there are times when we get stuck working on a project. This may manifest in a number of ways, whether a lack of creative inspiration, a problem or roadblock or simply a lack of motivation.

Some people wrongly believe that there is no way out of feeling “stuck”, that like writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, you simply have to wait it out and hope it passes eventually. Others believe you can overcome it by pushing through, even when you’re feeling uninspired. But neither route is truly effective in overcoming roadblocks or restoring creativity. Instead, try these five tips next time you’re feeling stuck and see if you aren’t up and running again in no time.

1. Dots to connect

Creativity is about connecting the dots, while problem-solving involves making and breaking connections. But something you won’t hear so often is that to be creative, you need dots to begin with. In the simplest of terms, an idea is the fusing of two or more pieces of existing knowledge, brought together to produce something original. It’s no secret that creativity is incredibly helpful when it comes to finding new ways around a problem. While you can’t force creativity, you can increase the amount of information you have to work with, effectively increasing the number of tools you can then use to combat your problem.

The trick to this is to wise up without trying to “figure things out” too soon. For example, if you’re struggling to think of ways to bring in new customers, why not read up on some successful case studies of companies that have achieved exactly that. And don’t be prejudiced in the resources you choose, all kinds of knowledge can be helpful – look at examples of failures, successes and everything in between. Don’t do this with a view to finding a solution which you can then steal and apply, but instead simply enjoy the process of learning more about that particular subject. When you feel you have a comprehensive understanding, move on to step number two.

2. Take a daydream break

I know, it sounds counterintuitive. Why would you take a break to do something “frivolous” like daydreaming when you’re encountering major blocks in your work? The truth is, though many of us nobly try to soldier on when we’re stuck, we’re actually making matters worse. What do you do when your computer becomes slowed down due to numerous tabs and programmes running? You restart the whole system. Similarly, you need to do the same thing when you’re stuck. When you’re concentrating, your attention is like a spotlight – other parts of the brain have to switch off in order to allow you to keep that focus.

Yet research from the new university of British Columbia found that when we daydream, our brains light up. If you’ve ever got an out-of-this-world idea while singing in the shower or driving to work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Taking a break from the problem and giving yourself time to do something which is at once engaging yet mindless is the perfect way to remove the friction from your problem. This is especially effective if you also follow step one, by giving yourself more dots to join before a daydream break, you can then take a back seat as you let your subconscious do the rest – simmering the inputted information and soon throwing out new, novel solutions.

3. Invert the problem

Why is it that solutions always seem so simple after the fact? What seemed borderline impossible to conceive of beforehand is all too clear afterwards. As they say, hindsight is 20-20. Well, this isn’t just sod’s law – it’s because so often when we’re feeling stuck, we’re blinded by our own limiting beliefs. We reinforce the problem with negative self-talk, muttering to ourselves “this is impossible” or “a nightmare”, and so affirming that we’re not going to be coming up with any solutions any time soon.

Frustration makes us even more stubborn and more often than not transforms a stumbling block into a mighty barricade we’re then unable to assail. So how do you get beyond this? If you’ve ever sat staring at a blank page or running fruitless brainstorming sessions in a vain attempt to generate potential solutions, it’s time to shake things up a bit. If change is as good as a holiday, when it comes to problems, a new perspective is as good as a fresh pair of eyes.

Reverse brainstorming is one of our favourite techniques when it comes to this. Instead of brainstorming to try and find solutions to your problem, why not look for ways to make it worse? For example, in considering ways to lose customers you may produce novel ways to attain them, instead. Sometimes, this drastic change of perspective breeds fresh ideas. From your new vantage point, you’re sure to be able to generate new methods for coming unstuck. 

4. Make it fun

Feeling frustrated and under pressure are hardly conducive to having a good time, but that’s exactly why having fun is the perfect thing to do. Just as you need to loosen up and take it easy after overexerting yourself physically, you need to do the same when you’ve put yourself through the wringer mentally. Especially when a whole team is stuck on a single problem, taking yourself out of the situation and getting a little silly can work wonders.

So, how to get silly? Not all types of fun were created equal when it comes to problem-solving. You want to aim for something which frees people up to relax while still stretching their creative muscles. My favourite thing to do in this scenario is to do some nonsense brainstorming, for example how to reach the moon using only matchsticks or something equally impossible but fun. Doing this puts a team at ease and involves collaboration, while still getting everyone into creative gear.

5. Check your thinking

The brain is a strange and marvellous machine. It does so much for us, and we really should appreciate it. However, just because it’s a marvel, that doesn’t mean it’s always right. Everyone is prone to bias and assumptions. In some cases, this is helpful. You wouldn’t want to spend every night worrying that the sun might not come up the next day or relearning how to walk every morning. These kinds of assumptions and hard-wired bits of information are helpful to us.

However, when it comes to creativity and problem solving, these “thinking traps'' – as we call them – can be a lot more inhibitive. The three key traps to be aware of are selective thinking (favouriting pet ideas), reactive thinking (responding in a knee-jerk fashion) and assumptive thinking (assuming it’ll be enough to keep doing what you’re doing). Making a habit of challenging your own ideas and maintaining a self-awareness of these potential errors can be an effective preventive step in stopping you from getting stuck before a problem strikes.

Feeling stuck sometimes is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways forward – with the right tools and techniques, you can pump up your creative tyres and be back on the road to innovation in no time at all.