Even I, a self-confessed idea junkie who loves nothing better than thinking up ideas to research and pitch to magazine editors, go through periods where all my ideas feel uninspired and blah. These periods usually occur in late fall and early winter, when the days are short and the nights are long, boring, and cold.
Same for you? Here are some clever tips to pull you out of the winter doldrums and get you back on the path to productivity.
1. Use what irritates you.
During the holidays I was getting annoyed by a certain type of pharmaceutical commercial and noticed I complained to anyone who listened about why companies should be investing in the exact opposite health problem. Then it hit me: that anger could be channeled into a new beat for my writing. Suddenly, I got excited thinking about all the possibilities for stories. Moreover, I felt a fresh burst of enthusiasm for researching and pitching ideas, enthusiasm I hadn't felt in a long time.
So what's ticking you off? Don't tell me—write about it!
2. Make your argumentative nature work for you.
I was always the kid who saw the exact opposite of what everyone else focused on and was ridiculed for my quirky, sometimes "negative" world view.
As a writer though, this mindset is a gold mine. Call it the contrarian point of view. When you get an idea, ask yourself, "What if the opposite of this were true?" Often this one question can point you to a compelling new idea, one that will stand out from the slew of "yay-isn't-yoga-great!' ideas editors are always seeing.
For example, we all know yoga is great for the body and soul. Hundreds of writers are out there pushing stories that promote how wonderful yoga is. But what if yoga weren't so great for the body and soul? Think about it ... you could spin that general contrarian idea into ideas/questions like:
When yoga instructors turn into gurus (An expose? A service piece?)
When yoga takes over your life.
What yoga-related injuries are common?
Embrace your crankypants!
3. Develop new routines.
Routines certainly make life easier, but they can make your life less colorful if you don't switch them up occasionally. If you feel stuck with your ideas, try doing the same old/same old a little differently.
Your switcheroo doesn't have to be anything huge. For example, I noticed last month that I wasn't getting much done during the day, which was bad news because I needed to produce material for a busy spring. I figured out that when I sat down at my computer in the a.m. dressed in my comfy pajamas and unbrushed hair for the day's work, the ideas didn't flow. But when I took the time to hop in the shower, put on a little makeup, and dress in "business casual," my productivity increased and the quality of my ideas improved.
At the end of the workday, I also force myself to spend five minutes tidying up my desk for the next day rather than slam the computer shut and bolt. I'm not naturally tidy, but I do perform better when my work environment is clear and leaves room for inspiration.
4. Talk to strangers.
As a writer I already spend way too much time inside my own head. To make matters worse, I'm a bona fide Class A-certified introvert who finds social situations mentally exhausting. Oddly enough, though, when I'm feeling a bit rusty in the idea department, getting out and talking to people—especially strangers—smooths out the rough edges in my brain.
I keep it simple: when I'm at the grocery store, I make an effort to engage the cashier or even another customer in conversation. I keep the interaction positive, which makes me feel good inside and has the effect of making me feel more upbeat and positive when I get back home to work. Sounds a bit silly? Trust me, it works.
5. Make a date with another writer.
Again, you're getting out of the house and out of your own head: double win!
But it's really a triple win when you can really talk to someone who understands this crazy profession of ours. Bonus points if you know the writer well and feel comfortable talking ideas. Even when Linda and I are individually feeling blah about our ideas, when we get together, we make magic. (Not that kind of magic, you perv!)
Can't meet in person? Schedule a phone call. Even if you walk away from the meeting or phone call with no ideas, you'll probably feel more inspired and receptive to possibilities afterwards.
Just don't let the meeting devolve into a bitch session about awful editors, how slowly magazines are paying, and why freelancing sucks. Bitterness is a poor motivator.
6. Take time off to fix what ails your creativity.
A couple months ago, my idea factory began running dry. I pulled out all the reliable tricks in my toolkit to get the equipment running again, but nothing worked: I was stuck.
I started to beat myself up, and when I looked around the house, I felt even more despair. Ever since I'd moved out of my office and into a corner of our livingroom so that my son could have a more private bedroom, our clutter problem had gotten worse. And as I mentioned above, I just don't do my best work when I'm surrounded by clutter.
I immediately shut off my computer and gave myself permission to get the house in order. I went on a massive decluttering spree, not only tidying and cleaning my environment, but getting rid of items around the house that were no longer serving our family's needs.
It only took two days to get the house back in order, and when I turned my computer back on, the ideas were back and flowing like crazy! For you, it might be getting your garden weeded or your taxes done and filed. At any rate, the time I took off was well worth it.
The key here is to be honest with yourself: will getting your house organized or doing your taxes help you move forward or are they procrastination tactics?
7. Move more/write less.
As writers we tend to spend most of our workday sitting on our bums, and sometimes the only parts of our bodies that get exercise are our eight digits with an occasional right- and left-leaning thumb lunge. And if you live in a cold climate, you're probably less motivated these days to go out for a walk, bike ride, or gym visit. I hear you! When the thermometer hovers around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, all I want to do is wrap up in my wool sweaters, cuddle with a hot water bottle, and dream about spring from the comfort of my cozy sofa.
This is the exact wrong thing to do, however, especially when my idea factory is suffering from non-scheduled down-time. I force myself to bundle up in my warmest winterwear and go for a walk outside for at least twenty minutes, ideally when the sun is still high in the sky. Not only do I get my heart pumping and give all my muscles a good stretch, daytime light boosts my mood—lack of sunlight in winter reduces serotonin levels, the feel-good neurotransmitter released by the brain—and I notice I feel much more positive about my work and ideas post-walk. My sluggish winter blues seem to diminish, my mind is clearer, and sometimes, if I'm lucky, I get a couple good ideas while I'm hiking the trails around our neighborhood.
So there you have it: Get off your butt, get cranky, get friendly, get moving—and get those ideas flowing again this winter.
(This article was previously appeared on the Renegade Writer blog, which is no longer publishing.)