Creative Bliss: 5 Exercises to Get Your Creativity Unstuck


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Have you hit a creative roadblock? In his book, “Unstuck,” Noah Scalin presents 52 inspiring prompts designed for any field and any level of experience. They’re divided by time commitment (from 30 seconds to several hours) so you can pick one that fits your schedule. The book is also peppered with inspiring advice, and many of the exercises include visual examples, objects you can cut out and lists you can draw from. Here’s a sampling of 5 exercises for a work-week’s worth of inspiration.


image from Shutterstock

30-Second Project: Haiku Everywhere

Not everyone is a poet, but everyone can write a haiku, and it can be done just about everywhere. This traditional form of non-rhyming Japanese poetry is usually written with 17 syllables in English, which are broken into three lines (five, seven and five syllables per line, respectively). Initially haiku were about nature, but modern ones can be on any topic. Their brevity encourages condensing complex thoughts and emotions into simple, elegant forms. While you could take hours to compose one, the goal of this exercise is to do it within a 30-second time limit to help hone quick visual and mental interpretation reflexes. I’ve written hundreds of haikus, and not only did they give me a nice bit of quick creative satisfaction, but I was able to mine them later as source material for creative projects.

How To Do It:
1. Use whatever you’re working on at the moment as your inspiration. Alternately: Use anything that you can see at the moment.

2. Say your thoughts out loud while counting the syllables on your fingers. Remember, it’s five, then seven, then five again. You can do this in your head if you’re somewhere that talking out loud is inappropriate, but it does help to vocalize your thoughts.

3. Don’t be critical of the results. Just keep adjusting the words to get it short enough to fit the format and then write it down.

4. Keep your favorites in your journal or sketchbook so you can return to them from time to time.

The tricky part is finding the right word to fit the syllables remaining. This is a great time to start boning up on synonyms in your handy thesaurus. Use a real book as an excuse to get away from the computer if you’re on one all day.

Two-Minute Project: Doodle Dandy

If you want to be ready for being creative whenever and wherever, it’s important to develop the ability to see the potential in everything. Children have done this activity for ages, but how many people try it out again later in life? Don’t worry about making art. They key is to just get your brain turning and your hand moving.

How To Do It:
1. Create a squiggle on a piece of paper.

2. Use a phrase from the list below (or create one of your own).

3. Using whatever tools you like, transform the squiggle into a doodle that visually expresses the phrase in some way. It could be literal or just a response to the phrase.

Phrase List:
Happy as a clam
I can’t get no satisfaction
Where in the world?
A hard day’s night
Human nature
Is there a doctor in the house?
The art of noise
Here comes trouble
What’s that sound?

10-Minute Project: Super Sized

Professor Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” but if you’re stuck, the message may be that you need a new medium! In this exercise, you’re going to spend a bit of time working at a different scale and on a different surface so that your ideas are freed of the constraints of the normal media you work with.

How To Do It:
1. Find a piece of chalk or charcoal. It doesn’t have to be sidewalk chalk. It’s always better to work with material you have at hand.

2. Head outside to the nearest sidewalk. If the weather won’t allow you to work outside, a garage or other indoor space where the floor is meant to get dirty will work too.

3. Spend 10 minutes continuing whatever your current project happens to be, but at the scale and angle that is required by this new surface and tool. This may involve some creative problem solving if your project isn’t just writing or drawing.

4. Document what you did, how you felt and how other people responded. Be sure to take a picture or two as well, since this should be a purely temporary thing you’ve created.

What messages did your medium give you?

Buy several yards of the largest paper you can find on a roll at an art or craft store and use it as your surface. Try using it on both the floor and hanging it on the well and see how the different locations affect you.

30-Minute Project: X Marks the Spot

A lot of creativity is about translation. Sometimes, you’re just as inspired by something you’ve seen and create something new based on it, or you’re given a message and asked to interpret it for a client. Honing this skill can help you jump right into the process of translation when you might otherwise be stumped about how to move forward.

How To Do It:
1. Choose a place that you how to get to. It could be somewhere near or far.

2. Create a map to that place that doesn’t use any words or traditional map symbols. Think about what things you tell people when you direct them to places verbally. What landmarks do you talk about? Consider what people might hear or smell along the way. Don’t restrict yourself to drawing. Try using other materials or even work in three dimensions.

3. If you choose somewhere nearby, instead of just making your map from memory, go on a walk and use photography and/or found objects to help create it.

Have someone use the map and follow them on their journey to see where you end up.

1-Hour Project: A Year in an Hour

While I think everyone should take the time to do a yearlong, daily creative project, I realize that’s not something everyone can just jump into, especially when they may need an immediate solution to a particular creative woe. This task is a way to get a taste of that 365 experience in a super-condensed time frame. Use this as an opportunity to get messy and have fun.

How To Do It:
1. Gather together plenty of random material to work with. I recommend digging in the recycling bin for this project. The more diverse the materials the better. It’s also good to have plenty of cutting and marking tools along with items like staplers, string, tape and glue sticks for attaching things as well.

2. Think of a simple shape you’re comfortable making (star, heart, skull, etc.).

3. Try to create at least 30 versions of that shape in the next hour, using the materials you’ve collected. This is definitely about quantity over quality. Don’t try for perfection. Just make it and move on to the next thing. If you find yourself stuck, move on to another material.

4. Document each item as you finish so that you can reuse parts of it as you move forward if need be!

5. When you’re done, note how you felt during this exercise and the things you learned about yourself in the process.

If you finish all 30 things before the hour is up, see how many more things you can make!

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