Stuck In A Creative Rut? Maybe You’re Too Alert

creative rut

Caffeine, cigarettes, a quick run. These are just some of the stimulants that creative types can’t do without when they’re looking for their inventiveness to be operating at maximum efficiency. But what if lighting a fire and being laser-focused isn’t the best mindset for creativity? What if you’re more inventive when you need a nap?

A new study looked at how wakefulness affects our ability to solve problems, both analytical and insightful (creative). And the surprising results were that while analytical problems stayed consistent whether or not someone was tired, people became more creative when they became less alert. You may think there’s no point in trying to come up with brilliant ideas until you stop by Starbucks, but you may actually be handicapping your imagination.

Why is this? One theory is tied to another scientific idea behind creativity we’ve written about: the brain’s filter. The previous study found a correlation between creative people and problems with concentration — the inability to screen out random thoughts leads to greater inspiration. And when you start fading, your brain is less able to keep those thoughts from entering your head.

This is a similar finding to those of previous studies, which have shown that controlled laziness and brain idling can help you churn out more creative ideas.


Think about when you start falling asleep at night, those weird, dreamy images that start entering your head before you pass out. Those don’t pop into your head when you’re full of beans. Another example? The phenomenon known on Reddit as “shower thoughts” – those strange (but often kind of brilliant!) ideas you have when your mind is wandering between “I wonder who first invented conditioner?” and “you know, when you think about it, nothing is on fire. Fire is on things.

Of course, there is a very easy way to figure out how to take advantage of this — just schedule your creative time around that part of the day where your brain loses some of its sparkle and starts drifting. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless and stuck in the cognitive mud. Instead it’s heading towards a bunch of wonderful, original ideas.

Shane Mehling FOLLOW >

Shane Mehling is a freelance writer and editor who plays in noiserock bands.