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Overcoming Creative Roadblocks as a Professional Writer (and Why We Don't Take Hourly Writing Jobs)

Jeff Goodby, of Goodby & Silverstein, arguably one of the best creative agencies in the last 50 years, once mentioned that at his first agency job, a highly respected ad man stopped by his office to chat, and asked him how much of each day he spent writing. Trying to impress him, Jeff said, "Oh, 8-10 hours a day." The ad man frowned and said, "Oh that's far too much. There's no way you can be creative that way, I write 1-2 hours a day at most."

In an ideal world, that ad man would be right.

But none of us live in that world. We live in a world of PRODUCTIVITY.

I started my career writing 1 million words a year at an award-winning agency in Los Angeles.

In case you aren't a writer and need some context--that's a lot.

Writing that much isn't like painting a house for 8 hours a day (which I did in grad school). When you're doing manual labor, your mind is free to wander. At the end of the day, your body is tired, but your mind is still ready to go (I used to come home and read and study for two hours to prepare for two classes I was teaching).

Writing is a mental exercise. It comes easy when you're in a flow state. But flow comes in spurts, it's not something you can stay in for 8 hours a day.

So, how do you stay creative when you're tasked with writing a lot? It's simple, but counterintuitive. Just stop. And do something else. Preferably, that other thing doesn't involve additional brain power, but even if it does, it's still better than trying to focus on the same problem for too long when you get stuck. My absolute favorite way to leapfrog mental roadblocks is to go for a run.

Usually within a mile or two I'll have a flash of inspiration that solves whatever problem I was working on and gets me significantly farther than I would have if I had been sitting in my office.

At this point, I pull out my phone and start dictating notes to myself, then send it in an email so that when I get back to my desk, it's right there at the top of my inbox ready to go.

Running isn't the only way to overcome creative blocks though. If you're working from home, you can also try washing the dishes, tidying up, throwing the ball for your dog, or playing with your kids.

If you're in the office, go chat with a coworker, make a pot of coffee, climb some stairs, or shut your office door and meditate for a few minutes--anything to get your mind off of the problem.

Magic. Will. Happen.

This isn't just me saying things--science backs this up.

A 2008 study found that when jazz musicians improvise--when they exercise maximum creativity--their prefrontal cortex deactivates. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that regulates thoughts and emotions. It's the thing that helps you prioritize ideas and focus (or be productive).

But creativity and overcoming roadblocks to innovation requires bringing together disparate ideas that weren't connected before. That's why doing low-mental-energy activities like going for a run or cleaning the house can stimulate new ideas. This study notes that it is your "default network", the part of your brain that helps you navigate mindless activities, that is most active when those creative inspirations arise.

Another study goes even further and says that you can increase innovation by sleeping.

With a 2 year old and a 1 year old at home, that's one that I'm not complaining about.

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