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In the world of the current pandemic crisis, I’ve seen something pretty disturbing—and I’m not talking about the disease itself.
Over and over online, I’ve seen folks promoting the idea that if you’re not using this time to better yourself or write a bestseller or create beautiful art, you’re lazy, unmotivated, or undisciplined.
I call B.S.
People react to crisis in different ways. Some need to increase activity and be productive, and some need to decrease activity and rest.
Neither of these responses is better than the other, and it’s unfair to shame anyone for their legitimate crisis response.
And if you’re feeling blocked creatively right now, guess what? That’s completely normal.
Your brain is undergoing a prolonged stress response, and a part of this response involves diverting the brain’s ability to solve new problems and juggle complex activities to one central task: survive.
So if you’re writing a ton or not writing at all, working diligently on your work-in-progress or scribbling inconsistently, that’s perfectly okay. There are other ways to feed your creativity even when you’re not working on your WIP.
Here are 10 simple things you can do to nurture your creativity even during uncertain times.
1. Move your body
We all know exercising is good for your body, but it’s also good for your brain.
Research has long-supported the idea that exercise can boost performance on creative tasks. For folks with ADHD like me, exercise is especially beneficial, as it elevates the same chemicals needed for attention and learning.
More recent research has found that regular exercisers are better at solving creative problems.
The takeaway? If you’re not able to work on creative projects right now, this might be the perfect time to kickstart an exercise habit.
Whether you’re taking a walk (while practicing social distancing), running laps in your backyard (if you have one), doing some at-home workouts, or just popping on your favorite jams for a spontaneous dance party—the goal is to keep the body active so the mind can stay active, too, even if you’re not working on your WIP right this moment.
Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, claims doodling practices are behind some of the most creative minds in history—and that doodling can be used for innovation and deep thinking.
And she’s not alone.
There are numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of doodling.
Researchers have found doodling helps people focus, boosts mood, and improves self-perception of problem-solving. A 2011 study noted that doodlers can continue to solve problems or generate ideas in the background of their doodling.
And you don’t have to be an exquisite artist to reap these benefits. Just moving your pen and creating images, even if they’re nonsensical, reminds your brain that it is a force of creation and innovation.
Now, I’ve never been “good” at meditating. (Hello—ADHD makes it tough to sit still!)
But even if you’re a beginner like me, you can still benefit from meditation.
Meditation can improve working memory, increase cognitive flexibility, and improve your ability to observe both internal and external stimuli—all of which are key to creativity (and writing, especially).
There are plenty of simple things to try, even if you’re new to meditation.
Try a simple breathing exercise where you count your breaths, or a body scan where you focus on one part of your body at a time.
There are also plenty of guided meditations out there aimed specifically at creativity.
4. Journal, or do “morning pages”
If you’re feeling up for some form of writing, a journaling practice is a great way to lightly exercise the writing muscle without putting too much pressure on the product.
Something I’ve found helpful has been “morning pages.” I learned this practice from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.
The idea is simple: first thing in the morning, you write three full (8.5×11”) pages without stopping or worrying about what you’re writing—or how good you think the writing is.
The purpose of morning pages is to “dump” all of the excess baggage in your brain before starting your day, so you can move through the rest of the day with a clearer head. I find this also helps “warm up” the writing muscle if I do decide to sit down and write.
No matter how you conduct your journaling practice, this outlet creates a safe space where you can let your mind (and words) wander without fear of judgment.
This helps keep your writing muscles limber while nurturing your ideas at the same time—win-win!
5. Find a non-writing creative outlet
If you’re not ready to write, there are plenty of other ways to stretch the creation muscle during quarantine.
Knitting, cooking, painting, crafting, playing the ukulele, building Lego sculptures—any of these activities can allow your brain to practice creativity.
Creative outlets help keep your imagination active. And much like writing, creativity is also like a muscle—when you exercise it, it gets stronger.
The point is not to be good at these outlets or to produce great art. Rather, the point is to give your brain permission to play and create.
Lots of folks are having troubles sleeping right now, so if you’re finding yourself battling insomnia, you’re not alone.
But sleep is actually rather important for creativity.
In fact, research has shown that sleep deprivation impairs creative thinking—yet another reason we might be struggling to feel our creative best right now.
Our brain does a lot when we sleep—like consolidating memory and drawing connections between concepts. This might explain why those who get a full eight hours of sleep are more able to gain insight than those who don’t.
Try to get a regular, full night’s sleep if you can, but if you can’t, try taking a nap.
If naps aren’t for you (they aren’t for everyone!) you can still find other ways to relax, like taking a bubble bath, doing a face mask, or just listening to music with your eyes closed.
7. Unplug and experience nature
Research has found that spending four days in nature can increase creativity and problem-solving by 50%. While it may be difficult to go on a multi-day excursion, it is still possible to get some natural exposure.
If you do have access to nature, try to spend some time in it.
Walk in your neighborhood park or hike in a nearby state park or nature preserve, if those are open near you. Again, practice social distancing, and be sure to wash your hands when you get home.
If you’re not able to get out in nature without endangering yourself or others, try to at least unplug from technology.
The scientists behind the study linked above noted that even they aren’t sure how much the creativity boost came from nature or from disconnecting from tech, but they hypothesize that the benefits come from both exposure to natural stimuli and decreased exposure to “attention-demanding” technology.
8. Read something new
Reading is a great way to engage the creativity muscle, as well as the empathy muscle—both hugely important for writers. Furthermore, research has shown that reading can actually increase connectivity in the brain.
And since most of us can’t travel to new places right now, we might as well let books transport us.
Reading something new can increase our sense of novelty when everything else feels pretty stagnant.
If you don’t have the attention span for much reading (totally normal for our brain’s stress response), try reading something short like a Lydia Davis story or Mary Ruefle prose poem. Or, try putting an audiobook on in the background while you’re cooking or doing other household tasks.
The point is to stimulate your brain with new stories and well-written sentences so when you are ready to return to your writing, your brain has already been well fed.
9. Learn something new
Learning something new—like a language, an instrument, or just a new subject matter—helps us step out of our comfort zone and stretch our brains in new ways.
This helps us stay open to new experiences, as well as new ideas.
Try listening to an educational podcast on a topic you’re interested in, whether that’s design and architecture, how to read tarot cards, or the history of punk music.
Put it on in the background and let your brain absorb the information. Don’t worry if you zone out—as I said earlier, struggling with focus right now is completely normal, even if you don’t have ADHD. Give yourself permission to tune in and out.
10. Get face time with others (even if it’s a Zoom call)
Humans are social creatures. And research has long supported the association between social interaction and brain health.
While we often consider creativity (and writing, for that matter) as an individual pursuit, evidence continues to mount that social networks and social interaction have an impact on an individual’s creative output.
Thanks to technology, hanging out from a distance has never been easier.
The bottom line
Above all, be kind to yourself.
Whether you do one thing on this list, do all of it, or do none of it—whatever you do, be kind.
If you are able to work on your WIP right now, that’s fantastic—more power to you! But if you’re struggling, know that you’re not alone and that this situation is neither permanent nor hopeless.
Despite what some influencers are selling, the point of this time is not to create the Next Big Thing. The point is to survive. How this looks may differ from person to person, and that’s okay.
We’re going through a lot right now—our brains are going through a lot—so anything we can do to care for our brains is a good thing.
If we take care of our minds and creative muscles now, we can move through this pandemic confident that when we are ready to return to our writing—whether that’s today, tomorrow, or several months from now—our creativity will be there to meet the task.
Want even bigger creativity boosts? Here’s a list of my favorite books on creativity.