science of us

I Miss Having Ideas

Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Last week, I had an idea. It wasn’t even a very good one (“what if I were to draw my favorite scenes from Real Housewives franchises?”), but it felt incredible, not least because I haven’t had a single new idea since March. My productivity has never been more perfunctory: Sure, I finished the project I started pre-pandemic, and yes, I’ve managed to maintain a regular output of stories here at my job. But I have not felt inspired, or creative. I’ve just been trying to get by. Ethically, I think that’s fine — nobody should feel obligated to channel Shakespeare when the country’s on fire and nearly 200,000 people are dead and the economy is cratering around us. On humanity’s list of most pressing concerns, “I have no ideas” ranks pretty low.

But it is demoralizing, and depressing, to lose something that once consistently brought you joy and pride. And I know it’s not just me, because I’ve nervously asked friends and colleagues if they, too, feel creatively dead, and I’ve been relieved every time they’ve agreed. You know that Twitter thing where someone presents a half-baked pun or joke concept, followed by a pleading “Is this anything?’ It feels like that, only not very funny. Is this anything? Will it ever be anything again??

Often, in situations like these, I can turn to Google Scholar, and find research that gives explanation to my crisis. (I love to bolster my bad feelings with science!) Here, though, I’m stumped, because everything I can find suggests that I should feel more creative than ever, specifically because I am bored out of my mind. But Manoush Zomorodi, author of the book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, says it’s a bit more complicated than that. “I think sometimes people conflate boredom with having time,” she says. There’s useful boredom, when our bodies are on autopilot and our brains are free to roam, and then there’s drudgery, like 24/7 child care, says Zomorodi. “How do you let your imagination run wild while you’re just trying to survive?”

For Zomorodi (herself a working parent), inspiration can be found in small chunks of scheduled boredom. At the beginning of quarantine, spending her mornings boiling water, Zomorodi noticed that by standing at the stove and observing the water rather than hurrying around the house, tending to her kids and her emails, she was able to access that zoned-out sort of boredom that lends itself to spontaneous creativity, even if only for a few minutes at a time. Later, she upgraded to hour-long walks. “Long walks — not listening to podcasts, I hate to say — are a great way to get into that mind state,” she says. Zomorodi is aware we’ve heard this bit before, especially during those months when a short walk around our neighborhoods was all we were allowed to do. Personally, I’ve never hated aimless walks more. If you feel similarly, baths and showers work, too — any setting in which your body, otherwise occupied, encourages your mind to wander.

More appealing to me, a rule lover, is the notion that my creativity problem can be solved with a set of rigid restrictions. (Others might enjoy the self-pity afforded by working within limitations.) There’s a wealth of academic research on “creativity constraints,” or limits designed to encourage innovation. Anne Laure Sellier, an associate professor of marketing at HEC Paris who has researched the effects of restricted choice and time on creativity, notes, however, that there are good constraints (like setting timers for oneself), and there are bad ones. Stress — like the kind you might feel amid, say, a pandemic, mass unemployment, and a crumbling economy — is a bad constraint.

“Stress has never been conducive to creativity,” says Sellier. Given the very real health risks around us, we’re also afraid of getting sick and dying, and that produces an effect called “mortality salience”: simply, an awareness of the inevitability of our deaths. “If someone puts a gun to your forehead and says, ‘Okay, now give me a good idea,’ it’s very unlikely that’s going to happen,” she says.

While misery and fear can breed creativity and invention, Sellier says that’s context dependent. People working on COVID-19 vaccines are likely extremely motivated (and even inspired) by the current context, she says, but the same can’t necessarily be said for, say, novelists, or artists, or anyone who might question their career’s utility at this particular moment in history. Even if you remain convinced your work really matters, your world has likely shrunk: To be compliant with public health guidelines, we must restrict our own movement and our interactions with other people. We have less to observe. We don’t know what day it is because every day is the same. These aren’t exactly the kinds of constraints Sellier ever had in mind.

As a result, none of us should be surprised if most/all of our ideas feel a little … stale. “I think what we’re seeing today is so many constraints in so many areas that it makes it very difficult for us to think outside what creativity researchers call the path of least resistance,” says Sellier. “We just keep applying what we know and coming up with marginal inventions at this stage.” To put this theory in writer’s terms, for my own benefit: It might be an okay time to write book No. 37 of The Baby-Sitters Club series (no disrespect to the great Ann M. Martin), but it’s a much harder one if you’re hoping to come up with a concept or plot from scratch.

Zomorodi’s advice for the creatively stricken is as familiar as it is unpleasant: Put down your phone, at least during scheduled boredom time. “Being bored doesn’t feel good,” she says. “But it’s important that you allow your brain to go where it wants to go.” I see what she means, and as a person who’s logging unconscionable records of phone use seemingly every day, I can’t argue that a break would do me good. I have to assume, though, that it matters what you’re looking at: What if you’re texting with a friend who routinely inspires your work, or reading a teacher’s forum for remote learning ideas? I think these things can work in tandem: Allow yourself access to the outer world through your phone, and then maybe go for a phoneless walk— sorry, shower, or coloring/knitting session, dance break, whatever, to ruminate on what you’ve absorbed.

Another reason your brain might be feeling cobwebbed over is because you’re ready to reevaluate what kind of creativity matters to you. Amid so much uncertainty and existentialism, it’s worth considering (and reconsidering) what you really do and don’t want to do. There are a few types of writing that I’ve done previously that I’ve recently decided I have no interest in doing again, and it’s been surprisingly liberating to take a stand, even if just to myself. Right now, this is a manageable way to think about my art, and I’ve decided it “counts” as much as creating art itself does.

This is also a good time to think about what “counting” means: counting to whom? Who is the Creativity/Art Judge living in your brain, and what do they know, anyway? Mine doesn’t think rendering Housewives in pencil is a particularly worthwhile use of time and energy, because it’s neither original nor profitable. But it is fun. It’s a good way to practice drawing, it’s something different to do with my hands, and it’s the first idea I’ve had in what feels like years, so I’m running with it.

I Miss Having Ideas