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March 3, 2016 // 8:00 AM

How to Draw Inspiration From the Most Unlikely Places

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Writer's block. Lack of focus. Laziness. The feeling can come in many different flavors, but they're all tied to the same, underlying issue of simply being uninspired.

Think of inspiration as the emotional equivalent of incentive. As an employee or a freelancer, you have an incentive (i.e. your paycheck) to do great work. It’s a very tangible, measurable thing that can motivate you.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is considerably more abstract. It’s a feeling, or an influence, that not only motivates you, but also makes you feel good about the work that you’re doing. And that's exactly why those moments of inspiration often come from the most unlikely of places.

The Psychology of Inspiration

While inspiration was originally thought to be a spiritual or even supernatural phenomenon, research now shows that it's rooted in three key, psychological components:

  1. Evocation: when a thought or memory is spontaneously triggered in your mind
  2. Transcendence: when you see something in a new way, or are able to move beyond a "usual" way of thinking
  3. Motivation: when you’re compelled to express or actualize an idea

Knowing the underlying components of inspiration makes it easy to see why it’s such a powerful force. When you’re inspired, you’re not just motivated; you’re thinking in a new way, which can lead you to those big, breakthrough, “a-ha” moments. (Of course, knowledge is power when it comes to sparking these moments.)

Unfortunately, we can’t feel like that all the time. And yet, in the workplace, we’re always expected to meet -- and ideally, exceed -- expectations ... our inspiration levels notwithstanding.

There are some well-known solutions to this inspiration problem, of course. For example, you could try going for a walk in nature, or meditating, or listening to inspirational music. (Might I suggest Survivor’s 1982 masterpiece, “Eye of the Tiger,” which pairs nicely with a can of Red Bull.)

As someone who has to write and create on a daily basis, I’ve identified (with the help of science ... thanks, science!) some less obvious strategies for upping your inspiration levels.

How to Draw Inspiration From the Most Unlikely Places

1) Embrace Your Daydreams

You might think of daydreaming as an enemy of inspiration. After all, if you’re trying to come up with an innovative approach to solving a problem or completing a project, intense focus seems like it would be pretty critical.

But alas, that’s not how inspiration works.

In a daydream, you don’t have to be hindered by the stresses of pesky old reality. Instead, your mind is free to float between past and future; between real-life and fantasy. Your daydream might start with you revisiting that vacation you took last year … but before you know it, you’re envisioning what a vacation on Mars might be like. (Note to self: Remember to pack a spacesuit.)

The inherent randomness of daydreaming makes it a perfect activity for triggering inspiration, as it can help you find connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. As psychologist Malia Fox Mason once told once told Psychology Today"By allowing your mind the freedom to roam, the chances that you're going to have an insight are much higher. It's likely that you are going to recombine pieces of information in a novel way.”

2) Pull an All-Nighter

If you’re searching for inspiration, pulling an all-nighter could help you get in the right frame of mind. (Unless you’re a night owl, in which case you might want to try waking up early.) Here's why.

When you’re faced with an analytic problem (i.e. a problem that you can solve by systematically employing a known strategy), the research tells us that you should attack the problem during an optimal time of day. What that optimal time is will vary from person to person, but think of it as the time of day when you’re most alert and most able to tune out distractions.

However, when you’re faced with an insight problem (i.e. a problem that can’t be solved through grinding, but requires a revelation or "a-ha" moment), that same research tells us that you’re better off attacking it during a non-optimal time of day.

The underlying explanation here is tied closely to the daydreaming/inspiration phenomenon: When you’re feeling overtired, or otherwise “out of it,” you’re more susceptible to the influence of other ideas.

"If you need to open your mind to alternative approaches and consider diverse options, it may be wise to do so when your filter is not so functional," writes Cindi May for Scientific American. "You just may be able to see what you’ve been missing."

3) Get Outside of Your Bubble

Go to the same bar or restaurant every Friday with the same group of friends? Watch the same show every Sunday night? Read the same publication every Monday morning?

This, my friends, is your bubble. The same places, the same people, the same viewpoints ... over and over and over.  If you’re looking to get inspired, you need to get outside of this bubble -- from time to time, at least. Go to a different restaurant. Hang out with different friends. Watch a new show. Read a new publication.

There isn’t a specific course of action you really need to follow here. The point is this: In order to prep your mind for inspiration, you need to take what you usually do, and change it. As was the case with daydreaming, this will help open you up to new ideas and help your mind make novel connections.

In psychology, this is tied to the concept of “openness to experience.” Folks with a high level of openness to experience are more intellectually curious and prefer engaging in a variety of activities as opposed to sticking to a routine.

Research suggests that there’s a correlation between openness to experience and how frequently people feel inspired. So if you’re serious about finding inspiration, give your schedule a shuffle and expose yourself to some different perspectives.

4) Write Down Your Crappy Ideas

All of them.

How many times have you stared at a blank screen, the cursor blinking, and you’re just waiting for inspiration to strike? Inside your brain, the wheels are turning; but every idea you come up with you immediately dismiss for one reason or another. Not practical. Too expensive. Would require renting a llama.

Don’t let these ideas slip away. Instead, write them down. Every single one of them.

Ultimately, having a hundred bad ideas in front of you is better than having no ideas in front of you. Despite their crappiness, these ideas can still help you feel inspired -- and help you lead you to the good ideas. 

In fact, researchers have found that the more variance you have in the quality of your ideas (i.e., some are terrible, some are “meh,” and some are alright), the more likely you’ll be to arrive at truly great idea.

5) Forget the Coffee; Grab a Beer

To be clear, beer is not a magical inspiration potion. That being said, beer and other alcoholic beverages (if consumed in reasonable quantities) can potentially help prime your brain for inspiration.

Here’s a simplified look at how this works: When you drink a beer, the alcohol interferes with the neurons in your brain, causing a slowdown in how fast you’re able to process information (similar to what happens when you’re over-tired). The end result? You can’t focus on stuff very well. But, as we’ve already established, not focusing is actually key to feeling inspired.

Bearing that in mind, coffee is probably the last thing you want to drink if you’re searching for inspiration. Unlike alcohol, caffeine (at least initially) helps you focus. And when you’re focused, you’re not able to make connections between different ideas as easily. Breaking that focus is what allows inspiration to seep in.

(For a deeper dive on this topic, read this blog post for a deeper dive into how caffeine, alcohol and other substances affect creativity.)

Where do you draw your inspiration? Share your tips and ideas in the comments section below.

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