Creative Ruts & How to Conquer Them

One of the very worst feelings in the world is when you want, badly, to create, but you are feeling absolutely uninspired. This is true for all creatives, but I think it is particularly true for designers. It's hardest to come up with new ideas when you feel pressure to do so, and there's nothing quite like that pressure to consistently put out new, interesting, unique designs – especially when it seems that everyone around you is coming up with amazing ideas constantly. (They aren't, but social media has this way of making it feel like everyone else is a prolific, confident genius, doesn't it?) And, let's be real, ruts are totally compounded when you have other things going on in your life – personal issues, jobs, kiddos, relationships – which may increase the pressure to earn money. What I'm saying is, ruts are everywhere, and they suck a lot.

Never fear, makers. We all get stuck sometimes. That's right, even the designers and makers you idolize have had periods where they just dread the idea of making. And I'll let you in on a little secret: The trick to getting out of these awful spells, generally speaking, is just to embrace it. No clue what I'm talking about? Here are some concrete steps I have found that help me when I'm stuck on a particular project.

1. Take a step way back.

Put down your needles, put away your yarn, unravel that swatch you keep staring at and feeling disappointed about. Put all of your tools away. Put your notebook in a drawer. I'm serious – get it all out of your sight and be prepared not to look at any of it for a while. Literally don't look at any of the tools you would use for the project you're stuck on for a minimum of three days – preferably more. Trust me, you'll feel your mind wandering back to those tools and it will send little stress sparks out your brain and straight into that anxious little place in your chest, but resist the urge to open that drawer. You need to take a breath. Don't think about any of it, don't look at it, don't interact with it. Go cold turkey on this one. Three days minimum, that's an order.

2. Now, do something else.

Now it's time to occupy your mind with something completely different. And I'm not talking, like, moving to a different knitting project to help you get past that one knitting rut you were in. Remember, you put all of your tools away. Do something else, or you will circle right back to the same frustrated rut that started this whole mess. Or, worse, you'll intensify that frustration and find yourself kind of hating your craft.

So instead, go buy a puzzle or draw a picture or do your homework or read a book. Just do something different. Let your mind decompress and take the pressure off of yourself. Spend an afternoon sipping coffee and reading a book in your favorite café. Take your dog for a walk. Spend the evening binge watching something really good on TV. Call your mom. Find a way to take your mind off of the rut you're in.

3. Talk to a creative friend.

There's nothing quite as reassuring as realizing that these ruts happen to everyone, so I would suggest you do yourself a favor and send a little message to a maker friend or just out into the maker universe. Say, "Dude, knitter's block sucks." Your friends will be like, "Yeah man," and then you guys can commiserate over the particular hell that is a blank and uncooperative brain. You might also be able to find out what helped your friend move past the ruts they have encountered in the past. But if nothing else, especially if this is a big bad rut that has lasted a long time and has you feeling all kinds of discouraged, it will help you to have someone to lean on a little bit who has been there (because if you're talking with a creative, I promise you, they have been there).

4. Learn a new skill.

Been wanting to learn how to punch needle, or embroider, or latch hook, or paint, or hand letter, or scrapbook? Now is the time to do it. This is particularly useful if your creative rut is lasting a while – not a three-day thing, but one of those ruts that seems to last weeks. Here's where I suggest you lean into it. Stop trying to figure out how to regain your spark, and instead pour your creative energy into something entirely different. Pick something you feel excited about learning. Re-engage with that feeling of creative inspiration, but keep away from the causes of your frustration. This is usually where I am able to push through the creative mind block. I don't know what it is, but when you're learning something new and it's got you all excited and thinking about new project ideas, that creative energy somehow always seems to lead back to your craft.

(If the new skill you want to learn also happens to be yarn-related, and you've taken the prescribed three days away from all of your tools, you officially have my permission to pick up some yarn again – but only if you promise not to try fussing around with that design you're stuck on or whatever medium you're working with. One of the best things that has happened in my creative life was when I was stuck in a two-month crochet rut, and then just decided to stop trying with crochet and learned how to knit instead. It took some time before I was designing with knitting needles, but it was hugely helpful and inspiring.)

5. Don't come back to your project until or unless you feel excited about it again.

After decompressing, you might find that the reason you felt stuck on this particular project is that it simply wasn't a good project for you. That's okay! It might be time to just go ahead and scrap it. But if you feel attached, keep it out of sight for as long as it takes for you to go "Ah! Yes!" and dig it back out. That might take months or even years, truth be told, but I guarantee you will not be able to get through that hurdle until the idea of returning to the project fills you with energy, and not stress. There's a good chance that you simply didn't have the appropriate skills to execute the vague idea in your head, and after doing some learning and taking time away from the idea, you might be hit with a zap of inspiration for how you can make it work. Or you won't, and you'll find a better use for that yarn.

The bottom line is, creativity takes an enormous amount of time and patience. Trying to force it will only take the joy out of it for you.

The short version of all of this is: Loving what you do is not always automatic; it takes time, so you should too. Creative ruts are often telling you that you need to take a step back. Listen to them.