Rut Kicker

Jumpstart Your Engine of Ideas


As a member of Toastmasters International, I am tasked with delivering speeches according to outlines in a manual, emphasizing the practice of various aspects of communication, from vocal emphasis, to hand gestures, to visual aids.

The topics of the speeches are up to the speaker, but there have been times when I had trouble choosing a topic, a mere day before I was scheduled to speak. I was at a loss for ideas. I was stuck in a rut.

Little did I realize that my very lack of ideas, could be a source of ideas.

This is particularly relevant to those of us who work in a creative profession, and have, at one time or another, been wanting for that next great idea, or even just lightning for the brainstorm.

As many of us have learned, in school and on the job, being stuck in a rut can be an inevitable part of the creative process, but getting out of said rut requires as much creativity as the deliverables which it hinders.

A major lull at my former job gave me some time to access our corporate account with Lynda.com, a website that features myriad educational videos, mostly in the design and business fields. One which piqued my interest was entitled, “Breaking Out of a Rut,” by creative director and author Stefan Mumaw. Mumaw did a great job in analyzing the creative process and barriers to it, with techniques to break those barriers. I have unwittingly used some of these techniques while studying industrial design.

According to Mumaw, ruts are triggered by repetitive work, and are the result of the atrophy of problem-solving ability. They can be classified into three categories:

  • short-term ruts, which can last days;
  • mid-term ruts, which can last weeks or months, and;
  • long-term ruts, which can last years

The majority of us fall into short-term ruts as a result of daily repetitive routines. If left unchecked, they can grow into mid-term and long-term ruts, as lack of inspiration on the job or in the classroom leaks into every aspect of life. Fortunately, once identified, ruts of any kind can be broken systematically.

For short-term ruts, start by looking for patterns in your daily routine, and changing just one aspect. Overall, Mumaw makes an emphasis here on varying physical movements so as to avoid “muscle memory,” when your muscles subconsciously move your limbs to specific positions in which you have performed specific repeated tasks. Even fidgeting with your hands, which we’ve all been discouraged from doing, can help fuel creativity, especially if you have something in them, like a pen, or some foam LEGO blocks, like I had at my desk. Also, try solving a new puzzle, creating a new game, or just going out. In design school, I ran out of ideas for an assignment which required 50 sketches after sketch #10. I was pressed for time over that weekend, as the class was on Monday morning. It was Halloween, and there was a party I wanted to go to, but was concerned I wouldn’t have time to finish the sketches. I took a leap of faith and went, and not only did the ideas flow after, but I finished my assignment on time.

For mid-term ruts, enrolling in classes and conferences is recommended. The emphasis here is on new material and new perspectives from others. Though I studied industrial design, one semester, an instructor of mine (the same one for whom I did the 50 sketches) recommended a voice class in our school’s acting department. Not only did I meet and interact with new students outside of my department, I also enjoyed the new journey across town to the classroom in the building in which the acting department is located.

Long-term ruts require long-term planning to break, and varying strategies such as taking on difficult challenges, and the least difficult challenge of taking an “unplugged” vacation. This is also a good time to find a mentor to help guide your rut-breaking strategy, and take up exercise, or change your current exercise routine. Studies show that physical exercise assuages anxiety by stimulating the pre-frontal cortex of your brain to regulate the amygdala, from which feelings of fear and anxiety emanate. This explains why I am not at ease when I am not at the gym, or not occasionally trying out some new fitness equipment.

What kind of rut are you stuck in? Whatever it is, get out there and kick some rut!

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