Sometimes, great ideas come out of nowhere. Maybe you’ve been focusing on a tough problem for days with no end in sight, and then—poof—a creative solution falls in your lap.
These flashes of brilliance rarely happen when you’re parked at your desk all day, zeroed in on a single project. While it’s important to focus, too much focus on one thing can cause a kind of mental tunnel vision, closing you off to new ideas. As a result, your work can begin to feel mundane and uninspired.
With deadlines fast approaching or colleagues nudging you for status updates, there’s always a reason to stay head down and closed off. That’s why we’re offering four simple strategies for being more open to inspiration, each with its own “time hack” so you can fit it into your life—hassle free.
1. Invite something new
According to psychologists Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot, people tend to be more inspired when they’re open to new experiences. So it isn’t just a matter of stepping away from the problem at hand, it’s about stepping towards something outside your normal routine to purposefully clear your mind and make way for fresh ideas.
Taking breaks from your workday encourages new thoughts to percolate. While your mind relaxes, keep a freewriting journal where you capture your thoughts, no matter how random they might seem. No one else will read it, so don’t worry about editing or censoring yourself.
When you want something more physically active, go for a walk and take pictures of things that capture your attention. If you use Evernote, keep your freewriting and images in the same notebook and refer to them any time you get stuck on a project and want an influx of different ideas.
The ideas and images you capture may not relate at all to the work you’re doing, but this small practice of mindfulness will help you think in new ways, which can lead to being more inspired in everything you do.
- Time hack: Create bite-sized tasks.
To create your journaling break times, try the Action Method developed by Behance:
Split each of your work projects into small, manageable tasks called “action steps.” For example, let’s say you have to create a presentation. Some of your action steps might be: Outline the main points, gather the necessary images, write the introduction.
After you complete an action step, take a break for 5 to 15 minutes. This might give you a few breaks throughout the day, at least one of which you can use to add to your journal.
2. Seek different perspectives
Ever reached for your phone to do something work-related only to lose half an hour on an epic social media binge?
If so, don’t feel bad. We’re about to give you an excuse to do this more often.
Psychologists at Texas A&M University found that people are often most inspired when they’re looking at work from others who are similar to themselves but more accomplished. This isn’t about comparing yourself to anyone. It’s about seeking out quality content in your field that comes from different perspectives.
To do this, practice mindfulness in your social media feeds. How much of your screen time do the people posting celebrity memes and cat pics all day really deserve? Try mixing in some different voices by seeking out professionals doing or saying interesting things relevant to your line of work. Maybe find someone that helps you learn about the history of your craft or discipline.
Cull through your accounts so the next time you reach for your phone, you’re greeted with innovative content related to your field. This way, you’re still kicking back on a social media break, but with the added bonus of seeing some inspiring material. Save anything that sparks an idea for one of your projects to Evernote, whether you’re on your computer or mobile device.
- Time hack: Take 5 every 25
If you already take random social media breaks throughout the day, you can go right on doing so guilt-free. But if you want more structured break times, try the Pomodoro Technique. We’ve recommended this technique before for its utter simplicity:
Set a timer for 25-minutes. When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break. After the break, set another 25-minute timer. Rinse and repeat.
3. Practice without pressure
According to Thrash and Elliot, inspired individuals tend to get their best ideas after they’ve worked on mastering their skills. In other words, building your chops at whatever you want to accomplish is like laying the tracks for inspiration to come.
This doesn’t mean inspiration can be forced by plowing forward through your projects. It means that refining your craft helps you harness inspiration more easily.
For example, if you’re a visual designer who struggles with illustration, you might work on a small personal project that focuses on illustration. Or if you’re a manager having trouble motivating your team, read up on the psychology around motivation. Don’t have time to read? Listen to an audiobook in the car or while doing household chores.
Making time for this sort of deliberate practice away from workplace pressures allows you to develop in your field without worrying about making mistakes.
- Time hack: Pencil yourself in
To create a block of time where you can work on building your skills, check your calendar at the start of each work week. Find at least 30 minutes of free time and schedule it, so your coworkers see that, during that time, you’re unavailable. Just like that, you have a sacred space in your week where you can refine your work-related skills.
4. When inspiration comes, welcome it
One of the best ways to be open to inspiration is to not be closed to it.
Sounds obvious, but think about all the great ideas you’ve gotten at inconvenient times: the perfect intro to that presentation that came to you in line at the checkout counter, the explanation for the anomaly in the financial data that sprang to mind at midnight.
If you’ve ever failed to capture a fleeting insight, don’t worry. It happens to the best of us. Your days are likely filled with things that occupy your attention, making it nearly impossible to disengage when inspiration strikes.
To deal with this, keep your tools for capturing unexpected brilliance always at the ready. Sync your Evernote account to all your devices and use shortcuts to keep the notes where you capture inspiration always at your fingertips. If you’d rather go offline after the workday, carry a physical notebook with you, or place a few in different rooms throughout your living space—whatever makes it easy to harness ideas the moment they arrive.
- Time hack: Feel the power of “no”
Build wiggle room into your schedule to give yourself more freedom to capture good ideas, even if they come at inconvenient times. To do this, protect your time by saying “no” more often. This is easier said than done, but remember that you’re not obligated to let others pick your brain at a moment’s notice or to accept every last-minute meeting invite.
If you have a hard time declining these kinds of requests, try using an I don’t statement rather than an I can’t or an I won’t statement. Studies show that explaining why you don’t do something is more empowering for you and more likely to be accepted by others.
For example, if a coworker asks you to join a conference call with only a ten-minute warning, you might explain that you don’t interrupt scheduled focus time unless it’s an emergency, but you’d be glad to check in at the end of the day to get filled in. You might find that they accept your boundary without an issue.
While you can’t control when inspiration comes, you can control your openness to new experiences, your willingness to seek out different perspectives, and your dedication to your craft, all of which can make the muse more likely to pay you a visit.