Seeking Inspiration: Four Steps to Being Creative on a Deadline

It’s a battle as old as time. You’ve been assigned to an important project with a tight deadline, but your inspiration’s running dry. The clock is the ultimate enemy, bringing a new bout of anxiety with every passing minute, yet you’re not sure where to begin.

How can you possibly be creative when the pressure is mounting?

In even the most free-spirited of offices (like those with table tennis and ice cream machines), sometimes creativity has a deadline: It’s the nature of the work.

Though it seems impossible, working around time, budget, vision, and technology restrictions is doable.

So finish your cone and put down the paddles, and check out these four tips to help your creativity shine while on deadline.


1. Step away from the computer

No matter how hard you try, staring blankly at the computer won’t make writer’s block disappear. So when you’re feeling drained, hit “shut down” and allow your mind to wander.

A glowing screen can often stifle how you process information, so it’s important to not confine your imagination. I’m a big believer in sketching things out, literally. Change up the medium by picking up a pencil and paper. Allow yourself to doodle, letting your wrist move freely from your elbow—doing so creates a more natural and relaxed flow. Scribbling serves as an important foundation to creativity because it’s the first sign of an idea coming from head to hand… and we’ve been able to do it since pre-school.

Stepping away from the screen allows you to get ideas out quickly, without distraction.

Still craving some form of structure? Try creating a mind map on a whiteboard. Mind maps are a visual thinking tool that help structure information, allowing you to better analyze, synthesize, and generate ideas. Like sketching, mind-mapping allows ideas to unravel before your eyes, revealing connections that weren’t obvious before—and inspiring action.

2. Surround yourself with complementary personalities

Whenever your motivation is running on empty, refuel by regrouping with creative—and not-so-creative—teams. Huddle up with folks from different disciplines—i.e., not the same kind of thinkers. Scooby and the gang doesn’t work if they all overthink like Velma. What if everyone on Seinfeld thought like Kramer? And the Avengers fail if they’re all a Hulk.

There is strength and resolve in the ensemble, so gather your George, Elaine, Kramer, and maybe even Puddy. Get out of the office and hit up your local diner or go for a walk in the park: Presenting the problem to fresh minds may introduce a solution that was initially overlooked. And embracing a new environment may deliver some outside-the-box ideas.

Not able to leave the office? Spend a few minutes thinking of the end user and role-play with your team. As a group, try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Challenge each other to really listen and draw from different ideas and experiences. Have each person write down a word that best describes the intended target, and then read the list to see commonalities. As a group, work to personify your target audience: What do they like? What drives them?

Let’s say your client is a pizza chain looking to tap into the 20-something male consumer. Go around the room imagining you’re Jim, a target consumer, and say something about yourself and pizza. By stretching your brain in this way, you can get a quick understanding of whom you’re going after.

These exercises can help spark untapped creativity while challenging people to think differently and sharpen their reactions. Ultimately, this meeting of the minds can help push positive ideas through and bring unseen solutions to the surface. The bottom line: Will Jim dig it?

3. Go with what you know

Now that we know who our intended audience is, it’s time to think of how we can best reach them. This is when you dive into what has worked in the past, whether that’s a campaign, advertisement, or solution. Instead of being overwhelmed by a time-sensitive project, take a step back. Spend some time recalling similar instances. Whether you organize that information in a diagram or jot it down freehand, acknowledge the wealth of information and institutional knowledge you have before you.

Recognizing your strong foundation and past performances may give you the confidence to work swiftly and efficiently.

When creating a solution, focus on the facts and cut through the BS; don’t overcomplicate things. Instead of reinventing the wheel, focus on a sweet and simple resolution that addresses your overarching objectives.

Sometimes a tight deadline forces simple ideas to the forefront; and as long as they’re true to your mission, don’t be afraid to embrace them.

4. Take a leap of faith

When you’re racing against the clock, it’s easy to ignore your gut feelings. In these situations, think back to the days of multiple-choice exams: At some point in your academic career, a teacher likely advised that if you’re unsure of an answer, your first instinct is usually right. That life lesson was probably followed up with a warning not to keep changing your answer.

The same advice holds up for the workplace. When feeling challenged, listen to your instincts and build your idea from there; if you keep changing course, you won’t get anywhere.

In creative problem-solving, there’s not a right or wrong answer; it’s an art, not a science. If a deadline seems unsurpassable, let your instinct be your guide, supplemented by creative collaboration and a change of scenery.

* * *

At the end of the day, remember there is no perfect formula for overcoming a creative hurdle. When you’re feeling stuck, acknowledge that sometimes the best ideas are born out of stressful situations, and break out of your normal routines to tackle the challenge.

Then, when it’s all said and done, reward yourself with a slice (or two) and a Seinfeld marathon.

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