How to get over writer's block, unlock your creativity, and brainstorm great ideas

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This was adapted from CNBC's Work It newsletter on LinkedIn about all things work — from how to land the job to how to succeed in your career. Click here to subscribe.

Hello! And welcome to the CNBC Work It newsletter about all things work — from landing the job to how to succeed in your career.

So many of us have been there: Staring at a blank page, trying to come up with some brilliant ideas for that next brainstorming meeting. Or that clever opening line for your presentation. That idea that will just wow them. It's agony. You know you can do it. But where are the ideas? They should be here by now, right?!

My favorite depiction of this is in the movie "Adaptation." Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) is sitting down to write and is just staring at the blank page on his typewriter. His inner monologue:

To begin. To begin. How to start …

[He stares at the wall, waiting for inspiration to strike.]

I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. But I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin … OK …

[deep breath]

So, I need to establish the themes …

He can't help his mind from wandering. (Being hungry doesn't help.) He finally puts his hands on the typewriter, and then a thought hits him …

Maybe banana nut. That's a good muffin.

Gah! So close. And yet, nothing. That was painful to watch — and so relatable. (Though, in fairness, banana nut IS a good muffin.)

What do you do when that happens? When you know you have ideas but you're just … stuck?

Whether you're trying your hand at a screenplay like Charlie or brainstorming ideas for an upcoming meeting, there are a few things you can do to unlock your creativity and get the ideas flowing.

Career coach Natalie Fisher said she would start with bare bones: Think about what you already know about the topic. Maybe you discussed it in a recent meeting, had a conversation with a friend or read an article on this topic. If you haven't, do a search. Get the topic flowing around in your head.

Then ask yourself a few questions to get started:

  • What do I know about this?
  • What is my best guess?
  • What would be one next step I could take to move forward?
  • If I did know, what would it look like?
  • What would make this more fun?

"If you're feeling stuck, you can usually get unstuck by asking yourself some really good questions and knowing that if you're stuck it's just a temporary space to be in. There's always something that gets you unstuck," Fisher said.

Maybe what you need to do is phone a friend, or write to someone for information. We often feel when we're trying to be creative that we have to go at it alone. Sometimes, connecting with someone else is the catalyst that unlocks our own creativity and gets the ideas flowing.

If you're feeling stuck, you can usually get unstuck by asking yourself some really good questions.
Natalie Fisher
career coach

Then you have to do the hardest part: Getting started.

Throw words down on the page. They do not have to be brilliant or wow anyone. Sometimes our own perfectionism gets in the way and that's why we're staring at a blank screen for so long. Get that flow going. Don't worry. You can delete what you have and start over, that doesn't matter.

The idea is to crank open the faucet of your creativity and see what comes out.

"When I'm stuck, I remind myself to not focus on perfection and the power of compound progress," says Sarah Doody, the founder of Career Strategy Lab, who has helped clients land jobs at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, Nordstrom, Spotify and Blue Origin.

"It's so easy to sit and stare at a blank screen for minutes or hours on end," Doody says. "However, I find that once I just start, it creates momentum, because then I have something to work with, and the ideas start to flow and with progress comes confidence!"

It's a concept author Anne Lamott calls the SFD, or the S----y First Draft.

In her book "Bird by Bird," on the art of writing, Lamott describes the SFD this way:

All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

Don't wait until you feel like a million dollars. Don't wait until you have the "perfect" idea. Just get started.

That's great advice for writing a book and also for brainstorming ideas. Sometimes we think we can't put an idea down because it's not great. It isn't cooked enough. But this is your list! However good or bad that idea is, just write it down.

What's really important is to withhold judgment. It's easy to write down an idea, but then when it's not perfect, you start breaking it up like you're a judge on a reality competition show and you get frustrated and walk away.

Be kind to yourself. Give your creative brain the space to come up with a list of ideas — some good, some bad — that will help you keep things flowing and eventually lead you to your best ideas.

Write your ideas down first before the meeting

Most people approach brainstorming incorrectly, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of books including "Think Again," said in an interview with Amazon.

"The first ideas you think of are usually the most conventional," Grant said. "If you want to be creative, you need variety."

A first inclination might be to just gather creative colleagues in a room and start there, Grant said. But that doesn't work for a lot of reasons:

  1. Some people might be introverts and wind up being ignored
  2. Others might hold back ideas that feel too "out there"
  3. You might wind up in groupthink where everyone is agreeing with an idea and stifling less popular ideas

"No one wants to look stupid," Grant said.

Instead, he said, have individuals write down their ideas on paper before the meeting. And bring A LOT of ideas.

"There is some evidence that in a brainstorming exercise or a brain-writing exercise, your first 20 ideas are actually less creative than your next 15," Grant explained.

When you are in a team brainstorming meeting, try to be supportive of other peoples' ideas instead of criticizing or competing with them. Give them support when they're putting themselves out there — and try to riff and build on their suggestions a little. A supportive energy and flow — as opposed to a defensive or competitive one — can create the right environment.

A former colleague and I used to joke that our ideas were so good, it was bigger than a brainstorm. It was a brain HURRICANE. We even wrote these meetings in our Outlook calendars that way. It was an awesome way to be supportive of each other's ideas, and to get pumped up.

If you go in feeling like that, you accomplish a lot more than when you're worried about being judged.

What would Steve Jobs do? Take a walk

You can read interviews with successful people and find out what their tricks are for coming up with ideas. Not all of them will work for you, but you might find one that does.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was known to do some of his best creative thinking while taking a walk. In the book "Steve Jobs," the author Walter Isaacson recalls how he once invited Jobs to speak on a panel. Jobs refused but agreed to come and take a walk with Isaacson instead.

"I didn't yet know that taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation," Isaacson writes.

There is data to back it up: Researchers from Stanford University asked more than 170 students to complete certain tasks while sitting, and then while walking. The results? The students were "overwhelmingly" more creative when they were walking as opposed to sitting down.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, the researchers concluded.

Many other executives are known to favor walking meetings, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and former LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.

Go ahead, present your wild ideas!

Don't be afraid to share your creative or unusual ideas in meetings, says writer Abby Wolfe.

"The thing is, you never know what that 'wild' thought will lead to," Wolfe writes. "Sure, it might be declined right off the bat. Or, perhaps, your suggestion inspires an even better, and more brilliant idea, from your teammate. But maybe, just maybe, the decision-maker surprises you and approves your initial proposal."

"I'm not saying these have to be completely bizarre or fantastical in nature. I'm just saying that, sometimes, we need to push convention aside and abandon the standard mold (at least temporarily) to find the best solutions and to take things to the next level," Wolfe adds.

So take a walk. Call a friend or colleague. Write your own SFD. Share that wild idea. The main thing is, don't let your inner perfectionist or fear of what your colleagues might say derail you. Open the faucet and let the ideas flow. You never know when you'll come up with your next big idea — or what it might lead to.

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