What to do when you are lacking inspiration


Inspiration. We all feel so much better with it, don’t we?! Things just seem easier; everything flows more smoothly and we are in the zone. We soon know when it goes missing as well.

The trouble with inspiration is that it is elusive. You can’t just conjure it up on demand. Even when it does show up it can be fleeting.

So, what do you do when you are just lacking inspiration? Just like a gardener tending a plant, you can’t force inspiration BUT you can cultivate the most favourable conditions to give it the best chance of showing up.

Here are some strategies you can try when inspiration is needed but lacking…

Know why inspiration hasn’t shown up

First things first, is there anything obvious getting in the way of inspiration showing up? This might seem like a bit of a “duh” moment, but if you are extremely tired, stressed or wrung out, the muse is unlikely to come knocking at your door. Like a good host, you need to be ready to receive this kind of guest.

Assuming that it’s not it, here are some questions to ask…

  • What’s missing?
  • What’s not sparking?
  • What one thing could I do to change my state of being?
  • Is there integrity to what I am trying to do?
  • How could I make myself more open to inspiration?
  • How am I blocking things?

If those kinds of questions do not yield clues or answers, it is time to do something different.

Show up and commit

There is an old saying that “Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. While that might not be wholly accurate and certainly not preferable, there is truth to it.

When inspiration doesn’t rear its head, it can be all too easy to sit and wait for it to show up. Given that we can’t force it, this might seem like the right thing to do. However, you would be wrong!

I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning. - William Faulkner

As Faulkner suggests, sometimes you have to show up first then inspiration comes to meet you.

This always reminds me of a bit in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy is faced with a massive drop between him and the Holy Grail. There being no obvious way to the prize, his only option is to take a leap a faith by taking a step over the precipice. Surprise surprise, it turns out that there is an invisible bridge over and our hero gets the Grail.

Inspiration is our Holy Grail. We sometimes have to commit to the work and take the first step before it shows up.

More specifically, here are some things you can use to up the ante…

  • Set a deadline - this can increase the pressure on yourself and may force you to get out of your own way and into action. When you get out of the way, there is much more room for inspiration to show up.
  • Use a timer - working in sprints to mini-deadlines is the sacred ground of many productivity techniques (such as the Pomodoro technique), but it can also be the very thing that forces the flow to occur. Try setting a timer for 20 minutes and working intensively until the timer goes off AND NO FURTHER. You might find at the end that you felt surprisingly inspired (or at least not uninspired). Rinse and repeat as needed.
  • Commit to the final version - one of my mentors, Peter Thomson, always says to decide before creating a video or podcast that you are only going to do one take and no editing. Applying this logic to whatever you are working on means that you don’t give yourself the get out clause of not producing because you “weren’t feeling it”. When that happens, inspiration again has a funny way of showing up.

Priming the pump

Following on from the logic of above, because inspiration rarely shows up before we have begun we sometimes have to “prime the pump”.

Priming the pump comes from when pumps for new water or oil wells are created. The pump has to be pumped several times to get the air out of the system and get the liquid to flow. Therefore, you might have to do something beforehand to get the flow going.

To know what you are going to draw you have to begin drawing. - Pablo Picasso

  • Morning Pages - Julia Cameron in the Artists Way suggests writing 3 pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness first thing each morning. The content in unimportant, but the process essentially helps to “drain the swamp” of all the crap that is swirling away in your head. This tends to be the very stuff that bars inspiration from entering the room.
  • Do a warm up - just as an elite sportsperson would never go out and compete without warming up their muscles, you might need to do your form of a warm-up. Writers often will do writing exercises just to write…but without expectation. Designers will often use “scamping” where they are simply drawing to visualise their initial thoughts and concepts. The key is that they ease their way in, accepting that the output of the warm-up probably won’t have much relevance to the finished product.
  • Start with the end in mind - set an intention of what the end product looks like then start to brainstorm ideas out of how to get there. If you are writing, this might look like a mindmap or outline of your article or chapter. If you are setting up a project, this might mean a braindump of all the activities and ideas. If you are just plain stuck, this might be a brainstorm of all the ways that you can get unstuck.

Move on/follow your flow

When you have tried to step in and it is still not happening, it might simply be that inspiration is trying to show up for something else right now. So, for the time being, stop trying to force it and move onto do something that inspires you more.

Isaac Asimov, the prolific Science Fiction writer, had several typewriters around his office with manuscripts at different stages in each one. He would reputedly move from one project to another the moment he no longer felt inspired by the first, and just carry straight on. Asimov wrote an estimated 469 books in his life.

Maybe you just need to do something else and then come back it.

Shake it off/out

When the flow is a no go, you might need to go all Florence and the Machine and “shake it out”. This simply means doing something in the moment to change your state. For me, that often means simply standing up, having a good stretch and a quick wander across the room. I also have a variable height desk so I can choose to sit or stand just to shake things up a bit.

There are many things you can do in the moment.  Play your favourite music, dance (will work best if you are not worried about other people watching!), grab a cuppa etc.

If that is not working, it is time to get into Taylor Swift mode and “shake it off”! By that I mean go do something a bit more drastic to change your state. Get outside and look up at the sky, go for a walk and get some fresh air. Meet a friend for coffee. The point is to really go and do something different to take your mind off what you are doing.  You can come back to it later with fresh eyes and a fresh spirit.

Accept when you’re out of flow

When all is said and done, and you have tried everything above (or even some of it) …and it still isn’t happening, you might just have to accept that for the time being you are out of the flow. When that happens, it is just better to step right back and let it go for a while…or let it go altogether.

Once you have given it some time and space, the questions in the “Know why” section might be useful to understand why inspiration hasn’t shown up so far.

Know when to step in or out

Inspiration is a tricky thing. Sometimes the most favourable conditions require you to step in and give it some focus and pressure. Sometimes the most favourable conditions involve spaciousness, relaxation and easing into it.

The key trick is to know what is required at what time. This is about discernment, and more than that, trusting your intuition and instincts. The funny thing is that your intuition is keenly connected to inspiration.  It is very good at showing the fastest and quickest route to that inspiration…if you listen.

Get out of the way!

You will notice that many of the strategies above are really about getting you…or rather your analytical mind out of the way.  Flow doesn't happen when you are overthinking it.

When you do that, you are far more likely to catch a lucky break and ride that wave of intuition.


Leave a comment below and tell us what you do to get in the flow of inspiration!