Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hack your brain post #1: How to kill writer’s block and unleash your hidden creativity

This week in Public Persuasion class at Northwestern University, teacher Jason DeSanto covered a technique to unleash hidden creativity that had long time communications professionals in the class amazed.

What is that technique you ask? 


I have already been freewriting as a way to hack into my brain’s creative side since I was a teenager many moons ago. Actually, freewriting turned me on to writing in the first place. Until a tutor advised me to freewrite, I honestly hated writing. Yes, really.

I have been engaging in freewriting for many years now. It was one of the first things I learned when I began writing more seriously in high school, and it has never ceased to be a tool that I fall back on. I have used the same technique for brainstorming design concepts as well, including for a graphic design class I took at COD in the beginning of 2011. In fact, my best creative writing has always had a strong freewriting streak and I regularly use the technique to jog my social media juices.

And now, here I am, writing all over different social media channels, including for this blog. Something must have worked! Freewriting is fun, and gosh darn it highly therapeutic at stressful times as well. You have not lived until you’ve tasted the Kool Aid that is freewriting!  

Full disclosure: before I really get into this post and explain what is freewriting, I’m going to mention that there is already a great book about this topic. Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy gives you the sort of ideas you need to get a creative edge over your competitors in almost any industry. We read this book for DeSanto’s class and had a great discussion on the topic last Friday. Those sources spurred me to start my Brain Hack series, and I respect for them both. 

Where does creativity come from and why does it get blocked?

Here is the thing. We all have moments where we accidentally stumble across great thoughts that can solve problems. Often times it is when we are doing the most inane of tasks and not thinking very hard. Levy says that there is a reason for this. The human mind is highly robust and capable of greatness, provided that it is not hamstrung.

What could hamstring the mind? Trying to find “the perfect idea”, for one. Another is trying to be everything to everyone because we are more worried about pleasing others than being ourselves. Or maybe we get caught up in the process and become too self-conscious about what we “should” think.

Luckily, there’s an app for that.

You’ve intrigued me. Now get to the point. What is freewriting?

Freewriting is a technique for turning on the faucet of ideas in the mind which, for whatever reason, has been turned off. It hinges on writing as quickly as one possibly can, without worrying about typos or grammatical constructions. The important thing here is to produce for ourselves, not for others. Just choose any topic that is of interest to you, whether it is a work problem, or a relationship, or a class, or a design challenge. The choice is yours.

If you push yourself to freewrite, at first it will likely feel very awkward, but keep at it. You will notice your mind becoming more spontaneously within a short time and thoughts spilling across the pages you might not have realized you ever had.

What does it feel like to freewrite?

Like I said, many things are hidden in our minds by different conditioning factors that can be uncovered by engaging in freewriting. Our thoughts weave a tangled web, and when one part of the web is shaken, another part will often move and make itself apparent in ways we never noticed. This takes practice. Without practice, freewriting and other brain hacks like it can feel very awkward and scary – there is nowhere to hide when you confront your own thoughts.

My favorite way to confront myself – this is the way I approach freewriting – is to work against a timer and pour out my heart and soul. I race to get everything on the page while staring off, Ray Charles like, to ignore the editing marks that scratch against my mind. It doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks when I am in this zone, because I am doing what I love for myself, and to see if there is anything I need to work on regarding my thought processes. 

I actually wrote that last paragraph freewriting.

I’ll give you another practical example of freewriting in action this week. I first chose to let my thoughts wander over an interview that I was scheduled for on Friday, giving myself just three minutes (the interview was for a social media position with a PR firm in the suburbs.)

Throughout the week before sitting down on my couch to write this piece, I had been pulling out all the stops to make sure that my interview would be a success. But while I think that I have been doing everything I can to be ready for my big interview, that is not to say that I have no fears or am not nervous. These fears clearly came out in my writing. I might not have realized these and known to address them if I had not engaged in freewriting.

Cool, but for some people this is easier said than done. How can I actually do it?

Here are five major tips tips that will get you freewriting today.

1. Try easy. Don’t reach for very complicated language or try to be clever. Just be yourself.

2. Write quickly and continuously. No slowing down or fixing your mistakes. Try to look away from the computer screen or paper while you’re writing and just push yourself to go as quickly as it takes for words to flow without thought.  

3. Work against a time limit. Setting a time limit introduces an element of discipline to our writing that does not interfere with our creativity. Time limits also subconsciously push us to produce more than we might have otherwise. I suggest starting with 3 minutes. Levy says we try a marathon session of 7-8 hours, which I think is just a tad sadomasochistic, but to each their own.

4. Write the way you think. Just write whatever you are thinking immediately on the page. This will prove invaluable in uncovering your thought processes.

5. Go with the thought. Don’t stop to think about how something could sound better if worded differently. You can always go back and edit your work later. The point with this brain hack is to be spontaneous, not methodical. Don't worry about your mind wandering off if a thought becomes exhausted. Getting lost is fine with freewriting!

What topics should I start off with? 

You might want to try any of the following themes:

1. Pick a point and go the opposite direction.

2. What if _____ weren’t important at all?

3. If I weren’t at my job now, I would be …

4. If I hadn’t studied ______ in undergrad, I would have / could have …

5. If I were in the world’s best ______ that would mean …

6. If I were the world’s best ______ that would look like …

7. If my colleagues already believed in my plan …

8. This might sound crazy, but I would be 500% more productive if …

Great, but what do I do with this now?

With any luck, you've written some great ideas that you might not have thought about before. Repeat exercises, review ideas, rinse off writer's block. 

Aatif Bokhari is a social media specialist. You can find him on LinkedIn at and Twitter at @aatifbokhari.


  1. Here's an interesting article that relates to this topic: