Posted by: projectsinpractice | July 7, 2012

Hacking into Motivation and Creativity

Teresa here: One of my ideas of bliss is the deep concentration that happens when I’m completely engrossed in a creative endeavor. That activity can be anything from planning a new project, designing a service delivery program, or writing a story, to even just compiling a report or developing a presentation. Such total engagement is intoxicating, not to mention immensely efficient for accomplishing any task that calls for design or development.

However, sometimes the road to that level of concentration and creativity is significantly blocked.

In fact, even now, you or one of your project’s team members might find yourself stuck in an activity, not making sufficient progress. Here are five ideas for “hacking” into the brain to break free the flow of motivation and inherent creativity.

Hack #1. Just Do One Thing.

Perhaps you’re facing a task that requires that you be creative, smart, decisive, or all of these at the same time. Instead, unfortunately, you’re feeling dull, tired, or uninspired.

You can trick yourself into making some kind of progress by giving yourself just one thing to do, something very easy.

Of course, that one simple thing depends on the task. You might need to review a document, set up some files, find some email addresses, whatever. Most tasks include doing some important but relatively mindless things. Use these to trick yourself into making incremental progress. This has a side benefit of getting your mind in the place it needs to be. Once you’re there, you might find other easy things to do. The more you do, the more you find to do. Some of the difficult aspects of the task will no longer seem so difficult.

Recently I was faced with writing a grant proposal and the non-negotiable deadline was fast approaching. I was dead-tired, but I forced myself to sit down and just do one thing. The one thing I chose was to fill in the cover form with the basics of the nonprofit organization and the project; stuff I could do with very little thought. After filling in the form, I was sufficiently warmed up and felt that I could handle answering some of the easy questions about the project. After that I was completely engaged and suddenly wide awake. Ninety minutes later, I realized that I had written most of the proposal.

Doing just one thing can be motivational when you’re feeling unmotivated.

Hack #2. Brainstorm.

Unlike the case in Hack #1, maybe you actually have the energy and inspiration to move forward with the task, but you don’t quite know how to start. Brainstorming, even by yourself, is a great tool for getting ideas going. You release the pressure to produce anything finished. Instead, you might create a mind map, write some random notes, jot a list, or even just doodle.

With brainstorming, you’ve shown up ready to work. However, there’s no pressure. You’re not demanding that you produce a finished project, at least not yet.

I was part of a project in which my assignment was to write a series of Web articles about moving: buying and selling a house, packing and moving, and so on. I found I was most effective when I would start writing about what I was going to write about. My brainstorming took a form almost like journaling: “I want to talk about how to declutter your house (and I’m a fine one to talk!) before putting it up for sale. This will also help when you’re starting to pack. Moving will be so much easier, blah blah blah.” By the time I was done writing about what I was writing about, I found I had worked out a story line to the article and had fleshed out the main points. I could then establish the article’s structure, cut and paste the brainstormed content into their proper places, and then draft the actual article.

Brainstorming helps you focus on the heart of what you’re working on, laying the groundwork for the actual deliverable.

Hack #3. Stew About It.

Creativity, innovation, design, and development take time. When you’re having trouble with an activity, actually schedule time in your calendar to sit with the problem or the activity.

And you might not just sit. I get my best ideas while driving. Bonnie gets hers while walking her dogs. My husband gets his best ideas in the shower (I know there’s a joke in there somewhere…).

Give yourself permission to ponder the problem. Once you give an idea enough time to gestate, the results will bear fruit soon enough.

In the course of the stewing, you might do Hack #2, Brainstorm, or Hack #1, Just Do One Thing. Or you might just sit there and daydream. However you use the time, it’ll be productive for the task in the long run.

Hack #4. Give Your Mind an Assignment.

I learned this trick years ago from an engineer I worked with on a contract at Boeing. She said that when she has a sticky problem to solve or an approach to a project to work out, she gives her mind an assignment just before she falls asleep. She purposefully thinks about the conditions of the problem or project, including her questions. Then she sleeps and allows her unconscious mind to work on its assignment. Invariably, in the morning, the right solution or approach comes to her as a new idea.

I’ve tried this trick, and it works astoundingly well. It’s kind of like Hack #3, Stew About It, except that you’re sleeping while stewing.

Hack #5. Get Some Rest.

When we’re feeling too overwhelmed or uninspired to work on a difficult task, sometimes the solution is as simple as getting some sleep. Many times I’ve worked on a project late at night, feeling increasingly that the current task was overly difficult or even incomprehensible. I’d finally give up and go to sleep.

In the morning, I’d return to the task, and suddenly it was all too easy. What changed? It could be that my brain continued working on it, as in Hack #4, Give Your Mind an Assignment. It could also be that I really was too tired to deal with it, and now I was approaching the task with a fresh, well-rested mind.

A Final Word

You see that these five hacks are all somewhat related. They all have to do with relieving some of the pressure and letting your mind do what it does to work on the activity. And these aren’t just means for “gaining unauthorized access” into your motivation and creativity. You might find they’re actually magic tricks that give you an abracadabra moment, allowing you to conjure something out of seemingly nothing.

Read more about working with your team during project execution in “Making Things Happen,” in Chapter 14 as well as in Chapter 16, “Transforming People into a Team” in Your Project Management Coach.

Talk back: What tricks or hacks do you use to motivate creativity in your team members or in yourself?



  1. Well done Teresa and Bonnie. This looks like a most useful little blog, and one that I will return to again I have no doubt, to read up more about projects and practice. Thanks for making some of these blog entries public. Looking forward a great deal to studying them. Regards, BOH.

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