Sophie Johnson writes:

I spent 10 weeks in Australia when I was 21 and alongside the many wonderful places I visited and experiences I had, I collected many free postcards on my travels (is that still a thing? The world seemed full of funky free postcards when I was a student!).

One of them said on the front, ‘Only boring people get bored’, and that thought has stuck with me ever since. That is not to say that I haven’t been at a loose end from time to time, but lately I have found that there is so much that I want to do that there are no longer enough hours in the day.

What’s that got to do with anyone else? …you may be thinking. Well, the thing is that if your job has a creative element to it, you will spend quite a large part of your day being expected to have ideas and solve problems. This is a wonderful way to spend your time, but what do you do when you get stuck, hit a brick wall or run out of juice?

These are my top ten recommendations of how to find inspiration on an ongoing basis. It’s a bit like always remembering to put some petrol in your tank. You might not need it right at this very moment, but if you keep topping your mind up with new experiences and pieces of knowledge, you’ll have a big tankful ready when you need it.

1. Do a MOOC.

…not least because it sounds like a cow with hiccups. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses and they are one of my favourite ever discoveries. The ones I enroll for are provided by Future Learn. Basically, universities and other large educational institutions (such as the National Film and Television School) provide free courses which can be a taster for people who have not studied at degree level to see if they fancy it, and to get a flavour of the university’s (or other institution in question) teaching style. They run for either a few weeks or a few months, and will only take a couple of hours of your time per week, unless you want to delve deeper into the subject and do additional reading or research. It’s entirely up to you because it’s free and the course is generally available online for an extended period of time, so it doesn’t matter if you sign up late or fall behind. You can catch up in your own time.

When I’ve been commuting I’ve done a lot of my studying on the train. And when I’ve been working from home I’ve done it while waiting for more work to come in or in the evening if the TV’s really rubbish.

The courses tend to have multiple choice questions at the end of each week to check how much you’ve learned, and/or other assignments which can be shared with the lecturers and other students on the course for feedback and discussion. At every stage of the course you can post comments and thoughts on what you’ve learned.

You can also get a certificate called a ‘statement of participation’. These are rather nice, they don’t cost much (about £30) and can prove to anyone who doesn’t believe you that you have done it (they won’t issue a certificate until you have completed the majority of the course, so you can’t cheat).

The first course I took was with Prof Peter Kinderman of the University of Liverpool and it was “Psychology – beyond nature and nurture”. The wonderful thing about it was that not only did I LOVE the whole course and rekindle my love affair with psychology (Kinderman was really responsive to tweets, too, which was a great way to motivate me as a born again student) the course also provided evidence that learning new things was great for mental health, so I have added lifelong studying to ways of enjoying life, along with going for walks, getting enough sleep, etc.

If you go to the Future Learn homepage, you will see that there are dozens of courses you can browse, and they’re adding more and more courses all the time. You can learn the basics about coding, film-making, even learn some Dutch! There’s a huge range of subjects.

2. Read an autobiography

I used to think that non-fiction was a bit boring before I read a few autobiographies. I like ones by comedians, musicians, journalists, that sort of thing. The ones I like best are the ones where you can hear the voice of the person in your head because it’s written in exactly the way that they speak.

Autobiographies are a really engaging way to learn about recent history and politics… all sorts of little gems and nuggets of information can be found in them. Just pick up one by someone you admire and see what new things you discover.

3. Go for a walk

Simple. Cheap. No preparation. The best solution to everything ever in my opinion. Whether you’re in the middle of a city or out in the countryside it just works. Sometimes if I’ve been staring at a screen for too long I get this build-up of what feels like white noise in my brain. It almost hurts. I need to get away from technology and walk it off. Sometimes I’m sitting around waiting for something to happen, getting impatient. I go for a walk for half an hour or so and invariably a solution pops up. Either in my own head or an email has arrived in my inbox or a tweet… It’s uncanny, but when I go for a walk something always happens. I see something I’ve never seen before and have to try and get a picture of it on my phone, I bump into someone I haven’t seen for ages… it’s amazing. 

4. Listen to music

Sometimes I grind to a halt. I get distracted. Even the very presence of someone else in the room, even if they kept completely still and made no noise whatsoever, they are stopping my flow (man). Yes, sometimes you need someone to bounce ideas off but other times you need to work alone. If they won’t go away, or it would be impractical to ask them to leave (you’re in an open plan office for example), try some music. It needs to be the right music for you or it will just annoy you and distract you more. It can’t intrude, it must facilitate. This type of music will differ from one person to the next so I won’t suggest any particular genres. Playing music is always controversial. Some people love it, some hate it, so you may need a good pair of headphones. Get massive, luminous ones if you really need to be left alone by other people. Hopefully no one will tap you on the shoulder or loiter at your side, unless the building’s on fire.

5. Go to a good quality stage production

I didn’t use to think I like theatre as much as film, but now I know better. There can be few greater problem solvers than people who build stages, provide the lighting, music, costumes, choreography, etc, of theatre productions. Say the playwright has decided to set the action in Saigon one minute, in a desert the next, then the characters are on a boat, then they’re in a cemetery… I love seeing how the stage changes to transport the action to different settings. If it’s done well.

6. Read fiction

No matter how many books you read, you can never run out! Isn’t that fantastic? But you can also re-read books you love and enjoy them all over again. You can read them at different points in your life and find different resonances, different interpretations, different levels of understanding. Fiction writers create worlds we can escape to and enrich every day life, filling it with new colours and new possibilities.

7. Have a creative project on the go in your spare time

You’re a creative person, yeah? So don’t just use your creative muscle when you’re at work. Do it for yourself. I always wanted to be able to write fiction. Problem is, I got stuck when it came to plots. I would have a little snippet of an idea, think, hmmm that’s really interesting, but not sure where to go next with that. So now I’m writing a novel with three other people. We write a paragraph(ish) then pass it on to the next person. I’m excited. I thought I couldn’t write plots, but now I’ve just solved a problem that I originally created in the plot line because I have been working in a team who have developed it with me. It’s one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

8. Watch a film

One of the MOOCs I did recently was called ‘Explore Film’ with the National Film and Television School. It was incredible. It taught me how to watch pretty much any film (or television drama) and think about every aspect of it. Every shot has been considered in so much detail (at least it should have been). Nothing is there by chance. How the shot is framed, how a room is decorated and furnished, what the characters are wearing, the angle they’re filmed from, the sounds we can hear, the use of colour or lack of it. You can dive into a film any time of the day or night.

9. Visit a website that always posts interesting things

I have a couple of favourites, such as thisiscolossal.com or ffffound. I used to use stumbleupon a lot but I’m not sure if it’s still as good as it used to be. Ask other creative people which websites they find inspiring and give them a whirl. And please tell me if you know any excellent ones I haven’t found yet. Instagram and pinterest can be great, too.

10. Do absolutely nothing

Find a quiet room and recline on a comfy sofa, or a seat in an empty garden, or sit under a tree in a park and do absolutely nothing for a bit. Don’t look at your phone; switch it to silent for 15 minutes and put it away. Lock it in your desk drawer if you can’t trust yourself to leave it alone. If you feel bored at first, then good. Just let thoughts arrive. After a few minutes, you will probably get an idea. It might be completely random, like, “I need to buy some novelty rubber ducks to put next to my bath.” It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s been lurking for ages waiting for you to stop distracting yourself with your work and your social life and all the other things you do to drown out the little things you don’t normally make time for. Maybe you’ll start thinking about your mum and decide it’s about time you called her or sent her a message to see how she is.

So there you are. My top ten of ways to get inspired. I hope you like them. Let me know if you’ve got others that you think should be in everyone’s top ten that I’ve missed.

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