Have you ever been stuck? Didn’t know what to do or how to do it?

I was working on a growth strategy for a startup at the beginning of my entrepreneurial career. You could say the company was in the middle of a pivot. The team wasn’t big, but we had tons of ideas. The problem was that they were all over the place, fragmented. What should we do first? Why? What would have the biggest impact on the product and business right now and in the future?

This was something that dragged on for months. Not the ideal way to run a business. Fortunately, we knew enough while we were working on strategy in the background.

How did we find direction, then?

A walk in a park changed everything

My friend and I had agreed to spend a Saturday hiking. It was a beautiful natural park just an hour outside the city. We went shopping for food and water, planning our meals according to our hiking trail, weather and (lack of) facilities.

We arrived at the park. It was a beautiful day. I’d been to the park before, but there were several trails to take. And when do nature and fresh air become old anyway?

We picked up our backpacks from the car and disappeared into the woods. It didn’t take long for us to start reminiscing about how familiar it all felt. We had completed our compulsory military service together. If something is shared by all conscripts in Finland, it’s that you’ll be seeing your share of trees. If something was fun in service, but it wasn’t actually fun, conscripts called it “army fun”. Our hike definitely reminded us of “army fun”. This time we would get to enjoy nature and sweat a little with far less hierarchy and fewer commands.

It started raining at some point. It just put a smile on our faces. We had our raincoats with us. And it was warm summer rain anyway. Air becomes so sweet and fresh after the rain. We loved it. We bumped into two other hikers. They had set up camp. One of them looked miserable in her tent while the other tried to start a campfire. It was still raining. They had come from far away and she just wanted to roast some marshmallows. We blocked the rain with our raincoats. The miserable one smiled carefully as the fire kept going. It was time for us to return to our own adventure.  

We faced our own challenges too. We were getting hungry and needed to find our way to a campfire site with a roof over it. A lake happened. Without a map, it was difficult to decide the shortest way around it. By some force that recognizes what feeling a little peckish can do to grown men in the middle of a heroic journey, we chose well. We got the campfire started in no time. Sweet sustenance found its way into our systems. We were able to communicate with other hikers again.

It was dark as we reached the end of the trail. We packed our backpacks back into the car and drove back to the city. We stopped by a 24-hour McDonald’s. A worthy pitstop to debrief the day and pat each other on the back.

Encounters of the powerful kind

I arrived home at around 1 AM. I was in bed by 2 AM. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. By 3 AM it became obvious that my mind was trying to tell me something. It couldn’t shut up. It wasn’t the regular glimpses of cat videos, fast food and whatever played on the radio either. These were thought-out, concise ideas and concepts we were talking about here. I went to my computer and started writing. By 6 AM I had written almost 10 pages about growth strategy, including links and data. I couldn’t stop there, by 7 AM I had recorded and sent a 20-minute summary to my colleagues.

That manifesto became the foundation of the startup’s growth strategy for years to come. We came up with most of the ideas together. It was a team effort. There was simply value in someone seeing all the fragments and putting them together.

How to explain what happened? How was my creativity unlocked in such a way? Needless to say that, I had been completely disconnected from anything work-related. Better yet, I had been running on autopilot all day. The biggest problems I had to solve was watching my step and greeting other people. When I got back home, my mind must have seen an opportunity to get back to work. And work we did.

What did I learn from the experience

It was a turning point in how I approached creativity and solving problems. I started looking for ways to replicate what had happened. Today, I use three simple ways to unlock my creativity.

Get lost for a day. This is the technique I described above. I had been working on something with my teammates for months. Everything aligned in my mind after I disconnected for the day. You don’t have to go hiking of course. You can do anything that takes your mind off of the problem you’ve been working on. Some people do gardening. Some go fishing. Some paint. It needs to be an activity that allows you to set yourself on autopilot. Avoid heavy lifting with your brain.

Work during the week, and write the ideas down on the weekend. This technique is powerful because many of us work during the week and take the weekend off. You need to work on a problem as you normally would. The difference is that when the ideas come flooding on the weekend, you allow yourself to write them down. I know, I know, the weekend is your time. But it’s important that you take advantage of this burst of creativity. These are the ideas that propel you and your teammates forward come Monday. You’ll be like a rockstar. If you hate working on the weekend, it’s okay. When you unlock your creativity in this way, the ideas and solutions come flooding. It’s fast and it’s fun. It will only take a minute.

Think about it in the evening, write the ideas down in the morning. I’ve found that I’m most creative in the morning. That’s why I start writing immediately after getting out of bed. Anything that doesn’t need creativity would be wasting the best hours of my day. That’s why I stopped working out in the morning, for example. This was a welcome change. Exercising the first thing in the morning feels like it kills a part of you, doesn’t it? I also stay away from any and all messages and notifications. Benjamin P. Hardy has more on the topic in his 10-minute routine for increasing creativity and clarity.

I learned that the key to unlocking your creativity is to work on something and then giving your mind time and space to work it out. If you only keep working, you’ll end up banging your head against a wall.

How about you? Have you ever been stuck? How did you get your creative juices flowing?