Whatever industry you’re working in, as a freelancer there are going to be times when you experience creative droughts. After all, even the most prolific writer or artist struggles to produce worthwhile ideas on a semi-regular basis. It’s frustrating, but it’s true.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t reduce the length and significance of your creative droughts, however. It all comes down to honing your working process — and, in the digital era, how you take advantage of the online world will heavily shape your success. In particular, you should focus on using the right digital tools and conducting effective research.

In this article, we’re going to look at how you can achieve this. We’ll consider how the creative process works, detail how digital tools (both hardware and software) can support it, and cover the significance of learning how to carry out proper research. Let’s get started.

Examining the creative process (and its limitations)

Before we can delve deeply into the matter of aiding the creative process, we should ruminate on the nature of that process. This is because it’s often misunderstood and misframed, even by the people who rely on it — and if you don’t know how something works, you’ll inevitably struggle to improve it. So how do we come up with fresh ideas?

The most common perception of creativity is that it’s fundamentally about innovation — coming up with notions that haven’t been used before. 

This is untrue. When you dig into ideation, you soon reach the conclusion that there are no new tactics. Whatever you can put together will certainly have been imagined before, most likely on many occasions.

Creativity doesn’t lie in having new ideas. It lies in taking old ideas and bringing them together in fresh ways, or in using established methods in unprecedented applications. A writer needn’t invent words to create something unique. They can borrow all their words and constructions from legacy literature, then redeploy those elements as they see fit.

The creative process isn’t as mystical as it can seem.

Image credit: Pexels

Very occasionally there will be a true lightbulb moment in which a creative type spots a connection that no one previously noticed, but even that is unusually dramatic. Creativity is often the result of consistent exertion. Keep trying, keep thinking, and keep generating options no matter how bad they are. Sooner or later you’ll happen upon something good.

This makes the limitations of creativity quite clear, though. When things aren’t working, you don’t have the luxury of shrugging your shoulders and blaming it on your lack of a muse. Additionally, you can’t just sequester yourself in a room somewhere and expect to spontaneously generate ideas worth the time and effort. To do so is to starve yourself of the required fuel.

The role of digital tools in modern productivity

Now that we’ve looked into the creative process, we can proceed with the heart of the piece.

First up is the role of digital tools in enabling and enhancing general productivity: for reasons we just looked at, there isn’t much to distinguish the creative process from the regular process of getting work done. It’s still application and dedication (just more open-ended).

There are two particular things that get in the way: the slow process of getting ideas down, and the tendency of general drudgery to distract from the central task. Digital tools allow us to address these issues and diminish their influence. Let’s look at them in turn:

Parsing and recording your thoughts

When you’re concentrating on being creative and inspiration strikes, you need to make the most of it, and that means recording it for posterity, assessment, and presentation. Before the personal computer was mainstream, that meant a lot of handwritten notes and photocopies. Things are faster now.

With a fast laptop at your fingertips wherever you go, equipped with a solid microphone and a comfortable keyboard, you can get your thoughts down very quickly and share them with ease. This is particularly essential if you engage in a lot of creative collaboration (something that’s currently likely to be handled at a distance).

Smartphones allow you to take notes anywhere.

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You can also draw upon cloud storage solutions to ensure that you have access to your notes and files wherever you go. Tools like Google Keep and Microsoft OneNote are hugely valuable for creatives who come up with ideas at odd times: if you have a great idea while you’re out for a walk, waiting in line somewhere, or even relaxing in bed, you can quickly log it on your smartphone.

Maximising the time spent on ideation

The creative process gets markedly harder when you keep getting distracted by other things. There’s a certain level of focus that makes it easier for creativity to spring forth, after all, and it’s hard to maintain it. Admin tasks are particularly frustrating (yet abundant).

The rise of automation processes is increasingly making it easier to focus on core goals. Even the most dedicated creatives always have basic tasks to do, whether they’re sending out update emails or providing approval for other pieces of work. The existence of general-purpose automation tools like Zapier (and task-management tools) allows you to get ahead if you can take advantage.

Which digital tools should you use?

The question, then, is which digital tools you should draw upon to help you be as creative as possible in your freelance work. In addition to those already mentioned, here are some decent suggestions:

A fast and robust laptop

A high-end laptop is a big expense, but it’s clearly worthwhile when you factor in the time you’ll save from not needing to wait for pages to load and apps to open. You also need something you can take wherever you go so you’re always in a position to make the most of any ideas that come your way. Look for something with great build quality: Apple devices, in particular, hold up well over time.

Consider that you don’t need to spend a huge sum of money, though, particularly if you buy a refurbished machine. For instance, there’s a lot of appeal to buying a used MacBook (though always double-check the details before investing). If you have a hefty budget, however, then just go for the best business machine you can find.

A convenient time-tracker

If you stare at a screen for hours on end, your ability to think effectively will severely degrade. This is why apps drawing upon the Pomodoro system (a technique for working in productive bursts) have become so popular in recent years — there are plenty of options on the market.

In addition to distributing time in that way, it’s important to know how long you’ve spent on any given task. Instead of hammering away at a single high-value task, the average creative professional will need to complete various tasks, each one getting an appropriate amount of time (and no more).

Image credit: HourStack

Tools like Toggl Track and HourStack (see above) can show you precisely where your time is going, allowing you to make appropriate adjustments to ensure that your creative energy is being directed well. You don’t need to track absolutely everything, but you may find it useful to do so and it can help you to get into a good routine with your freelance work.

A set of strong asset libraries

Turning ideas into creative assets can often require further creative work if you’re doing everything manually — and that additional work can slow things down if it doesn’t fit your unique set of skills. Take something like an infographic, for instance. You can come up with the concept and the copy, but you still need to produce the necessary graphics.

Drawing upon asset libraries will save you a great deal of time. Instead of drawing new icons, you can adapt existing ones to suit your needs. It doesn’t matter if you use numerous old assets: what matters is what you do with them.

Why research is more important than ever before

Ever since the advent of the internet, access to information has become steadily faster, easier, and more comprehensive. The database of the online world continues to grow, and it isn’t just filling up with facts and figures: it’s also rich with guides of all shapes and sizes, ranging from step-by-step video tutorials to rich analytical podcasts.

Image credit: Pxfuel

This is pertinent to creativity for various reasons, but the biggest is that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether directly or indirectly, you’re always up against the competition when you’re trying to devise new ideas — and you’re facing off against people who are using the immense resources of the online world to get the raw resources needed for high-level creativity.

In short, then, failing to research will leave you at a distinct disadvantage. You won’t know what other people are doing, which methods have already been tried and discarded, and what new technologies lie just over the horizon. Only by paying close attention to what’s going on can you become confident that your plans aren’t going to quickly be rendered obsolete.

How should you approach creative research?

With all that said, you should appreciate the value of creative research — but how do you manage it? Let’s take a look at some tips for achieving some efficient and effective research:

Use content search software

What better way to get inspired than by reading through the vast pool of content already available online? 

The trouble is that trawling through sites manually takes a long time and can scatter your attention. Content search tools, though (with some examples here), can help you categorise articles and figure out what elements they share — and what issues they’ve failed to address.

You can then shape your content to fill the notable gaps and succeed where existing content is failing to deliver. Pay particular attention to the content that’s already ranking and performing very highly: that’s the level you want to reach. Using the skyscraper technique of slightly iterating on the market leaders, you can reliably get ahead.

Look for things you love or hate 

Inspiration doesn’t stem from apathy. It comes from powerful reactions, whether they’re positive or negative, so you should focus on finding things that push your buttons. If you read a piece that’s profoundly impressive, it can push you to get better in an effort to come close to meeting that level of quality.

If you read something horrible, you can get to work puzzling through what exactly makes it so bad. What was the intent? Where did things go so wrong? You might find that putting some time into this type of analysis leaves you much more certain of what elements should go into your work.

Get a read on public opinion

Creativity generally serves a purpose beyond satisfying your desire to create and producing something that makes you proud. 

To be specific, it usually needs to be commercially viable. A creative professional must meet the needs of whichever person or organisation is funding a given project — so popularity matters.

Take to social media to see what types of content are being shared by people you’d like to reach with your creative work. You might pick up an underlying theme that’s really resonating, sparking some related ideas. At a minimum, you can point your creative mind in the right direction, allowing you to work with greater precision.

Wrapping up

In this piece, we’ve looked at the steady nature of the creative process and explored how the digital world can support it through the smart use of hardware, software, and online research methods. If you’re serious about improving your creative output as a freelancer, learn from the insights we’ve covered here. It should help you significantly boost your productivity.