Try This Fun Strategy To Get Unstuck At Work

I recently attended a figure drawing class as a form of professional development. I took it not because I aspire to draw naked ladies for a living (though that would be fun), but specifically because I'm not an artist.

Prior to signing up, I’d been grappling with the inner critic in my professional life. As I’ve seen with many of my female clients, too often I was hearing that critical voice in my head. It told me that, despite professional successes, I wasn’t good enough, that there were experts who knew more and that I needed to try harder. I knew from experience that hearing this voice on repeat was a form of perfectionism.

Both as a professional and an entrepreneur, I spend most of my time striving to do my best and achieve success, and helping others do the same. Signing up for the drawing class felt cathartic, since what I would learn in the course didn’t matter at all in my real life. I wasn’t trying to get good at drawing, so there was no pressure to strive for perfection. I suspected that taking this approach toward drawing might help me get unstuck professionally as well.

Einstein was all about this approach. He referred to it as combinatory play, which he defines as the “act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another”. He was famous for playing the violin to get a new perspective on math problems. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes.”

Einstein was all about this approach. He referred to it as combinatory play, which he defines as the “act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another”. He was famous for playing the violin to get a new perspective on math problems. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes.”

Getting completely outside of the work that matters to you – and focusing on something that doesn’t – can help you hear the stories you tell yourself and develop the skills to manage them.

Just because the inner critic is talking doesn’t mean you have to listen.

My classmates in this drawing workshop regularly took art classes at a place called “The Academy”, and one woman was studying to draw anatomy for medical textbooks. I, on the other hand, hadn’t meaningfully undertaken an art project since freshman year of college. Clearly, I was way out of my league. My inner critic was screaming, “You don’t belong here!” I had to come back to my intention: I'm not trying to be an artist or even get better at drawing, I'm trying to learn about myself.

As author and coach Tara Mohr writes in her book Playing Big , we hone our “critical thinking” skills in academia, but then those tools for grappling with real world problems can turn inward and inhibit our ability to take risks or put ourselves out there. This is especially true for women. As Mohr describes it, “You simply need to learn how to live with the inner voice of self-doubt but not be held back by it, to hear the voice and not take direction from it.”

One of the strategies Mohr suggests is catastrophizing, considering the worst thing that could realistically happen.

In my drawing class, I’d tell myself, “This isn’t even low stakes, it’s zero stakes. Realistically, even if I draw the worst rendition of a human being that’s ever been drawn, how will it actually impact my life?” I figured it might feel moderately uncomfortable to have other students see my piece. I knew my pride could handle it.

Consider what resonates and what you can translate into your work.

Once I recognized the inner critic and distanced myself from his unrelenting, cynical feedback, I was able to pay attention to the instructor. She talked about starting with the large shapes and moving your focus around on the page. She suggested that rather than giving laser-like attention to the details of the model’s hand, make some rough sketches about the shape of the torso.

This little nugget has been invaluable in helping me get closer to the free, uninhibited flow of ideas. For example, I’m not looking to perfect every sentence as I write the first draft of this article. I’ve been reminding myself that it’s actually healthy to let there be typos and fragments in round one. I’m trying to get the general idea of the article out of my head and into the computer organically. Writing has become both more efficient and more pleasant as a result of this new perspective.

The sense of spaciousness I found from drawing can come from any new activity that excites you and has no impact on your career. As long as the stakes are low, you can tap into this other part of your brain, so consider learning a new language, making fancy cheeses, or trying your hand at parasailing.

By the end of my figure drawing class, my final sketch looked more like a genie materializing than a human being with legs. That said, I left having achieved my goal: I felt unstuck, had a great chat with my inner critic about perfectionism and developed new strategies for approaching my work. Success!

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.