The 6 Best Tools For Creative Work, According To Science

Connecting our minds and bodies—by sleeping, stepping away from the keyboard, and breaking a sweat—might be the best way to get through a creative block.

I’d love to have a toolkit that promised me great, creative ideas every time I sat down to work. Obviously that’s not going to happen—creativity doesn’t come from tools.

But luckily there are some tools that can improve our chances of working creatively. According to research, these six tools can help inspire your next big idea:

1. Write Faster And Strengthen Your Memories By Using a Pen and Paper

Even if you’re not a fan of analog tools, you might be surprised to know there are some proven benefits to going back to basics. Although technology continues to improve, it still hurts our eyes to look at it for too long.

When compared to paper, reading or writing on a screen requires more effort and makes us tired faster. Even expert writers have been shown to write 50% slower when using a computer, compared to paper.

Lots of studies have compared reading and writing on screens and on paper over the past 30 years, looking at metrics like comprehension, speed, and accuracy. The general consensus remains that paper holds an advantage.

Writing by hand with a pen or pencil has some surprising benefits, too. For both children and adults, writing on paper has been shown to improve the strength and length of memories of new shapes, such as symbols used in music or the letters of a new language. It also uses more of the brain, as you need to make several strokes for each letter, so your working memory gets activated, as well as brain areas used for thinking and language. On a keyboard, one tap creates an entire letter, so your relationship with making the letter is shorter and more superficial.

2. A messy desk to explore new ideas

I prefer having a clean, tidy space to work in but research suggests I should get comfortable with disorder if I want to be more creative.

A 2013 study published in the Psychological Science journal found that a messy environment increases creative thinking. The study’s “messy room” also made participants more drawn to new things. The same study found that an orderly environment led participants to be drawn to “classic” items and to choose healthier snacks than those in the messy environment.

In one of my favorite talks about creativity, John Cleese makes a great analogy, saying that creativity is like a tortoise: It pokes its head out nervously to ensure the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Creative thinking won't happen when you're nervous, stressed, or busy.

If you have a messy, disorderly space for your creative work, having it removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life could be helpful. Cleese explains in his talk that your creativity “tortoise” will learn to recognize your creative space over time as a safe haven where it can emerge.

3. A notebook to catalog ideas as they come

We all know a big part of creativity is coming up with new ideas. James Webb Young explores this process in his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, in which he describes two principles of producing ideas:

  • An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.
  • The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Although finding relationships is an important part of producing ideas, we can’t do that until our brain is full of existing elements to connect together. This is where the notebook comes in.

As Young points out, we often shirk the responsibility of building up this mental inventory, and wonder why we struggle to find new ideas. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material, we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.

To grease the wheels of creativity, we need to collect bits of information and observations so our brain has material to work with. Young suggests using index cards, which will force you to be concise in your notes, or a file so you can index everything and find it all again later.

This process helps to kickstart creative thinking in our subconscious, which is part of the series of brain states and processes that lead to a final “Aha! moment.

The other thing to use your notebook for is writing down your ideas—good and bad. Studies from both MIT and the University of California Davis have shown that having more bad ideas also means you’ll be likely to have more good ideas.

4. A pair of running shoes to spark Divergent Thinking

If you’re not a fan of running, don’t worry: you can replace “running shoes” with bicycle or weights or tennis racket if you like. The point is that exercise of some kind can lead to a boost in creativity.

Studies have shown that exercise can improve our ability to think creatively. Divergent thinking, in particular—that is, thinking of more possibilities for a certain set of circumstances—was improved by exercise in a study where half the participants exercised before completing a creative-thinking task.

5. A pair of headphones to create ambient noise for concentration

Whether you’re working in an office, a coffee shop, or your living room, a pair of headphones can be handy when you’re trying to access that oh-so-elusive state of mind. You won’t want to crank the volume up, though.

Research from the University of Chicago shows that ambient noise at a moderate level is the best sound environment for creative work. Although silence can be just what we need when we’re concentrating on a difficult task, ambient noise will get our creative juices flowing and open us up to new ideas.

While moderate noise levels do increase the effort required for us to process thoughts, this is beneficial because it promotes abstract processing, which increases our ability to come up with new ideas. Once the noise levels get too high, we lose this advantage to pure distraction as our brains get overwhelmed.

6. A comfy chair for brief but inspiring naps

Here’s a fact about creativity that really surprised me: you may have some of your best ideas when you’re sleepy. You know that dozy feeling when you accidentally nod off and then shake yourself awake? That period of coming out of sleep is known as the hypnopompic state, and often happens as we come out of the dreaming stage of sleep, called REM.

The cool part of this is that you can bring on the hypnopompic state to help you access those crazy connections and scenarios that your subconscious throws into dreams. Salvador Dali even did this to help him generate creative ideas for his paintings.

A chair works best for this, and you’ll need a plate and spoon handy. Sit in the chair, and rest your arm over the side, holding the spoon. Put the plate on the floor under the spoon and let yourself drift off for a nap. As you fall asleep, you’ll drop the spoon onto the plate, making a noise to wake you up. If all goes well, you’ll have the lingering images from the start of your dream state to help you conjure up new ideas.

This one may take some practice to get right—I haven’t quite perfected it yet.

What other tools do you use in your creative work that everyone should have?

[Image: Flickr user Ed Schipul]

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8 Comments

  • "write faster and strengthen your memories by using a pen and paper"

    Some of us write much faster withy a keyboard. Some of us get writer's cramp using pen and paper.

    Let's just go with "strengthen memories by writing..."

  • Gretta Wing Miller

    When I'm trying to figure out a scene (I'm a documentary video editor), I get my best inspirations lying in a hot bath with my ears under the water. Combination of sleepy, ambient sound, and hot water: perfect!

  • Great list, thanks! Regarding point #5 (optimized ambient noise), I've fallen in love with Coffitivity, which perfectly tunes out coworkers' conversations while providing that mental buzz.

  • Robb Overholt

    Great list... I find a hot shower helps spark great ideas too. All in all, I agree with Melissa's comment above... need more science to inform the art of follow through. The concrete is what often crushes my brain.

  • I agree with the hot shower method, I find myself rambling so many times there. I think it's because a warm shower is just so relaxing! www.madelienerose.com

  • Klarque Garrison

    Great ideas! I'll certainly have to experiment with a few i don't do regularly...

  • Solid tips. I use a lot of this--exercise, notebook, pen and paper--in my daily life. In my experience, this stuff is most useful when you have a specific problem to solve, big or small, and you need to spark creative thinking and jolt yourself into "divergent thinking."

    Personally, creative thinking and coming up with new ideas isn't my biggest challenge. I struggle more with follow-through and focusing on next steps once I GET the big ideas. In other words, it's the concrete thinking, rather than the creative thinking, that trips me up. I wonder how many people share my challenge, and what science has to offer us?