How To Exercise Your Creative Muscle

The key to coming up with big ideas at work might be to let your creative side play in the off hours.

How To Exercise Your Creative Muscle
[Photo: Noah Skalin via Skull-A-Day]

On a chilly October Friday night, about 20 people gathered in my living room near the Jersey shore, listening author Kristin Ohlson talk about her book The Soil Will Save Us. Afterward, we disscussed everything from the impact of various farming methods on the environment to the challenges small farmers face in various economic climates.


I’ve now held three book salons in my home, inviting people I know and their friends to hear an author read from and then discuss his or her book. The conversation is lively and people share ideas freely, even if they don’t agree. Each salon has attracted a different crowd–many of whom wouldn’t have otherwise met–who become fast friends by the end of the evening.

I’ve noticed something else, too. In the days after the folding chairs are put away and the leftovers are eaten, I’m fired up. My work flows easier and I’m filled with ideas. I even pulled out my longstanding fiction work-in-progress and actually made some progress.

Building Creative Muscle

Jean Maginnis, founder and executive director of the Maine Center for Creativity in Portland, Maine, isn’t surprised by that. She says that many people who have achieved breakthrough accomplishments have a common denominator: They also engaged in creative expression, such as writing, painting, performing, or some other arts-related endeavor. Her organization worked with the University of Southern Maine to develop its curriculum that helps students build their own creative practices to improve their workplace performance and creativity.

“When you think about it, if you wanted to build your upper body, you’d do specific exercises. When you develop a practice of something, it gets stronger. When the micro does it, the macro gets affected by it, too,” she says.

In 2007, Noah Scalin felt “stuck” in his career as a commercial artist, running Another Limited Rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, when he says he had a random thought: I should create a skull a day. So, for a year, he drew skulls and also made them using everything from keyboard components to chopped onions.

It wasn’t easy, and at times he says he felt over his head. But his best work came during the second half of the project when it got hard to think of new ideas, he says. It taught him about how the process of creativity works.


“People who are creative don’t necessarily process how that works. Then you hit a roadblock and you think, ‘Oh no. Where did this magical thing go?’ A lot of us think creativity is a talent, where it’s really more of a skill,” he says.

The effort led to a successful Kickstarter-funded book project and a slew of new gigs as a speaker and corporate creativity consultant.

Creating Your Own Outlet

Both Maginnis and Scalin agree that even less rigorous creativity infusions can be important. So does Norfolk, Virginia freelance writer Jim Morrison, who has hosted house concerts for the past 13 years, after writing a story about one. He’s hosted Grammy winners as well as small indie bands–typically eight or nine a year. Attendees give a donation to the artist as compensation for performing. For someone whose commute consists of walking down a flight of stairs, the concerts are a welcome diversion.

“It’s definitely helped my business. It’s energizing. I get story ideas. I meet people and make contacts. And I’ve learned that you never know when people will say ‘Yes.’ You can’t be afraid to ask,” he says.

To reap that benefits in your own life, start with what you love, Maginnis says. Whether your chosen form of creative expression is cooking, gardening or the arts–look for a way to practice it regularly.

If you’re not sure where to start, she recommends starting with a notebook and jotting your ideas for a week. You may find some gems in the mix to give you ideas, she says.


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.