Creativity can be as elusive as it is rewarding. Inspiration usually lies just beyond the intellect’s reach, sparking our best work and sneaking away when we need it most—right before that big deadline.
Our daily routines can either nurture or hold back our creativity. With a little practice, you can get into habits that ignite your imagination more often.
Creative people typically fall into one of two categories: late to sleep or early to rise. When Mason Currey researched his book, Daily Rituals, he found that one-third of the 161 notable artists he researched got up before 7 a.m. Tony Morrison, Anaïs Nin, and Frank Lloyd Wright fit into this camp, digging into their creative endeavors first thing. Picasso and Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, preferred to burn the midnight oil.
If you have a day job, it may be hard to work from midnight to dawn like Kerouac, but you could give it a shot. Whatever you do, it’s important to find your ideal creative time and stick to it. Pick the hours when your energy is high and distractions are minimal, and give your creative work undivided attention for that block of time.
Every day, creators of various stripes get up and jot down stream-of-consciousness thoughts until they’ve filled three pages. As Julie Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, explains, “These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing.” Rather, Cameron says, they “map our own interior,” mucking through the thoughts that “stand between you and your creativity.” The habit isn’t just for writers, either. Artists, playwrights, actors, painters, and others all use this simple routine to invigorate their creativity before they start their days.
The emergence of open-office plans in recent years has left the impression that collaboration is the root of all innovation. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Open-office plans typically lead to increased distraction and diffused focus. True creative work requires what one writer calls a “fertile solitude” that sharpens your attention rather than divides it. When you want to foster creativity, go solo. Carve out some time to commune with your thoughts without other voices getting in the way. Whatever your artistic pursuit, solitude should be a part of it.
Most creatives take some time to loosen up and get the juices flowing. Singers will stretch their vocal chords with scales, and musicians will tune their instruments. Chris Ofili, a British artist starts his work the same way every day. As a New York Times profile explains, “First, he tears a large sheet of paper, always the same size, into eight pieces, all about 6 by 9 inches. Then he loosens up with some pencil marks.” Warming up gives your mind the time to shift into a different state of being. If you’re a graphic designer, warming up may mean playing with your software for a few minutes before you dive into your work. Think of how you can ease into your creative time for optimal results.
John Grisham wrote his novels on a legal pad before his work day. Susan Sontag referred to them as “that fetish of American writers.” Write by hand when you can, if possible, with a legal pad, or at least some other large-format paper notebook. Author Patrick McLean says it best:
But there is obviously more to writing than typing. What I’m really doing is composing. Composition requires focus. It is, like most acts of creation, monotasking. And as much as I love technology, it drives us to distraction.
Composing by hand activates different parts of your brain that are otherwise untapped when you’re typing. If you’re a visual artist—especially one who works digitally—start sketching before you move to a digital medium. Plus, following in the footsteps of artistic masters might even make you feel like you’re scribbling in the pages of history.
A lot of creatives have a “someday” list. Someday, you will take a cooking class, learn calligraphy, or even write that novel. You relegate your most meaningful projects to the “Someday” list, where they wilt away as you cross off your more immediate tasks. Don’t let that happen. Plan to take just one week to get started on your “Someday” list before you switch to more practical tasks.
Charles Darwin rested on the couch and smoked a cigarette every day at 3:00 pm, and Mr. Rogers took a nap every afternoon. Why not take a siesta? Rest allows your creative juices to flow, rebooting your system for optimal performance. A NASA study revealed that a 26-minute nap can boost alertness by up to 54%. As more employers get on board with productivity-boosting measure, including naps, you’re more likely to find it encouraged in the workplace, too.
When Elizabeth Gilbert hit a slump writing her second memoir, Committed, she put away her draft and started digging. Gilbert immersed herself in the life of her garden, giving her manuscript the space it needed. The activity help restore her creative energy before returning to her project. Even if you live in an apartment, you can still grow a few plants or some herbs in pots. You might surprise yourself by finding creativity in your garden. As Claude Monet said: “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”
It’s hard to be creative when you’re pulled in too many directions. In order to create the space for creativity, you have to get comfortable saying “no” to distractions. As the Academy Award–winning actor, musician, and investor Jared Leto told Fast Company, “I never wanted to make the most movies, to make the most albums, so I like to employ the power of no. We all want to say yes, because with yes comes so much opportunity, but with the power of no comes focus and engagement.” Give yourself permission to say “no” to that commitment that will put you over the edge.
Daily exposure to other cultures cracks through the societal expectations that hold back our best creative work. Even if you can’t hit the road on a daily basis, you can still make an effort to connect with other cultures by visiting museums, reading translated literature, and learning other languages. Picasso’s regular visits to see African art in the Trocadéro Museum in Paris, for example, inspired him to create his first pieces of abstract art. Find inspiration by absorbing the world around you.
Creativity is a powerful part of personal and professional growth for everyone, even non-artists. By infusing our days with more creativity, we set a foundation for innovative thinking and brilliant collaboration. More of that can only be a good thing.
Chad Halvorson is the founder and CEO of When I Work. Chad has successfully built three multi-million dollar companies, all of which are still operating today. His current company, When I Work, is an employee scheduling app that more than 30,000 businesses and over half a million people rely on for employee scheduling, time clocks, and communication.