Scientific research has already uncovered some surprising facts about how creativity works. And this time of year especially, there’s ample advice out there for those looking to adopt new and better habits and keep their New Year’s resolutions going strong. The trouble is that much of that advice rests on carefully established routines–daily practices that some people just aren’t wired (or simply aren’t inclined) to stick with.
When it comes to creativity, though, a little less structure and predictability may actually work in your favor. Here’s a look at five habits to improve your creative chops, backed by scientific research, that don’t require committing to a specific daily practice.
Neuroscientist David Strayer loves to hike. Not only is it a good workout, but he also claims it restores his attention, invigorating high-level thinking. By allowing the brain to quiet down, “you let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you,” Strayer tells Outside. “It supports creativity, positive well-being, [and] reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”
Strayer’s clinical research supports these claims. A University of Kansas study he coauthored in 2012 found that people performed 50% better on creative and cognitive tasks after backpacking in nature (and disconnecting from technology) for four days.
And the great thing about experiencing nature–at least for those who resist daily routines–is that there are limitless ways to do it. You can pick a new outdoor activity each season or go down a different trailhead with every new excursion.
After a long day of writer’s block or poor creative teamwork, the cure may be decompressing with a drink at your local bar. According to a study published in Consciousness and Cognition, moderate intoxication (a blood alcohol level of 0.075–meaning just tipsy, not drunk) may improve problem-solving by leading to “sudden insights,” which the sober participants in the same study reported significantly less often.
So while these results haven’t been widely replicated, it can’t hurt to have a glass of wine after an unproductive workday; it just may get those creative juices flowing.
To be sure, the most creative people only procrastinate up to a point. If you do it too long, you’ll never get anything done. But there’s research to suggest that procrastinating just a little bit can actually improve your creative output.
In a well-known TED Talk, writer and researcher Adam Grant discusses procrastination in depth. He’s found that neither people who wait until the last minute nor those who finish projects early tend to perform at their creative bests. Instead, it’s those who moderately procrastinate that tend to outpace their peers on either extreme.
What’s that sweet spot, exactly? Unfortunately, it varies from one person to the next. But if you aren’t so keen on sticking to a rigid schedule, you may already have a leg up. Delaying action until sometime within the broad span between “right away” and “eleventh hour” may give you time to incubate, consider nonlinear ideas, and make unexpected connections.
Julia Cameron, the poet, screenwriter, creativity coach, and well-known author of the classic The Artist’s Way, has spent many years proselytizing the virtues of unstructured writing. She recommends writing as soon as you wake up in the morning, for at least three pages, and always by hand. She’s said it helps “clear the psychic debris standing between us and the day ahead,” giving you space to be creative and use your imagination.
But for those who’d rather not embrace such a specific morning routine, the general approach can still be fruitful. As long as you write about whatever comes to mind, with no intention of ever publishing your words, you’re still likely to experience a creativity boost. And you can do it anywhere, anytime just by stashing a notebook and pen in your bag.
Some of the most productive people tend to keep uncluttered, orderly desks–but what about the most creative people? In a study at the University of Minnesota, researcher Kathleen Vohs found that “you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”
When she and fellow researchers placed participants in a messy room and asked them to come up with new uses for ping pong balls, their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative than their counterparts stationed in a tidy control room. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Vohs concluded, “which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”
Everyone’s ideal work environment is a bit different, of course, but Vohs’s research may vindicate those who succeed amid messiness. So if you’re the kind of person who needs a little disorder, don’t declutter. You may find an innovative thought or two buried in your untidy workspace.