We already know being creative can make us happier and healthier. But while we may think of creativity in terms of penning or painting a masterpiece, experts say it can really mean anything from trying a new recipe to submitting an original idea during a meeting. Here we’ve got 36 ways to fire up that creative spark, from writing by hand to visiting a foreign country. Try (at least) one today!
10 Minutes or Less
- Listen to music. Jamming out stimulates the part of our brain that controls motor actions, emotions, and creativity Large-scale brain networks emerge from dynamic processing of musical timbre, key and rhythm. Alluri, V., Toiviainen, P., Jääskeläinen, I.P. et al. Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland. Neuroimage 2012;59(4):3677-89.. Classical music might give us an extra boost: According to “The Mozart Effect,” listening to Mozart’s work can increase creativity, concentration, and other cognitive functions. It’s not clear if this effect actually exists, but a little classical music can’t hurt!
- Write by hand. Drs. Carrie and Alton Barron, authors of The Creativity Cure, advise us to skip the Microsoft Word doc and pick up a pen instead. Sometimes the whole experience of writing by hand—the ink on our fingers, the smell of a fresh notebook—is all it takes to get our creative juices flowing.
- Meditate. Stuck in a mental rut? When panic strikes, try meditating: It promotes divergent thinking, a state of mind in which we’re able to generate new ideas Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Colzato, L.S., Ozturk, A., Hommel, B. Institute for Psychological Research and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University Leiden, Netherlands. Frontiers in Psychology 2012;3(116.
- Get someone else’s opinion. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A friend might mention something that sparks a whole new stream of thought. The more ideas and perspectives, the better.
- Free-associate. Try this game: Open the dictionary to a random word and write down everything it makes you think of. Perhaps surprisingly, freedom can actually inhibit creativity; a little restriction (like focusing on one word instead all kajillion of them) lets us think more freely.
- Think about something far away. Research suggests our ability to solve problems improves when we think about events far off in the past or future or in another location. So picture New Year’s Eve 2022 or dining at a café in Paris and let the imagination go!
- Daydream. What was I saying? Oh, right: We tend to take a more creative approach to problems when our mind is wandering (less so when we’re hunched over a computer with a deadline looming). So don’t worry about zoning out for a few minutes.
- Look at something blue or green. The colors tend to enhance performance on cognitive tasks. Researchers say that’s because we associate blue with the ocean, sky, and openness in general, while green signals growth. Check out that globe the next time a problem pops up Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Mehta R, Zhu RJ. Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Science 2009;323(5918):1226-9. Fertile green: green facilitates creative performance. Lichtenfield, S., Elliot, A.J., Maier, M.A. et al. University of Munich, Germany. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2012;38(6):784-97..
- Have some booze. In one study, participants who knocked back an average of three drinks were more creative than people who didn’t drink at all Uncorking the muse: alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Jarosz, A.F., Colflesh, G.J., Wiley, J. Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL. Consciousness and Cognition 2012;21(1):487-93.. That’s possibly because a little alcohol lets us think more broadly, finding connections between unrelated ideas. But hey, keep it classy: There’s nothing creative about a pile of vomit.
- Write freely. Take 10 minutes to jot down anything and everything that comes to mind without judgment, a technique called “free-writing” or “free association” Free association reconsidered: the talking cure, the writing cure. Farber, S.K. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 2005;33(2):249-73.. Then go back over the notes and see which ideas are worth keeping.
- Gesture with two hands. Freaky: One study found using two hands to explain something prompts the brain to consider issues from multiple perspectives Embodied metaphors and creative “acts.” Leung, A.K., Kim, S., Polman, E. School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. Psychological Science 2012;23(5):502-9.. (It’s also possible that using the left hand stimulates creative thought, since left-handed people tend to be more creative in general.) Just don’t accidentally slap anyone in the face.
- Sit outside a box. In one study, people who sat outside a box (literally) were better at thinking creatively (i.e. thinking outside the box) than people who sat in it Embodied metaphors and creative “acts.” Leung, A.K., Kim, S., Polman, E. School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. Psychological Science 2012;23(5):502-9.. No cardboard container handy? Try sitting in the hallway outside a room.
- Lie down. Research found people were better at solving anagrams when they were lying down versus sitting up Thinking on your back: solving anagrams faster when supine than when standing. Lipicki, D.M., Byrne, D.G. School of Psychology, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, Brain Research 2005;24(3):719-22.. It might not fly in an office meeting, but test it out during the next solo brainstorming sesh.
- Rethink labels. Pick an object and break it into parts. (So a flower becomes stick, leaves, and petals.) It’s called the “generic-parts technique” and people trained to think this way were better at solving problems through creative insight than people who weren’t given the training.
- Laugh a little. Haha, get a load of this! A positive mood can facilitate creativity because it boosts activity in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (areas of the brain associated with complex cognition, decision-making, and emotion) Better mood and better performance. Learning rule-described categories is enhanced by positive mood. Nadler, R.T., Rabi, R., Minda, J.P. Department of Psychology, The University of Western Ontario, Social Science Centre, Ontario, Canada. Psychological Science 2010;21(12):1770-6.. And even if we’re not feeling cheery, letting out a hearty chuckle can actually trigger a positive mood—so get silly to get creative.
- Exercise the eyes. Moving the eyes back and forth facilitates interaction between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which may boost creative thinking Influence of handedness and bilateral eye movements on creativity. Shobe, E.R., Ross, N.M, Fleck, J.I. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Pomona, New Jersey. Brain and Cognition 2009; 71(3):204-14..
30 Minutes or Less
- Use the hands. High-fives, thumbs up: Those ten fingers are the tools for expressing our mind and interacting with others. That’s why the Barrons say making something by hand can be a huge creativity boost. Producing something by hand also means getting information from multiple senses at once, which can stimulate creative thinking. Try cooking, knitting, or a DIY home decorating project—wall art, here we come!
- Spend time outside. Remember the thrill of being a kid running through the playground, making up games and adventures? Bring that feeling back simply by getting a dose of green. Being in natural settings is sort of like playtime for adults: It taps into all five senses, energizes the bod, and, most importantly, stimulates the imagination.
- Get social. When we spend time with people we trust, we tend to have deeper conversations. The Barrons believe these chats often lead to creative thinking because we’re really able to be ourselves and talk about our passions.
- Exercise. According to the Barrons, when we’re physically active, the body loosens up and our mind is a little freer. So it’s easier to come up with solutions to problems and think of new ideas. Plus one recent study found regular exercisers performed better on creative tasks than their less active peers did.
- Try something new. Doing things out of habit tends to undermine creative thought; on the other hand, novelty-seeking is associated with creativity (and overall well-being). Even something as simple as taking a new route to work or experimenting with a cool recipe counts.
- Do some yoga. Certain poses, like child’s pose and pigeon pose, supposedly facilitate creativity. Physically stretching and releasing can give our minds a bit of a stretch, too.
- Play video games. Here’s one excuse to sit in front of the computer all day: Video games that energize players and encourage a positive mood (Wii Tennis, not Mortal Combat) can also promote creativity by boosting our problem-solving skills.
- Get some sleep. If you’re trying to solve a problem and can’t, go to bed—you might find a better solution in the morning. Sleep restructures new memory representations, meaning we think about experiences in new ways Sleep inspires insight. Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., et al. Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lubeck, Lubeck, Germany. Nature 2004;427(6972):352-5.. At the very least, take a power nap, which stimulates right brain activity (the part of the brain responsible for creativity).
- Don’t expect perfection. It’s okay if that painting doesn’t make it to the MOMA. Putting pressure on ourselves to produce something outstanding can actually make it harder to create anything at all. “A lot of people sort of secretly feel, ‘I’m not creative,’ but everyone is creative to a certain degree,” says Carrie Barron. Just try your best and see what happens.
- Visit a foreign country. In one study, students who had studied abroad performed better than other students on measures of creative thinking. Psychologists say multicultural experiences facilitate the complex cognitive processes behind innovative thinking. Que fantastico!
- List problems. Keep a notebook handy at all times and, throughout the day, jot down pesky annoyances. You might come up with a creative solution to one of the issues, like a personal cell-phone-bill-payer.
- Play at work. Consider looking for a job that fosters “play” during the workday, like team outings and gym breaks. Letting loose for a few hours can help us think more freely, boosting creativity and productivity when we’re back at the desk.
- Create a treasure chest. Collect a bunch of inspiring items (photos, quotations, etc.). Every time you open the box you’ll feel newly excited and remember ideas you had in the past.
- Make a creativity room. Designate a physical space for creativity in the house and include objects related to hobbies, mementos from favorite memories, and vision boards featuring possible projects for the future. Not enough space? Try a “creativity corner” in a single room. That way, says Greatist Expert Dr. Mark Banschick, the brain will get into the habit of being creative every time we’re in that area.
- Work when you’re tired. Sometimes sleep can help us think of new ideas, but working at our non-optimal time of day can also promote creativity because we’re less inhibited. (Perhaps that’s why some writers wake up at the crack of dawn or stay up ’til the wee hours of the morning.) So morning people could try working at night and night owls could try getting to work early.
- Sit in a coffee shop. In one study, people were most creative with a moderate level of noise in the background. The noise around us is slightly distracting, so it encourages us to think a little harder and more imaginatively. (Of course, some people might need quieter or louder noise to produce their best work.)
- Hang out with sarcastic people. Hearing sarcastic expressions of anger can help our ability to solve creative problems a lot more than just hearing direct anger Others’ anger makes people work harder not smarter: the effect of observing anger and sarcasm on creative and analytic thinking. Miron-Spekter, E., Efrat-Treister, D., Rafaeli, A., et al. Department of Psychology, Bar-Elan University, Ramat Gran, Israel. Journal of Applied Psychology 2011;96(5):1065-75.. That’s possibly because sarcastic people seem less scary. So take the facetious route next time you want some new ideas from a coworker. (Yeah, right.)
- Deal with rejection. One is the loneliest—and most innovative—number. Getting rejected can boost our ability to think creatively because we start exploring new and original ideas.
- Write ideas down. Instead of worrying about remembering ideas (what was the meaning of life again?), you’ll have room to come up with new ones. Banschick recommends “brain dumping,” or writing down everything that comes to mind without worrying about revising.
- Spend time alone. We did suggest that hanging with friends can boost creativity, but sometimes a little peace and quiet is necessary. Hole up with some headphones, get in touch with your own thoughts, and focus on the task at hand. Or try talking to yourself—whatever works.
This article originally posted November 2012. Updated December 2013.