We already know being creative can make us happier and healthier. But while we may think of creativity in terms of writing a novel 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 33 fun ways to fire up that creative spark, from having a drink to taking a nap—seriously.
10 Minutes or Less
1. 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 IP. NeuroImage, 2011, Nov.;59(4):1095-9572. Classical music might give us an extra boost: According to "The Mozart Effect," listening to Mozart can increase creativity, concentration, and other cognitive functions. Though it's not clear if this effect works for everyone, but a little classical music probably won't hurt.
3. 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.
4. Think about something far away.
5. Write by hand.
Carrie Barron, M.D., and Alton Barron, M.D., authors of The Creativity Cure, advise us to skip the 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 creative juices flowing.
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.
7. Look at something blue or green.
These 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. Science (New York, N.Y.), 2009, Feb.;323(5918):1095-9203. Fertile green: green facilitates creative performance. Lichtenfeld S, Elliot AJ, Maier MA. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 2012, Mar.;38(6):1552-7433.
8. Gesture with two hands.
Odd but true: One study found using two hands to explain something prompts the brain to consider issues from multiple perspectives. Embodied metaphors and creative "acts". Leung AK, Kim S, Polman E. Psychological science, 2012, Apr.;23(5):1467-9280. (It’s also possible that using the left hand stimulates creative thought, since left-handed people tend to be more creative in general.)
9. Sit outside a box.
Though it might sound a little strange, in one study, people who sat outside a box (literally) were better at thinking creatively than people who sat in it. Embodied metaphors and creative "acts". Leung AK, Kim S, Polman E. Psychological science, 2012, Apr.;23(5):1467-9280. No cardboard container handy? Try sitting in the hallway outside a room.
10. 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 AF, Colflesh GJ, Wiley J. Consciousness and cognition, 2012, Jan.;21(1):1090-2376. 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 or other less desirable outcomes.
11. 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. Lipnicki DM, Byrne DG. Brain research. Cognitive brain research, 2005, Apr.;24(3):0926-6410. It might not fly in an office meeting, but test it out during the next solo brainstorming sesh.
12. Rethink labels.
Pick an object and break it into parts. (So a flower becomes stalk, leaves, petals, and pollen.) 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.
13. Laugh a little.
Haha, get a load of this! According to some studies, 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 RT, Rabi R, Minda JP. Psychological science, 2010, Oct.;21(12):1467-9280. Even if you're not feeling cheery, letting out a hearty chuckle can actually trigger a positive mood—so get silly to get creative.
14. 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 ER, Ross NM, Fleck JI. Brain and cognition, 2009, Oct.;71(3):1090-2147.
30 Minutes or Less
15. 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 like playtime for adults: It taps into all five senses, energizes the body, and, most importantly, stimulates the imagination.
16. Create with your hands.
High-five! 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.
17. 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 able to be ourselves and talk freely about our passions.
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.
19. 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.
20. Do some yoga.
21. Play video games.
Here’s one excuse to sit in front of the computer: 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.
22. 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. Nature, 2004, Feb.;427(6972):1476-4687. At the very least, take a power nap, which stimulates right brain activity (the part of the brain responsible for creativity).
23. 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.)
24. Don't stress about perfection.
It’s okay if that painting doesn’t make it to the MOMA. Putting pressure on yourself to produce something outstanding can actually make it harder to create anything at all. “A lot of people secretly feel, 'I'm not creative.' But everyone is creative to a certain degree," Carrie Barron says. Just try your best and see what happens.
25. 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.
26. 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.)
27. 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.
28. Create a treasure chest.
Collect inspiring items (photos, quotations, trinkets, etc.). Every time you open the box you’ll feel newly excited and remember ideas you had in the past.
29. 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. Not enough space? Try a "creativity corner" in a single room. That way, says Mark Banschick, M.D., the brain will get into the habit of being creative every time we’re in that area.
30. Work when you're tired.
Yes, 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. Morning people might try working at night and night owls could try getting to work early.
31. 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, go for a solo walk, or focus on the task at hand.
32. 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.
33. Free think and write ideas down.
Instead of worrying about remembering ideas (what was that brilliant story idea again...?), you’ll have room to come up with new ones. Banschick recommends “brain dumping,” (also called "free-association") or writing down everything that comes to mind without worrying about revising. Free association reconsidered: the talking cure, the writing cure. Farber SK. The journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 2005, Dec.;33(2):1546-0371. Then later, if you feel so inclined, go back over your ideas and consider which ones are worth keeping.
Originally published November 2012. Updated February 2016.