5 Ways You Can Train Your Creative Mind

Flexing your creative muscles is an asset in any career — it doesn’t matter if you work in a traditionally creative field or not. We tend to think of creativity as an artistic trait, but really, it’s about having a flexible mind that can make associations beyond everyday logic and thought patterns. Luckily, this is something we can train ourselves to be better at.

How to remain creative at work long term

Whether you’re a problem solver, a brainstormer, a maker, an analyst, or some combination of them, embracing and nurturing your creative mind will make you more successful in the long run. It can just take a little experimentation to work out which creative strategies work best for you…

Here are a few methods to mix it up and boost your creativity at work, based on science, with a dash of personal experience:

1. Experiment with Your Environment

There are a few things to experiment with when it comes to your working environment: lighting, noise, and just plain moving around. Experimenting with these things depends largely on your job and situation, but even small adjustments can make a big difference.

Change up your lighting

Dim lighting has been shown to spark creativity, so if you work from home, try pulling the curtains, and if you’re in an office, find a cavelike, dark meeting room.

Alternatively, nature has also been found to boost productivity, so if you prefer a light working environment, try getting a plant to hang out on your desk.

longterm creativity office

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Try out music

Sound and music are great areas to experiment with to see if changing it up will knock something loose in your head, especially if you’re trying to get those creative juices flowing.

For productive work, it’s claimed that silence is best. If your office is loud and open-plan, get some noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the noise. For creative work, ambient noise, like that in a cafe, helps to loosen our minds. Some people like to listen to music (I personally go for instrumental post-rock, like Explosions in the Sky).

Wear the headphones, but don’t play any music. Deafening silence + co-workers are less likely to interrupt you!

Adjust your desk

I try to mix things up throughout the day, so I’m not just sitting at my desk for hours at a time. 

Standing can be refreshing and has been found to increase your ability to come up with new ideas — if you can hack together a standing desk, try to stand for an hour or two a day. Many offices also have couches, and it’s great to lounge with your laptop on the couch in the afternoon, especially when needing to do creative work. 

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2. Take Regular Walks

A famous study at Stanford found that walking improves creativity both during and after the walk when compared to sitting. They found, to their surprise, that it didn’t matter whether people were outdoors or on a treadmill. Just the act of walking, anywhere, strongly improved divergent thinking, also known as brainstorming.

However, in the study, walking did not have a positive effect on focused thinking, where there’s only one correct solution. Essentially, there are multiple steps in the process of creativity, and walking helps in the beginning of the process with the divergent, ideation stage, rather than the convergent, insightful stage.

While the study found no preference between indoor versus outdoor walking, personally, I go the nature route, or as close as I can get. Most cities have parks or parklets, even in the center, and there’s nothing more refreshing than lying in the grass on a sunny day, thinking through a work idea or problem. With most of our working days spent engrossed online, nature is becoming more and more of an oasis, for some fresh air and a bit of creative thinking.

longterm creativity walk

3. Create Limitations

For me, my creativity usually surfaces in my resourcefulness: I find it hard to be “creative on command,” but give me a problem and I’ll MacGyver a solution out of the resources we have on hand. The restrictions inherent in the problem present a roadblock, and I will always find a way underneath that roadblock. When faced with a blank page and endless options, though? I freeze. I suddenly have not a thought in my mind. And I’m not the only one.

The solution? Add limits and restrictions. When we know the restrictions of the space we are working in, we are free to push up against them, to buck tradition, to force and mold the limits to our will.

As a writer, I’ve learned this over and over, but most obviously in poetry classes, where we’d have to write poems in specific styles. On the surface, it seems dumb — like, who wants to write a sonnet in the 21st century, am I right? But, I found that the more restrictions imposed on my process, the more creative I was forced to be, and my best work always came out of strange and highly specific projects.

In our careers, we’re often faced with a broad task and a “go for it” with little to no guidance. These are exciting moments, as we can use them to push ourselves and to prove ourselves, but the “blank slate” effect can be intimidating, and it can be hard to know where to start. In these cases, try adding arbitrary restrictions to your task, sonnet-style. Create an environment that’s so restrictive, you have to be creative. It’ll happen slowly, and then all at once, and when you have momentum, you can remove your restrictions and finalize the work.

Create an environment that’s so restrictive, you have to be creative.Twitter

 

creativity longterm create limitations

4. Start a Creative Side Project

Sometimes we’re not in a position to experiment at work, for any number of reasons. In this case, I strongly recommend starting a side project that lets you play with your creative energy.

A few years ago, I was in between jobs and feeling a bit stuck. It felt like there was very little in my life that I could control, that my career depended on the whims of strangers. So, I did something about it. I started a music newsletter, Songs to Dance to. Each week I pick 10 dance songs and write about them.

Two years later, the original newsletter is going strong, and we recently expanded to full blog coverage of the underground electronic scene. I’ve spent a lot of time on this project, for free, because it fuels me. Music is one of the hardest things to write about, so every time I sit down to explain why a song or artist moves me, it pushes me to flex my creative muscles, spurring growth that I see daily in my career as a writer.

Finding creativity in confidence

An added benefit of a side project that I don’t see mentioned often is the confidence boost. Putting yourself out in the world is scary, but it’s easier than you’d think, and nothing brightens up my day more than getting positive feedback on work that I put my heart and soul into. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of my best friends, saying that they have a collection of drawings they make every week while they listen to the latest S2D2, or a fellow music nerd from halfway around the world emailing me to say they’re playing the music I find in their DJ sets. Receiving these messages reminds me why I do this, what the work is for, why it’s worth it. 

The best thing about creative side projects is that you hold all of the power. You don’t need permission from anyone, you just pick an idea and you go for it. You make the decisions, you make the sacrifices, it’s your baby. I’ve found that having a project out there in the world has empowered me to act boldly and creatively in other aspects of my life.

creative side project longterm creativity

5. See the World

Studies have shown that travel boosts creativity, which makes sense because you are opening your imagination to landscapes, ideas, and cultures that are unfamiliar. Just the culture shock alone can be jarring enough to kick that creative gear into overdrive. If you have the means to travel abroad, do it as much as possible.

But, I know that traveling abroad is a privilege that many can’t afford. And I think many people jump to exploring foreign countries without exploring their own backyard first. There are many ways to see the world, and you don’t have to go far at all.

Get out in nature, take day trips to local sights (especially the secret ones), go to new restaurants and different parts of town, leave your comfort zone. Join clubs and meetups, volunteer, give back to your community however you can, find your niche, and keep exploring. Talk to strangers, meet people who are wildly different from you, bond with them, laugh with them, and listen to them.

Wherever you live, there is so much to explore, and you never know what will spark the next great idea.


There are lots of studies about our environments and creativity, and most of them imply that their study holds the only solution. But the great thing about the human brain is that everyone is different. When experimenting, listen to yourself. Trust your instincts. What works for a lot of people may not work for you, and that’s OK.

The key to creativity is to explore new ideas to see what works for you. Nothing in our creative lives is one size fits all.


Do you have any ideas for sparking creativity at work? We’d love to hear them in the comments!

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