How To Structure Your Environment To Be More Creative
It’s one of the easiest things you can do.
Creativity is often seen as something that’s up to the Gods and not accessible to humans.
In fact, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, argues that the ancient Greeks and Romans were onto something when they said creativity was actually embodied in godlike entities, not humans.
“It makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard,” she says, describing creativity as a process that “does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”
Creativity is the number one skill that everyone’s looking for. From hotshot CEOs to entry-level engineers, creativity shows up in every job description. Thus, it pays to be creative.
Yet, the realm of creativity remains elusive to most. It’s something we’ve left to the artists amongst us — writers, philosophers, painters, musicians, and so on.
Clearly, this worldview will not help us be more creative. Thinking that ideas come and go at the whims of deities will not help us do our jobs better.
So what will?
Educational scientist Mel Rhodes, came up with the “Four P’s” model of creativity.
The 4Ps represent the nature of creative Persons, the Processes** *they use, the **Products* or outcome of their efforts, and the Press, or environment that supports or hinders creativity.
There are two factors that you can’t really control–the traits of creative Persons and the Products (or outcome) of your creativity. Then, there are two traits you can control–the Processes you use and the Press or environment you work in.
As it turns out, you don’t have to make sacrifices and perform rites to get the attention of Greek gods just to get a novel business idea or finish an article.
What you need to do is take control of what you can, and then leave it to chance. After all, God helps those who help themselves right?
In that spirit, let’s see how you can tweak different factors of your environment to be more creative.
For creatives who like to blast their music with music, science has bad news — it’s not good for creativity.
In a journal article, *Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition, *researchers found that ambient noise levels are best for creativity.
When you work in silent environments, there’s nothing to stimulate thoughts. Unless you’re looking at something visually stimulating, there’s almost no input in your brain to make connections. This is why quiet environments are great for tasks where you need extreme focus and less creative power.
Loud noise, on the other hand, bombards you with so much input that it’s difficult to process anything. You’re simply unable to keep up. Think about how you felt when your family was shouting or watching their favorite sport in another room.
Ambient noise levels are the sweet spot in between. They increase the processing difficulty, which leads to higher creativity. In other words, it stimulates you just enough to get your creative juices flowing.
Ambient noise levels mostly mean the kind of noises you hear in a cafe. You can’t hear exactly what’s going on. Rather, it’s a mix of phone calls, music, coffee brewing, etc.
If you can’t go to a cafe, there are tools like Coffitivity to create the same atmosphere at your desk. You can even use this in actual coffee shops if the noise levels are too high or too low for you.
Since we’re on the topic of ambient noises, it’s also important to tackle another creativity disruptor in public places — phone conversations.
When it comes to being distracted by phone conversations, one-sided calls are the worst.
Veronica Galván, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego, studied this phenomenon to find out the reason behind this.
She conducted a study where participants were to complete word puzzles. The trick? Half of them heard one-sided, mundane calls while the other half hear entire conversations between two people in the room.
As you would’ve guessed, the first batch, found it more difficult to complete the puzzle. Plus, they remembered more about the conversation than their peers who heard both sides.
Again, let’s use common sense to understand this. When you hear only one side of a conversation, you start wondering what the other person will say. This means you’re devoting more brainpower to it than is necessary.
As I write this, my mother is talking to someone else in the adjacent room. I couldn’t write while listening to her so I had to put on headphones.
Listening to both sides, however, gives us more context and thus makes it easier to tune out the distraction.
So again, if you’re going to work in cafes or coworking places, remember you can easily be thrown off track if people with loud voices are taking calls.
Change of Scenery
Going to a new place can improve your creativity by leaps and bounds.
When you visit a place you’ve never seen before, it’s brand new information for your brain. As you absorb that information, it would start to form links with the information it’s already stored. This is why travel often gets your creative juices flowing.
On a smaller level, working in a different environment, makes your brain work harder to process information. Much like listening to ambient noises.
If you want to generate ideas, then it’s good to go to a park or a cafe with a notebook instead of staring at the screen. You’ll be surprised at how easily you can outline your ideas. When you come back, you’ll have all the necessary material so you can work on it.
Yet, in the name of creativity, don’t go to a movie theatre to generate ideas! The environment shouldn’t demand your attention. It’s supposed to be a silent catalyst in your creative process.
Another reason novelty works is that it’s a flow trigger. It releases dopamine which is your brain’s feel-good neurochemical. Anything new — sounds, people, smells, tastes, sights, etc — is enough to get a pinch of novelty.
Inducing novelty regularly also ensures you don’t get bored and get through with the mundane aspects of your work with ease.
It’s not as complicated as it seems — even sitting on the other side of the table triggers novelty.
Small changes go a big way.
Cornell University researchers tested the effect of different office temperatures on employee productivity.
They found low temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius entailed 44% more mistakes than a little warmer temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius.
Cold temperatures make it difficult to stay focused. First, you’re using a lot of your energy to stay warm. It can be difficult to type, think, and do work in general. Plus, there are the frequent trips to the washroom for high-water-intake folks like me.
Increasing the temperature in your workplace, wearing warmer clothes, using a heater, etc are good ways to get some of that creative action.
Optimizing lighting isn’t as black and white as other metrics.
It’s important to understand the various stages of your creative work and tweak them accordingly. The parts of your work where you need to generate more ideas need different lighting than other aspects like editing a draft.
Research in the Journal of Environment Psychology titled, Freedom from constraints: Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity found that “dim illumination and priming darkness improve creative performance.”
According to the same research, it was found that darkness helps us feel at ease and able to take risks. “Darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style,” it says.
Then when you’re ready, you can switch on the lights and do other tasks you need to do. Making a separate link between creativity and execution will also prime your brain to be more effective at both things. The next time you sit in darker environments, you’ll automatically be more creative.
Payscale also has more tips for lighting in this infographic:
Go for natural light. Low exposure to natural light makes us feel sad and gloomy. Plus, you need your Vitamin D.
The color of the room should match the nature of the jobs. Cool colors (blues, greens, purples) should be used for jobs that need intense concentration — like accounting, and boardrooms. Warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows) for creative jobs — like advertising and software design. A poor choice in this area can lead to eyestrain, fatigue, headaches, and general dissatisfaction.
Finally, think more than the walls. It’s about the color of everything — the windows, furniture, plants, water coolers, etc.
John Cleese in his famous talk tells how creativity is like a tortoise — before it fully emerges, it will pop its head out to see if the environment is safe. Thus, your creativity won’t show up when you’re stressed, under pressure, or hustling.
To help the tortoise come out, you need to make it feel safe and playful. You need to feel like you can make mistakes and there’s no pressure of performance.
The best way is to find a creative place used only for your creative work. This will prime your tortoise-mind to come out and feel safe.
Most of us are disconnected from our work. There’s a screen between everything we do these days.
And while computers have made things easier, they may not be the best way for creatives to get their juices flowing.
When I sit down on my laptop to think about writing ideas, I hardly get one or two. Yet, when I journal in the morning, they seem to come out of a firehose. On my good days, I can outline the whole article the moment I think of it — the intro, subheads, heading, conclusion — the whole shebang.
Austin Kleon in his book *Steal Like An Artist, *recommends setting up an analog desk.
The analog desk doesn’t have any screens or electronics. It only has sketch pens, paper, scales, etc. Basically, steal an art-and-craft kit from a high school kid and you’ll have yourself an analog desk.
The digital desk has all your electronics. Once you outline your ideas on the analog desk, transfer them to the computer. After some time, when your steam begins to cool off, go back to the analog desk.
The reason it works is creativity unleashes itself when your body is also involved. When you’re typing, only your fingers and mind are working. Your whole being is not immersed in the process. Going analog does just that.
If you do it right, your analog station should seem like play, not work. It’s where you have fun and let your mind explore the limitless possibilities!
Boundaries of Time
John Cleese also says that we need to create our analog (or safe) place for a certain amount of time.
This is the #1 lesson all creatives know — the power of scheduling and time blocking. Creatives think like artists but work like accountants. Creativity isn’t about relying on inspiration, it’s a way of operating.
The second aspect of creating time boundaries is you need to give your mind enough time to come up with something amazing. He says,
This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.
The problem is, that this period of indecision is difficult to endure. This is where you feel helpless for you don’t have any control over what will come out. You’ve planted the seeds and now’s the time to wait for the plant to grow.
“Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment.” — Flash Rosenberg
When we talk about creativity, we tend to neglect those phases where there was just nothing. Where we wanted to quit with all our might and were insecure as hell. In hindsight, we forget all this because the breakthrough is so amazing, that’s all we want to talk about.
Yet, the danger of portraying this narrative in front of inspiring creatives is it paints a false picture of creative success. Embracing this pain is an essential part of the process.
Realize that the solution is truly beyond your reach. You have to wait for it to come close enough so you can grab it.
Miscellaneous Tips That Have Helped Me Be More Creative
A clear desk.
It’s difficult to think of new things when I see the remains of the previous day’s work on my desk. I declutter my desk and reset to zero every night.
Having good posture is essential. From a yogic perspective (that I often use to explain things), a straight spine not only strengthens your back muscles but also lets the energy flow freely in the spine. If the energy doesn’t reach the brain owing to your bad posture, you’ll feel washed out soon. To ensure you have good posture, always push your butt to the edge of your seat.
[Taking mindful breaks throughout the day.](https://medium.com/illumination/the-power-of-mindful-minutes-how-to-bring-joy-to-your-day-7998548e0e3a)
Having a few inspirational photos on your desk.
It can be photos of your idols, nature, etc.
Taking time to doodle.
Magic happens when the pen (or pencil) hits the paper.** **This is how I outline all my articles.
Even though creativity can often seem like the gift of God you’ve to work hard to attain, it can be induced by putting yourself in suitable environments.
Everyone needs more creativity. And the good news is, everyone can use the tips above to structure their environment today to be more creative.
So what are you waiting for? Go create something awesome.
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