creative brainWe’ve written about creativity a few times on the Buffer blog, but it’s hard to keep track of everything we learn about it. One day I’m adjusting the temperature in my workspace, and the next I’m trying to put off creative work until I’m tired.

If you’re in the same boat, and you find it’s difficult to remember what will improve your creativity and when you should do your most creative work, hopefully this list will help you get it all straight.

1. Your brain does better creative work when you’re tired

Unlike solving an analytic problem, creative insights come from letting our minds wander along tangents and into seemingly unrelated areas. Though many of us identify as morning larks or night owls, peaking in our problem-solving skills and focus at particular times of the day, creative thinking actually works better at non-optimal times. So, if you’re a morning lark, your brain will be better at finding creative insights at night, when you’re tired.

The reason behind this is that a tired brain struggles to filter out distractions and focus on one thing. It’s also more likely to wander off on tangents. While that seems like a bad thing when you’re working, creative thinking actually benefits from distractions and random thoughts. Research has shown that we’re better at “thinking outside the box” at our non-optimal times.

2. Exercise can improve your creativity

We know exercise is good for us for lots of reasons, but here’s one more. Studies have shown that exercise can improve our ability to think creatively. When researchers had half the participants in a study perform an exercise video while the other half simply watched a video, those who had exercised outperformed the others in terms of divergent thinking – or, coming up with more possible solutions to a problem.

exercise and divergent thinking creativity

I love the way it’s explained in this Pyschology Today article:

“Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind-–it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious.”

3. Ambient noise levels are best for creativity

I actually thought silence might turn out to be the best sound for creative thinking, but it turns out that ambient noise levels are just right. Unlike loud music or silence, ambient noise levels have proven to be perfect for improving creative thinking.

Silence, in fact, actually helps us to sharpen our focus, so it’s useful for intense problem-solving or detail-oriented tasks. Creative thinking, on the other hand, requires the kind of ambient buzz of sound that you might find in a café to promote broader thinking and new ideas.

So much so that tools like Coffitivity exist to bring that ambient café sound to your desk:

creative environment - coffitivity

4. Nothing is original: creativity is all about making connections

I always thought creativity was about coming up with original ideas, but it turns out creativity is really just about making new connections between existing ideas. This is pretty exciting, because it means creativity suddenly seems less scary: we can all connect things that already exist, right?

Even Steve Jobs agrees with this theory of what creativity is all about:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

Another quote I love about this is by the artist, Austin Kleon:

“Every artist gets asked the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The honest artist answers, ‘I steal them.’ “

Research has even found that intelligence is something that comes from physical connections in the brain:

“Several brain regions, and the connections between them, were what was most important to general intelligence.”

brain connection general intelligence

“The brain regions important for general intelligence are found in several specific places (orange regions shown on the brain on the left). Looking inside the brain reveals the connections between these regions, which are particularly important to general intelligence. In the image on the right, the brain has been made partly transparent. The big orange regions in the right image are connections (like cables) that connect the specific brain regions in the image on the left.”

5. Travelling abroad might improve your creative thinking


The research on this one is still small, but one study showed that for college students, those who travelled abroad scored higher on creative thinking tests than those who stayed at their main campus. This particular study followed students who travelled from their college in the US to take part in a summer study program in England.

In many countries, cultural norms differ greatly between different states or areas, so it follows that we might see an increase in creativity from even interstate travel.

6. Dim lighting makes us feel more free

I like a lot of natural light in my workspace, and I get quite frustrated in dark rooms when I need to focus. However, I was surprised to find this research that proved dim lighting can improve creative performance.

The researchers completed six different studies, which all showed that dim lighting increased creativity. They found that even without noticing a difference in visibility, if the lighting around them was dim, participants were likely to be more creative. The reasoning came from the subconscious feeling of being more free to explore:

“…darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style.”

For times when you don’t have control over the lighting around you, you can just think about being in the dark and it could have an effect:

“Other experiments found that merely priming the idea of darkness—such as by taking five minutes to describe an experience of literally being in the dark, and recalling how it felt—was sufficient to boost creativity.”

7. Blue and green can improve your performance on creative tasks

tree on hill

Color me surprised. Apparently a brief glimpse of green can improve your creative performance! Another study actually shows that seeing red or blue can have different effects on our cognitive performance: red helps us with detail-oriented tasks where we need to focus, whereas blue enhances creative performance.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to paint your office blue or green, but it’s a helpful tip to keep in mind when you’re working on a creative project or switching between different types of work.

8. Constraints can be beneficial to creative work

constrained art

Another idea I had about creative thinking which was proved wrong is that freedom leads to more creative ideas. Counterintuitively, it turns out that constraints can actually increase our creative output. This could be due to removing the overwhelm of having too many choices. If you’ve ever faced the hurdle of a blank page, you’ll know what I mean.

Writer and actor John Cleese describes creativity as something that can be so elusive that one almost has to trap it using constraints.

“You have to create boundaries of space and then you have to create boundaries of time.”

One of my favorite examples of amazing creativity coming out of constraints is an old story in which an author (often Ernest Hemingway, but the true author is debateable) bet his friends that he could write a whole story using just six words. Here’s the result:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

9. A separate, messy desk can improve your creativity

I’ve never been a fan of having a messy desk, but I’m starting to think I might need to. This research proved that a messy environment leads to more creative thinking. It also encouraged participants subconsciously to be more drawn to new things than anything labelled as “classic.”

The study also found that a more orderly environment led participants to be more generous and choose healthier snacks than those in the messy environment. Perhaps the answer is to have two work spaces, for different types of work, as writer Austin Kleon does:

His digital desk in the background is where his analytical work takes place, while the foreground is home to his messy, analog desk for creative thinking tasks.

10. Being sleepy can make you more creative

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt especially ready to work when I’m still waking up. This period of coming out of sleep is called the hypnopompic state. We often end up with strong visual images lingering from our dreams when we wake out of REM sleep, when most of our dreaming happens. For this reason, lots of artists have coveted this just-waking-up period to improve their creative thinking.

Famous surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, was known for using the hypnopompic state to help him generate creative ideas. He would often nap in a chair, holding a spoon in his hand. Under the spoon, on the floor, was a tin plate. When he drifted off to sleep, he’d drop the spoon, and the clattering noise it made on the plate would wake him up, helping him to latch onto those vivid images that occur in our dreams.

dali painting

There’s a lot to remember in here, and no doubt I’ve missed more studies about how to improve your creative thinking. Changing one thing at a time about your process or working environment could eventually lead you to incorporating more of these into your day. Here’s a wrapup of a few of the points we’ve discussed here:

8 cool facts about creativity

What works best for your creative thinking? Let us know in the comments.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like: How to Optimize Your Environment for Creativity with The Perfect Temperature, Lighting and Noise Levels and The Psychology Behind Brainstorming: Why It Doesn’t Always Work and 4 Ways To Get Ideas More Consistently.

Image credits: deadstar 2.1, NCBI, Hugh MacLeod, PNAS, *Kicki*, Bert Kaufmann, Michael Johansson, Austin Kleon, ahisgett

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • Coffitivity is great. I would also add [email protected] to the best sounds for creative thinking list

    • JGallardo

      We love this where I work. Makes the place sound more interesting lol.

  • Great post! #8 is a reason I love writing metered and rhyming poetry. 🙂

  • ralphwh

    So, the ideal image of myself being creative is sitting in the tiny (8), messy (9), poorly lit (6) apartment of a friend in Naples, Italy, which in on a busy, noisy street (3) overlooking the blue-green sea (7). I’ve just arrived after traveling (5) all night. I’m jet-lagged (10) and tired (1) after lugging my suitcase up 5 flights of stairs (2) and I struggle to get wifi connection (4). 😉

    But seriously, another awesome post on creativity, busting quite a few of my favorite myths. Next, you’ll probably tell me that my cold office here in the northeast is bad for my creativity, too (oh wait! you already did that!!)

    Thanks Belle!

    • Courtney Seiter

      When you get all those conditions lined up, let us know what ideas arise! We’ll do a followup post for sure! 😉

  • Annie Finch

    I agree about the constraints of writing metered, rhyming poetry–and struggling with the poetic forms makes your brain tired so more inspiration can come! I have published a lot about this topic and it’s great to find it corroborated by this research. Going to share this post on my fanpage.

  • asha

    THIS COMPLETELY defines me…ok 99.8% Thank you so very much as I was
    beginning to think I were crazy (perhaps so), but nevertheless I do [and
    notice] all these things about me. The only one sans avoidance is the
    ‘theft’ part. While there is some truth since everything can not be
    invented, I don’t use this H-word often, but I HATE creatives, or people
    trying to be creative who “steal shamelessly!” Other than that, I AM
    YOUR THEORY 🙂 Thank you. Its no longer my imagination, & if I ever
    dare to attempt a 3rd retry at marriage before I die, I will forward my
    future hubby this post. Very well done. If you ever need a quote or
    interview to support your post…I am in! e:[email protected]

  • JGallardo

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post and thought it was well presented. Thank you for sharing.

  • This is great! Thanks for posting. Many of these I have never heard before. Very interesting read.

  • I actually read this for ideas on more focus. I may need to create a separate tidy workspace (my main desk is impossible to keep tidy) with lots of red.

    Although I’ve always found I’m better at analytical work than creative work when tired (midnight + rum = programming). Creative work I always need to be wide awake (2pm + caffeine = Illustrator). But then again, I do have an abnormal brain.

  • Daniel Kruzel

    Surprisingly — A messy environment is when my flutters of creativity come into play. Coupled with a dim ambiance, we’re golden! I never thought that a messy environment would spur my creativity but this article made me think back on some of my most creative moments… And messy and dim are the factors involved!

  • hn

    Totally agree with you!!! Because without a topic or a constraint, i cannot draw/paint anything^^ I always thought that it is stupid to believe that you need freedom to be creative. I work much better under pressure.

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  • Craig J Willis

    Numbers 1, 4, 5 and 8 all ring true for me. I realised 1 early on in my career when I turned up to work still feeling the effects of a night out. In general I was fairly unproductive but when it came to problem solving I had some of my best ideas.

    As for 5, it’s not just travelling abroad but getting out to new places. I remember visiting a zoo for the first time in many, many years shortly after my son was born. I had been working on a particularly hard problem for several weeks at work with no suitable solution in sight. As we walked through the animal enclosures I realised the way the zoo had been laid out was a solution to the same issue we were facing, a photo of the zoo’s map formed the basis of our final design.

    In recent years we have been using constraints very effectively, what’s amazing is the initial reaction of virtually everyone I meet. This idea appears to defy all logic, people find it so hard to grasp until they have experienced it. Great article!

  • Gonçalo Hall

    I’m really creative on the shower… True story lol

  • Brigitte Kobi

    That’s a great post about creativity. I did not know the thing about blue and green but always have some sort of “noise” while working. I could certainly easily cope with a messy desk in my vicinity as long as it is not mine.

  • mark knight

    Being SLEEPY makes u want to sleep full stop. This creative bullshit is just plain uncreative of my awakened state. To be in a sense of freedom of wanting expression of expressionism one needs sleep. Without sleep yall all DIE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!