officeI’ve written about how creativity works in the brain before, and I found it really useful to understand this process. Or, I should say, multiple processes.

There’s so much going on in the brain during creativity that science is still trying to pin down exactly how it all works.

What we do know is which three parts of the brain work together to help us create and come up with new ideas:

The Attentional Control Network helps us with laser focus on a particular task. It’s the one that we activate when we need to concentrate on complicated problems or pay attention to a task like reading or listening to a talk.

The Imagination Network as you might have guessed, is used for things like imagining future scenarios and remembering things that happened in the past. This network helps us to construct mental images when we’re engaged in these activities.

The Attentional Flexibility Network has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains, and switching between the Imagination Network and Attentional Control for us.

You can see the Attentional Control Network (in green) and the Imagination Network (in red) in the image below.

creative environment - brain networks 

Understanding how important connections are to creativity has also made a difference to how I try to generate new ideas. Once we have a lot of knowledge, we need to spend time making connections between it all—this is where creativity comes in.

I’ve shared some ideas in my previous post about creativity to help you come up with new ideas, such as putting yourself in challenging situations, criticizing your own ideas and being open to having lots of (bad) ideas in order to find just a few great ones—something Seth Godin is a fan of:

Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, “none.”

These tips are handy, but I’ve found that my environment makes a big difference to how productive I am, and how easily I can brainstorm new, creative ideas.

It turns out, environmental factors like noise levels, temperature and lighting can make a big difference to how creative we are. Here’s what the research says about setting up your environment for optimal levels of creativity.

Sound — ambient noise levels are best for creativity

As I found in my research on how music affects the brain, loud music is not necessarily the best option for creative work.

Far from blasting music through out headphones, it turns out that moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Ambient noise gets our creative juices flowing unlike silence, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

Here’s how it works: moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. Or, in other words, when we struggle just enough to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.

In high noise levels, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently. I know I’ve felt this when it’s lunchtime in my co-working space, or my neighbors are renovating their apartment while I’m trying to work.

A University of Chicago study found that ambient noise was the optimal level for creativity, whereas extreme quiet sharpens our focus, making it hard for us to think creatively.

Another study about ambient noise showed that when it comes to being distracted by the conversations of others, phone calls where we can only hear one side of the conversation are the worst offenders.

After a survey showed that up to 82% of people find overhearing cellphone conversations annoying, Veronica Galván, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego, looked into why these are so distracting.

In the study, participants completed puzzles while they overheard either one side of a mundane phone conversation or an entire conversation as it took place between two people in the room.

Those who heard the one-sided phone conversation found it more distracting than those who heard both people speaking. They also remembered more of the conversation, showing that it had grabbed their attention.

So if you’re heading to a co-working space, open office or coffee shop to get some work done, keep in mind that phone conversations will dampen your creativity.

In case your local coffee shop doesn’t have the optimal level of noise to get your creative juices flowing, there are a few tools available to bring that ambient café sound to your desk:

creative environment - coffitivity

creative environment - soundrown

And for those who enjoy the relaxing sounds of nature to work in, try these:

Temperature — keep your office warm

A study from Cornell University tested different office temperatures at a large Florida insurance company and found the following:

When temperatures were low (68 degrees or 20 degrees Celsius) employees made 44% more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77 degrees or 25 degrees Celsius).

The problem isn’t just being uncomfortable in cold temperatures, but rather that you are more distracted. If you are feeling cold, you are using a substantial amount of your energy to simply keep warm.

Thus, a lot less energy goes towards concentration on creative work.

Increasing the temperature in your office, adding more clothing layers or bringing a portable heater to work could make all the difference when it comes to increasing your creativity. Be careful not to make it too warm though, as being hot decreases productivity as much as being cold does:

productive temperature

Lighting — turn down the lights for more creativity

An important point to remember when you’re optimizing for creativity is that the process of creative work goes through different stages. When I’m editing a blog post, for instance, I’m less worried about generating creative ideas than I am when I’m brainstorming topics or mapping out the structure of a post.

So optimizing your environment could call for different situations depending on the phase of work—e.g. remember how I mentioned earlier than silence is best for concentration?

When it comes to lighting, keeping the lights down low can be beneficial for generating creative ideas, though you might want to adjust the brightness when you need to focus at a later stage of your work! This infographic from PayScale has some tips on lighting for productivity:

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 10.54.01 am

Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology looked at the difference in creativity levels in brightly-lit and dimly-lit environments over six studies.

The research found that dim lighting helps us to feel less constrained and free to explore and take risks. Two of the studies tested this feeling in particular, and found that “darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style.”

So when you’re gearing up for a brainstorming session, try turning down the lights before you get started.

Space — keep a separate, messy desk

One of my favorite talks about creativity is this one by John Cleese. I can’t think of many people more suited to speaking on this topic, and he doesn’t disappoint.

One of the main points John makes is that your creativity is like a tortoise: It pokes its head out nervously to ensure the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Your creativity won’t show up when you’re nervous or stressed, busy or surrounded by hustle and bustle. It’s a very particular kind of thinking.

John says to help your “tortoise mind” emerge, you need to create an oasis for it, amongst the craziness of modern life, where it feels safe:

You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.

Removing yourself from your normal work environment—i.e. your “busy” space—to a free, creative space sends a signal to your brain. And if you do this consistently, your tortoise brain will learn to recognize the place as a safety zone for creative thinking. If you can, add the suggestions of optimal temperature, lighting and noise levels to your creative space, and do your “busy work” elsewhere.

Research has shown that a messy space is more conducive to creativity than a tidy one, so separating your clean and tidy work desk and a messy creative space could be optimal for switching between the two modes of work.

Writer Austin Kleon does exactly this in his work space, with one analog desk for creative work and one digital desk for “busy” work:


Have you tried any of these tips already, or do you have some of your own? Let us know your experience in the comments.

If you liked this post, you might also like How our brains work when we are creative: The science of great ideas and Why We’re More Creative When We’re Tired and 9 Other Surprising Facts About How Our Brains Work

Image credits: Scientific American, Hugh MacLeod, Productivity Science, PayScale

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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.

  • Kevin Callaghan

    Love the continued brain-related articles Belle – keep them coming! I’m in the process of designing a workspace with my team right now, so this post is particularly relevant.

    During our planning, we found that having plants in the office can also boost productivity and creativity. Here’s one of many articles on the subject:

    Just thought I’d pass along!

    • Belle

      Good one, Kevin! I think having plants in your office is a great idea.

  • kevinalex01

    I prefer my space to be on the cool side … but other than that you’ve written another winner. GREAT TOPIC!

    • Belle

      Each to their own! 🙂 Glad you liked it.

      • kevinalex01

        Perhaps the cold works better for me because I live in the subtropical paradise known as Naples Florida. Where it’s hot and humid year-round. (Only 60 degrees today though … brrrrrrr).

  • matthewmagellan

    The most interesting part of this to me is the phone conversations, because it’s totally true. In our coworking space, two people talking to each other nearby doesn’t bother me at all, but someone talking on the phone is extremely annoying. Take your phone calls elsewhere, people!

    • Belle

      Crazy how big a difference it makes, isn’t it!

  • David Schuller

    Hi Belle,
    great article. I like the tortoise analogy. Sometimes, he is very reluctant to pop his head out.
    I also like messy desk idea. I have already got that one. lol
    I came across one a few months ago. This sounds crazy, but it does work. The articl said that when you are in contact with the earth. your creativity begins to flow. I go outside when I am writing just to take a break. As soon as my feet touch the ground, I get all kinds of great ideas.I have actually had entire articles develop from this. Try it sometime.
    If it wasn’t so cold out, I could move my office out there. lol
    Again, great article

    • Belle

      Totally agree, David. Spending time in nature is a great way to take a break!

  • Fantastic post Belle. Your bit about lighting and the desk is interesting. I have a standing desk and no control over the lights where I work – but now you have me thinking about getting a warm-light lamp for those times when I want the creative juices to fly!

    I personally keep my desk nearly spotless, however I do have other things that spark creativity. For me it’s mainly action figures and amazingly designed things/work.

    Everyone’s different, but have you found any research regarding how standing vs sitting effects your productivity and creativity?

  • Samantha Owens

    Now it makes more sense why my favorite coffee shop is my favorite place to get some serious writing done. It provides all of these elements in one easy to access location. Great article! 🙂

  • Daven Sprattling-Mathies

    Great post filled with delicious morsels of information! Now I see why my desk has been getting increasingly cluttered over time… I’m not lazy, I’m promoting creativity! 🙂

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  • Hey Belle, I love these ideas and suggestions. I work from home so any advice on how to be more creative or productive is like gold dust! I’m trying the Coffitivity site/app right now and I like it already. Now I just need to buy another/bigger desk!

  • davidmhuffman

    I have a big ol’ double window in my office, so I keep the overhead lights off…I’m always pegged with “WHY IS YOUR OFFICE ALWAAAAYS DARRRRK?!” and I’m like, “Uh, natural light? Can you see it coming through the window?”

    The overheads distract me too much…make me tired, kills my brain.

    I love [email protected] too…started using the free plan a year or so ago and just upgraded a few months ago, I’m loving their ADHD Beta Test channel now 😉

    Awesome article, Belle.

  • Jose Sanchez

    Awesome post! Very insightful but also actionable. Love that you included links to useful tools and apps 🙂

  • garenyondem

    Thanks for the article and useful links!

  • Colin

    First of all, I have been loving your blog as of late, Belle Beth! This one especially hit home because I feel like I’m battling how to set space and time for creativity, so I really appreciate all of these tips.
    I hate to be nitpicky, but in the the temperature portion, you wrote that 77 was the optimal temperature for productivity, but the graph pictured looks to say 72 is the ideal number. Perhaps I’m reading the graph wrong? Obviously not a big deal in the large view of things but was just curious. Keep up the excellent posts! I’ve been learning so much from you and the @buffer team!

  • Tereza

    Such a great article!

  • This is an excellent read! I, myself, work best inside of coffee shops. Looks like I’m going to have to implement some coffee shop noises into our Johnny Cupcakes headquarters!

  • Michael

    Enjoyed reading the article. Now I know not to be too cold or warm when working.

  • Graham Downs

    I agree with most of these… except that I need as much light as possible at all times. I’m night-blind, so in low-light environments I expend all my concentration trying to read the letters on my keyboard when I’m sitting, or walking very slowly and feeling for obstacles with my toes when I’m not. Not cool! 😉

  • The only thing I would add is smell. Having a very sensitive nose, smells can help me be very productive especially vanilla and lavender!

  • Phil Wollerman

    I found that any music that demands attention intrudes. When I was doing postgrad exam study I discovered classical does not have the same distracting effect.

    Surrounding yourself with others, creative or not also works for me.

  • seiteta

    Which one is the tidy desk on the picture?

  • Meredith McGuire

    Wow, thanks!!! So much insight – and it helps explain so much of why I like to work outside, why I keep a messy working area, why I can’t stand being cold, why I get fussy over too much noise yet can’t get anything done when it’s totally quiet. And here I thought I was just addicted to certain environments over others.

  • Diana Navarro

    This is wonderful. I speak of creating sacred spaces and this fits in beautifully…will share!

  • I agree with all of this, but I wanted to add a caveat that at least holds true for myself. While I think a messy desk is fine for creative work, I think it helps for the mess to somehow be related to your creative work. In other words, if your desk is piled high with bills, broken toys from your kids, and flyers from school, you have a pile of things to remind you of other things to do. This kind of messy desk strikes me as extremely unhelpful.

  • Interesting article, thanks! …and I like your hat 🙂

  • Cheyenne

    I am a songwriter and I’m always looking for new ways to change my environment for creative ideas and this definitely helped. Thank you so much and I will absolutely use these. 😀

  • Wander Costa

    Amazing post! Congratulations Belle.

  • Eddy komoli

    Very good article, apart from functionallities at brain levels, messy enviroment is as good as facing specific challenge/s known as problems to the ordinary mindset, it helps so much in creativity as you endeavor to find a solution.
    You may need to be in kind of a lonely place to avoid distractions or be with those with the same purpose around you.