Until Inspiration Comes Along: Five Habits of Creative People

You may still be a writer in search of an agent, or an artist in search of a patron, but you’re determined to get that first creative endeavor finished some time this year and show the world what you’ve got. Here are just a few habits that creative people — many of them well known — practice daily. Feel free to make them your own, and pretty soon you’ll be creating your masterwork.

1. Turn up the music: In addition to his habit of some- times writing up to 10 pages a day, Stephen King — the prolific author and proclaimed “master of horror” — listens to metal while he works. Bands like Metallica and Anthrax are among his favorites. Sure, for some people music might be distracting, but a key element in the brain is at play when music is heard. Music elicits our emotions by setting off activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same part of the brain that produces dopamine during sex and while eating. It does so while engaging the amygdala (emotion-processing region) and spreading to areas of the prefrontal cortex that are involved in abstract decision-making — all of which are the elements needed to create a suspenseful thriller.

2. Dress the part: When I worked retail, my former boss told me that he got to be the store manager by acting the part — taking on manager responsibilities when he was just the assistant by writing employee evaluations and doing the merchandising himself. Of course, a big step toward acting the part is dressing the part. What do you wear when you’re not meeting with clients? Many people opt for comfort, but maybe that’s not always the best choice — making it easy to relax and fall back on deadlines. One of my writer friends insists on maintaining an air of professionalism by wearing only freshly pressed pantsuits when getting ready to write in the morning, treating writing as if it were any other nine-to-five office job. Not only is she giving a degree of professionalism to her craft, but also to her brain. A 2012 study on embodied cognition showed that test subjects who were dressed as doctors re- ported heightened levels of attention and performed better on a cognitive-assessment test than the control group.

3. Distance yourself: As legend has it, the Greek mathematician Archimedes spent months working out his equations, until one day, as he was stepping into his bath, he noticed the water rising — an observation that offered him a breakthrough way of determining density. Whether or not the story is true, sometimes the only way of solving a problem is to think outside the box. According to a study conducted by Indiana University at Bloomington, creativity can come by simply taking a few steps back from a problem and approaching it in a slightly different way — an effect called psychological distancing. When you’re planning out a landscape, or a novel, and find yourself un- certain about the smaller details, sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a glimpse of the bigger picture.

4. Meditate: This can be one of the hardest habits for creative people to maintain, and equally difficult to explain to the layperson. Day- dreaming may seem impractical, but it’s a critical part of the creative process — during which all of your senses are utilized and sharpened. If anything, it’s a must for reducing the frequent stresses of everyday life, which can bur- den creative thinking, keeping you from finishing that article or putting the last touches on your watercolor. Filmmaker David Lynch is a famous practitioner of transcendental meditation, and planned his first movie out of a desire of seeing one of his paintings move. A Dutch study showed that a type of meditation, called open monitoring, in which you open yourself to thoughts and feelings without placing your focus on a particular object in the room, has long-term benefits on cognitive thinking.

5. Set aside your own personal workspace: In the essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, the legendary British writer and critic, speculates on how many great women writers there could have been, had they been afforded a room like the study she wrote in every morning. It wasn’t so much the room that mattered, so long as the writer had a place to pursue her own thoughts. A 2010 study published in NeuroImage suggests she might have been onto something. Researchers from fields of radiology, neurology, and architecture scanned the brains of patients as the subjects looked over beach scenery. The researchers noticed that when patients were shown a calm beach, regions within the brain connected with each other and worked in sync. Working while hunched over an easel, as Woolf did, mostly due to a rivalry with her sister who was a painter, is of course totally optional.

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