Creativity is often thought of as something elusive, as something that just happens to you, some passive blessing that gets bestowed on the bemused creator with no warning, logic, or effort.
The image of a creator desperately waiting for the muse, totally at the mercy of its whims, is far too common. And too frequently, we creatives encourage that idea.
How many times do we refuse to paint because “nothing is striking us?” Or refuse to even sit down at our desk because we’re certain we’re crippled with writer’s block? Or leave our guitar to gather dust because we just aren’t “feeling” it right now?
Or, even worse, how many of us never bother to try in the first place because we think we weren’t born creative? If you weren’t a piano prodigy, or constantly painting on the walls, or acting out plays in your bedroom, you may think you simply weren’t born with “it” and there’s nothing you can do about it.
While some people are born more prone to creative thinking, and while inspiration may sometimes unexpectedly strike you like a lightning bolt, the ability to be creative is not solely something you’re born with or that is randomly thrust upon you.
Creativity is, instead, both a skill and a state of mind. And, like any skill or mindset, you can do things to actively encourage it — and even make it a habit. The more you do it, the easier and more natural it will become (and the less likely you’ll be to ever rage against “writer’s block” again).
One of the best ways to encourage creativity in yourself is to set up your physical workspace in a way that is conducive to being creative. Whether it’s a room at home, a formal office or studio, or your favorite park or cafe, you want a space that inspires you, calms you, and doesn’t interrupt that beautiful flow once you’re firmly in it.
To help achieve the ideal creative environment, consider these tips and then let your ideas fly.
The most important thing to remember when setting up a space to fuel your creativity is that it has to be designed for you. No two minds are exactly alike, and no single method will work for every creative; a setup that opens you up may stifle someone else.
Not only that, the thing that gets most in the way of your creativity may not be the same hang-up someone else has; one person may have a hard time focusing, another may lack motivation, and yet another may need a confidence boost to let their creativity run free.
Take some time to think about what gets you feeling inspired, about why you want to create. Also, think about what holds you back and what things you’d most like to change in your environment — or even your life.
This advice is relevant to all the following tips. If something clicks with you, give it a shot. But if something sounds completely unappealing, don’t feel forced to try to shoehorn yourself into making it work.
The whole point of creating your ideal creative workspace is to make something that opens you up and lets your own unique ideas come out to play; it’s not to mold yourself into someone you aren’t.
The same way your bedroom should be for sleeping, your creative space should be for creating. Our minds and bodies love habits, routines, and familiar stimuli; once you associate a place with creative work, you’ll begin to feel creative simply by entering the space, the same way stepping foot in a gym can start to make you feel motivated and active.
If you’re lucky enough to have a room you can set aside as your workspace or studio, try and claim it as your own creative workspace. If not, try and find a specific spot in your home you can dedicate to creative thinking. It may be a small desk in a corner of your living room, the window seat in your kitchen, or even a lap desk on the highest stairway landing (my brother’s ideal homework spot when he was in elementary school).
It may be difficult to claim a space as your own, especially if you live with roommates or family. Sit down and discuss with them why you need the space, or consider working out a schedule where you are allowed exclusive, private access at set times.
It can also be tempting to use your creative space for other tasks, but do all you can to use this space only for your creative work. Resist the urge to pay bills at your desk, let your office double as a Christmas-ornament storage closet, or respond to personal emails where you’re meant to be creating.
Keep in mind your creative space doesn’t have to be inside your home. A corner table at a cafe, a shaded bench in a park, or a computer desk at your library may be your perfect creative haven — especially if your home life is noisy or hectic, or if you’re lacking extra space. (I may as well have my name engraved on the back table of my local Starbucks, and I’ve nearly memorized every barista’s shift schedule.)
In the same way that you should respect your workspace by doing only creative work there, you need to set boundaries around your creative space so that others do not interfere with your work.
Make it clear that when you’re creating, you’re not to be bothered, barring an emergency. Even if you’re in public, make it clear you’re there to work. I’ll often pop in headphones even if I’m not playing any music. (He who approaches someone wearing headphones for small talk is breaking down the fabric of society. Also, I may be an introvert.)
Breaks should be encouraged, but you should be the one to decide when those happen. If you’re trying to write and your roommate starts a conversation every three minutes, or if your spouse keeps knocking on your door, or if your kids are trying to grab your paintbrush from your hands, creating is going to be almost all but impossible.
Once you get into a good creative flow, every time you get interrupted, you’ll have to reset and try to get back in the flow again. It may even make you feel like others are not taking your work seriously or are actively disrespecting or dismissing your work. That can leave you feeling shaky, unconfident, and/or angry — all of which can get in the way of creativity.
Try and set clear rules regarding your boundaries to those around you. Let your spouse or roommates know that if your office door is closed, you aren’t to be bothered, or set up some other sign (if you are at your easel, if you’re sitting at your desk in the living room, if you’re on your laptop) that you are entering the creative zone and meant to be left alone there.
If you’re working in public, try to sit somewhere secluded and preferably without an open seat beside you. I try to grab a non-communal table that’s out of the way (my seat of choice is a semi-hidden table in the back corner), and spread my papers out over the whole work surface. It can also be a good idea to pick a spot where long, loud conversations aren’t encouraged: a library, a purposefully quiet coffee shop, or a focused coworking space.
This is the second, and more personal, step toward making your workspace a sacred place. In the same way you don’t want others barging in and interrupting you, you don’t want anything else interrupting you either.
Set your phone to “do not disturb.” Vow not to check the news or your Instagram feed. Block certain websites that are particularly tempting for you (I can’t even think about Reddit when I’m working). If you don’t have to use it for research, consider even turning off your wifi while you write or create.
While keeping yourself distraction-free is a good tool for any productive or focused environment, it’s particularly important for those who are more naturally creative, as creative people are especially inclined to be prone to distraction.
Naturally creative people have a tendency to not be able to disregard external stimuli. It may be part of what makes them so creative (they’re also observing and taking in potential inspiration), but it can also make it incredibly difficult to focus and actually get any creative work done.
Making your workspace a distraction-free zone can allow you to fully concentrate — and be as creative as possible.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve tried to paint on a too-high kitchen table, the ideas freely flowing — until my neck and back began to ache from awkwardly leaning forward and downward to see my canvas.
Get a desk or table that is the proper height, and a chair that is comfortable and supportive enough for long creative sessions. I’ve learned the importance of this recently; my current desk chair lets me work for no more than an hour before the discomfort becomes completely distracting. (The chair was cute. And blue. And cheap. Ikea is a dangerous place.)
The same goes for whatever equipment you use for your workspace. Get a comfortable stool for your easel, or a lap-desk with a soft wrist pad, or a cushion for your piano bench. If you work away from home, bring a wrist cushion for the table or a pillow for your back, if you need it.
It may even be useful to have a separate piece of furniture in your space in case you get too uncomfortable sitting in one spot for extended periods. A cushy, oversized armchair in the corner, or a couch to stretch out on, or a big floor pillow could all be excellent escapes when you feel like your body has gotten stuck in a rut.
For creatives on a budget, don’t forget to check out second-hand shops, thrift stores, yard sales, etc. (My current desk is a gorgeous, antique vanity that my roommate found for $5 at an estate sale.) Also, let your creative side come out and alter or create furniture; I’ve handmade pillows out of my favorite old tee shirts to help make my seating more supportive.
While your mind may be the obvious focus when you’re creating, your body plays just as big of a part. Keep it comfortable and the ideas will keep coming.
When picking the color theme of your workspace, you’ll want to consider the emotional and mental effects that different shades can have. As an art major, I’ve put way too much thought into the mood of lilac vs. lavender; the differences in how colors can impact you can seem subtle, but they’re definitely there.
For a creative space, the best color is generally blue, as it boosts creative thinking and can also have a calming, centering effect. However, this area is where knowing yourself and what stands in the way of your creativity can be really helpful.
Different colors can have different effects. If you need more motivation, red may be what gets you going. If you want a clear mind, white or off-white may help you think best. A soft yellow can encourage you to feel more positive, and green can help you feel more grounded and less overwhelmed.
Keep in mind that color isn’t limited to your wall space, which is especially helpful if your workspace is an area where you cannot paint. You can use color theory to help pick the color of your desk, your chair, or your rug, all the way down to the small accessories like mugs, pens, and paper clips.
Color preference can also be affected by personal taste or history. For instance, there’s a particular shade of deep, rich blue I cannot stand because it was the color of the walls at a former customer service job. Just seeing it is enough to make me feel like I have a line of angry customers ready to demand refunds … not exactly a great creative feeling.
Much to the delight of the untidy everywhere, clutter may actually encourage creativity by helping you to think in less conventional ways. So if your desk is always full of papers, or if you have stacks of books on the ground, or if your office supplies never make it back to their drawers, you may be helping yourself be more creative.
Not that everyone needs a cluttered space in order to think creatively. Some people, myself included, find themselves distracted by clutter and have a more open, less-stressed mind when they are in an orderly, or even minimalist, space.
If you’re not happy with your current creative output, it may be time to shake things up regarding tidiness and clutter. We, as a species, have a tendency to get strangely defensive of things that don’t work; I was extremely clutter-prone as a teen and I held on to it for ages, swearing that it helped me be creative, despite how often I found myself suffering from “writer’s block.”
However, after lots of self-examination (and therapy), I realized that my hesitance to tidy up was due to exhaustion from depression and that messy spaces contributed greatly to my anxiety.
I forced myself to start tidying up and I was shocked to find that my creativity soared immensely. Nothing makes me feel more ready to create than a clean desk and an orderly room.
If you think you keep things tidy as a way to distract yourself or procrastinate, let the mess pile up a bit and see if you think more freely. If you’re a devoted clutterer, tidy up and see if it ends up opening your thoughts.
One note: If you do thrive in a cluttered office, make sure to give yourself the proper space to actually work. Even if you have to shove papers into slightly bigger piles, clear off enough of a space on your desk for your laptop to fit and your arms to move freely.
And make sure you have the proper sized work surface. I, personally, need one large enough for my MacBook, my notebook, my planner, my phone (for work timers), and a drink. If I don’t have that space, I feel cramped and limited — and not at all creative.
Nothing can kill your creative buzz quite as fast as having to get up and go hunt for a pen, your to-do list, or your charger.
Before you get to work, think of everything you may end up needing and make sure that you have it. This goes for basic work needs (your laptop, charger, notebook, office supplies, planner, etc.) as well as less obvious things (snacks, drinks, tissues, a cardigan, slippers, etc.).
It can take a lot of effort and energy to channel your creativity and get into a great workflow; you don’t want to have to pause it to go chase down some Scotch tape or your notes on a project, and you don’t want to become distracted by hunger, thirst, or discomfort.
Also, even in a cluttered space, make sure you know where everything that you may need is, at least approximately. It’s no use keeping what you need in your workspace if you can’t find it when you want to.
This readiness also goes for working outside the home. When I’m working in a public space, I always bring along a laptop, in addition to my laptop bag, with extra supplies. If you work outside of your house often, it can be worthwhile to keep a fully stocked backpack of supplies that never leave it — a notebook, charger, pens, etc. — so that you’re always ready to head out.
Also, scope out locations before you commit to working there. You may need to check for things like easy outlet access, reliable wifi, bathrooms, and access to food and drinks.
A little bit of prep before you dive in can make the difference between a smoothly creative day and a frustratingly unproductive one.
It’s important not only to set up a space that practically encourages you; you want a space that will emotionally charge you as well. Creative work is hard, exhausting, and draining; sometimes the best way to encourage it is to remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.
It’s a good idea to keep a few things around that inspire you and make you feel motivated and capable. It doesn’t have to be anything grand — just something that speaks to you. It could be anything that makes you smile and reminds you of what you love about what you do.
Your favorite childhood novel, a poster from your go-to comfort movie, even a small toy that makes your inner child happy (I have a Wonder Woman PEZ dispenser that makes me grin every time I look at it.) — any simple thing that makes you want to create and go after your dreams should be welcome in your workspace.
If you’re working outside of your home, you can stick buttons and pins on your backpack, stickers on your laptop, or have a desktop background image that pumps you up the instant you see it.
Visual reminders of your goals and dreams can be incredibly helpful when work feels overwhelming or creativity too difficult to drum up. It can be as elaborate as a full vision board with all your major goals and even deadlines, or a simple image or trinket that helps remind you what you are working for.
I like to put London stickers on my planner to remind myself that I’m working toward a lifestyle of travel (and maybe living in the UK one day). Every time I see one, I feel a little more motivated to keep going.
Again, creative work is hard. It can be beyond stressful, and once you get stressed, you can feel close-minded, shut down, and negative, none of which leads to creativity, which makes you feel more stressed, which starts a vicious cycle.
Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to break that cycle.
Stress relief toys can be a great way to snap yourself out of a tailspin before it goes too far. A fidget spinner, a stress ball, or even some Silly Putty or a Slinky can all calm you down and distract you in a productive way.
For those extremely stressful days (or if you’re a very physical person), you could even have a small punching bag in your room. (Or a thick pillow; I may have squeezed, punched, and kicked several of those multiple times when I really wanted to strangle my characters.)
A coloring book can also be an excellent way to unwind and take a breather without pulling yourself out of the creative zone; a few minutes of coloring Hogwarts, and I tend to feel that all is right with the world. Plus, it’s easy to stash a coloring book and a small box of crayons in your backpack, if you’re working away from home.
Another favorite of mine is a sensory bottle, an easy product you can make yourself to suit the color scheme or any inspirational motifs you have in your workspace. Mine is made with light blue and silver glitter, as well as silver star-shaped confetti, which matches my favorite workspace colors and also makes me think of winter and the calm of a fresh snow.
Creativity doesn’t just happen; you can take practicable, thoughtful steps to encourage it. When you set up an environment that is built around encouraging creative thought, you’ll find yourself harnessing the muse whenever you need it.
But just because something works for your creativity now doesn’t mean that it will forever. If you ever start to feel uninspired by what’s around you, even if it made you intensely creative before, don’t be afraid to accept that and try something new.
Paint your walls. Trade in your desk chair for a standing desk. Work at the library instead of your home office. Try jazz in the background instead of classical. Write with a different color ink or change the font of your manuscript.
People change and grow. Besides that, each project may call for something different. You may need to feel focused and driven to meet a tight copywriting deadline, but need to have a leisurely atmosphere when you want to focus on your own novel instead.
Trust your gut. If you feel like your habits have stopped being helpful and instead become a rut, switch things up until you feel inspired again.
The more often you encourage creativity in yourself, the easier it’ll become, until it’s not only a habit, but a solid, dependable part of you.
And there’s nothing more inspiring than that.
Amanda Kaye Stein graduated from the Academy of Art University with an A.A. in Fashion Design (focus on Fashion Illustration and Creative Writing). She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, graphic designer, artist, and comedy improv performer. She’s an aspiring novelist, YouTube creator, and ukulele rock star.