Habits and creativity
We’re told, repeatedly, that habits are key to success.
And we know that they’re key to productivity. Especially if you work from home.
But if you’re living with the expectation that a dedicated workspace in your home environment is the key to setting yourself up for success — and key to freeing your creative muse, then think again.
It turns out that this is a myth. And that creating change in your environment can in fact stimulate your creativity.
But it has to be the right kind of change, and done in the right way.
Shifting your environment — combined with some element of familiarity — is the best recipe for sparking your creativity.
Habit is key for feeling good at work (and at home)
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses how our brains create habits in order to be as efficient as possible.
The thing we do regularly becomes a habit, which becomes a neurological connection in our brain. Which then operates by default.
Habits are developed entirely separately from our memories — which is why, for example, sleepwalkers can find their way home without waking up.
As we repeat the habit, it generates feelings of safety in our body. It’s efficient and doesn’t use any ‘brain power’.
By contrast, anything out of the ordinary is a disruption to our safety — and therefore creates a feeling of anxiety.
When you travel to another country, for example, and drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, our brains create a warning signal that this is ‘wrong’ — and these signals continue until a new driving habit is formed.
This theory of habit forming explains why some people function better with a designated office. Having a familiar space reduces anxiety.
The designated space cues (or fools!) your brain into beginning a familiar pattern of work. You have a desk arranged in a certain pattern, you sit down, you start to write. It’s automatic.
It’s like a cocoon of safety that you associate with certain activities, and when you finish work for the day, everything is safely tucked away and you can leave without any anxiety.
It’s a great theory for productivity and separating our home life and our work life. Achieving balance.
Habit and creativity is not such a great match, however
However, when we see the same things every day, our brains don’t have that creative spark. It’s too comfortable.
What we need is a new setting, or even a setting that we haven’t seen in a while.
Because, what happens when we’re exposed to something new or different, is that our brains release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. And dopamine is a key part of managing our pleasure and reward responses.
According to research with Parkinson’s patients, including this one in the Frontiers in Neurology Journal, dopamine and creativity go hand in hand.
The neural pathway is complex, but release of dopamine can make us feel motivated and more attentive. It’s that hormone that floods our brains when we feel ‘love of at first sight, and it can induce an an overall feeling of happiness.
So what does this mean for creativity?
Bring in the new
It means that for some people, the simple habit of going into your regular workspace isn’t going to spark enough creativity.
In fact, many of us with creative personalities often feel anxious because the cue to work acts almost as a pressure. Something we have to do, rather than something we want to do.
For those of us who feel like this, it’s better to have an organised and portable work environment such as a laptop and a small box of essentials.
We can then take our box of tricks and move around. Which can work wonders for sparking creativity and reducing anxiety.
We change our environment; we get that rush of dopamine. And this is especially true if you usually work in a confined space where there is less to stimulate you as you look around.
Give it a try…
Try these techniques to add variety to your work environment:
- If you can, go out and find somewhere new or different to work — whether that’s the coffee shop, the library, the park, or a friends’ workspace. It doesn’t have to be totally new — just somewhere you haven’t been in a while.
- If you stay in your home office, then move your desk so that you can look out of a window, rather than looking at a wall or a whiteboard. Nature, neighbours, and changing weather can give you that much-needed stimulus.
- Physically move around your house or office every few days so that you work in a different space. This can be as simple as working from the couch for a couple of days, move to the kitchen table for the next couple of days, then take your laptop to the garden for the rest of the week.
- Or how about moving your office around in the same space? Shift the lamps, or the artwork, or just move your chair to the other side of the desk. All you need is enough of a change to stimulate your brain to create that feeling of something new in the environment.
Keep your ‘work’ and ‘home’ separate
The key to creating the right amount of change to stimulate creativity, but not enough to cause anxiety, is to to make sure you aren’t in the same space that you spend time in when you’re resting, winding down or sleeping.
You still want that feeling of separation of work and home — otherwise your creativity will spill over into anxiety (which will then have the opposite effect to the one you want because anxiety is enemy #1 for your creativity!).
For most people, this means keeping some non-working space in the bedroom and maybe in the living room.
By knowing how to switch things up, and when to use the power of habit, you can manage your work environment to have healthy productivity and then inject just the right amount of creativity when you need it.
A change is as good as a rest, as they say.