Your alarm clock goes off and it’s time to mindlessly shower, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, then head to work. Is that really all there is?
In order to prime yourself to think creatively in the day ahead, your morning shouldn’t be a thoughtless drag.
The author Annie Dillard once wrote that “how we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” but she might have been being too general. Recent studies show that it’s not how we spend our days that’s most important to our lifelong happiness and creativity but how we spend our mornings.
Our mornings set us up either to be primed for creative insights or to be numbed and mindless, merely trudging through our day. Some of us identify as “morning people” while others are anything but; yet either way it matters less what time we wake up at but what we do with that time. Creative people live life differently in a variety of ways, but perhaps none more importantly than what they do with their morning hours.
So check out a few of the scientifically proven habits that the most creative individuals use each morning and see if it’s not just your mornings that are transformed but your lifelong creativity as well.
01. Make time to be mindful
Making time for mindfulness in the morning is one of the most important habits a person can form for her creative progression. Recent studies show that taking the time to meditate makes people more creative and increases mental clarity.
Specifically, “open-monitoring meditation” — a meditation of clearing your mind, thinking not of a single concept, person, or object, but instead being open to anything that flits through your head — is particularly conducive to creativity. People in the study who engaged in open-monitoring meditation were significantly better at generating new, creative ideas than those who either did not meditate or meditated differently.
02. Stay Disconnected First Thing in the Morning
People only have so much time to focus and stay creative so wasting that time on relatively thoughtless pursuits in the morning is a poor management of both your time and your creative juices. Avoid tasks like checking emails or writing out lists or memos as the first thing you do and instead focus that precious time and attention towards more rigorous, creatively trying tasks that require the very best from you.
If, however, emails or similar morning tasks are hyper time-sensitive, it’s probably worth it to get up a touch earlier so you can focus first on creative tasks then get to emails and such later. We’re all granted small windows of time at which we’re most creative — it’s a shame to waste them.
03. Do Keep Drinking Coffee
Great news. Caffeine makes us more alert, yes, but perhaps more importantly, it also increases our brain’s production of dopamine, which gives us a feeling of reward and motivation when we start having good ideas. Making it a habit to grab a morning latte in the morning adds structure to a morning and helps create the aforementioned windows of creativity.
04. Be intentional about your choices for the day
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said that every day when he woke up he would go to the mirror and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” If the answer were “no” for too long then he knew he’d have to make a big change in his life. We’re nothing without intentionally and waking up each morning should be a time to review our motivations in life. Intentionality can be as existentially deep as Jobs’ self-questioning, but it can also be as simple as writing down what you want to get done for the day. If you’re proud of the list — of the work you’ll be doing in the day ahead — and you’re satisfied with where your life is going then you can rest assured that you’re living with intention.
If, however, your daily tasks boil down to things that you find dull or pointless then perhaps it’s time to reconsider why you’re doing them in the first place. Because if you don’t live intentionally — if you don’t check in with yourself often — it becomes far too easy to move through life without ever having lived on your own terms. As Dillard said, our days comprise our lives. Intentionality means taking stock of our lives and making changes if we’re dissatisfied. Creativity can only flourish if we’re in touch with ourselves and our aspirations.
05. Don’t Be in a Rush to Get Up
The key to creative insights is not solely in the amount of hours you sleep but in how, exactly, you wake up. A large proportion of creative insights come when we’re groggy and still somewhat sleepy because sleepy people have a “more diffuse attentional focus,” which leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network”. “This widening,” the researchers wrote, “leads to an increase in creative problem solving.”
This may mean you need to go to bed a touch earlier or just set your alarm thirty minutes earlier than usual. And while it might be a bit of a jarring change, it will be well worth it for the creative insights that are gained. Nonetheless, be sure to get enough sleep (which can be in the form of naps) since naps and proper sleep not only improve alertness but they’re also correlated with increased activity in the right brain, which is closely associated with creativity.
06. Get up and move
Exercise stimulates creativity not only because it fires off endorphins and gets blood flowing to our brains but also because it helps break up the monotony of sitting and working, leading to more creative insights.
American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour plays an hour-long tennis match most mornings in New York at 5:45am sharp. Russian composer Tchaikovksy, “believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him,” according to The Guardian. And while both of these instances seem perhaps obsessive, creating a habit around morning exercise and movement is a sure-fire way to avoid getting stuck in a creative rut.
07. Reduce Your Morning Choices
Don’t waste your precious morning creative energy choosing between, say, a wide array of clothes or different types of coffee. Reducing variation in your morning routine may seem dull or uncreative, but it’s a matter of conserving your cognitive stimulation for activities in the day ahead that actually deserve (like brainstorming, writing, or problem-solving). Barack Obama, for instance, wears only grey or blue suits because, as he said, “I have too many other decisions to make.”
So too with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who puts on the same grey t-shirt each morning. “I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life,” he told The Financial Times. Simplify your life so that you can spend your time thinking not about the color of your shirt but about your next great creative idea.
08. Find Time to Be Grateful
Being thankful for the life that you’ve worked hard to achieve thus far helps you to reconnect with your purpose and the things and people in your life that motivate you. Creativity does not always come easily so getting back to your roots of inspiration and the people who have helped you along the way will assure that you’ll keep working hard even when the going gets, inevitably, tough.
Try spending a part of your morning commute thinking of two or three things or people for whom you are thankful. Not only will it help inspire you to keep working hard, it will also make you happier, more optimistic, and will reveal what matters most to you in life so that you can spend more time doing the creative things you love rather than the mindless things you merely put up with.
09. Stop telling yourself you don’t want to go to work
You don’t have to drop everything and give one hundred percent of your focus to your creative pursuits to improve your creativity. Not only is there nothing wrong with having a day job and coming home in the evening to follow your creative passions, in fact, the structure and organization of time provided by day jobs can actually make you work more efficiently and creatively than if you had tried spending your whole day being creative.
Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This means that the less time you have to be creative the more creative you’ll actually tend to be.
Plus, working a day job and being creative go hand-in-hand more often than many people think. T.S. Eliot was a banker. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Joseph Heller was an ad executive.
William Faulkner worked in a power plant. “I think what these people get from these jobs is structure and self discipline and also focus,” wrote Oliver Burkeman, an author on creativity. Creative inspiration comes when we’re doing a diverse array of things so, in that way, going to work and diving into projects is much more conducive to creativity than sitting on the couch twiddling your thumbs, hoping against hope for a creative insight to magically reveal itself to you.
10. Create a routine and stick to it
No matter where in the world you find yourself, try to keep the same morning routine. Author Haruki Murakami extolled the virtues of morning consistency, writing, “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” But, as anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution knows, it’s relatively easy to create a routine or a goal for oneself, but then sticking to it is a different story.
There are always excuses to break habits like proper sleep, morning exercise, or staying disconnected in the morning, especially when we’re on holiday or on a business trip, but breaking habits “just once” is a slippery slope that can erode the creative habits we’ve worked hard to form.
11. Plan your morning the night before
Making to-do lists and designing your morning routine before your alarm clock goes off can go a long way in getting you up and out of bed and into your routine without wasted time. It also cuts down on the amount of analytical thinking we need to do in the morning, which frees us up to think more abstractly and creatively. By spending a block of time figuring out a routine for the next week or two, we can simply get up and execute rather than spending our mornings dallying, trying to figure out what we want to eat or who we need to call or coordinate with in the day ahead.
Let the adventure begin… start being more creative!
Creativity is one of the most elusive of all abilities. Whereas some skills you can learn and then never have to learn again, creativity is something that tends to come and go. Some days, we can find ourselves flush with originals ideas while other days (or weeks or months or years), it seems all but impossible to come up with fresh thoughts or a new way of doing things. And therein lies the importance of morning routines. Because creativity is so difficult to pin down, having a morning routine that’s proven to stimulate creativity is one of the only ways to ensure its consistency.
Through this imposition of order on an inherently orderless ability — by disconnecting in the morning, drinking coffee, being slow to get up, reducing our choices, properly exercising, taking stock of our lives, and meditating and thinking with intentionality — it’s possible to stay creative more consistently. And while no one is always creative, sticking to these morning routines will make something as haphazard and rare as creativity an ability that you can (almost) control.