7 Tips I Use to Spark My Creativity.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: 7 tips I use to spark my creativity.

I’ve read a lot of advice about how to spark creativity. Everyone’s creativity takes a different form, however, so the advice that works varies from person to person.

For example, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be efficient and productive. One of my struggles, therefore, is to allow myself to spend time on activities that don’t pay off in some direct way. Creativity often involves play, digression, exploration, experimentation, and failed attempts; it doesn’t always look productive.

As ludicrous as it may sound, I have to force myself to wander, and schedule time for goofing off.

Here are some creativity-boosting strategies that work for me:

1. Take notes. I have a compulsion to take notes as I read. I write down quotations and bits of information that catch my interest. In fact, all my book projects have really been ways to justify taking the notes that I most wanted to take.

I used to fight the urge to take notes that weren’t related to a specific project, but now I let myself go. I make strange lists, for no reason. I take notes without a purpose. I realize that sometimes, even many years later, I do find a purpose for those notes. All this note-taking is time-consuming, but in the end, highly satisfying. Along the same lines, I…

2. Follow my interests. I no longer try to curb my reading impulses; I don’t try to stop myself from reading everything ever written about St. Therese of Lisieux, or everything that Gary Taubes has ever written about nutrition, or lots of children’s literature. Instead of focusing on what I “ought” to be doing, I allow myself to wander—by buying an odd book, poking around the internet, or exploring an unusual place.

3. Buy supplies. As a confirmed under-buyer, I dislike making purchases, but in keeping with my resolution to “enjoy a modest splurge,” I encourage myself to make an occasional creativity-supporting purchase. A few months ago, I bought a beautiful set of magic markers and an oversized pad of drawing paper. For some reason, I just craved them. And indeed, when I got home, I sat down to a spell of…

4. Draw an idea-map. This is a process of writing down ideas in a way that helps you see new relationships and possibilities. I begin with a symbol or word in the center, and then map out my associations with that word—using single words and colored pens to keep the ideas vivid and clear. By mapping out my ideas, I get a new kind of insight into my own thoughts.

5. Enjoy the fun of failure. This catchphrase has made a huge difference to me. I’m very ambitious and want to succeed at everything I try, and that makes me very anxious—which isn’t a creative frame of mind. Telling myself that I can enjoy the “fun of failure” has made me (somewhat) more light-hearted about taking risks. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

6. Read random magazines. Every once in a while, I pick up several magazines that I would never ordinarily read. It’s surprisingly interesting and useful. And I love the feeling of possibility that I get whenever I browse in one of those stores that carries 500 different magazines.

7.  Indulge my magpie impulses. I was fascinated to read that when Twyla Tharp has a new project, she starts a cardboard file box to collect all the materials that inspired her—everything from a toy to a CD to a photograph. The first thing she puts in is a slip of paper with a stated goal for the project—something like “keep it simple” or “something perfect” or “tell a story.” “Everything is raw material,” she says.  “Everything is relevant.  Everything is usable.  Everything feeds into my creativity.  But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.” When I have the urge to collect materials, articles, or information, I now indulge it. Although I generally fight against any stuff that could become clutter, as with note-taking, I find that these collected materials help spur my creativity.

One of the main outlets for my magpie impulses is this blog. Here I collect many of my favorite quotations, intriguing passages from books I’ve read, interesting images, stories I’ve heard from my friends, and questions that plague me. It’s very, very satisfying. I used to worry that writing every day on my blog would drain me of ideas, but in fact, the more I create, the more I want to create.

What strategies have you found to help spur creativity? What works for you?


  • wendyinmichigan

    I think the most important thing I do is keep a cheap 5 x 7 notebook in my purse to write down ideas so I don’t lose them! I also take notes when I’m reading or hearing a speaker, even if I have no idea what they might be used for later. That helps me focus. At work, I create computer folders for future events and put ideas documents in them. When the event gets closer and I’m creating other files for the event, I often notice this file and can review it. I also like colorful office supplies around me, such as a half dozen colors of roller ball pens and ten highlighter colors. Whenever I hear of a book that intrigues me, I log on to my library’s website and request it (we are lucky to have a very good library in my town). I don’t always read every book I get…but at least I get my hands on them.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great addition! I have a little notebook that I carry everywhere with me, too. So helpful.

  • T. L. Cooper

    I’ve used my own version of the “idea-map” since I was a freshman in college. I find it very helpful when I’m feeling less than creative or when and idea has closed into a loop that needed to be straightened.
    I also talk to a friend who always inspires my creativity. He encourages me to break down my barriers and go for the ideas that I might otherwise be unwilling to venture for fear of making myself vulnerable. He often accomplishes this without even knowing it though he is aware that I feel more creative after we talk and seems to like the idea…
    I find that yoga also helps me be more creative, so I do that on a regular basis.

  • Debbi

    Love this piece.  They’re definitely unique tips, and I think I can connect with using them.  I’m going to print them out and put them on the fridge, so I keep returning to them.  My only dilemma now is how I’m going to organize the different  ideas.  Thanks!  I enjoyed this.

    • I’m confused by your “how do you organize the different ideas” –
      I think that takes the ‘happiness’ out of it, sorry.. 🙂

  • Mary

    Big smile when I saw your illustration on this page! That’s one of my favorite things… a brand new big box of crayons. 

  • Peninith1

    ‘Gather materials” is my favorite–my quilting passion is supported by an extensive ‘stash’ of fabrics in all kinds of colors and prints. I often buy a fabric that I ‘just like’, not yet knowing what I will use it for. Then, when an occasion to create arises, my mental catalogue of stash fabric seems to pop up exactly the right fabric to embody my ideas.

    Another thing I would list here about creativity is that it’s great to WORK WITH OTHERS. I have just participated in a ’round robin’ quilt project, in which each quilter creates a center block, then passes it to another quilter to add a border. After several passes, the finished quilt top comes back to the originator–filled with the talents, ideas and gifts of others who have been inspired by the original design and also by the rhythms and design ideas added by others. It’s like starting a story and passing it to the next person for a new chapter–definitely pushes you in new directions you would not have taken by yourself as you respond to what others have done. In this case the ‘collaboration’ is done in secret–but other group projects can be more actively collaborative. You would be amazed to see what happens when 20 people are given the same collection of fabrics and challenged to create–the variety is simply explosive.

    • Peninith1

      OMGosh can’t resist adding I just came home from watching a HD broadcast encore of Wagner’s Siegfried in the new Metropolitan Opera production — talk about what collaboration can do! The awe inspiring creativity of brilliant singers, a great composer, fine musicians, a visionary production designer, costuming artists, make up artists, technicians to make that giant machine of a set move, computer graphics and animation artists and mathematicians not to mention people with business talent and donors. THAT’S when working together moves the WORLD

    • I love your comment, variety is the spice of life! I also loved number 1, I’m always posting virtual sticky notes on my mac lol!


  • Whether or not I think I’ll ever look back on my notes again, I am a note-taker too. Regarding your initial wandering tip, Jonah Lehrer, in his latest book, Imagine, talks about the creative value of wandering and daydreaming; wandering is not at all ludicrous! Thanks for sharing your list.

  • Working out! I do my best, most creative thinking when I’m lost in thought during a great workout. 

  • Jeanette Chaney

    I still brainstorm, even though I read something about brainstorming not really works.  It has worked for me for years.
    I would love to know how you organize your notes.  I too take notes but haven’t found a way to organize my thoughts.

  • BizMusician

    Here are a few of my Blog entries on the topic related to the arts, music, and business

  • Tessa Peters

    So happy to know someone else in the world loves to take notes when they read. I love pulling good things out of a book and keeping them. As I reread my notes, I become inspired all over again.  If it is an exceptionally good book , I will keep it.  Often times, however, I only find one or two things that are important to me. It allows me to keep the idea and let go of the book or magazine. I always write the title and author down in case I would desire to read it again.  I also enjoy splurging a little  on project supplies now and then. It is a small but satisfying joy in my life. Thank you for all of the good ideas, especially the “Fun of Failure” .  I need to let that one soak in a bit…..I like it. God bless!

  • I am at my most creative when I am relaxed and happy. Making time for down time is my most effective strategy for sparking creativity.

  • amy (mamascout)

    I just finished your book and loved this post. Creativity is very important to me as I raise my children to be BIG thinkers. Walking is our number one activity that gets our creative juices flowing. As we walk the alleys and around the urban lake in our neighborhood, we are often all talking at once, planning secret clubs, inventing space ships that can go to another galaxy, and remembering funny stories from our past. All the big questions come when we are walking.

    I recently wrote a post with 100 creative kickstarters for families. They are simple ideas for when you are stuck in the routine of it all – 

  • Unfortunately I have a problem with buying supplies thinking they will encourage me to be greatly creative and make all kinds of things…but then they often end up just sitting around. Like the buttons I HAD to buy months ago to make newspaper flowers, none of which have been made yet. But I have had fun with the scrapbook paper notebook I bought on a whim one day, so maybe it just depends.

  • LizHH

    On the fun of failure, you watch Morgan Spurlock’s Failure Club? (He’s the guy who did Supersize Me. ) I’m obsessed with it.

  • Jen

    What an excellent list! I’m a compulsive note-taker too. I sit in front of computer screen all day long, but I’m constantly taking hard copy notes. For some reason it’s a great way to imprint the ideas. Plus, it makes it seems much more concrete that a document on my computer that I can close and never return to.

  • JenP

    Here’s a very interesting article on the subject…with a lot of cross-over with your list!  http://www.ktvz.com/health/31112307/detail.html 

  • I love my Kindle, but one of the things I find most difficult with it is learning a new way to take notes, dog-ear pages, etc. In my paper books, I star and underline and fold over corners, and with ebooks, that’s a lot less intuitive. I know there are things you can do, but they don’t produce the same visual cues for me…

  • Harmony19

    I love this multi-layered approach to the creativity. You say, ” I put a lot of pressure on myself to be efficient and productive. One of my struggles, therefore, is to allow myself to spend time on activities that don’t pay off in some direct way. Creativity often involves play, digression, exploration, experimentation, and failed attempts; it doesn’t always look productive.”  It brought to mind a woman who attended a workshop that I organized recently. The purpose of the workshop was to draw, scribble, express randomly with no expectation of what would come from the point of the pencil onto the paper. This woman spent the entire hour and a half in frustration because she couldn’t let go of product. I’ve spent a lifetime doing the same thing. Somehow, at the age of 74, I have managed to move beyond the fear of my inner critic. This article really spoke to me.

  • Anu

    “everything that Gary Taubes has ever written about nutrition” — that made me laugh, because I share exactly the same impulse — and also sometimes feel guilty that I am more interested in his writing than doing my own work. 

  • Thanks for sharing these tips! I place a lot of the same restrictions restrictions on myself, and tend to purchase only the necessities, focus only on what’s relevant, and stick very closely to the creative projects I’m working on. I’m going to give some of these a try and see what happens : )

  • Jeanette Chaney

    How do you organize your notes? 

    I love note taking and list making, but usually I can’t find that specific quote a month later when I want to use it.

    • Rachel

      I have the same problem! I love collecting quotes but collection is building and building and i never know where to find anything. I’m thinking that maybe i need to sort them into better categories 🙂

  • guest

    I love to gather as well, I have found pintrest allows me to gather without spending money! It allows me to wander with out spending gas. Of course nothing can compare to taking time and going out and wandering in person, for me; at this time in my life with the resources available it is a huge creative outlet. 

    I find myself mulling over projects and ideas I have gathered and then creating them when I have the time, and money to buy the materials. Then no waste, I buy what I need. 

  • Henri

    Point 6 made my day. Thanks for sharing.

  • I must say that I do all but enjoying the fun of failure. I never did any of these things with the intentions to spark my creativity, but I must say I do feel my creative juices flowing when I do any of these things. I have also found that cleaning and organizing really puts a spin on my creativity; it moves me from feeling to doing.

  • MakingMade

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I especially agree with #5. In the past, I’ve always really struggled with the fear of messing up what I do, so I would just never start. I’ve really gotten over that this year because I’ve been making something every day (and then blogging about it). Anyways, I included your list in a recent post that shares some of my own tips. Perhaps you or your readers will also find it useful. Thanks again! http://makingmade.com/2012/10/29/day-296-10-tips-for-finding-your-creativity/

  • Lara Dcruz

    Loved this piece. Creativity is something which comes from with-in. Its something which we call God-gifted. If you are a creative person you know how and when to turn on your creative side. And this piece of article will be very helpful for those who are not that creative and want to try analyze their creative side.The above mentioned points are worth trying of.

  • Grainne

    I like the idea of coming back to things years later, I have always hoarded artworks and bought up cute childlike pictures. I never hung any of them up, until after my son was born. He now has a very “busy” nursery with all these now collated pictures and friezes (some of which I have kept for twenty years or more). He can read his walls and I enjoy seeing them finally find their true homes and the associated feelings of nostalgia that come with some of them. My real creativity is in curating my home, decorating for the seasons, as well as making our designed for a single lady home work for us three. Thank you for your site Gretchen, as I dip and dive through it, having only recently found it (and as I anticipate reading your books, both of which are sitting in my amazon basket atm) I am challenged and sparked and encouraged. Fyi Five lessons from the Carmelite Saints by Connie Rossini, a free and very short e-book references St Therese of Lisieux. I’m of a Protestant Christian faith but found it a thought-provoking little read.
    Yours, Grainne

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  • Yes love the Idea map mention. I do that weekly. It is pretty much second nature for me, since I better organize related ideas in frameworks that can be understood and decomposed into wisdom.