Gretchen Rubin

Eight tips for sparking your creativity.

Eight tips for sparking your 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 a lot from person to person.

For example, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be efficient and productive. One of my struggles 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.

These are the strategies that work best for me:

1. Taking 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 no longer. All this note-taking is time-consuming, but in the end, highly satisfying. Along the same lines, I…

2. Follow my interests. Why do I keep reading more and more about St. Therese of Lisieux? I’m not sure, but I’m not stopping myself. Instead of staying focused 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. Allow myself 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 more light-hearted about taking risks. For example, I failed in something this very afternoon. I have a shocked, slightly sick feeling, but I keep repeating to myself, "Hey, it's the fun of failure!" I think it's helping.

4. Buy supplies. I don’t like making purchases—especially when they seem purposeless—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 for a spell of…

5. Idea-mapping. 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. I’ve done this lately when I get stuck on a happiness question. By mapping out my ideas, I get a new kind of insight into my own thoughts.

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. Gather ideas. I was fascinated to read in Twyla Tharp's Creative Habit that when she 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 writes. “Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.” I gather my ideas with my notes, but some people's ideas couldn't be distilled in a computer document.

8. Keep a scrap-book. Okay, I haven’t done this yet, but will start RIGHT NOW. A friend once told me, “Whatever activities you enjoyed when you were ten years old, you’d probably enjoy now.” Throughout my childhood, I spent hundreds of hours on scrapbooks. And I have some great, colorful happiness material that I’d love to pull out of a file and arrange in a book. Why have I procrastinated? I bought a suitable book a year ago (see #3), but just haven’t started it yet. Off I go, this minute --

icon schooled

Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.

The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t actOur Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.

Take the quiz

Get My Monthly Newsletter

Sign up to get my free monthly newsletter. It highlights the best material from here, my Facebook Page, and new original work.