Creativity is not a gift bestowed to a select few before birth. Everyone is creative. It’s just that for some of us that creative spark may be buried under piles of bills, boring tasks, routines and responsibilities.
Creativity needs to be nursed, cultivated and practiced. And there are many simple—and fun—ways to let your creativity loose, whether you’re interested in nurturing your hobbies or your business. You can apply creativity to any endeavor or craft.
Here, the people who live and breathe creativity share their best strategies for cultivating inspiration.
1. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes good ideas just pop into our heads. But more often, it takes effort. “You can’t sit and wait for a brilliant idea to come along, you’ve got to get your hands dirty,” said Veronica Lawlor, an instructor at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design and author of One Drawing A Day: A 6-Week Course Exploring Creativity with Illustration & Mixed Media. “Build up that discipline of action no matter what, and you open the window for creativity to fly through,” she said.
2. Practice “creative grazing.” That’s what designer Jess Constable does on a daily basis. She makes sure to “pay attention to a lot of different ideas and perspectives.” Constable, who’s the designer and founder of Jess LC and author of the blog Makeunder My Life, keeps an eye out for “cool color stories” when she’s shopping or interesting images when she’s online. Then every few months, the “creative grazing” “turns into some intense design days.”
3. Respond to a need. “For areas of my business that aren’t visual, creativity is all about doing what I think best serves a need for my readers or customers,” Constable said.
Her consulting business was born out of increasing questions from readers about building and boosting their businesses. “So in order to accommodate these requests along with all of the other hats that I wear, I thought offering the consulting packages would be a great way to meet this need,” she said.
Also, when you’re brainstorming about needs, Constable suggested stepping “away from the usual sources” and considering “how you can fill [the need] in a way that feels fun and unique to your perspective.”
4. Make time for creating. According to Jessika Hepburn, editor of Oh! My Handmade and author of the workbook Cultivate Your Creativity: “It seems like such a simple answer but carving time out for creative adventures can easily be shuffled down the list of priorities.”
Fitting creativity into your life, whether it’s 15 minutes or several hours, has far-reaching effects. “I have realized that if I fail to make the time to play with my tools and materials, from crocheting to playing with pixels, that I am less productive or creative in the other areas of my life,” Hepburn said.
“Mak[ing] time for making” also can be restorative. “When I feel frustrated or overwhelmed by to-do’s, I make space for being creative. Whether I come out of it with a painting or a pot holder I am refreshed and ready to focus on other things with renewed clarity.”
Hepburn makes time for creativity on evenings and weekends, which includes everything from dyeing wool to painting to sketching to “tromping about with my two girls collecting leaves, rocks, and beach glass for after-school crafts.”
5. Set deadlines. While the idea of waiting around for inspiration to strike is nice, you rarely can postpone a project ‘til your muse finally wakes up. That’s why Laura Simms, a writer, speaker and career coach for creatives, suggested establishing deadlines. “You create because you have to, not because you feel inspired,” she said. “Nothing gets the juices flowing like a deadline.”
6. Learn from others. “Study the people who do what you want to do very well,” Constable said. And it doesn’t have to be people in your field. “I find that though graphic design and fashion are not directly connected to what I do day to day with the core of my career, I have become better at both as I’ve become inspired and aware of what others are doing well,” she said.
7. Set limits. While creativity needs room to breathe, setting limits also is valuable. “Narrowing what’s available to you forces you to try new things” and think creatively, Simms said. “Perhaps you photograph only textures, write only 200 words, or cook only local, seasonal foods.”
8. Change mediums. Think of changing mediums as “creative cross-training,” Simms said. If you usually write prose, try poetry. If you paint, try pastels or pencil. If you do crossword puzzles, try Sudoku, she said.
“If you’re paying attention, you can almost always learn something that you can bring back to your usual medium,” she added.
For instance, for Gail McMeekin, author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women, watercolor painting “frees up creative energy and illuminates issues in my writing work too.” “Chang[ing] modalities [also helps her clients] to shake things loose,” said McMeekin, also president of Creative Success.
9. Seek out inspiration. “Your imagination is powerful, but it needs fresh fodder,” Simms said. So she suggested engaging in activities that inspire you, such as “[visiting] a museum, [attending] a live concert, read[ing] your favorite author, tak[ing] in a sunset.”
10. Take a break. Downtime is just as important as having a schedule and being productive, Simms said. Many great thinkers have understood the benefits of a break. For instance, “Charles Darwin is said to have taken several walks a day for ‘thinking time,’” she added.
11. Welcome mistakes. “Don’t worry about making it perfectly, doing it ‘right,’ or set unreasonable standards for yourself,” Hepburn said. McMeekin agreed: “Creativity is full of surprises, so you need to give yourself permission to try things, fail, make mistakes, and then begin again with new insights.”
12. Set up a creativity-boosting routine. McMeekin has a morning routine that helps her get centered and start creating. She begins by sitting quietly and studying her goals, which she’s recorded using a Treasure Map (a collage of images that you’d like to create in your life) and a mandala. Then she listens to music and spends 20 minutes journaling.
13. Carry a notebook with you—always. When on the go, Hepburn grabs a journal or sketchbook. “I jot down ideas while out or if I don’t have the time to pursue them, make quick sketches, staple fabrics/yarns or paste images, colors and textures that interest me.” When Hepburn is ready to create, she has “a treasure trove of thoughts and inspiration to draw on.”
14. Subtract “serenity stealers” from your life. McMeekin refers to “serenity stealers” as anything that sabotages your creative process, whether that’s “people, places, things [or] unsupportive beliefs.” Getting rid of these saboteurs leaves you “free to create.”
Similarly, only share your project with people who will be completely nonjudgmental and supportive, she added.
15. Shrink stress. “Stress is a creativity killer so you must avoid it and/or minimize it,” McMeekin said. Fortunately, there are many uncomplicated ways to cope with stress. (See here and here for tips.)
16. Create your own tools. You can develop your own tools to nourish creativity. McMeekin created a deck of cards she calls the “Creativity Courage Cards,” which feature affirmations and her husband’s photos. She draws a card from the deck daily for inspiration. As she said, it takes courage to be creative, and these cards help remind her to be “fearless and proactive.”
17. Make creativity a family affair. Hepburn and her daughters spend a lot of time creating together, which is no doubt inspiring for all of them. According to Hepburn, who worked almost a decade with kids and teens, “I never fail to be inspired by their innate creativity and lack of inhibition.”
She also sees firsthand the benefits of creativity (which we may overlook sometimes). For instance, Hepburn’s 6-year-old daughter came home from school crying because she said her heart had been broken. That day, she talked about her strong heart and drew a picture, which now hangs in her room. “Access to creative expression allows us to become more resilient and deal with life trauma or stress at any age,” Hepburn said.
18. Be inquisitive. Simms suggested that readers “question, wonder [and] explore.” Doing so, she explained, “wakes your brain up to new possibilities.” And you can start anywhere. You might wonder: How does “a Stairmaster work? What does that leaf smell like? What would happen if I added cumin instead of coriander?”
19. Be open. Creativity is being flexible and open to all kinds of ideas. Lawlor tries to let go of any preconceived notions and “allow myself to live in the realm of not being sure if a thing will work or not.” She admits that this isn’t so simple in our society where quick fixes are standard. “But sometimes, I think, you have to let things simmer and be open to the unexpected.”
20. Find activities that get you “in the flow.”We’ve all experienced a time when we were fully focused on an activity and even lost track of time. That’s what being in a state of flow feels like. Simms described it as “another sort of consciousness [that] takes over and you ride on instinct;” where “time is distorted.” She recommended readers “explore what activities let you work in the flow state and enjoy the effortlessness of working from there.” This can be anything from running to reading to drawing to dancing.