Ah, that elusive creative spark. It often seems like just when you need it the most, it’s the hardest to find.
It can show up without warning (often at 3am) or leave without permission (often after a manager asks for your ideas). And it can be the hardest of all to manifest first thing in the morning when your caffeine hit is still kicking in and your inbox is full of new emails.
The good news is, researchers have unearthed some surprising facts about the human body and brain that can help you maximize your creativity in the morning. It turns out that there are several things that we can do each and every day to boost our creative output and keep the ideas flowing.
Here are seven essential hacks to help you supercharge your morning routine and expand your creative output.
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1. Stop hitting the snooze button
Sorry, but this one is a non-negotiable. If you want to be creative in the morning, the first thing you have to do is wake up early. You can’t write a novel, paint a masterpiece or design a prototype if you’re still asleep!
Even if you’re not aiming to do any of the above things, set a target wake-up time as your goal. Work towards attaining it by getting up half an hour earlier each week. Keep pushing backwards until you hit your target wake-up time.
Hey, even if half an hour earlier is your target wake-up time, don’t underestimate the power of achieving it! There is a lot that you can get done in 30 minutes.
Sure, it’s tempting to hit the snooze button and assume you’ll carve out time to do your creative tasks in the afternoon or the evening. But there are sound scientific reasons why you work best in the morning. According to a study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, the creative brain is at its strongest at that time of the day.
Studies also show that your willpower is actually a finite resource that should be used strategically throughout the day – so if you put off your work until the evening, you may never get to it.
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2. Go and exercise outdoors
It’s fair to say that neuroscientist David Strayer knows a fair bit about the human brain. When it comes to his own, he finds that hiking and other high-intensity activities are the best catalysts for high-level creative thinking.
By allowing the brain to quiet down, he explained to Outside, “You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you. It supports creativity, positive wellbeing [and] reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”
So get outside to boost your brain function, and train in the morning to be at your sharpest. Just 35 minutes of moderately intense running, rowing or other aerobic exercise will prime your brain for peak intellectual performance by balancing the neurochemicals that contribute to cognitive functioning.
If you’re not that into high-intensity activity, that’s okay. A recent study from Stanford University found that just 10-15 minutes of brisk walking can make you significantly more creative – potentially because the coordination required for walking occupies the brain region responsible for linear thinking and frees up your capacity for creative insight!
So remember, anything that gets your heart rate up and increases your levels of Vitamin D can provide an uptick in cognition.
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3. Wait an hour before consuming caffeine
This next hack may pain some of you who reach for the coffee cup immediately after hitting the shower. But hear us out.
The brain’s cortisol levels peak when we wake up in the morning, which is when the vast majority of us consume a cup of coffee. This, however, is not optimal.
Once our bodies get used to a morning dose of caffeine, they start relying on it. This leads to less cortisol production overall; taking away some of the natural boost we would ordinarily receive in the morning.
The solution to this problem is simple: consume your caffeine at least an hour after you wake up. This way, you’ll both be producing cortisol and benefitting from the caffeine boost that we’ve all grown accustomed to (and maybe even a little obsessed with).
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4. Write by hand and without intention
You don’t have to be a writer to get something out of getting your thoughts out and onto paper in the morning. In fact, it can be an extremely useful process.
New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss has popularized this morning habit, which was first introduced by the author of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron. She believes that “once we get [our] muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts on the page, we face our days with clearer eyes.” Writing is a great primer that will help set you up for a productive, creative day.
Skip the Word doc, though, and pick up a pen instead. Sometimes just the experience of writing by hand – the feel of ink on our fingers and the smell of a fresh notebook – is all it takes to get the creative juices flowing.
Studies have also found that just a few minutes of writing for the sake of writing can serve as an extremely therapeutic exercise that can even help boost memory.
5. Meditate and be mindful
The Walt Disney Company found something intriguing after introducing meditation into their workplace. It turned out that mindfulness was a great technique to help employees come up with creative solutions.
Research done at Ben-Gurion University backs these claims, finding that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be ‘blinded’ by experience.
The research shows non-meditators had greater cognitive rigidity than regular meditators as well as a tendency to apply difficult or outdated solutions to easy problems based on their past experiences, whereas regular meditators solved problems in novel ways.
Starting your day with 15-20 minutes of mindful meditation can therefore help you limit such cognitive rigidity, and clear your mind to allow your creative intuition to flourish.
It can also calm your emotions and boost your focus, clarity, and insight.
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6. Listen to ten minutes of music
Music is a great tool for unlocking your creativity.
A recent study showed that it helps stimulate the part of our brain that controls motor actions, emotions and creativity. If you’re in the middle of a creative task, it can also help you concentrate on what you’re doing.
Whether it’s background music or your favorite high-school jam, there’s ample evidence to suggest that music increases curiosity in general.
Try listening to a new album while you have your morning shower and make your breakfast before sitting down at your desk.
Classical music may give you an extra boost. According to Don Campbell’s book The Mozart Effect, listening to Mozart can increase creativity, concentration and other cognitive functions.
7. Turn off or silence your phone
Nothing is as quick to kill creativity as unwanted distractions.
Interruptions are the enemy.
Set a strategy for checking your email, updating your social media status or responding to any texts if you can.
Social media and messaging apps in particular can be very damaging to your creativity – they lead you down a rabbit hole that is not only bottomless, but unproductive.
There’s a reason why sensory deprivation floatation tanks have seen a spike in popularity in recent years. Deprived of external stimuli, the brain generates its own. Floatation stimulates creativity in a manner similar to that of sleep or meditation.
You may not be able to participate in a 90-minute float session every morning before you go to work, but you can sustain your creative focus by avoiding Instagram or Facebook until later on in the day. The cat photos will still be there in the afternoon.
Creativity can spark in many forms, but in order to maximize your chances of generating it, follow the above tips to gain long-term dividends.
I’m not suggesting that you wake up half an hour early, run for 35 minutes outside, meditate for 20 minutes, write without intention, listen to Mozart for 10 minutes, then throw your phone out the window while waiting an hour to drink coffee.
But used in combination with one another, the above hacks will help you experience much more productive mornings and boost your creative production over time.
Bookmark this article or create your own list of morning hacks to refer to when you feel lost or unmotivated.
After all, planning for success is the first step to achieving it.