Fueling Your Creative Edge
Anyone in the advertising and marketing biz is no stranger to late nights fueled with coffee and pizza. They’re also no strangers to stepping away from a project when the creative juices aren’t flowing.
“There are a lot of tricks people use to feel more creative,” says Dr. Stephen Spates. “But you can’t cultivate creativity, it’s more a matter of preserving it.”
So to kick off our new approach to a healthy work life that ignites innovation, we wanted to understand how to best harness creativity to deliver the freshest, most effective ideas to our clients. What we discovered—and what we’ve already begun implementing—is that creativity and rest go hand-in-hand—from a 5-minute break to a yearlong sabbatical.
Many people try to push creativity by staying up late or consuming stimulants, which, according to Spates, raises their serotonin level.
“Caffeine isn’t the enemy,” Spates says. “But creatives working on elevated serotonin levels are actually experiencing an unfair representation of their abilities.”
In other words, your brain is working on another level. So while you’ll have a short-term gain in creativity, you’ll experience a long-term loss in creative edge.
DO: Practice Discipline
Though it may sound counter-intuitive, disciplined schedules and routine can actually enhance creativity. That’s because creativity is reliant on serotonin levels in your body. And when you rest, your body creates serotonin.
One trick all of our writers use is the Pomodoro Method, also referred to as the tomato timer. While it originated to enhance productivity, it can also help preserve your creative edge throughout the workday.
“A disciplined schedule means more creative power,” Spates says. “This technique is very much like a hard reset button.”
In short, the Pomodoro Method is sets if regimented intervals of intensity followed by breaks. Start with a 25-minute working period, followed by a 5-minute break, and repeated.
During the working period you shouldn’t answer calls, emails, or the like. As soon as the 25 minutes is over, stop in the middle of whatever you’re doing and start your break. During the break, do anything that relaxes your mind.
“When you try to focus all day—especially if you have one focal point like a computer screen—your brain gets lazy and isn’t creating new signals,” Spates says. “So you have to force yourself to step away throughout the day.”
At the risk of sounding like your mom, it’s also important to get a good night’s rest. More than that, it’s important to have a routine. That’s when your creativity will be freshest.
DON’T: Rely On Creativity Without Wisdom
Imagine the power of a train: While it’s considered one of the most powerful modes of transportation, it’s useless if it’s not on its tracks. The same is true with creativity:
“When you have creative sparks, there’s wisdom that needs to go with it,” Spates says. “Creativity doesn’t always mean usefulness, either. Things have to be tempered with a certain amount of wisdom.”
DO: Take Time Off
Another important way to keep a creative edge is to take time off. Have you ever heard your copywriter say she had her best idea when she wasn’t thinking about the project?
Time off allows you to take a step back from your day-to-day workload and return with fresh perspective. For us, that means flexible hours and a sick/personal/creative day a month. Some other agencies like thinkParallax go so far as to require their employees to take a culture trip each year.
Fitting with their company name, ‘parallax’ is the difference in perspective you get by looking at the same object from different positions. In other words, time away gives you a new perspective on the same old thing.
Another extreme of this idea is seen in designer Stefan Sagmeister, who closes his New York studio every seven years to embark on a yearlong sabbatical that rejuvenates and refreshes his creative outlook.
So whether you try the Pomodoro Method, take a vacation, or simply catch up on some Zs, Dr. Spates says the simplest way to stay fresh is by following one acronym: PHALT.
“You should never feel like you’re trying to be creative,” he says. “So I tell everyone to stop doing whatever they’re doing if they’re in pain, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired: PHALT.”