1. They get moving.
Composer Erik Satie walked roughly 10 kilometers from Arcueil to Paris every morning. Saul Bellow rode his mountain bike. Novelist Haruki Murakami keeps a famously intense running schedule, which he described in the Paris Review:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
Whether it lets the mind wander, improves mood, or functions as an important part of daily ritual, regular physical activity has been linked to improved creative thinking. In this 2013 study, athletes outperformed non-athletes in tests of both divergent thinking (coming up with many possible solutions to a problem) and convergent thinking (coming up with one solution to a problem).
2. They take naps.
OK, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a nap, but most creative people carve out time for relaxation. Take Vladimir Nabokov, who described to the New York Times a schedule that included a daily two-hour nap and 20-minute soak in a hot bath, or artist Joan Miró, who allowed himself just a five-minute nap after lunch. Naps have been shown to improve alertness and enhance right brain function (which is closely associated with creative activity), but if that’s not your thing, meditation also works to increase creativity. This 2012 study found that people who practiced open-monitoring meditation (which avoids focus on any particular concept or object, and instead is receptive to all immediate thoughts and sensations) were better at generating new ideas. Think of it as a brain refresher.
3. They daydream.
A key component of making work you’re proud of is knowing when to walk away from it. A lot of times, the best ideas come seemingly out of nowhere, when you’ve welcomed distraction and let your mind wander. Harvard University researcher and psychologist Shelley Carson writes about this all-important “incubation period” in her book The Creative Brain:
Often one potential but unhelpful solution may block your ability to think up other solutions while the unhelpful one is still fresh in your mind. The incubation period, however, allows you time to forget inappropriate solutions upon which you may have become fixated.
But you don’t have to necessarily step away from a project to loosen up your mind, either. This 2012 study from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that moderate background noise (think the bustle of a coffee shop) offers enough of a distraction to trigger abstract thinking and the development of creative ideas. So, while you may be used to holing up in the quiet corner of your apartment, it’s worth changing up the environment.
4. They collaborate.
When Steve Jobs designed the Pixar Studios campus in 1999, his first priority was encouraging creative collaboration. He tossed aside the original design — which called for three separate buildings, dividing the computer scientists, the animators, and the directors and editors — in favor of one large, central space with just two bathrooms where encounters among different specialists would be inevitable.
According to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, “[Jobs] knew that human friction makes the sparks” and that such mingling has to be pushed, since it usually forces people to branch out of their comfort zones. But it’s worth it! You never know how an outside perspective can shift your ideas.
5. They take risks.
This one is closely linked to creative collaboration, since it’s just as much about getting out of your comfort zone. But it can extend beyond the creative process, and into the details of your daily life. One of the most famous examples of this is Albert Einstein, an avid sailor who didn’t know how to swim. According to Steven Kotler at Psychology Today, his flirtations with danger were directly related to his innovations, because taking risks actually equips your brain to make the “long-distance connections” so beneficial to creativity and imagination.
Of course, you don’t need to actually put your life in danger to reap these benefits. Just by intentionally pursuing unfamiliar and unusual experiences, you’re increasing the likelihood of being inspired (more source material!) and training your brain to think in new ways. If you’re living fearlessly, you’re likely to create fearlessly.
6. They make (and stick to) a routine.
The details vary, but one constant among most successful creatives is the development of a schedule, which Mason Currey describes in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Honoré de Balzac woke at 1 a.m. to write for seven hours straight, after which he allowed himself a 90-minute nap and some coffee before diving back in. Stephen King sits down between 8 and 8:30 a.m., always at the same chair, with a vitamin pill and some music. Toni Morrison describes her ritual — making a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise — as an almost spiritual experience:
I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
This seemingly mundane repetition works in two ways. First, the unique details of the routine — the smell of your coffee, sitting down at your desk, the 3-mile loop you run — can act as cues or triggers telling your brain that it’s time to work. Second, and at a more basic level, it simply ensures that work will be done. Creative people, by definition, must create — and that rarely happens by waiting for a surge of inspiration. It means writing, drawing, building, or composing even when you’re not quite sure what you’re working toward.
7. They explore.
Traveling is one of the most effective ways to broaden your perspective, which can have a measurable and positive impact on creativity. But it’s not enough to simply visit another country; this 2010 study shows that learning about a foreign culture while living within it — and, particularly, doing the work to understand the cultural differences you experience — enhances cognitive complexity and flexibility.
It makes sense. Experiencing customs and practices that are foreign to your own forces you to open your mind, and allows you to make connections you might not have made before. As cultural anthropologist and writer Margaret Mead explained in her book Coming of Age in Samoa, “[A]s the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.”
8. They pay attention.
Creative people are observers of the world around them. They’ve mastered people-watching, attentive to the smallest of details and usually taking notes along the way. English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy kept a journal with him at all times, in which he recorded notes on things he saw, read, and overheard. Joan Didion has written about her lifelong habit of jotting down overheard snippets of conversation or facts she learns in passing. It goes beyond voyeurism, and it’s as much a record of the writer’s relationship with the world as it is about the world itself. In Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” she explains, “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”
9. They forgive “bad” work.
One of the most necessary attributes of a successful creative person is the ability to understand and accept that perfect work doesn’t occur spontaneously; it comes from fleshing out raw and unpolished ideas. Weightlifter, entrepreneur, and blogger James Clear likens the creative process to strength training:
You can’t selectively choose your best moments and only work on the days when you have great ideas. The only way to unveil the great ideas inside of you is to go through a volume of work, put in your repetitions, and show up over and over again.
If you’re working three to five hours a day, as writer John Updike said, “it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases.” But if you’re scared of creating work that you’re less than proud of, you’ll never make it to your masterpiece.
10. They take time to be alone.
Above all else, people who lead creative lives are super comfortable in solitude. Part of it is a matter of environment — they spend their days in their studios or at their desks, and rarely in offices — but it’s also something of a natural tendency. Being alone means having the time and mental space to reflect on yourself, your experiences, and your ideas, all of which is necessary to the creative process. It also means that, a lot of the time, creative people are fairly independent. “Overall I have a healthy appetite for solitude,” writer Will Self told The Guardian. “If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.”