Benjamin Franklin used to spend his mornings naked. Sigmund Freud would trim his beard. Marcel Proust smoked opium. There are many ways to start the day in a creative frame of mind. If you want an alternative to being nude, beardy, or high, here are some of our favorites.
1. Free Writing
Creativity manuals like the Artist's Way talk about the power of the "Morning Pages"—a ritual in which you start writing just after waking up, and bang out some prose before your conscious, self-critical self has fully come online. Conveniently, there's an app for that. Flowstate is a word processor with a twist: You set a timer, then write until it dings. If you hesitate for more than a couple of seconds, the app will delete everything that you've put down so far. Although it sounds like torture, the app can actually help you let go of editing and enter a state of uncritical flow.
2. Phone Denial
Before going to bed, move your phone charger to another room. Then, put a pencil and paper in its place on your nightstand. Now, when you wake up, instead of looking at Google News or Facebook, write down some thoughts that are related to how you're feeling, what is important for you, and how you're going to make a creative impact today. If that feels too involved right after waking up, draw a picture of something instead. Either way, don't let yourself get distracted by your phone until you've engaged your creativity.
3. Disposable Poetry
When Kurt Vonnegut was 84, he received a letter from a high school student, asking him to visit his school. The writer refused, claiming that he was now so old that he now "resembled an iguana." Instead of visiting, he sent a letter that contained a creative exercise. "Write a six-line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can." Then, Vonnegut said, the poem was to be torn up and discarded. "You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow." As a tribute to the great Mr. Vonnegut, try his ritual every morning.
4. Creative Collaging
Collect any old magazines or catalogues lying around your house. Leaf through them and cut out any interesting pictures or headlines. Assemble these into a collage. Take a photo of the collage and post it to Instagram, Facebook, or whatever social media site you use. Doesn't that feel better than posting a picture of yourself playing with your dog, or the avocado toast that you had for breakfast? Of course it does. You just stepped away from the ordinary world for a moment and created something original. For bonus points, download the Boomerang Gmail extension, and you can email your pictures to your future self—in a month or even a year. Think of it as a way to remind future you to stay creative.
5. Walking and Observing
Everyone from Beethoven to Steve Jobs relied on the inspirational powers of a walk. Neuroscience backs up their belief: A walk will remove you from the distractions of conversations and technology, freeing the mind to explore new associations between the ideas already in your head. Why not skip breakfast altogether and walk to work? Look around as you do so, and see if you notice anything unusual or surprising in the environment. Take a gander at other people too. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what they're thinking or feeling. Remind yourself that everybody sees the world differently, and that this kaleidoscope of human perceptions and viewpoints is a wonderful thing. Remember that inspiration is all around you—you just have to stop occasionally to breathe it in.
Illustrations by Megan Crabtree.
Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.