Making Your Mornings More Creative

Brrriiinnng. The alarm clock buzzes in another hectic weekday morning. You leap out of bed, rush into the shower, into your clothes and out the door with barely a moment to think. A stressful commute gets your blood pressure climbing. Once at the office, you glance through the newspaper, its array of stories ranging from discouraging to depressing to tragic. With a sigh, you pour yourself a cup of coffee and get down to work, ready to do some creative, original problem solving.

Good luck with that.

As several recent studies highlight, the way most of us spend our mornings is exactly counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us promote flexible, open-minded thinking. Take that hurried wake-up, for example. In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.

Sleepy people’s “more diffuse attentional focus,” they write, leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network. This widening leads to an increase in creative problem solving.” By not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you’re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer. (If you happen to be one of those perky morning people, your most inventive time comes when you’re winding down in the early evening.)

Your commute filled with honking cars or sharp-elbowed fellow passengers doesn’t help, either. The stress hormone cortisol can harm myelin, the fatty substance that coats our brain cells. Damage to these myelin sheaths slows down the speed with which signals are transmitted between neurons, making lightning-quick “Eureka!” moments less likely.

And while we all should read up on what’s going on in the world, it may be better to put that news website or newspaper aside until after the day’s work is done. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that subjects who watched brief video clips that made them feel sad were less able to solve problems creatively than people who watched an upbeat video. A positive mood, wrote researcher Ruby Nadler and her co-authors, increases “cognitive flexibility,” while a negative mood narrows our mental horizons. The segment that made participants feel worst of all? A news report about an earthquake.

The only thing most of us do right in the morning, in fact, is drink coffee. Caffeine not only makes us more alert, as we all know—it also increases the brain’s level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that influences feelings of motivation and reward when we hit on a great idea. (Nicotine does this too, but I can’t in good conscience recommend an a.m. cigarette.)

So what would our mornings look like if we re-engineered them in the interest of maximizing our creative-problem-solving capacities? We’d set the alarm a few minutes early and lie awake in bed, following our thoughts where they lead (with a pen and paper nearby to jot down any evanescent inspirations). We’d stand a little longer under the warm water of the shower, dismissing task-oriented thoughts (“What will I say at that 9 a.m. meeting?”) in favor of a few more minutes of mental dilation. We’d take some deep breaths during our commute instead of succumbing to road rage. And once in the office—after we get that cup of coffee—we’d direct our computer browser not to the news of the day but to the funniest videos the Web has to offer.

For decades, psychologists have manipulated the emotions of subjects in the lab by showing them short film clips. But now there’s YouTube—and, in fact, the clip that made the participants in Ruby Nadler’s study happiest of all was a YouTube video of a laughing baby. Laughing babies and a double latte: now that’s a way to start the day.

Brilliant readers, do have a morning routine that helps get your creative juices flowing? Please share your thoughts below.

7 Responses to “Making Your Mornings More Creative”

  1. Toddi Norum says:

    “Laughing babies and a double latte!” I’d say it couldn’t get any better than that. I guess that’s why so many of us yearn for those sleep deprived days of our childrens’ early years. And surprise, despite our sleep deprived states, most of us were at our creative best then-at least I know I was.

    I always include my “NPR” in my morning commute. The world perspective I get by listening to international content in the morning helps ground me in my day…so I can get out of my own way! I often hear about creative solutions and inspiring people when I listen. That always helps to get the creativity going.

    My co-worker draws during morning meetings. She makes me smile.

  2. Tracey says:

    When I wake, I roll out of bed and do 10 push-ups, jumping jacks, and 10 crunches. Then, I make lunches for me and my husband. He leaves earlier than me, so once he leaves, I get on the computer and write for 15-20 minutes. I write about my thoughts, what is happening in my life, my many questions, and my studies. This has been a great help to me. It is built into my day and a time that I enjoy. After I write, I change into my running clothes and go for a run.

  3. John Bennett says:

    I never had the option but I bet subways, trains, or even car pools would be / could be much better than solo in commuter traffic!!!

  4. jan victor says:

    I have found that not waking to an alarm is wonderful and have somehow gotten to the place where I wake naturally at 6am. Then, with coffee cup and paper, I write whatever is on my mind and in my head, a minimum of 3 pages. Usually by the time I have done a “brain dump” I’ve also jotted down most of the “to dos” for the day. In order to do this, I’ve changed my evening schedule to elimate tv and get to bed earlier. It’s worth it every morning though when I can start the day productively.

  5. LuAnne says:

    Like others I write in the morning. I haven’t been drinking coffee or tea in the morning. I feed the cats and then read poetry or an inspirational book (usually on writing which is my field). I also do chakra work. Then I sit in silence for 5 to ten minutes contemplating one of the ideas I read about. Then I journal. I write about my session of silence and maybe my chakra work. I always decide on a theme for the day (today mine was “purification” which was also my focus in silence). And like others, I plan my day and conclude with three gratitudes, preferably small things. Today I was grateful for the shadows of the trees in my snow filled yard, the rainbows the light made as it came through my cut glass window, and that I have my poetry group tonight.

    I use a site called 750words and journal online The site does diagnostics of your writing – like you prevalent mood, whether you were more feeling or analytical. It also generates a word cloud of your entry. The goal is to write at least 750 words a day. Then I use those entries to write my poetry and essays. Fortunately, I work from home so no commute for me! On the days I do this routine, my day goes so much better.

    • Deepak says:

      LuAnne, I love the way you have organized your life. I think you have added quality to your everyday life. I will try and follow your example.

  6. Kelly says:

    I’m an early bird, so my routine includes at least a half an hour to myself when I first wake up to have my morning coffee and a.m. cigarette. I’ll check my email, look up anything I may need, and sometimes read/view material friends have shared on Facebook. I don’t do much writing except for email responses, but this is something I will try, and see how it changes my day.

    I love reading your newsletters, they’re part of my Monday, sometimes Tuesday morning routine!

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