Present at the Creation

From the self-help gurus to the hottest new books, it’s the buzziest concept out there: take a few simple steps—paint your room blue, drink more (or less), work under low ceilings—and you’ll become more creative in no time, leading you to the success you’ve always desired. How much of it is true? We asked a Harvard expert to find out.

creativity tips experiment

The author at work improving her creative output. (Photos by Gary Land)

The hardest part of drinking beer in the shower, I was starting to realize, is figuring out where to put the bottle while you’re soaping up.

I also wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to stay in the shower, or how many beers I would have to drink before I started feeling the effects. Not of the alcohol, but of the enhanced creativity. It may sound ridiculous—it certainly did to me—but according to popular articles and certain scientific studies, hot showers and cold beers are exactly what you need if you are, like me, in a creative rut.

So how did I wind up in this shower? The whole thing started two months ago, when I decided to try to get my creative groove back. You see, my job is to research forms of creativity and innovation in the workplace, and I teach similar subjects at Harvard—which is how I know that enhanced creativity is the holy grail of our time. No, really, it’s true. For several years, I’ve been studying diverse forms of innovation at leading creative firms—such as IDEO, PPR Group (which owns Gucci, Puma, and other brands), Swarovski, Artscience Labs, and J. Walter Thompson—and turning the insights from that research into experiential lessons for my students, with an emphasis on preparing them for the messy reality of creative production. What I’m telling you is that I spend my life figuring out how people and organizations deal with the obstacles related to becoming more innovative—and yet there I was, struggling with how to do it for myself. What I’d come to understand was that, despite all the buzz out there on the science of creativity and innovation (and there’s a lot right now), nearly everyone I know, including me, is too overwhelmed with work and too inundated with information to figure out what actually works. For me. For my projects. For my lowly attention span.

Faced with this realization, I came up with an idea: I would turn my life into an experiment to see if I could regain my creativity. I would gather the most intriguing books and magazine articles out there, the ones suggesting specific, research-based tips for boosting personal creativity—things like changing the color of your office, modifying your ceiling height, and, yes, drinking beer in a hot shower—and set about testing their real-world effectiveness. I wanted to figure out how much of what’s being recommended could actually be helpful, and how much was bunk.

In other words, I would put the creativity industry to the test. There is a creativity industry, by the way. And the stakes are high. In 2010, Newsweek declared a creativity crisis and a Pew Charitable Trust report claimed that the jobs that require creativity and that truly lead to innovation—engineering, design, science, and entrepreneurship—are increasingly where wealth is being created. The idea is that creativity can lead to innovation, and innovation can drive growth. Little surprise, then, that everyone from President Obama to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to Bill Clinton to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to most executives at Fortune 500 companies are telling us the same story these days: Any nation that wants to remain competitive in the global economy must develop and amplify its capacity for creativity and innovation.


So, we were talking about what it was that I was doing drinking a beer in the shower. The truth is, I struggle daily to make creativity a priority in my own life. Despite my earnest efforts to inject more of it into my projects at work and at home, I get swamped with other things. A peek into my average workday reveals serious room for improvement. I wake up, grudgingly, pressing snooze on my phone…until I start checking email on it. I sigh but don’t respond to all the new messages (mostly to-do items that other people have generously added to my day). I shuffle in leopard-print Dearfoams slippers from my bedroom over to the kitchen and have the same breakfast I always have—All-Bran mixed with Kashi GoLean Crunch, six almonds, a sticky handful of dried cranberries, and skim milk. And two gummy vitamins (taken separately). Add coffee. More email. I shower and, like a blender in slow motion, throw clothes all over my room before running—almost late—to a meeting. From there it’s pretty much meetings-coffee-email-research-teach-repeat until (late) dinnertime. Where is the creative part?

I decided to find out.

The plan was as follows: I would try to optimize my life for creativity by testing out research-based tips that are supposed to help. I started by scouring the “literature.” I collected a stack of popular science books and magazine articles, grabbed a pad of sticky notes, and marked down each suggestion that caught my eye, along with, when possible, the study from which it originated. One by one, I’d put each of them to the test, recording everything that happened along the way. In the process, perhaps I’d even escape the creative doldrums that I’d somehow fallen into.


The copper top of the bar gleamed up at me. Before me sat a glass of pinot noir and a mug of coffee containing a splash of 2 percent milk. I wasn’t feeling innovative at all. Mostly, I was feeling frustrated. I needed to come up with a project that would allow me to test just how much more innovative I was becoming. The problem was, I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. I couldn’t decide on a project to complete, let alone go about the business of actually completing it. So here I was, at Temple Bar in Porter Square, and I was determined not to leave until I got more creative.

I would not have expected to get such advice from science, but I’d found several sources that basically recommended amphetamines as the solution to this kind of creativity crisis. Apparently, in the moments when you need to figure out what you’re doing, you should use depressants to think associatively—that is, to freely explore and connect many ideas, which is considered essential for creativity. But when you need to narrow down your choices or execute an idea, you should use stimulants, to enhance the focused thinking it takes to get stuff done.

Right. I started by trying to come up with an idea—associative thinking. So I took a sip of the pinot. Nothing happened. I made a note to myself to look up the correct “dosage.” I recalled hearing it took “half a glass,” which is apparently just enough to loosen up but not enough to go “off duty.” I sipped again. And again. This is pretty sweet, I thought. I could get used to this.

I flipped back to my notes, which sprawled across the loose pages of a yellow legal pad. I had actually been brainstorming ideas for the past week, but was still having trouble figuring out what to do. I zeroed in on a page I’d written earlier that day that listed the reasons I was stuck on this project. Maybe what I really needed was more focus. So I took a sip from the coffee mug. Then I checked Facebook and Gmail, and took another sip of coffee. I pondered whether it would be interesting to record for posterity each time I logged into Facebook or Gmail or some other time-hemorrhaging resource, if only to make the point of how hard it is to just focus.

As I contemplated all of this, what crept into my mind, for some reason, was a renovation project I’d been planning for my apartment. Ever since I started my experiment, I’d been overcome with the temptation to ignore it. I’d sit on my sofa, peering mentally into each corner of each room of my apartment and imagining a perfect space that would, once finished—finally—allow me to start getting creative.

Sitting at the bar, I gradually became aware of the fact that the three people next to me were sneaking glances at my pages. With my wine and coffee and legal pad, I must have looked pretty weird to everyone else who was just trying to relax on a Wednesday evening. Among them was a middle-aged woman with cropped blond hair, and two men I couldn’t glance at just then because they were glancing at me, and I didn’t want to “make eyes.”

“What are you writing so furiously?” the woman finally asked me.

  • Douglas Eby

    Thanks for this fascinating article. Maybe enhancing creativity has much more to do with inner changes in feeling and thinking. For example, a study at North Dakota State University had college students write a short essay, with one group instructed to imagine they were seven years old, and this group “exhibited significantly higher levels of originality in thought.” – From my post
    Creative Thinking: Imagine You Are Seven Again

    • Beth Altringer

      I’ve seen that study – thanks for adding it here. In the end I believe there are many ways to stimulate creativity, and it’s important to use those. But I’ve increasingly come to see that discipline is just as important, and I’m looking forward to more research that helps us learn how to combine these to advance our real-world projects.

  • Henri Naths

    Your project the series of drawing that made a bigger picture is exactly what your mind had you create with your office space, your apartment, your web design work. All collaboratively manifested into a larger picture. Creativity works in wonderous way aligned with self awareness

    • Beth Altringer

      Nice point – I hadn’t thought of it that way!

  • Rebecca Rivera

    In your travels, did you happen upon any discussion of the important role procrastination plays in the creative process? I’m a writer (and a Grubbie BTW) who makes my living by being creative. For me (and many of my ilk) working on everything and anything but the project you need to work on is all part of the game–but it may not be part of the research.

    • Beth Altringer

      I engage in productive procrastination all the time. It’s often not an efficient process but it is how I juggle many projects and manage to make progress on them all. The key is that it is productive – switching from one project to another that is still part of my broader interest area – instead of procrastinating in totally unrelated areas.

      • Steve Heim

        I wonder if some of the so-called “procrastination” is actually avoidance with deeper psychological implications related to fear/conflict surrounding success and failure? I think creative people give themselves lots of permission to fail in the name of progress. There’s nothing at stake in trying, it’s playful experimentation. I really enjoyed this narrative voice dishing the right balance of humor and research! A very clever dual perspective from a left and right brain inside the head of a very talented writer and thinker. Brilliant! I love “bluetiful.”

  • Kelly McMahen

    Thanks for the laugh. The light hearted look at what can be a frustrating struggle was welcome. I think anyone who has put themselves out there by trying can identify with the feelings and appreciate the wisdom that discipline or commitment is key.