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.

So I resolved to overhaul the space, which just so happened to align with another of the popular tips out there for boosting creativity—changing up your workspace. Soon, I was digging for renovation tips. By day, I would glance up and survey my office whenever possible, dreaming about it being more comfortable and beautiful—like Pixar’s or IDEO’s or Google’s. By night, I pumped hours into office-furniture websites, searching for standing desks, rugs, wall décor, CB2 hourglass timers, and so on. I replaced my tired office chairs with bright-red tulip-shaped ones. I had my ordinary bookcase removed, and, over a weekend, painstakingly installed bookshelves made out of books, which made me feel pretty clever.

At first, I was just trying to make the place look cool, like the office that an impressively creative person might work in. But the whole thing had started to turn into one big exercise in procrastination, which is what I blamed for my suddenly lagging creative progress. But then I started finding several studies that suggested that—and I don’t know how I’d missed it before—the real culprit may have actually been the dimensions of my workspace.

What had never occurred to me was that I should worry less about the decorations and more about the detrimental effects my low and sloping ceiling was having on my creativity. According to research from the University of Minnesota, and also mentioned in Psychology Today, ceiling height affects the way we think. We’re apparently more creative under high ceilings, and more task-focused under low ones. So if I needed to think big, the theory went, I should move to a space with vaulted ceilings. And if I needed to focus on details, I should move to a room with lower ones.

I knew I’d have a hard time convincing my department to move me again. I was stuck where I was. Since I couldn’t lift my ceiling, perhaps lowering my chairs would have a similar effect. So I bought four tiny white leather footstools on Overstock that I would use as chairs. That, I figured, would have the practical effect of increasing my ceiling height by a few inches.

I can’t say whether this helped. It just felt awkward. I would have had to shorten the desk, too, and perhaps my legs, to put the room back in proportion. But I loved those stools anyway. Until I discovered that one of the legs wouldn’t screw into the fourth stool properly, and I realized I’d never find the time to send it back, nor to call Overstock for replacement parts. Two months later, the stool remains in several pieces, propped up in the corner of my office. A note on my to-do list still says, “Call Overstock Customer Care.”

Like I said, I can’t say for sure whether the ceiling-height thing actually worked at the office, but given that it’s being recommended out there as an innovation enhancer, I decided to try it out again for my drawing project. I tried working for several hours at home in a room with a high ceiling. I started with NPR blasting for a bit of ambient noise, then tightened my earplugs (by this point, I was even wearing them at home) and started working. Before long, I was checking my email again. I clicked on one and wrestled with it, only to press SEND and find that four others had arrived. I reluctantly answered more of them. I felt the day, the joy, being sucked out of me.

Soon it was time to try working under a lower ceiling.

There is only one room in my apartment with a notably low ceiling, and it was rather dark in there. Never have I seen research that says darkness is good for creative work. But I went in there anyway, got comfortable, and set about getting task-focused. A half hour later, I woke up, having dreamed about cockroaches and being exposed in public.

After that, I worked mainly in the taller room. But by the end of the day I was ready to give up on the ceiling-height tip. I went to get a pastry at a local coffee shop. On the walk back, I tried to recall other ceilings I’ve worked under. Beneath high ceilings, and low ones, too, I’ve made (and not made) cool stuff, and been able to (and not been able to) focus. I couldn’t detect any pattern.

This obsession with perfecting my space for creativity was not helping me. Instead, it was displacing the minuscule amount of free time I had for creativity.


Maybe the problem was not my ceiling, I reasoned, but my walls, and, more specifically, their color.

Drawing on a 2009 study done at the University of British Columbia, Jonah Lehrer made a big deal in Imagine about the creative power of blue rooms. Science Daily, NPR, Wired, and others all explored the idea after the book came out. In a review for the New York Times, however, Christopher Chabris pointed out that the original study had not actually been about blue rooms but about blue computer screens. Either way, I was screwed. My walls were white. And my computer screen was multicolored.

In any case, when I first considered this tip, I must confess, I chortled. I mean, if this were really true, then swimming pools with whiteboards and underwater markers might be the next big thing. I felt certain this study must have won an Ig Nobel Prize for improbable science, like that one fMRI study on a dead fish’s thoughts.

The blue-room tip quickly became my favorite nugget to pull out at cocktail parties. It struck me as absurd. But then something surprising happened. About midway through my experiment, I had to go to New York to co-lead a student program with the Harvard Innovation Lab. When I arrived, I discovered that my hotel room was floor-to-ceiling blue. Fancy that. And I swear the color of the room started working on me so quickly that I coined a word for it: bluetiful.

Day one in the blue room was strangely quiet. Peaceful. There was no rush to meet anyone, no hubbub of emails. There was just me, jazz streaming from an old-school radio, the soft blue of the walls, and room service.

  • 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.