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.