The imagination fix: 10 ways to stay wildly creative as office life returns

If you were one of the lucky ones during the lockdowns – healthy, in employment, furloughed or working from home, with no young children – you may have seized on the spare time to knock out a novel or two, master clog dancing or embark on a lifesize sculpture of Prof Chris Whitty. A survey by the Open University found that 61% of people took up something creative in 2020 – nearly a third reported reading for pleasure, with cooking close behind, while crafts such as knitting and photography were also embraced. It also reported a 622% increase in registrations for online creative courses, while Pinterest had a 130% increase in viewings of sewing videos. Now, as life starts to get busier, how do we keep our newfound creative practice alive?

Remember why you’re doing it
You may have ambitions that one day the screenplay you’re working on will win you an Oscar, but even if you’re not planning to turn your project into a career, it will bring numerous benefits to your life. “Remember that it felt good,” says Kevin Chesters, a marketing strategist and co-author of The Creative Nudge. “It was fun, it was interesting, and who wouldn’t want a more fun and interesting life after the year we’ve all just had? Don’t let this return to normal be a return to drudgery. Don’t let it be a return to doing things the way you always did. Keep the good bits going.” Engaging in creative pursuits is beneficial for health and wellbeing. “View it as a way of taking care of yourself,” says Beth Pickens, an arts consultant and author of Make Your Art No Matter What. “Thinking of it less as something fun to do when you have time and more as something you do to take care of yourself can help prioritise it.” “Creative practice,” she says, “is a restorative thing, it gives you more energy, whereas a lot of our habits, like TV and social media, they’re fun, but they’re more like numbing activities. They don’t give us a lot of fuel.”

Fold it into your identity
If you think of something as “just” a hobby, it can be harder to justify making time for it. Alternatively, suggests Mark McGuinness, a coach for creative professionals and author of Productivity for Creative People: “If it’s something that you really feel is a part of your identity – if you say: ‘Now I feel maybe I could be a writer or an artist’ – it’s easier to hang on to that. And if you feel that what you’re creating is something you really want to get out into the world, that’s another form of motivation.” Not, he adds, that if you do view it as simply a hobby, that isn’t great in and of itself. “What are the emotional benefits of having that activity in your life? The more interlocking benefits there are, the easier it’s going to be to hang on to it when other stuff threatens to push it off the schedule.”

Though you don’t have to become an Artist
“People think creativity is a job title and it’s not,” says Chesters. “You can bring creativity to any field you’re in. You can be a creative lawyer, you can be a creative grandma. Thinking about things in new and interesting ways will just make your life better.” Humans tend to like predictability “and we’re scared of doing new things. It’s not our fault – evolution gets in the way, societal conditioning gets in the way. But every human was born creative, it’s society that crushes it out of us slowly through adulthood.”

Prime yourself to be creative
This includes being comfortable with novelty and chaos, says Chesters. In his book, he includes suggestions for small “nudges” that will help – unpairing your socks, switching your cutlery drawers around, using your non-dominant hand more. “Talk to new people. If you walk to the station every day, add a different street there. Just do different things,” he says. Creativity, he says, can be about challenging the orthodoxy.

Make time
For many of us, it’s not genuinely that we have no time. “Consider what is less important that you would trade time for,” says Pickens. “How much do you really need to be on social media if it makes you feel bad? Trade it for working on the creative project that’s been giving you a lot of joy.” Schedule time for your creativity, rather than hoping “free” time will appear. “It can be an interesting practice to look at your week and, rather than starting with work or school, actually start with things that are important to you, and then build the other things around it,” says Pickens.

Don’t over-commit
“If you say ‘I’m going to do two hours every day in the evening after work’, maybe some days you’ll have the energy for that, but other days you won’t,” says McGuinness. Not meeting those high standards may make you feel despondent, so keep your commitment realistic as other demands creep in. “The place to start is: what is the minimum it will take to move this forward?” says McGuinness. “Is it 30 minutes a day? Two evenings a week? Half a day at the weekend? By all means do more, but have a minimum commitment. What needs to give in order for you to find room for it? Does it mean getting up half an hour earlier? Does it mean having an agreement with your partner about childcare?” Identify potential obstacles in advance and have a plan for overcoming them.

Be consistent
Not only is it motivating to see progress being made, but your creative practice will also become a habit. “Even half an hour a day will make a difference,” says McGuinness. “The most important thing is that you keep at it to the point where it’s normal, like brushing your teeth or going to work.” If you miss a day, or a week or longer, just start again. “Try not to beat yourself up, but also make sure you get the lesson – what was it that stopped me? What would I do next time in order not to get derailed?”

Banish guilt
Ideally, by now, a creative practice may feel as vital to wellbeing as exercise, but chances are you still have some sense that it’s unimportant or indulgent. There can be anxiety, says McGuinness, “about all the other stuff that I feel as if I could or should be doing instead”. He advises being as organised as possible, so that you can tackle the stuff you feel you should be doing. “There’s a lot more room in your life when you are more organised, and there’s a lot less residual anxiety.”

Join a community
It is hard to do things on your own, says Pickens. “Even if you’re doing something alone, like painting or writing, building and maintaining relationships to other people who also think that’s important will really help. Anything that gets you engaged with other people who are also prioritising their creative work will help you do that as well.” Look for local writing or crafting groups. You could connect with people online but Pickens prefers in-person groups. “When we have emotional support, and other people who are doing the same thing, we can stay more motivated and engaged in our goals.”

Discover a passion
What if you didn’t embrace a creative lockdown project? The simple solution is find one now. “Try loads of things, stretch your originality muscle,” says Chesters. “It’s fine to fail. If you want to get comfortable with failure, just take up loads of different hobbies, and some of them you’ll be good at, some of them you’ll be dreadful at.” Passion comes later, says McGuinness. “What I find often is that people generally don’t start off with a raging passion for doing whatever it may be, but they get curious about it, and they discover it.”