Since we’ve been socially distancing, time no longer seems to have meaning. Each day I get up, shower, and get dressed. It’s like Groundhog Day. I’ve seen lots of funny memes about people whose stay-at-home wardrobe consists mostly of jeans ― and yes, I’m one of them. And then around 6 p.m., it’s back into sweatpants!

For me, it’s all about the routine. In a time when most of our routines have changed, this helps frame my workday and signals to me that I’m on track. There are differing schools of thought about whether routine helps or hinders creativity.

Is Routine Really a Creativity Killer?

Remember Pavlov and the experiment with the dog ringing the bell for treats? Pavlov’s theory around behavioral conditioning would lean toward routine helping us, by using repetitive measures as stimulus to “turn on” our creativity.

For example, maybe you start each morning with a coffee, quiet music, and a blank pad and pen to sketch out ideas for the day. The act of sitting down with your coffee and turning on the music could tell your brain it’s time to have ideas.

In contrast, Edward de Bono, a psychologist, author, and inventor responsible for theories like Six Thinking Hats, coined the termed “rivers of thinking” to talk about how our routines and habits can hinder us. He posits that each experience we have is like rain hitting a mountain, and our brains assimilate those experiences to similar previous ones, as a means of categorization and making sense of them.

As each experience or “rain drop” hits the mountain, it flows into a river of like experiences, thus “rivers of thinking.” While the rivers can help us make decisions quickly, they can also hinder new ideas as they get us into a rote function of assimilation and response.

Practice Signaling and Freshness to Unleash Your Creativity

I don’t lean toward one belief over the other, as I think creativity is very personal and therefore different for everyone. I do think that behaviors we exhibit can support innovation ― we have nine we talk about regularly in our work and they all support innovation from different perspectives.

Two of these creative behaviors are highlighted by these theories, and they’re not mutually exclusive:

Signaling

Signaling is the act of using words, objects, or environment to set the stage for what you need. In the context of creativity and innovation, we often talk about signaling as letting others know what’s important for an idea. For example, if you’re still in the building stage and want help, signal that it’s not time to judge by saying something like, “I’m not sure where this is going. Can you help me build it?” rather than saying, “What do you think of this?” which invites judgment.

We also signal frequently with hand gestures and body language (maybe more than ever if you’re in a small space with a big family right now!), and environment, as evidenced by the number of innovation spaces around the city.

Freshness

Freshness is about getting exposed to new ideas by trying new things. Taking a new route to work, trying a new restaurant, and listening to a different radio station are all things that provide different inputs and give us new data points from which to build ideas.

So how do you get fresh from home and signal if your only companion is furry and four-legged?

Access, assess, apply. Don’t pressure yourself into writing a novel or becoming a master artist. Just try something new (even something tiny!) each week. I’m learning Spanish with Duolingo because it was on my bucket list, and it literally takes 10 minutes each day.

When you access something new, assess what you like about it. I like that Duolingo is bite-sized, has mixed methods where I have to read, write, and speak, and reinforces the material. Then think about how you can apply that to your own needs. Could I make an app like Duolingo that teaches design concepts that simply? Or employ a similar method when I teach master’s classes, which are now online? You bet I can!

Use signaling to create work/home boundaries. For me, the clothes are my physical signal to myself. When I’m fully dressed, it’s time to work. When I’m in sweats, it’s time to watch Tiger King. And in a city house with three kids, three pets, and one husband, I signal to them through environment. With the addition of a small portable desk, the bedroom is now my workspace.

Think about other ways you can create signals to yourself: It could be burning a certain candle that stimulates your senses to create or sticking to a meal schedule that aligns with your meetings to stay energized.

Remember, you’re crushing it. Give yourself a break. We’re all being creative everyday as we adapt and build new ways of working. Find inspiration where you can, and congratulate yourself for every creative thing you do, from cooking a different dinner (that counts as freshness!) to changing out of yoga clothes. We got this.