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Fostering Creativity in Uncreative Places

Not all creative professionals have the luxury of working from a beautiful, light-filled workspace in a bustling, lively city. The reality is that, often times, they just work where they can.

Maybe it’s a corner of the living room in a small apartment or a dark, dingy basement that smells a little weird. Other times the workspace itself might not be so bad - but it’s located in a small town where there aren’t many like-minded people around to encourage a creative mindset.

These less-than-inspiring working environments can often feel like an obstacle for creative work, as they don’t do much to inspire and fuel creative thinking. And without a solid community nearby that you can supplement a lacking environment with, they often can feel isolating, too.

So, what do you do about it?

I asked writers, designers, artists, and other creative professionals how they stay motivated and creative despite a less-than-inspiring work environment. Here’s what they had to say.

Making it Work, Regardless of Where

For some creatives, where they work isn’t all that important - they’re able to lean on locals, their creative tasks, or hobbies to supplement a less-than-ideal workspace.

Steve Woods, software developer: I work in a small room, which once was a laundry room, that’s attached to our house. I painted it white, added power, and put pictures on the walls. It’s functional; it helps pay the bills.

For me, it’s not so much the environment - I’m there to work, so the laptop looks the same there as it does anywhere else - but I would love to be able to work with some co-workers. Luckily, I have a large family and can just go in the house for conversation if need be. That helps get me by.

Morgan Timm, blogger: I work from home in a semi-rural area for my 9-to-5 job and for my creative side projects. There’s plenty of corn and farming here, but I discovered my town was full of closet creatives - I just had to find ‘em.

I did that by being nosy and talking to people at coffee shops asking what they’re working on and what they do. And being really open with what I do, too. People are hesitant to talk about doing their own thing, but instantly open up when they find out you’re doing your own thing, too. I also checked out the geotags for my favorite coffee shops to see what people were sharing while they were there. A lot of people locally have these secret double lives (or at least secret double Instagrams) where they share their passion projects.

Josh Garofalo, copywriter: Despite both doing well financially, my wife and I have shared a 700 square foot, one bedroom/one bath townhouse for about 10 years as we’ve focused on investing and prioritizing experiences. To make that work, I’ve been working at a small desk in our living room located directly under the TV. I stay creative and inspired despite my environment, not because of it - for me, there’s nothing more motivating than someone handing me a fistful of cash with expectations attached.

Mohini Puranik, poet: I live in a remote place where hardly anybody understands that online work is full-time work. I work from my room - trees, skies, and birds help me write poetry. It’s peaceful many times and helps me focus on poetry. I have learned over the time inspiration is everywhere if you are doing what you love. I forget everything when I am writing a poem.

Changing the Setting to Thrive

For other creatives, setting very much impacts creativity and the work being done. These creators found they had to change up the setting in order to thrive.

Drew McKinney, product designer: I worked remotely in a dingy shotgun shack in Bloomington, Indiana, for about two years. I eventually moved to a co-working space downtown because it was so isolating. Isolation coupled with a subpar office setup made it difficult. My work output was high, but creatively, my work suffered from it. I think I needed human connections. The dingy office was a major problem - it was maintained, but would quickly collect dust. Since the environment felt unbecoming of a professional, I felt unprofessional. I had to make a change.

Kat Boogaard, writer: I really love my home office, but - like with anything - the monotony of it is what gets to me the most. If I worked a “normal” job I know I’d be heading out to meetings, lunches, and happy hours. I don’t really do that as a freelancer. I need to be better about it! So, for me, changing my location actually does have a big impact. If I’m feeling stuck, I’ll move to a coffee shop, my patio, or even my kitchen table for a change of scenery, and it really helps.

James Sowers, customer experience consultant: I work 100% from a spare bedroom in my home in a Cleveland suburb. Online communities (private or paid Slack groups, for example) help me stay creative and inspired, as well as working in public for creative side projects. I also work hard to always hit reply on newsletters from people I respect and admire to start a conversation. I’ve found that it helps to learn a new technical skill and to ask for help in public, via participation in cohort-based courses. You have to make an effort to stay connected.

Creativity Wherever You Are

What I found most interesting was the common theme that ran through almost all of the responses: Creativity takes effort - and your workspace doesn’t have to be a deciding factor in whether or not you can do creative work.

Sure, you might eventually discover that that crummy work setup in your bedroom isn’t ideal and that you need to find a new place to try out. But for the most part, if you can focus on your work and make an effort to stay connected (online or working from a coffee shop - whatever works), you can “make it work” when it comes to creative projects.

If you’re currently in a less-than-perfect workspace or feeling lonely in your small town, know that you’re not alone. And the even better news: Your work doesn’t have to suffer because of it.

Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer specializing in ecommerce and software. She also writes for publications like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, and HuffPost.