9 Reasons Why You Get Your Best Ideas at Home
By Donald M. Rattner, Architect
“Why is it I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?” Albert Einstein is said to have wondered. Given the setting where this particular activity is normally performed, the celebrated scientist might just as well have asked “Why is it I get my best ideas at home?”
So might a great many high-performing creatives. Eminent achievers like Charles Darwin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Picasso, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edith Wharton (author of a treatise on residential design), Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, and nearly every other fiction writer putting pen to paper over the last several hundred years. Among the presently breathing, you can count Bob Dylan, Joan Didion, Tim Burton, and Daniel Pink as notable at-home imagineers.
The roster of home-grown enterprises is equally impressive. Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Amazon, Disney, Mattel, Harley-Davidson, eBay, Etsy, and YouTube all saw the first light of day in the abodes of their founders. No doubt some of the next great success stories will be written there as well.
As for us mortals, there’s abundant evidence that we too reach our creative apex in the environs of home. In one survey, company managers asked to identify where they got their best ideas were most likely to say they were at home or engaged in activities associated with residential life. The traditional workplace? It ranked near the bottom of the list.
The question begging to be asked is why — why is home such a powerful idea factory? It’s a line of inquiry I’ve spent the last several years exploring, both as a practicing architect and as a student of the creative process. My efforts have culminated in my new book Your Creative Haven: How to Design Your Home to Maximize Creativity, According to Science and History’s Greatest Minds, coming out in September 2019 from Skyhorse Publishing. In some respects the book is a long-form answer to Einstein’s query quoted at the beginning of this essay; for the short version, here are my top nine reasons why home has no equal when it comes to nurturing the creative within.
#1: Your home is a safe space.
According to creativity scholar and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the word home derives from an Old Norse and Teutonic term alternately connoting a place of safety and the whole world. Both meanings still resonate with us. We continue to regard home as a refuge; it is, after all, about the only place on earth that we can legally, materially, or psychologically consider our own. It is also often the one environment where we can express how we think the rest of the world should look like — even if our range of expression is limited by circumstance to a modest interior space.
The sense of inner security engendered by home has a powerful effect on our mental state. When we feel safe we feel relaxed; when we feel relaxed, we’re more willing to engage in risky behavior, explore the unknown, and open up ourselves to criticism and failure — all hallmarks of a creative mindset.
#2: Home offers autonomy.
Think of the place where you work or go to school — how much of a role did you play in shaping the space? Probably not very much, I’m afraid; other than a picture of your spouse or significant other on your desk, the coffee mug sitting alongside it, or some artwork pinned to a wall, your physical surroundings most likely bear few traces of your personal stamp, having been largely determined by others.
Your behavior outside the home is similarly circumscribed by external forces. In the office, you’re compelled to operate within the parameters laid down by employers, clients, regulatory agencies, and other outside bodies. In the public sphere you must obey laws and respect social norms, or suffer the consequences.
There are practical reasons for these limitations, of course. But they come at a psychological cost: a loss of real and perceived autonomy. The dilemma for creatives is that original thinking requires freedom of action to flourish, the (legal) transgression of rules and boundaries being inherent in the very idea of devising something new. While you’re not entirely exempt from constraints at home (no burning down the house, please), you are the master of your domain to an extent like no other environment, and therefore more empowered to think outside the box there than anywhere else.
#3. Home is already a nexus of creativity.
“Ideas are like rabbits,” the author John Steinbeck once told an interviewer. “You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen of them.”
In other words, creativity begets creativity.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that home proves to be such fertile ground for incubating ideas. A lot of creativity already goes on there in the normal course of daily life.
Take cooking. Each time you make a meal by throwing together some ingredients that you happen across in your kitchen, you’re practicing what academics call mini-C creativity. This category comprises all those personalized acts of imagination that aren’t necessarily world-changing or wholly unprecedented, but which are new and have value to you.
Planting a window box, jerry-rigging a repair to a broken household implement, assembling an outfit for your toddler to wear, and planning a colorful holiday bash in your home are similar instances of everyday problem-solving and opportunities for exercising one’s ingenuity in the domestic sphere.
In point of truth, the very act of conceiving a home can be considered creative, though one with implications that go well beyond the mere facts of bricks-and-mortar. “A home is much more than a shelter,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “It is a world in which a person can create a material environment that embodies what he or she considers significant. In this sense the home becomes the most powerful sign of the inhabitant who dwells within.” To construct a home, then, is to construct an identity — perhaps our most important creative project of all.
#4. You do a lot of mindless stuff at home.
Home might be a meaning-rich environment, but it’s also the scene of a great many mundane happenings. Like shaving. Showering. Brushing teeth. Washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, feeding the fish, dumping the garbage, doing the laundry — a panoply of automatic behaviors that go hand-in-hand with domestic life.
By automatic I mean reflexive, routine, and repetitive — the kind of habitual, uncomplicated actions that don’t require a lot of conscious thought to perform once you’ve learned how to do them.
Doing boring chores demanding minimal focus does come with an upside: it frees the rest of the mind to wander where it will without us having to worry about hurting ourselves through inattention.
And wander it does. According to various assessments, our mind strays off-task between one-third and one-half of our waking hours. Specific activities run the gamut. At the upper end of the spectrum is showering, with 67% of the time under the spigot occupied by diffuse thinking. Walking yields around 52%. During exercise it’s 40%. The activity least conducive to mind-wandering? Sex, clocking in at about 10%. Well, I should hope so! But then, one hopes that lovemaking never descends to the level of automatic behavior.
Now think about this: if your mind roamed aimlessly half the time you spent at the office, you’d probably get fired. Do the same at home, and you could well come up with the Next Great Idea.
The reason has to do with a set of neural circuits called the Default Mode Network, or more aptly, the Imagination Network (IM). Visualize the IM as a huge mental warehouse chock-a-block with a lifetime of accumulated memories, images, and information bits. Left to your own devices, you could easily get lost rummaging inside it for hours on end — which is precisely why other regions of the brain will suppress access to the IM when you can’t afford to be distracted from an external goal (like, say, while performing heart surgery). Reduce the need for focused attention, however, and the doors to the warehouse will swing open, yielding a treasure trove of mental bric-a-brac out of which flow the unexpected insights and novel fusions of ideas that drive human invention.
#5. Home is where you sleep.
If you ever run into Paul McCartney, make sure to ask him where he was and what he was doing when the melody for “Yesterday” came to him. Or, if you could travel back in time, ask the same of Mary Shelley and her inspiration for Frankenstein. Or Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev and his idea for the Periodic Table of the Elements. Or Madame C.J. Walker, who in a flash envisioned a hair tonic that made her the first black millionaire businesswoman in history.
At home, asleep in bed, and dreaming, they’d all tell you.
The common conception of sleep as a period of general and creative inactivity turns out to be off the mark. Instead, as several studies demonstrate, your brain is turning over information acquired during the day, integrating it with your existing knowledge base, and then searching for potential connections among them in an effort to solve whatever problems are sloshing around in your head. In other words, you’re doing much of what you do when exercising your creativity in a wakened state, only you’re doing it unconsciously and in your pajamas. With roughly a third of our lives spent in the sack, it’s no wonder that some of history’s greatest ideas originated in someone’s domicile.
#6. Home is hobby heaven.
Another factor contributing to home’s well-deserved reputation for nurturing creativity is that it gives shelter to the hobbyist.
Indeed, many high performing geniuses have been known to sink untold hours into personal passions that have little to do with their core creative competency.
Consider the case of Warren Buffett. You probably know him for his financial acumen. But did you also know that he plays a mean ukulele, a skill honed in the same modest Omaha home he’s occupied since 1958?
This seemingly trivial bit of biography might help explain why he’s the Oracle of Omaha and we’re just happy to balance our checkbook.
It has to do with the effect of hobbies on our well-being.
Among other things, researchers have found that channeling energy into a creative pastime can relieve stress, afford pleasure, enhance self-esteem, expand social networks, raise productivity, improve health, and attain life-work balance.
That should be more than enough to start you searching for a sideline of your own. If not, consider this: scientists also have discovered that gaining fluency in a subject outside your wheelhouse can make you better at a great many things, including your creativity-demanding day job. The reason is that with each new skill you develop, you’re forging new neural pathways in regions of the brain that might otherwise have remained fallow, thereby strengthening the brain’s processing power overall.
Not a bad ROI for the price of a ukulele.
#7. Home is not the office.
Let’s face it — the contemporary workplace can be at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to creative productivity. Whether it’s noise wafting through an open floor plan, frequent interruptions, inadequate resources, management resistance, politics, bureaucracy, a lack of autonomy or vision, personal conflicts, or the interminable meetings that drain a person of the will to live, much conspires in the modern work environment to impede good ideas from ever seeing the light of day.
To be sure, home has potential downsides of its own for those who try to run a creative business or work remotely from within its walls. The siren call of the refrigerator, bed, and Internet, for instance. The dog gnawing on one’s ankle, pining for a walk. A dearth of social interaction. Spatial constraints.
There’s a major difference between the two settings, however. Individuals in the workplace generally have limited if any power to substantially ameliorate conditions, at least unilaterally. In the home, the decision to prioritize professional or personal creativity is entirely yours.
#8. Home is a memory container.
It is a paradox of human inventiveness that one of the most effective ways to glimpse into the future is to peer into the past.
So concluded a team of psychologists from the University of Southampton who studied the impact of nostalgia on creative output. According to their findings, subjects prompted to think back in time before undertaking a creative writing exercise were judged to exhibit greater originality than participants completing the same exercise without the prompt.
The scientists speculated that the brief bout of nostalgic reverie experienced by people in the better performing group had the effect of increasing their open-mindedness, curiosity, and optimism, all positive stimulants for creative thinking.
That’s one possible explanation. Another concerns a concept called Construal Level Theory (CLT).
The basic premise of CLT is that the farther away we perceive something to be, the more abstract our thinking becomes.
A good way to visualize CLT is to imagine yourself looking down on farmland from high up in an airplane. What you see looks a lot like an abstract, non-representational painting, doesn’t it? That’s because the objects of your attention are too far away for the eye to transmit enough information to the brain for you to construe what they really are.
Proponents of CLT take this fact one step further in claiming that your cognitive style as a whole becomes less detail-oriented and concrete when you’re seeing or thinking of something distant. In the case of an airplane, distance is measured in units of physical space. With nostalgia, it’s conveyed through the metrics of time.
Given that creative thinking is by its nature holistic and initially unconcerned with details, it makes sense that people induced into an abstract, broad-brush mindset would be in a superior mental state for solving creative problems, whether in the Southampton study or in other experiments investigating the effects of deep space on the imagination.
All of which amounts to yet another argument for home as the consummate locus of creativity, for where else is memory enshrined so deeply?
#9. You can engineer your home to optimize creativity.
Thanks to science, we now know a lot about what the optimal creative space looks like. For instance, which colors promote idea formation. How high to make the ceilings. What shape furniture to pick. How bright to set the lights. The kinds of music to play. Why it’s psychologically beneficial to display art. And more.
Given that you enjoy your greatest freedoms at home (see factor #2), it stands to reason that home is where you have the greatest leeway in shaping an idea space that will accommodate both your individual needs and the prescriptions of creativity-driven design.
Of course, you can still apply this data to your place of work, assuming you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to dictate or influence the condition of the physical plant there.
For everyone else, the fact remains: when it comes to environment, there’s no place like home for having good ideas.
Donald M. Rattner, AIA is an architect exploring the intersection of creativity and physical space. His new book My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, is due out in October 2019 from Skyhorse Publishing. All photographs credited to the book are courtesy of the designers and photographers.
In addition to the survey cited above, several other studies and polls offer further evidence that home is the optimal setting for original thinking.
Ditkoff, Mitch and Tim Moore. “Where and When Do People Get Their Best Ideas?” An Inquiry into the Top Catalysts of Creativity.” Idea Champions(website). June 18, 2008.
Friedman, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. New York et al.: Penguin Publishing, 2014. Ch. 2, “The Lessons of Telecommuting: Why Employees Are Often More Productive at Home.” The text focuses on productivity factors, but many of the variables cited by the author contribute to improved creativity as well.
Hansgrohe SE. “Shower for the Freshest Thinking.” (Press release). April 2014. According to this study, 72% of people surveyed report getting their best ideas in shower. That doesn’t prove that people also get the most ideas at home, but it certainly lends further credence to the assertion.
Killingsworth, Matt. “Want to Be Happier? Stay in the Moment.” YouTube(website). Nov. 5, 2012. At location 8:54 of this TED Talk, the speaker shows a chart ranking the average amount of mind-wandering people experience while performing various activities. Most of the activities are domestic in character.
Ryan, Paul. “Eureka! The Top 5 Places People Have Their Best Ideas.”Australian Anthill (website). Aug. 20, 2009.