The Creative triggers I use to 10x my design output.

This week I will be sharing with you how I work and the system I have created that dramatically improved my productivity. It took me a while to create this system, but I find that by adjusting the variables (listed below) around me, I am able to completely transform my output and the quality of my work.

You will need to adjust your own variables to find system that optimises your own productivity, but once you do, you’ll never work the same way again. To do this you’ll need to experiment with what works for you and not to underestimate how important this analytical process will be on your development as a designer.

Audio Triggers

Why do athletes have walk on music? It’s there to keep them focused and give them a motivational boost before they have to go out perform. Why can’t you adopt the same principle?

Plato once said that music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and everything. Write a list of songs and put them in groups based how they effect your mood and make you feel.

  • Which songs liven you up?
  • Which songs calm you down?
  • Which songs make you happy?
  • Which songs make you sad?
  • Which songs make you nostalgic?

The idea is to take your current mood and use the songs to adjust it. You are deliberately manipulating your mood to put yourself in a more productive mode.

If you are feeling agitated, pick something to calm you. 

If you are feeling lethargic, choose a song to liven you up.

This is a very personal thing as many of your song choices will be based on experience, but here is a list to help get you started.

Visual Triggers

The same principles can be applied to visual stimulus - i.e. video and image.

Using the same process outlined for the audio triggers (songs). Simply gather a selection of films, video clips and pictures that alter your mood. Assign them to a list with the same criteria as above and refer back to it when you need to.

  • Which videos get you fired up?
  • Which videos calm you down?
  • Which videos make you happy?
  • Which videos make you sad?
  • Which videos make you nostalgic?

This is why dog and films are so huge on the Internet - After a crap day at work or a bad meeting five minutes of watching people hurt themselves or dog doing stupid things completely changes your mood.

Save these as a series of Youtube playlists you can access at any time, anywhere for a timely mood shift.

People Triggers

Although there is overlap with the singers and actors who motivate or inspire you, this part is about people outside of those genres. For example, you may take inspiration from business leaders (Richard Branson), artists (Picasso) or sports stars (Muhammad Ali).

They can be real or fictional. From films or novels. Even if you don’t know them or they came from a different era (Leonardo Di Vinci) you can still benefit from their influence by applying the principle of ‘What would they do?’

If you begin to think like them, they are having a positive influence on you and your actions.

They key is to observe, learn and be inspired by them. Let them have a positive effect on you. For example President Obama was inspired by Nelson Mandela for over 3 decades despite only meeting him once -

Physiological Triggers


Salvador Dali, Spanish surrealist, power napped through his creativity, using his dreams as an inspiration. Napping also gave him more energy and productivity. His naps would consist of falling a sleep with a spoon in his hand up until the moment where the spoon feel out of his hand on the ground and woke him up. This moment he understood as the breaking point in which he would be crossing into deeper sleep.

During sleep, bursts of brain activity known as sleep spindles play an important role in consolidating newly learned information. According to Professor Axel Mecklinger, ‘a nap of just 45 minutes to an hour ‘produces a five-fold improvement in information retrieval from memory’.

I’m a huge fan of power naps and use the excellent Power Nap App on my phone as it has 3 settings: 20 minute Power Nap to wake you before a deep sleep. A 45 minute Recovery Nap to wake you before a deep sleep (my favourite) and a 120 min full sleep cycle nap. It is designed to sit in your pocket and based on your movements, wake you up at the best time to avoid a drowsiness. 

By having a 20-30 minute recharge in the afternoon, I am able to work later into the night. This exchange of a lost 30 mins in the afternoon for a gained 2 hours at night works really well for me. I also like to keep my sketchbook beside me and note down any ideas that pop into my head. Apparently during that sleep phase your brain is more creative as when you wake up it’s in a Hypnopompic state (

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The philosopher and author Henry Thoreau claimed that his thoughts began to flow ‘the moment my legs began to move.’ Scientists have recently discovered that taking part in regular exercise such as going for a walk or riding a bike really does improve creative thought.

A recent study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.(

There are of course more physiological benefits such as endorphin release, but for me the walking occupies the conscious part of the brain allowing the creative subconscious to take over, leading to free flowing thoughts. Mind you, anything that gets us designers away from our screens or more specifically being Hunched in front of a screen, has got to be a good thing.

Nutritional Triggers - Food & Drink

Too much coffee will make you hyperactive, having some tofu frozen dessert will make you sleepy, whereas ice cream just before bed will ruin your sleep.

What to eat, when to eat and how much should I eat?

It’s a balance. Not too much or you’ll become bloated, but then again too little and you’ll get hunger pains. You need to eat balanced medium sized meals that aren’t high in sugar or starchy carbs like bread, pasta, rice or potatoes.

Stay hydrated, use water to balance out the coffee and costume fruit to give you natural sugars which will avoid the typical rush and then crash you get with sugary sweets and snacks.

Beat the mid afternoon slump:

Again, experiment with what you have access to and what times suit you based on your creative schedule, but here are a list of some foods that have proven beneficial health qualities.

A few examples

  • Dark Chocolate - Helps with the brain blood circulation for three hours, fighting fatigue and sleep deprivation.
  • Nuts - Nuts help boost memory and your brain’s processing power, which in turn will help improve creativity. 
  • Eggs - Contain choline, an important nutrient for the brain.
  • Alcohol - In moderation, alcohol improves the area of the brain where ideas are born.
  • Broccoli - It’s vitamin K properties help improve cognitive functions and the potassium in it helps the brain in healing itself.


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Location Triggers

Finding a space to work that is free of distractions is very important. To get your design work done effectively you need to be able to focus and as mentioned in a previous article, it can take up to 20 mins for you to achieve a decent level of focus. But for some people a blank space can unhelpful as they find they need visual stimuli.

Everyone is different. I can’t say which location is better than another, but the sooner you are able to find what works for you and use it, the better.

I personally prefer going to a coffeeshop. In a way it is distraction free as nobody will bother me, especially with my headphones in, but I also get a sense of urgency to do productive work while I am there. Working from home or in my office doesn’t always do it as I get bored and this leads to my mind wandering. 

Once of the most useful lessons I have learned is to keep moving where I work to help break up monotony. I find if I set myself a limit of 1 hour at a specific location, it bookends my efforts and I get much more done.

Find a system that works for you: One location? Several locations? Are they quiet? or busy? Try them out, double down on what is working and keep that feedback loop working.

To sum up

  1. Use the triggers at your disposal to optimise your performance.
  2. Write down a comprehensive list for each type of trigger and how it effects your mood.
  3. Use this to plot how you are feeling and what is needed to change to mood to work better.

For example:

I feel lethargic and down, but need to work. What will lift my mood, give me energy & motivation?

  • Song/album: Macklemore
  • Video: Rocky IV training montage
  • Person: Gary Vaynerchuk quote
  • Place: Local coffeeshop
  • Food: Coffee, dark chocolate and an apple
  • Activity: A walk

So, if I walk to the coffeeshop listening to Macklemore to have a coffee, apple and some dark chocolate I am putting myself in a good state of mind. Once there I have quotes from Gary Vaynerchuk to read if I lose focus and a Rocky montage to watch to help fire me up.

I then finish this off by setting a deadline of 1 hour (2 bursts of 20 min work with a 10 min ‘getting into focus warm up before them), I have gone from sitting at home / in my office doing nothing, struggling to focus and feeling unmotivated to a productivity machine fuelled with caffeine and chocolate churning out ideas whilst Rocky trains in the snow!

By implementing this system I am able to guarantee I will get my design work done overtime I sit down to do it. I no longer get creative blocks and am rarely distracted. 

Try it for yourself and let me know how you get on. I’d love to know what Triggers work for you.

Thad CoxComment