Stuck on an idea? Start losing sleep over it and you might discover a solution.
Brian Cormack Carr, author of How to Find Your Vital Vocation, recommends setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier than normal and forcing yourself to jot down ideas and thoughts first thing in the morning before even getting out of bed.
This isn’t cutting-edge science, to be sure. Carr admits he stole the idea from Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer, which first published back in 1934. A career coach, Carr has tested the technique on clients who work in all kinds of fields and insists it’s effective.
I tried it myself, keeping a notebook and pen by my bed and scribbling in it for half an hour right after waking, bleary-eyed, sometimes not even turning the light on to see the words as I wrote them.
As a serial insomniac, waking in the middle of the night to write isn’t new for me. But making the effort to start my day this way had a bit of a different effect. For one, writing first thing in the morning set the tone for the day. By the time I sat down to work, I was less inhibited by the idea of getting started since I’d already gotten some thoughts down in my half-awake state.
I also found I was too groggy in the early morning to start second-guessing my ideas as I often do when I’m showered, caffeinated, and sitting at my desk to work. It’s almost like my creative mind, for lack of a better term, was on autopilot those early mornings, spitting words on the page with no time for judgment.
Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way popularized a similar concept called “morning pages” that involves writing three stream-of-consciousness pages first thing every morning. Last year, I reached out to Cameron for her suggestions on how entrepreneurs and creative people who feel burnt-out about their work can snap out of it. Her first suggestion, not surprisingly, was morning pages. “This gives them a place to gripe and a place to dream,” she said. It also gives people a low-pressure environment in which to work out their problems.
Why is it that we seem to come up with solutions to problems or think in a less inhibited way shortly after emerging from sleep?
Fill a room with neuroscientists and sleep specialists and you’d be hard-pressed to reach a consensus as to how or why or for how long we should all sleep. Yet it’s indisputable that sleep is crucial to our biology, if only because we spend such a huge chunk of our lives in bed–about 32 years for a person who lives to the age of 90, according to circadian neuroscientist, Russell Foster. Important neural connections in the brain are strengthened when we sleep, according to Foster. “Sleeping at night advances our creativity,” he said in a TED talk last August.
While you are asleep, your brain is busy processing the day’s information, according to sleep and cognition researchers Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey Ellenbogen. “It combs through recently formed memories, stabilizing, copying, and filing them, so that they will be more useful the next day,” they wrote in Scientific American.
Areas of the brain that restrict our thinking to the logical and familiar are significantly less active during REM sleep, according to Harvard psychologist, Deirdre Barrett. In other words, when we’re experiencing the Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep, our way of thinking is less inhibited. “Such disinhibition is a crucial part of creative thought,” Barrett also wrote in Scientific American.
Perhaps linking this freedom of thinking to the moments when your brain is transitioning from sleep to wakefulness is too big a leap. But think of all those dreams you remembered right upon waking that slipped from your mind only moments later. Who’s to say great ideas and solutions don’t do the same thing? Write them down and you may have a better chance of remembering them.