The New Habit Challenge: Optimize Your Sleep For More Creative Thinking

Use this bedtime routine to wake up with more brilliant ideas.

The New Habit Challenge: Optimize Your Sleep For More Creative Thinking
[Photo: Flickr user Ansel Edwards]

If you’ve ever been told to “just sleep on it,” you may have considered the platitude a thinly veiled attempt to avoid giving any real constructive advice. But what if this was, in fact, the best suggestion you could receive when trying to solve a problem?

It turns out, there are ways to hack into our brains as we sleep to come up with creative solutions.

Sleep has been proven to improve our ability to come up with creative solutions to problems by assisting the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories and forging connections among them. REM sleep is especially good at doing this according to psychologists from UC San Diego, who say REM sleep works better than any other state of being at fostering creative thinking.

Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that if an incubation period–a time in which a person leaves an idea for a while–includes sleep, people are 33% more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Essentially, sleeping on it is the ultimate means to approaching a problem from a new angle.

To use sleep to our problem-solving advantage, we can first ask ourselves the questions we’ve been wrestling with in our work or personal lives, thereby giving our brains something to ruminate on as we sleep.

Glynn Washington, host and cocreator of NPR’s Snap Judgment, says he often goes to bed considering questions he’d been working on but for which he couldn’t figure out the answers. “And when I wake up, I pick up a computer and start writing, to see if sleep helped me find an answer.”

To give your brain more material to work with, you may also do some reading on the subject before bedtime, since research has shown that memory works best when something is learned shortly before sleep.

For the next week, I will sleep on the various problems and questions I wish to solve. I hope you’ll join me.

Log on to our New Habit Challenge Live Chat on Friday, December 19 at 11 a.m. ET to find out how it went and share your thoughts. Or send an email with what you loved or hated about the challenge to habits@fastcompany.com by end of day Thursday, December 18.

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere.

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