Are you the type of creative person who only generates ideas and solutions when you’ve had your full eight hours of shut-eye? Or perhaps you find your mind firing off with so many bright ideas that you sometimes find it hard to get to sleep?
Here’s how to consciously use sleeplessness to your advantage – by tapping its power to silence your inner critic and open you up to new streams of innovative thinking.
I was a student when I first came across Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming A Writer. At the time, writing loomed large in my life: I was writing essay after essay for my degree (English Literature and Language) and had also been appointed as a roving reporter for the student newspaper. Quite apart from that, writing was my first love and if I wasn’t doing it as part of the curriculum, I was doing it in my spare time.
I got Brande’s book out of the library because I was looking for a book that would help me to improve my technical writing skills. It did that to some extent, but the thing I remember most about it is an odd little exercise which seemed to be anything but practical.
Lose some sleep and find your originality
It involved writing on any subject for thirty minutes each day, immediately after waking up (the book instructed the reader to set an alarm clock for thirty minutes earlier than normal). Not only that, but the exercise included the strict admonition not to read what had just been written and to instead shut the book at the end of the designated period, and to repeat the entire process again the next day.
The aim, as I remember it, was to carry on in this fashion for two weeks straight and only then to go back and read what had been poured out onto the pages during this almost certainly blurry morning ritual.
I think I managed to do it for about four days before admitting defeat.
But what an interesting four days they were! When I looked back at what I written, I was surprised on two counts: not only was it far more coherent – and even well-written – than I would have believed possible in the circumstances; it was also far more original. In fact, I was able to develop one of those early morning pages into a short story that went on to win a university short story competition.
Keeping the inner editor quiet… for now
So what was the point, and did it work? Brande’s thesis was that if writers are struggling, it’s often because they’re being blocked by the part of their mind that’s fulfilling the ‘editor’ function.
In other words, as they write, the creative part of them is shooting out ideas, but another part is saying “change that”, “that would work better over there”, “that won’t work”. When the two are in balance, no problem; but a real problem arises when that other part stifles the creative flow, because ideas are stopped dead before they have a chance to put down roots.
By jolting oneself awake earlier than usual, Brande contended, the creative juices could flow without the editor being awake enough to interfere with things. Quite why the editor would find it harder to struggle to wakefulness was never fully explained – but Ms. Brande obviously believed this to be the case, and my own experience seems to bear her out.
Why this works for all kinds of creative thinking
I always wondered if this would work for other people and in other circumstances, and years later I got the chance to find out when I started working as a career coach.
In my coaching sessions and workshops, I often present clients with a range of exercises to help them home in on what they most want to do with their lives. This involves some quite introspective activities and wide-ranging thinking. Some take to these straight away, but others find them hard to do because of the voice in their head that says “that’ll never work for you” (sometimes it says things that are less polite than that).
It didn’t take me long to realise that this voice was the voice of the dreaded ‘editor’, and so I started asking willing clients to try the same exercises immediately after waking themselves up half an hour earlier than usual.
Bingo. Clients who had previously found these admittedly ‘blue sky’ exercises difficult or even impossible to do started excitedly telling me about what they were discovering about their real aims and desires. One client noted “reading back what I’ve written, I realize I knew this stuff all along – I just wasn’t able to let myself articulate it fully, even to myself.”
I think the same can be said of any creative thought we expect ourselves to generate. In this world of practicalities and problems, perhaps it’s natural to protect ourselves by keeping a weather eye on all the things that might go wrong and stop us. However, when we start giving undue credence to those possible limitations, we stop ourselves from fully exploring all the options that are available to us.
Balancing your creativity and practicality
I remind clients that this exercise isn’t about permanently silencing the practical voice inside. It’s just about giving the free-wheeling creative voice the chance to express itself fully without worrying about having to get too practical too soon.
In fact, the inner editor (some people describe it as their ‘inner critic’) can be given full range of motion when looking at the morning pages at the end of the designated period, and can be invited to give consideration to what’s really going to be practical or not out of the ideas that have been generated. That’s a useful thing for it to do, because that’s it’s job.
I include a variation of this exercise in my book How To Find Your Vital Vocation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Career Purpose and Getting a Job You Love. It’s already shaping up to be one of the most popular parts of the book (one reader wrote me a letter thanking me for that exercise alone, saying that it helped her break through a long-standing block).
So – what block might you break through by using this technique?
How to spark your early morning creative ideas
Pick a creativity issue you’d like to deal with. Perhaps you’re faced with a specific problem in your creative work. Maybe you’d like to generate some new creative ideas. Whatever it is, take some time to think about what you’d like to focus on and clearly define the area of focus in your own mind.
For a week, or as many days as you can manage, set your alarm for half an hour earlier than normal. You’ll need to place a notepad and pen beside your bed before you go to sleep.
The moment you awake in the morning, and without talking to anyone or reading or listening to anything, immediately pick up your pad and pen and begin to write free-style, either specifically about the creative issue you want to deal with, or about anything else that pops into your head.
Write for a full 30 minutes without stopping then put your pad aside without reading what you’ve written. Yes, you’ll be half asleep as you do it – that doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s the whole point. As drowsy and dopey as you probably feel, just start writing and 30 minutes later, stop.
Repeat this process each day (without reading what you wrote the day before). Once you’ve reached the end of the week – or have at least completed several days of writing – read what you’ve written.
You might find it helpful to ask yourself some self-coaching questions to extract the full benefit from the exercise:
What immediately strikes you about what you’ve written? Jot down any impressions or questions that have been stimulated.
What surprises you about what you’ve written?
What doesn’t surprise you about what you’ve written?
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from the exercise?
What’s the single most important thing you can do as a result of what you’ve learned in this exercise that will help move you forward in your creative life?
If you’re brave enough to give this exercise a go, I’d love to hear how you get on. Please share your experiences and discoveries in the comments section below.
Brian Cormack Carr is a writer, career coach and chief executive of The Centre for Voluntary Action, one of the UK’s leading local charities. Brian has distilled nearly 20 years’ experience of helping clients to find fulfilling work and a renewed sense of purpose, into his book How to Find Your Vital Vocation.
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