How Interrupting Your Sleep Can Silence Your Doubts and Boost Your Creativity

Red alarm clockAre 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

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Step 3

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.

Step 4

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.

Step 5

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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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Thanks for hosting me on your blog Mark, it’s a privilege to be here!

  2. Really interesting. I’ve always done my best creative work late at night/wee hours of the morning. Maybe it’s because I’m not being interrupted with phone calls and email. When I’m writing, I do my best writing late at night. And then, during the morning hours, I do all the editing. It’s as if my right brain is on fire late at night, and my left brain is primed to work in the morning.

  3. This is a great article. I am actually a song writer, and writing music in the morning somehow always felt easier. Your article reaffirmed my thought. Now, I feel more confident and assured about this technique, and will give more of my attention to it. Thank you very much!

    • Thank you Jyo. I’m really glad it’s helped!

      I’m fascinated to learn that this could work for songwriting too. You might want to try the exercise as outlined above, which would mean resisting the temptation to go back and play/listen to what you’ve written until several days have passed. I wonder if you’d notice anything different about what you produce in this way? Thanks for sharing!

  4. Another musician here, great article. I’ve always been a fan of “morning pages” but hadn’t thought to do them the minute I wake up, good call. I also find I work best at night and first thing in the morning, unfortunately doing both isn’t really sustainable long-term!

    • That’s true Harry – although, I’m sure some great artists did their best work in a state of delirium…Maybe we need to experiment with the effect of sleep deprivation on creativity next!?

  5. Oh no! Please…is there really no scientific source proving that sleeping long makes you more creative????

    just kinding. excellent post. as usually…

    regards
    Jonas from http//www.innovators.cc

    • I bet there is one if we look hard enough! :) The good thing about this technique is that you could let yourself have a lie-in, just as long as you start writing as soon as you wake up. Best of both worlds! Although I don’t know how much of the day would be left…

  6. Funny that I should read this post today — after I had returned to doing my “morning pages” after a long absence. I, too, read Dorothea Brande’s book when I first began writing. Her technique of writing first thing in the morning really works, and is also what Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way encourages. The trouble is that often, we get so caught up in life, that we forget how effective these tools are and then we let them slip away. That’s what happened to me, and I started to feel rather burned out. Now that I’m back to doing these morning pages, I know my creativity will kick in again.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • Thanks Diane. What a great point – using this technique to rekindle creativity after burnout is an excellent idea. I suspect that the feeling of burnout and overwhelm also emanates from that more practical, apparently ‘sensible’ editor side of ourselves which may be telling us we’re too tired, that we don’t have the energy, that we’ll never come up with any more good ideas, etc. Allowing the creative side to express itself again is the best way to generate yet more creativity. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi Brian,

    I think it contradicts doctors advice on having an interrupted sleep. Will this not lead to insomnia ( may be caused by repetitive interrupted sleep).

    Now, from a different perspective, I’m one of the people that stays awake and/or probably wakes up at interval to scribble down ideas ( business/blogging ideas) because I don’t want to lose them.

    I’d sure implement your laid down points on How to spark your early morning creative ideas.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi James,

      These are interesting points James. When I first used this technique, I did wonder if it might make me feel sleepier during the day, but to be honest I didn’t notice much difference. If anything, I probably felt a bit more alert during day throughout the time of the experiment, and I don’t recall having any issue with sleeping otherwise – but I’m lucky enough to not suffer from insomnia. However, I don’t do this on an ongoing basis – only when I need to – so it’s hard to know if it would have a stronger effect if carried out over a longer period.

      On an related note, it’s worth checking out the research of historian Robert Ekirch from Virginia Tech. He’s found that our ancestors probably didn’t sleep for 8 hours at a stretch – they broke their sleep into at least two smaller chunks, and did all sorts of constructive things – reading, praying, having sex – between their “first sleep” and “second sleep”. He postulates that things changed with the advent of street lighting and coffee houses!

      Doctors may advise un uninterrupted sleep, but it seems there are various different ways to approach this. As with anything of course, it’s important to self-monitor. If someone was to try this technique and found it made them feel worse or caused them sleeping difficulties, of course they shouldn’t continue. But more people I know who’ve given it a shot haven’t found any ill effects.

      Thanks for commenting and good luck – let us know how you get on!

  8. Hey there Brian, thanks for the article. I have found that I naturally arrived at this conclusion for more creativity in my writing. I find that I allow myself to do this kind of writing throughout the day not just in the morning and at night. It’s a great technique! As far as why the creative side of the brain is at the ready I think there might be something behind that. There was a scientist who wanted to break the record for most days awake. The previous one was 6 days and this guy supposedly went insane. The scientist broke the record and stayed awake 11 days! His claim was that generally the right brain activities don’t need sleep as the left brain (editor, critic side possibly) needs it so staying in the fluid, creative, non-liner state is key. So I am assuming that the creative brain is still rip roaring and ready to go while the sleepy left bean counter side is still stretching and waking up.

    • Thanks Charles – that makes a lot of sense, and probably also explains why it’s best not to read the previous day’s writing until we’ve got a few days’ worth down on paper. I’m glad we can get the benefits from just 30 minutes less shut-eye and don’t have to stay awake for days on end! Hope you’re wrting’s going well – what are you working on just now?

  9. Many thanks for the excellent write-up, I was looking for specifics like this, going to look at the various other posts.

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