How to Sleep and Daydream Your Way to Success

Asleep at the Keyboard

These days, plenty of people are facing “involuntary entrepreneurship.”

They’ve lost their gig and need to reinvent themselves as self-sufficient solos or small business owners.

Others understand that “job security” has always been a myth and are simply sick of the crap that comes with working for others.

Regardless, all it takes is one good idea, right?

The temptation, especially when under pressure, is to work more, rest less… cranking away until you get that great idea.

Grind it out.

Stay focused.

Be tough.

Sleep when you’re dead.


Sleeping Your Way to a Great Idea

Apple CEO Steve Jobs defines creativity as “just connecting things.” The notion that creativity results from seeing connections between seemingly unrelated things is spot on, and is an easier task for those with lower associative barriers.

In other words, the connections are always there, but it’s easier for some to see them than others. Why is that?

You’ve likely heard that an “incubation” period is critical to creativity and problem solving. Research now shows that sleep is a major facilitator to lowering associative barriers while you allow potential solutions to marinate:

Dr. Ellenbogen’s research at Harvard indicates that if an incubation period includes sleep, people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas, and yet, as he puts it, these performance enhancements exist “completely beneath the radar screen.”

In other words, people are more creative after sleep, but they don’t know it.

So sleep is crucial to creativity. But we don’t consciously realize it, and therefore discount the need for sleep when seeking a creative solution or innovative idea.

Getting enough sleep is the epitome of the cliché “work smarter, not harder.” You’re not doing yourself any favors when you burn the candle down to the wick, no matter how motivated you are. A single extraordinary idea is worth much more than thousands of hours of foolish productivity.

Hey, you’ve had worse news, right?

Become a Daydream Believer to Innovate

Consider the story of Arthur Fry – engineer, choral singer, Presbyterian.

Mr. Fry marked songs in his choir book with little scraps of paper. As you might imagine, Arthur consistently lost his place as the tiny pieces of paper invariably fell out.

Luckily, during one Sunday sermon, Arthur Fry started to daydream. What he needed, he imagined, was a sticky piece of paper that wouldn’t fall out of the choir book.

Did I mention Mr. Fry was an engineer at 3M?

The Post-it Note (an eventual billion dollar a year product line) was born.

Daydreaming has long been the glorified province of creative genius. The stories about Albert Einstein alone should convince us that daydreaming is crucial to creative thinking.

And yet, how do we treat the average daydreamer? Not as a creative genius, I’m quite sure.

So what does science say? Research shows that people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity:

Daydreams involve a more relaxed style of thinking, with people more willing to contemplate ideas that seem silly or far-fetched,” says Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England.

Does this mean that all daydreamers are creative? Clearly not… so what’s the difference between slacking off and fostering creativity?

It all boils down to awareness. People who are aware of and recognize their daydreaming are more creative than those who simply slip off into blissful oblivion.

Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University, says:

When your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it’s really doing a tremendous amount. We call it the ‘resting state,’ but the brain isn’t resting at all.

So pay attention the next time you’re not paying attention. A well-timed daydream may be the most productive thing you do today.

The Fallacy of the Hard-Charging Entrepreneur

Don’t get me wrong… when it comes time to execute on your big idea, you’re in for a lot of work. Often that means long hours and less rest.

But keep in mind that the execution and implementation of a great idea is really a series of problems and challenges that require your full creative awareness. Innovative thinking doesn’t end with the big idea, it’s only just begun.

Pushing yourself to exhaustion may result in a less effective business… or even failure when you simply burn out. So don’t forget to sleep and daydream all along your entrepreneurial journey.

About the Author: Brian Clark is a new media entrepreneur and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Boy, ain’t that the truth. I am totally useless when even the least bit tired.

    It takes me longer to do what I want. Thoughts are hard to pin down. Sometimes I end up staring aimlessly for a few seconds, too. I don’t reach for the coffee or push or bull through – I drop everything, get up and go get some rest and a break.

    The payoff is worth it.

  2. Great stuff! I’ve found that when I daydream it gets my creative juices going regardless of what it is I’m daydreaming about. Like you said, it’s all “under the radar.”
    Whenever I’m in a writing rut, I like to just go for a drive, crank the music, and just let my mind wander off….

  3. mary mancera says:

    Brian — I consistently get great stuff from your blog. It’s always a shot in the arm (particularly these days). Keep it coming!

  4. I’ve heard of sleeping your way to the top, but sleeping your way to a good idea?! This is excellent news.

  5. The Dalai Lama says sleep is the best meditation. And that’s why I sleep so much.

    Can I help it if the Dalai Lama practically ordered me to sleep under my desk at work?

    Hey, I’m not lazy, just enlightened! They don’t make alarm clocks for radiantly shining cosmic beings.

    What do you want me to do? The Dalai Lama is practically holding a gun to my head, telling me to sleep more (or else).

    The Dalai Lama is speaking to me in a vision right now. He’s saying “Free Tibet… but only after you take a long nap.”

    Now there’s a tiger. And the Dalai Lama is eating the tiger. I think this means he’s completely insane.

    Now he’s punching his fist into his hand and giving me the stink eye. But it’s alright. I have a restraining order.

  6. If you want a deeper look at how this works and how to leverage it, take a look at the book “Strategic Intuition”. Also worth a read if you want to take your understanding even further is “On Intelligence”.

    Both give a pretty enlightening insight into how “flashes of insight” happen and how to foster and encourage them.

    The lesson of both is basically to cram in lots of raw data and information and then relax, do something else, sleep, meditate, etc. and wait for your brain to wire it together.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with this. Nap mats for everyone. And a juice box doesn’t hurt when we wake up.
    One of my hidden tricks comes from just this. Putting up a piece on a far wall and relaxing opposite it, sometimes prone. Just being, listening with my eyes to what’s in front of me. Quietly, let it sift. But easy, quiet…drifting….sometimes the what if you just do this… reveals itself, and makes it even better.

  8. For the most part I find this to be true, but there are many times when I’m in that 3 a.m.-I-need-to-go-to-bed-right-now, next to delirium SUPER tired that I get struck by that creative “lightning in a bottle” inspiration and I absolutely NEED to write whatever’s in my head RIGHT NOW or else I lose it. And it ends up being pretty good.

    What say you to that?

  9. I read a tip from you guys on Twitip this morning also, and putting these both together makes sense – live a full life (as J Wynia put it “cram in lots of raw data and information”)- and make sure you get a good sleep.

    My problem also is being very good at forgetting those wake-up flashes of genius before I get them down somewhere – maybe I’ll have to give in to the notebook beside the bed…

  10. “In other words, people are more creative after sleep, but they don’t know it.”

    I’m forever waking with creative ideas and I’ve always known this. I have a tremendous capacity for sleep, needing at least 8 or 9 hours per night. Not only do I wake with great ideas after this much sleep, the sleep itself makes me productive enough to come up with ideas throughout the day.

    Sometimes I even “incubate” dreams, mulling a problem before going to sleep and directing my brain to give me insights while I sleep.

  11. Thanks for putting the Monkees in my head. 🙂

  12. Excellent post.

    I’ve read several fascinating books on writers’ use of dream time for idea generation, capture, percolation, synthesis.

    “Writers Dreaming,” by Naomi Epel includes interviews with 26 different authors about their use of dreams. Writers she interviewed include Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Richard Ford, Stephen King, William Styron, Amy Tan and more.

    Here’s a link, if you’re interested:

  13. I have no idea about how day dreaming helps because I haven’t tried it yet or rather not made the connections yet but there have been lots of times when an idea for a copy has popped up in my sleeping dreams.

    It is not that I made any effort to force an idea out yet I have got ideas in my sleep, the very last moment I must be thinking about the challenge of writing a copy. Most of the ideas have been effective and successful as well. The phenomenon is very infrequent though and too bad you can’t force your sleeping dreams to churn out more ideas.

  14. Alvah Parker says:

    I love to be busy. Nothing like checking things off the “to do” list. But it is a trap to be constantly in motion. I have to remind myself that my best ideas come when I am quiet. This means it is often when I am ready to fall asleep or in the middle of the night.

    We reward and extol the virtues of “Type A” behavior in the US. We don’t take vacations and we don’t sleep much. We need to rethink this and wake up and smell the flowers like “Ferdinand the Bull”

  15. There are definitely relationships between sleep, cortisol levels, and creativity!

    We do tend to underestimate the value of sleep in the US, and we even reward those who spend time in all-nighters “helping the cause.”

    Research doesn’t support the no-sleep myth.

    We had a spirited discussion on this topic here: a couple months back.

    Thanks again for the great reminder!

  16. Beautiful. More sleep. I’ve learned this from personal experience, but hearing some validation is long overdue and welcome news. I just thought I was a big wimp.

  17. I wake up with good ideas, but then they slip away as I try to capture them and put them into a more real form.

    Not sure if the ideas really aren’t so great or if there’s something blocking me from pulling them out of the ether.

    But this is a great article, more naps, less coffee might be the way to go.

  18. That is very true. I always sleep when I feel too much pressure from work. Once I wake up, everything feels new and fresh. I am ready to rock n roll !

  19. The execution and implementation of a great idea is really a series of problems and challenges that require your full creative awareness.

  20. Thanks so much for this – I’m a real daydreamer and always give myself a hard time about it (I should be doing something more constructive like reading!!) – really great for someone to point out that it’s valuable to creativity.

    I also am a big fan of sleep and just getting away from work in general when the juice runs dry – I always think it’s important. Many of the people I see working crazy hours only do it because they’re unproductive – I’d prefer to work fewer hours, get lots of sleep but be really effective when I am working.

    This blog is turning out to be a fantastic resource – keep it up!