Can sleep jumpstart a stalled creative mind?



I recently read about a study that concluded stress can promote poor sleep.

In other news, studies show that a healthy diet will help you live longer.

There’s no doubt that poor sleep will wreak havoc on all kinds of stuff, not just your creativity. I remember far too many all-nighters when I did agency work. We’d be there at 3AM, staring at our monitors, and each other, trying to develop concepts. I remember my Creative Director saying, “There isn’t enough coffee in the whole world.” While some people crave this kind of work, I will say it isn’t for me. Personally, I find this the absolute worst time to be creative.

But …

A 2011 study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning came to the following conclusion:

When we’re tired, the neurons that control unconventional thoughts are constrained. This allows our minds to more easily generate new ideas.

We’re at our most creative when we’re tired.

Notice I wrote tired, and not exhausted.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we should tackle our creative tasks when we first wake up. As I wrote in How to Work Laziness Into Your Day and Not Feel Guilty, we all have a phase in our day when we’re more creative. While I may wake up super early, that is not my peak creative time. For me, that’s the afternoon. YMMV.

Despite the results of the study, I would not trade being tired for being creative. Being tired leads to crankiness. I would rather be well rested than a curmudgeon.


So, can sleep jumpstart a stalled creative mind?

Sleep is only part of the equation. As Neil Pasricha wrote in his book The Happiness Equation, “Doing stuff = Wanting to do more stuff”. Our attitude towards our work will take us further than sleep alone.


For more information on that, check out these articles:


How to Kick Analysis Paralysis in the Butt

What Do You Believe In?

How to Work Laziness Into Your Day and Not Feel Guilty

When things seem tough, be nicer to yourself


That said, if you’re sleep deprived, then it’s going to be hard to produce.

I will leave it to others to more eloquently explain the science behind sleep, but here’s the gist …

We go through several cycles of sleep each night, each lasting about 90 minutes. Each cycle culminates with a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. This is where we will experience our most intense dreams. Each successive REM stage will last longer, with the final lasting up to one hour.

During REM, the restrictions of reality don’t apply. Your brain acts like a kid in a candy store, making new associations and encouraging creative thinking. Some studies have also shown that the right (creative) side of our brain is heard more during sleep, which is good for creative thinking.

So, REM sleep = Good.

Have you ever had a brainstorm upon awakening, in that state where you’re still somewhat dreamy and awake? This is known as hypnagogia. In this state, the brain processes information in a REM-like way. I’ve only experienced this a few times, myself. It’s a good reason to keep a notepad and pencil on your night table.

So there is something to this “sleeping on it” thing, after all.

Getting the best possible quality of sleep is in our best interest. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way …


Blue light: Bad

Studies have repeatedly shown that the blue light emitted from computers and mobile devices interrupts our production of melatonin. That’s critical, as melatonin regulates our sleep-wake cycles. When it gets dark, our bodies produce more melatonin, which tells the body to prepare for sleep.

Apple’s Night Shift feature, and apps like F.lux have tried to mitigate this by warming up the screen. The safest route would be to simply put these devices away. Easier said than done, when most of us are addicted to them.

I’ve experimented with blue-blocking goggles, with mixed results. You put these on about two hours before going to bed. It definitely made watching TV an odd experience, as it turns everything into a Mad Max-ish distopian wasteland.

The worst thing you can do when you can’t sleep is pick up the phone or tablet.


Don’t keep a TV in the bedroom

For most of my adult life I’ve had a TV in the bedroom, and I would watch every night for several hours. Around 2014, I decided to stop using it. When we moved to a new home in 2015, the TV stayed out of the bedroom entirely. In fact, we donated it, and I don’t miss it.


Your bedroom should be like a cave

We’re bathed in light all the time. Back before electricity, smartphones and LED TVs, we had a strong circadian rhythm. We worked outside in the actual sun, you know, that bright thing in the sky. When the sun went down it got dark. Real dark. Things cooled off. This helped get us ready for sleep. Nowadays, we’re inside most of the time surrounded by artificial light. There isn’t a strong crest (sunlight) or trough (night). It’s a mostly flat line. It’s probably why a lot of us are vitamin D deficient.

Use decent shutters or black-out curtains that will block the outside light. We have a parking lot light right across from our bedroom window. This thing is bright enough to get a sunburn. Fortunately, our California shutters do the trick.

Maintain that zero-tolerance policy when you make that middle of the night bathroom trip. When you turn on that bathroom light, you’re interrupting that production of melatonin. Every little bit counts. I use a red LED nightlight from

Don’t neglect other lights and displays in the bedroom—digital clocks, LED charging lights, etc … They may not seem bright during the day, but during the night they can bathe you in unwanted light. Put a piece of red cellophane in front of the clock, and position chargers so the light is out of sight.

Finally, put all your mobile devices in do not disturb mode.


Keep it cool

While it’s okay to remain warm under the covers, the air you’re breathing should be cool (15.5C-19.5C or 60-67F). This helps you fall asleep faster and promotes a deeper sleep.


Get Comfy

Mattresses actually have an expiry date. If yours is concave then do yourself a favour and splurge for a good quality one. There’s a plethora of new mattress companies, many of which will ship for free. These aren’t the mattresses you had growing up. There’s a lot of new technology, including heat-dispersing materials.

Pillows, like mattresses, also have an expiry date. Get rid of that old, lumpy thing that was once called a pillow, and give yourself an upgrade. I use a TempurPedic Cloud Pillow. It doesn’t get lumpy, and gives me good head and neck support.


Odds and ends

Here are a few other things I tried with less success. Even though they didn’t work for me, I still encourage you to try them.


Scent Therapy: The few scent machines I tried always ran out during the night. They were also noisy, basically cancelling out any positive effect. Sometimes I’ll put a few drops of lavender oil on a tissue and stuff it inside my pillowcase.

Meditation: I know there are many studies that show meditating regularly can help improve sleep. My experience with this was somewhat disappointing.



You may also want to track what you eat and see if there’s a causal effect. I know for me what I eat doesn’t seem to have any effect. However, I try not to go to bed hungry. If your body runs out of “fuel” during the night, it will start the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is the enemy of sleep.

Caffeine: Limit your intake, especially after noon.

Alcohol: While it may make you sleepy, alcohol inhibits restorative sleep.



While I’m not really a “nap” guy, they can be good for an energy recharge. As it takes about 90 minutes to go into REM sleep, a short nap (ie. 30 minutes) is better for work stamina and alertness, rather than generating new concepts.



I couldn’t write this without a short note about sleep aids. It’s true that for some people, all the tricks in the book won’t help them with their sleep. I totally understand that, as I myself have struggled for years to get to a point where my sleep would be considered “adequate”. I would only suggest trying all the non-pharma alternatives, before going the pharmacological route. This is a discussion you should have with your physician.


Links in this article …


How to Kick Analysis Paralysis in the Butt

What Do You Believe In?

How to Work Laziness Into Your Day and Not Feel Guilty

When things seem tough, be nicer to yourself

Apple night shift feature

f-lux app

Endy mattress

TempurPedic Cloud Pillow