On Creativity and Sleep

By guest blogger Charlotte Rains Dixon

“To sleep: perchance to dream . . .”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Photo courtesy John p. of Everystockphoto

Photo courtesy John p. of Everystockphoto

How’d you sleep last night? Like a baby? Like a dog on a rug? Like the dead? (Any other cliché you can think of, feel free to add it in.) Or did you toss and turn and cast an eye on the clock beside your bed every hour on the hour? Perhaps you turned in at a decent hour, slept well and woke early, refreshed and ready to work.

Or how about this: maybe you didn’t sleep much at all. Because, you know, you’re an artiste. And artistes stay up until all hours, doing creative stuff, without any concern whatsoever for the concept of sleep. That is, until they crash the next day and then can’t work for the following week because they’re so whacked out.

Reality is, this kind of wild creativity is hard on our bodies. Really hard. And to be at your utmost creative best you need to sleep as well as you possibly can. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep impairs creativity, while sleep actually facilitates insight, humor and cognitive flexibility.

Many of us (myself included) do our best work first thing in the morning. I like to rise, grab my coffee, and head to the computer to pour words out before my nasty inner critic fully wakes. But if I’ve gone to bed late the night before, I’m foggy and unfocused and much more likely to waste time reading email or surfing the internet.

(Bear in mind that some researchers claim it’s not so much the amount of sleep you get, but the quality of it. For a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities of hacking your sleep, dip into this collection of blog posts from the Bulletproof Executive.)

And in case all these ideas have not convinced you, let us not forget that in sleep, we dream, and our dreams are rich fodder for our creativity. I once dreamed of an ex-boyfriend in vibrant detail, woke and wrote a whole short story about him.

So how do we get ourselves a good night’s sleep? The following suggestions may help:

1. Routine. Go to bed at the same time every night and rise at the same time, too. I am blessed to have the kind of brain that wakes when I tell it to, which these days is 5:30. But if I’ve broken suggestion #2, this is much, much harder.

2. Turn off the electronics! Okay, most nights I read myself to sleep on my Ipad, and that’s fine. What is not fine is using the Ipad to check my Facebook stream or look at my HuffPost app. When I do that, my brain is buzzing and I’m much more apt to wake throughout the night. I’m also wasting precious reading time.

3. Limit alcohol. This one pains me. I’m a huge fan of red wine. But I’ve noticed a huge difference in the quality of my sleep when I drink a couple glasses in the evening. And the concentration just isn’t there in the morning. So, I’ve reined in my enthusiasm for it.

4. Try a brain dump. If you wake in the middle of the night and your brain immediately leaps into action, reviewing what you’ve got to do the next day, worrying about finances, or fussing about a relationship, try this. Right before you go to bed, grab your journal and write it all out. Put it on the page instead of storing it in your brain.

5. Figure out what works for you. The standard sleep advice, for instance, is to make your room as dark as possible to achieve a good night’s sleep. But this freaks me out. I wake in the middle of the night with no idea where I am and start to panic—and once I’ve calmed myself down it takes a long time to get back to sleep. So I’ve learned to always keep shades at least partway open to let some natural light in. I believe this is better for my circadian rhythm, and the reason why I’m able to wake myself up whenever I want to.

Are you getting enough sleep these days? Do you notice how sleep impacts your creativity?

Charlotte Rains Dixon

Charlotte Rains Dixon

CHARLOTTE RAINS DIXON is the author of Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior. She offers five years worth of articles on creative writing on her blog, www.wordstrumpet.com.

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