Mr. Personality

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Creative Insomnia: Genius Never Sleeps?

Too excited to sleep? When job creativity causes insomnia

Our adult lives are roughly divided into 3 equal parts: we sleep, we work, we "play" (e.g., with our partners, friends, children, etc). It is therefore surprising that psychologists have dedicated so little time to studying sleep, and even less time to understanding the relationship between these three aspects of life. In our latest study, we look at the relationship between sleeping habits and work performance.

The biographies of exceptional achievers suggest that the one thing they all seem to have in common is the lack of sleep. Indeed, outstdanding leading figures of science, sports, business, politics, and the arts tend to differ in their IQ, creativity, and physical stamina, but they are typically as likely to sleep very little hours, and the common reason for that is of course personality. In short, super-achievers are always highly-ambitious, and the underlying drives or motives for success may vary from one individual to another (e.g., recognition or fame, power, freedom, hedonism, knowledge, etc), but when it comes to personality their profiles are remarkably similar: they are highly motivated and ambitious people.

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So, could insomnia be a marker for ambition? Well, quite clearly you don't have to suffer from insomnia in order to be a high-flyer in any field - and the evidence suggests quite clearly that sleep deprivation has a negative impact on all sorts of performance. At the same time, insomnia itself tends to be caused by factors other than achievement motivation, and it is usually fueled by anxiety related problems. Yet a useful analogy may be that insomnia is to exceptional achievement what mental illness is to creativity - that is, if we take a lose and non-clinical definition of insomnia.

Indeed, I remember staying awake for days and sometimes sleeping as little as 2 hours a-day for weeks during adrenalising periods of creativity. I would fall asleep when I couldn't stay awake anymore but continue thinking during my "sleep" and wake up either by an idea or the guilty realisation that I was asleep. These periods could last for a few months, and sometimes a couple of years. According to most health and clinical estimates, I was clearly sleep-deprived; but I was feeling on top of things, happy, and productive. The key point here is not to promote insomnia or the lack of sleep, but to highlight some of its most productive causes: ambition and creativity.

The question, then, is as follows: If everybody had a career they loved, would they spend less time sleeping and more time working? In an era where the so-called work-life balance seems to be vanishing (people today have more fun at the office at the expense of doing more work at home, which partly explains the success of social networking sites), is there anything to learn about work from studying sleep habits? One concept that appears quite obviously related to this question is employee engagement.

More and more companies today are spending vast amounts of money "monitoring" their workforce levels of "job satisfaction" - now re-branded as engagement. And rightly so. There is compelling evidence suggesting that happy employees are more productive and less likely to leave. The latter is particularly important because of the war on talent for high-potential or exceptional employees, who tend to perform as good as 5 average employees; but they also get more offers to leave and, knowing that they are special, they want special treatment. Their managers, in turn, may be somewhat jealous (or simply incompetent) and p** them off - hence low engagement is a useful diagnostic tool for predicting employee performance and turnover, as well as organisational profits.

In our study, we are interested in the relationship between engagement and sleep. That is, is there an overlap between individual differences in employee engagement levels and their sleeping patterns? On one hand, one may expect that a sleep-deprived workforce is just more tired, and even exhausted, which would translate into fatigue and low engagement levels. On the other hand, one could argue that a super-engaged employee would carry on thinking about work stuff while asleep, and wake up earlier to go to work, stay in the office until later, etc. This would mean that his or her work life may end up steeling some precious sleep and play time - a classic case of work-a-holic insomnia.

In addition, we are also interested in knowing what role personality plays here. That is why we are examining the role of emotional intelligence, a trait that has been shown to relate to a number of important work-related outcomes, particularly in jobs where stress-management (or staying calm) and interpersonal relations (getting along) are key to performance.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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