You can tell when I’m making progress on my novel by the bags under my eyes. For some odd reason, my characters seem to be living in a different time zone, often coming alive when I’m ready to snap off the light and call it a day. I never have this difficulty when I’m writing a magazine article or other nonfiction, and it turns out this insomniac's spin on writer's block isn't just in my head.
A study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University shows that many people have counterintuitive circadian rhythms—the daily cycles of physiological and cognitive activity—for creativity. Two types of problem solving were measured: analytical tasks that require you to work steadily toward answers (like doing your taxes), and insight ability, requiring out-of-the box thinking. The study found that self-described “morning people” who are more productive in the early daytime hours are actually better at solving problems requiring creative insight in the evening. The opposite was true for those who said they were more alert in the evening.
“The results of this study suggest that students designing their class schedules might consider enrolling in classes such as art and creative writing during their non-optimal circadian arousal times,” explains Mareike Wieth, associate professor of psychological science at Albion College, who headed up the study while at MSU. “Math and science are better suited for peak arousal times.” Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in sync with their circadian arousal state.
Counterintuitive as it seems, it’s possible that the less focused you are, the more you are able to explore inventive possibilities. So, it may pay to procrastinate when it comes to creative process. “You may be able to power through a to-do list and solve tasks with a specific answer during your peak circadian arousal state,” explains Keith Sawyer, associate professor of education at Washington University and the author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. “But insight problems are more a matter of wandering down a number of paths to find the best solution.”
So, what’s the solution for those of us who are creatively challenged during the daylight hours? Sawyer suggests writing your ideas down before going to sleep, but then following up on them the next morning. Or, simply adjust your sleeping hours to accommodate your creativity clock.
Jennifer Haupt writes about how people find thier voice and use it to change their lives, their communities, and some sometimes even the world. She contributes to a wide variety of publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Parents, and Spirituality & Health. She's written several nonfiction books and is working on her debut novel.
Portions of this piece originally appeared in Spirituality & Health Magazine.