Be Creative When You're Sleepy

Your best time for imaginative work may be your off-hours.

Posted Aug 05, 2015

In the best of all possible worlds, we'd all live according to our personal body clocks.  People do vary — night owls take longer to reach their energy peak than early birds. However, you can push your clock earlier to match the world's clocks, and if you are lucky enough to have some flexibility, design optimal schedules for you.   

First thing in the morning, night owls need to keep the shades up and get sunlight if they want to push their schedule earlier. Ideally, if you’re also trying to lose weight, you’d eat a big breakfast by a sunny window: research backs up the old strategy of pushing your food consumption earlier in the day. Tweeters might read their feed by 8 or 9 a.m., when the tweets are most likely to be cheerful, according to a study of millions of tweets sent over two years.

The authors write, “Individuals awaken in a good mood that deteriorates as the day progresses — which is consistent with the effects of sleep and circadian rhythm.” They found that people were happier on weekends, but the morning peak in cheeriness comes 2 hours later, probably because people sleep in.

Surprisingly, if you’re a night owl who is slow in the morning, this might be the time to do your creative work, when you’re still groggy and in free-associating mode. Try writing by hand, rather than on the computer. Studies suggest that the motions of your fingers when you write by hand trigger faster thinking.  

Before noon, take a warm morning shower to gear up for analytical work, says biologist and body-clock expert Steve Kay. The body naturally warms up as the day begins and brings you greater powers of concentration. Do spread-sheet type tasks before lunch, especially if you’re an early-bird.

Mid-day, plan your meal after you've performed key tasks. Alertness tends to slump after eating meal, and in the afternoon. You’re likely to be most distractible from noon to 4 p.m., according to research by Robert Matchock, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. Try napping rather than another cup of coffee if you’re fighting fatigue. You can find the perfect naptime for you by using the “power nap wheel” designed by sleep expert Sara Mednick. 

Many people hit a low at 3 p.m. and then get another spurt until 6 p.m. If you can, put your workout in this part of the day, when muscle strength and other aspects of fitness typically peak, according to Michael Smolensky, co-author of “The Body Clock Guide to Better Health.” One large study found that the lungs are more than 17 percent efficient between 4 and 5 p.m. than from noon to 1 p.m. Perhaps fire off your tweets before you go to the gym: Data shows that people are most like to click through on tweets at this time.

Some night-owls will be peaking in the evening. If you’re more of an early bird and you’re getting a little drifty after dinner, you might pull out your pen and work on the novel (again by hand, not on the computer). It’s also a good time to do yoga, or stretching exercises: joints and muscles are significantly more flexible in the evening.

If you're looking for company and you're home alone, consider a phone call rather than social media. If you do go online, you may find that people are more generous with their “likes” on Facebook after dinner. Later at night, people become more emotional, for better or worse, at least on social media.

Do sign off your electronics well before sleep time and make room for a bedtime routine, which might include moisturizer, a hot shower, or laying out clothing or writing down your list for the next day if you find that calming. Some people meditate. Reading a book in bed may backfire, especially if it's a thriller.   

How do you function when you have more choices, usually on vacations? Experiment a bit and you may find small changes in your usual schedule make a big difference. 

A variation of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.