Most people have some understanding of the time of day when they perform their best. I think of myself as a “morning person”. Many others believe they think most clearly late at night and into the early hours.
Some surprising new research turns this idea on its head – it suggests people are at their creative peak when they are sleepy. The reason is that insight-based problem solving which requires a broad, unfocused approach works best when your thoughts are meandering and inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest.
In this study by Marieke Wieth and Rose Zacks, over 400 undergraduates were asked to identify the times of day when they considered they performed well. Just under 200 had a clear preference for late at night, about 20 preferred mornings, the rest were neutral. They were asked to solve problems requiring creativity (e.g. how a prisoner could escape) and those needing a narrow focus (e.g. a maths problem). The students were tested at different times of day.
The researchers found more success in solving creative problems at the least optimal time of functioning. Narrow problems were solved just as successfully at any time of day. They established that the creative advantage specifically came from working at the least optimal time of day.
Does this fit with your experience? If you have complex problems to solve that require creativity, what’s different about what comes to mind in “down” time, perhaps at the weekends, on holiday, when you’re driving the car or when you’ve just woken up? How does this compare to how you think in the time you have put aside to concentrate fully on the problem?
Pay attention to what is happening. When do you have your most creative ideas? Where it’s possible, can you manage your time, in relation to your body’s rhythm, to give your creativity the best chance to do its thing? What difference does it make when you do this?
If it works for you, consider sharing your experiences with others.
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BPS research digest. www.researchdigest.org.uk
Weith, M.B. and Zacks, R.T. (2012) Time of day effects on problem solving: when the non-optimal is optimal. Thinking and Reasoning Vol.17 (4) 387-401