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Want To Be More Creative? Don’t Sleep

22 November 2014

From LinkedIn:

Wednesday, famed sportswriter Bill Simmons released a podcast where he interviewed Lorne Michaels, the man who created and still runs Saturday Night Live. In the interview, Michaels said something particularly interesting about the creative process.

Simmons asked him about the grueling nature of SNL, where Michaels and his staff have been putting on a live hour of television each week for the past 40 years. Specifically, Simmons asked if that sort of schedule was too difficult, if there would be a benefit to cutting back.

Michaels’ answer: no.

“There’s a mantra that I have, which is fatigue is your friend,” Michaels said. “There’s a point at which, in anything artistic, at least from my perspective, the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty… When you’re tired, you just write it, and all sorts of different kinds of work comes out.”

Michaels, who developed talent like Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and hundreds of others, went on to say that when creative types are tired, they lose their filter. And then, “someone takes a chance that they would never, if they were cautious or they were smart, would have ever attempted.”

“And those kinds of things are what you remember now as hits,” he continued.

. . . .

There have been several scientific studies into the exact issue Simmons and Michaels talked about. And while there are some splits in the findings, the majority say that, indeed, sleep deprivation can actually increase creativity.

One study by Mareike Wieth at Albion College probed into this issue by giving people problems to answer at their non-optimal time of the day; i.e. times when they were tired (morning people were given problems in the evening and evening people were given problems in the morning).

What Wieth found was that people answered math questions better when they were well-rested. However, for problems that required more creative thinking, the people who were more tired did better.

“The findings indicate that tasks involving creativity might benefit from a non-optimal time of day,” Wieth wrote in her study.

Additionally, Italian researcher Marcello Massimini found that the brain becomes more sensitive throughout the day, as it continues to form new synapses for as long as you stay awake. When you finally sleep, those synapses are pruned down.

Link to the rest at LinkedIn and thanks to Dennis for the tip.


28 Comments to “Want To Be More Creative? Don’t Sleep”

  1. To paraphrase Hemingway:
    “Write tired, edit rested.”

  2. That explains why a great many sketches on SNL die on the vine. And I wonder of Lorne Michael stays up with his writers, or leaves at 5 p.m. every day.

    I suspect the latter.

  3. Want to die young and be miserable? Don’t sleep.

  4. The opposite is true for me. I’m no longer capable of writing another sentence after 4 p.m.

  5. I love creative people. I am too logic oriented. But when I go to sleep at night, I don’t dream about familiar situations and people. I dream stories. I guess that’s when my filter comes off.

  6. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, after a good night’s sleep. When I’m tired, I can’t concentrate. This method has been proven not to work for me, which makes me glad I didn’t pay someone to analyze it for me. 🙂

    • Same here. I can’t do anything productive when I’m tired, I just read a little and go to sleep. It tends to piss people off in my life, like I’m lazy. I just know there’s no fighting through it, decades of experience. My mind just shuts down and there’s no restarting it.

  7. I think that different things work for different people, so this might be true for some. But I learned a while ago that if I don’t sleep, I don’t write.

  8. If I followed this advice I’d veg out in front of the keyboard until got so tired I decided to have a midnight meal and went to bed, accomplishing nothing. I simply CAN’T form coherent stories when fatigued.

  9. Heh, from the comments here, it sounds more like the guy doesn’t want anyone else to get too creative. 😉

    “Wanna grow up big and strong kid? Then I’d advise you to go play dodge cars during rush hour!”


    Disclaimer: I am currently suffering from severe CSD (Compulsive Sarcasm Disorder).

  10. My production improved greatly when I stopped pushing myself to finish my words late when I was tired, and went to bed instead and started fresh in the morning.

    I certainly agree that quieting the critical voice filter will make you considerably more creative; but there are other ways to do that than sleep deprivation.

    In his book ‘Sleep Thieves,’ psychologist Stanley Coren looks at these myths about sleep, creativity and productivity.
    His research survey was in far greater depth than this article, and included interviews he performed himself with people in multiple professions where sleep deprivation is endemic, and the results of experiment he performed on himself while in grad school.
    He also did enough research to debunk some sleep-deprivation myths about some very famously productive and creative people.

    • I certainly agree that quieting the critical voice filter will make you considerably more creative; but there are other ways to do that than sleep deprivation.

      For sure! I do my most solid writing and get my highest daily word counts when I start writing first thing in the morning after I get the kids off to school. And I like the 3,000-word days that are possible when I follow that schedule.

    • I had to go check this book out and send a sample to my Kindle, so thank you for the recommendation. I’ve found a lot of good books through mentions in the comments on this site.

    • Yeah! There are lots of ways to silence that inner critic.

      I prefer booze. 😉

  11. I go to sleep by making up stories in my head, so for me, writing when I’m sleepy confuses my body into thinking it’s time to sleep. More than once, I’ve started nodding off or yawning uncontrollably when I’ve tried writing when I am extremely tired. If I’m not already sleepy, it doesn’t affect me to that extent.

  12. In a perfect world I write in the morning, and I have composed some of my novels that way. Henry Miller once gave his philosophy of writing as something like: “Two or three hours in the morning, and the rest of the day to oneself.” Although he had a tendency to binge-write when he was really into something.

    But I have to feed the family, and my novels and stories don’t do it yet, so I spend twelve hours or so a day writing Internet articles. After, the stress of the work and single parenting gets to me and I often have insomnia. I finally decided that instead of lying in bed awake, I might as well do my writing – my own writing. So I have been working on my stories and novels from 11 to 12 at night and it has been a wonderful experience. If I don’t fit the time in I feel depressed that I am not producing my own work. I’d rather feel tired and produce than not produce at all.

    • I too get actually depressed when I don’t write. It’s like the one thing I really do for myself and I feel I’ve let myself down if I didn’t fit it in.

    • I go through phases – when I’m in the middle of a novel now I get depressed if I don’t write for a day or two. But if I’m in between and binge-reading, I get depressed when I can’t read as much as I want to. There must be a connection there. The words have to either flow into the brain or out of it to make me happy.

  13. “What Wieth found was that people answered math questions better when they were well-rested. However, for problems that required more creative thinking, the people who were more tired did better.”

    See, it looks like there’s a difference between the tests and the conclusion. In both cases, rested and tired, it seems like the subjects were supposed to find a “right” answer to a problem. In this case, “thinking creatively” means “finding a less obvious, less logical answer.” That’s not at all the same as painting or writing or composing.

  14. Yeah, I’m not buying it. I’m going through a severe spell of insomnia (since the time changed), and my writing has fallen off a cliff. I can’t even think of new stories most days, and that’s almost unheard-of for me.

    I think a small amount of sleep deprivation might make you more inclined to think of odd things. I know my dreams can get really wild when I’m tired. I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night before and done something creative, like making gifts or doing various crafts. Sometimes I would write. Usually I read or catch up on recorded TV shows now.

    Oh, and I also often fall asleep thinking of stories, living them in my head like a movie. Either that, or imagining how the rooms in a miniature house should look.

    • Oh, and I also often fall asleep thinking of stories, living them in my head like a movie.

      every story I’ve ever written has, at the very least, gotten it’s start that way.

  15. I did a bit of reading around the creativity thing for a recent blog post, and came across some neat stuff, like this article on what happened when jazz musicians improvised while in an MRI:


    There are indeed parts of the brain that shut down during certain kinds of creative thought. Perhaps exhaustion does that for some people. I’d rather find ways that don’t harm my health, though. 🙂

  16. Because hallucinating = creativity. Not.

  17. I am glad to see so many contrary opinions posted here because I’m the same way. Being tired does not equal good writing. My most consistent best writing time is morning. My favorite writing time, when I feel like I’m doing my best work, is in the evening–but only if I’ve had an afternoon nap and make a strong cup of coffee. I don’t always get the nap, which is why I try to make sure I write in the morning.

  18. If I am tired, I can’t write, but being plugged into music (while rested) seems to release a good dose of creativity for me. Is this the same for others?

    • Depends. Depends on what kind of story I’m writing, and probably what kind of scene I’m writing. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics, especially if I like the song, because that distracts me. I also have to turn the music off if I’m working on a difficult scene where I have to narrow my focus as tightly as possible. I like music the rest of the time, though. Don’t know if it makes my writing any better!

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