Is planning your story like wading through quicksand? Having trouble getting your ideas down in a coherent way? Kali Anthony talks about how sleep might solve all your problems!
I have a confession to make. I’m writing this piece because at the moment, I’m exhausted. Not just tired, but bone-numbingly sleep deprived.
Every day feels like trudging through quicksand carrying a thirty-kilogram backpack (I haven’t actually done this, but that’s certainly how life feels.) Waking up at 4.30 a.m. to write? Hahahaha! The alarm wakes up my husband, much to his annoyance, and not me. I seem to be staying upright by force of caffeine alone. And trying to come up with any coherent plan for my current writing project is a failure, since I can’t decide where to go in the story next.
It’s not entirely clear why I’m so tired. Of course, my doctor rolls her eyes when I say this because… Three kids, a stressful job and trying to keep it all together equals one tired woman—you know the drill. It could have something to do with those pesky work stress levels keeping me awake into the wee hours. And the fact our air-conditioner died in the middle of summer, so the heat and humidity have affected my sleep for months (did you know there's an optimal sleep temperature?).
Whatever the reason, I’m about as alert and active as a sloth on sleeping pills. Which has led me to researching the effects of lack of sleep, since I’m living it.
I wondered whether it was my tiredness causing the block on my creativity.
Everyone knows that getting enough sleep is vital. In fact, lack of sleep can be as bad as being inebriated, and this is confirmed by research. Some scientists are concerned that lack of sleep is turning us into zombies and is making the population’s behaviour irrational and imbalanced. Aside: I need to ask my family whether they think I’m irrational and imbalanced. Maybe it’s why they quietly back out of the room when I walk into it and why my husband’s buying me flowers… Anyhow, moving right along. It’s serious stuff. But does lack of sleep affect the creative process, if at all?
Studies show that sleep helps with creativity and problem solving. In a 2004 study, researchers Ullrich Wagner and others set a problem, which unbeknownst to the participants, had a hidden rule. If discovered, the rule would allow participants to get through the task much faster. Half of the group started the task then were allowed eight hours sleep. Another group commenced the task, but were given an eight hour break and no sleep. The results showed that sixty percent of the group who slept discovered the hidden rule allowing them to complete the task faster, as opposed to twenty three percent in the group who didn’t sleep.
The researchers concluded that, “… sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour.”
For anyone interested it appears to have something to do with the balance between REM and non-REM sleep allowing the brain to find hidden links in knowledge, to come up with solutions to problems. Anyone ever dreamed a solution to something that’s been plaguing you? I know I have.
John Steinbeck agreed, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” So did Shakespeare, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep" —though if life is rounded out by sleep at the moment mine is all straight edges.
And did you know that Stephen King came up with the idea for his novel, Misery, after having a nightmare about a famous author being trapped by a crazed fan?
Food for thought. Or for our dreams.
How much sleep do we need? They say that eight hours is optimal, but not everyone requires that. Winston Churchill reportedly slept five hours a day, whereas Albert Einstein slept ten hours. Or you could try Leonardo Da Vinci’s technique. He apparently slept for twenty minutes every four hours (nope, nope, nope!)
What about on a personal level—how much sleep do you, as an individual, require? One way work it out is to go to bed at your usual time, turn off all alarms and see when you wake up without interruption. Average that over a week, and voila! That’s how many hours sleep you need a night. The suggestion is to do this over a holiday period when you don’t have to get out of bed for anything, such as work. You might also require some sleep catch up, so in the first few days might be sleeping longer than you need.
Seems I need around seven and a half to eight hours sleep a night—though am about to go on holidays so am going to experiment again and might update you on that estimate!
All of this is grand, but what to do if you’re having trouble sleeping? I read on my Kindle app on my phone, so blue light at night is a problem for me. To solve this, I’ve put a blue light filter on my phone, which has done weird things to the colour but I’m getting used to it slowly. I think it’s helped. I’ve also discovered there is an optimal bedroom temperature for sleep—70 degrees F or 20 degrees C—so am glad the southern hemisphere is coming into winter rather than me having to suffer through any more hot summer nights!
Other tips are: make sure you get sunshine/blue light during the day, don't consume caffeine after around three in the afternoon, and try to sleep and wake at consistent times.
I’m hoping that if I give all of this a go, I’ll get back into the groove of sleeping well and writing even better. So here’s to a good night sleep and plenty of creative solutions to your writing problems because as the Irish proverb says, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”
Kali Anthony is an aspiring writer and senior editor for The Pink Heart Society. Follow Kali on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
How do you sleep? Got any handy tricks or tips to get some ZZZZZs? Let us know here, or on social media. We'd love to hear from you!