Sleeping on It: The Counter-Intuitive Way to Be More Innovative

Sleeping on it to be more innovativeFor hard-driving business people, it's hard to imagine, but the best way to solve those knotty problems may just be to forget about it and get a good night’s sleep.  According to research cited in Scientific American Mind this month, your brain keeps working to reprocess your knowledge while you sleep--and it is particularly good at connecting the dots between totally disconnected ideas: the essence of creativity.

Merage School's Professor John Graham, in his new book, Global Negotiation: The New Rules notes that it is an effective tactic in creative negotiation. Seemingly intractable impasses can often melt away in the morning light, after unconscious brains have been teasing out the problems overnight.

I found it in my practice, too. In Ideaworks' two-day workshops, when participants define the problems they just can't solve (labeling bricks and building a wall with them), we ask them not to think about the problems and go get eight hours of sleep. Presto, the next morning people walk in and take away the majority of those bricks.  They always say the solution came to them in a dream, or was the first thought they had when they awoke.

Einstein's most famous insights came to him in thought experiments (a kind of working daydream) and from his dreams. Throughout history, scientists have attributed many of their "eureka" moments to that period just emerging from sleep. Their waking brains had assimilated all the data they needed for the breakthroughs, but their sleeping brains had to reassemble the data in novel ways.

Perhaps companies looking for more innovative solutions should forbid late night e-mails or grueling trips, and make it mandatory to go home and get a good night's sleep.
 

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About Lynda Lawrence

Lynda Lawrence is an innovation consultant with Ideaworks Consulting. She teaches Strategic Innovation and Design Management at the Merage School at UCI, and is an advisor to the Beall Center.