Your most creative time of day isn’t when you think it is

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

All of us are governed by our own internal clocks, or circadian rhythms, that determine when we’re wide awake and when we need toothpicks to keep our eyes open. We tend to think that we’re at our best during our peak hours: Night owls’ hoots are pitch-perfect in the evening and larks catch the most worms early in the day. But when it comes to creativity, we may be getting it all wrong.

According to a study on how time of day affects problem solving, a little sleepiness may open our minds to more creative solutions. Researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks at Albion College in Michigan invited 428 students to take a Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire to determine if they were larks or owls. They then asked the students to tackle three analytic tasks and three insight problems in the lab.

To solve the analytic problems, participants had to systematically slog toward the logical solution. For example, “Bob’s father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. 4 years ago, he was 4 times older. How old are Bob and his father?”

The insight problems were not so straightforward. Often misleading, they required a burst of insight to crack. One such problem set up this scenario: “A dealer in antique coins got an offer to buy a beautiful bronze coin. The coin had an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 B.C. stamped on the other. The dealer examined the coin, but instead of buying it, he called the police. Why?”*

Half of the group took the test between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. and the other half came in between 4 and 5:30 p.m. Overall, participants performed better on the analytic problems, and the time of day didn’t seem to impact those results. However, things got weird when it came to the insight problems. The larks experienced more “aha” moments later in the day when they were groggier and owls fared better first thing in the morning when they were bleary-eyed and not so bushy tailed. Turned out that fatigue gave the students about a 20% boost in creative juice.

A wandering mind isn’t always lost

Wieth and Sacks hypothesized that this would happen, because you need to overcome a mental impasse to sort out insight puzzles. In other words, you have to let go of your initial understanding of the problem and see it in a new light. Like a dog with a bone, when you’re “on,” your brain is great at tuning out distractions and chomping down on the task at hand. The downside of this laser focus is that it can act as blinders. You end up shutting out alternative perspectives that could lead to the right answer.

When we’re tired, our filters are porous and stray thoughts like “What’s trending on Twitter?” or “I should have been more tactful in this morning’s meeting” flow freely through our mind. “That random thought can combine with your main thought and come up with something creative,” Wieth told The Atlantic. “At your optimal time of day, you’re not going to have that random thought.”

Other researchers have seen similar results. In one psychological study, participants were shown three words, such as “ship, outer, crawl,” and asked to find the common link. (In this case, “space.”) People who were tested at off-peak times solved more problems when those words were paired with a helpful clue (e.g., ship-rocket, outer-atmosphere, crawl-attic). Those same hints didn’t aid people during their peak hours though. Their focus was so strong that they blocked out even useful distractions.

Design your workday for optimum creativity

Many time management experts still recommend digging into your most pressing projects in the morning when your mind is freshest. While there’s merit to that wisdom, a better approach may be to first determine what type of thinking the project requires—constrained or diffuse. If you’re a lark who needs to plan next quarter’s budget, stick with the start of the day. If, on the other hand, you need to dream up a clever concept for a new ad campaign, save it until your late afternoon brain fog descends.

Given that fatigue and distractions are on your side when it comes to creativity, it might also be best to avoid downing coffee when you’re seeking a novel solution. And if anyone bothers you about your cluttered desk, just tell them you’re cultivating a collection of creative stimuli.

First figure out if you’re a legit lark or owl

Most of us can intuit which circadian category we fall into by when we fall into bed. But personality types and lifestyle choices can trick some larks into thinking they’re owls. To find out which kind of sleeper you really are, Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology and the author of Internal Time, recommends leaving your curtains open at night. If you wake up as sunshine fills the room, then you’re not a true owl. Real owls will slumber on despite the light. You can also take many online tests to discover your natural sleep cycle.

We’re not all built to concentrate on complex matters at the crack of dawn, and some brains grow fuzzy as the sun goes down. But it’s that very weariness that can soften our focus and spur inventive solutions. By understanding our personal circadian rhythms, we can best match our creative projects to the optimal time of day, and harness the power of a wandering, unfettered mind.

*In case you’re reading this during your sharpest hours, no B.C. coin would have been stamped B.C. That epoch wasn’t defined until the A.D. time period.
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