Is sleeping like a sloth the key to productivity and creativity?

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley.

In my last blog I explained the connection between a good night’s sleep and increased productivity and creativity. Here’s where I explain how it all works.

Imagine you have an account at the Sleep Bank. Every night you invest your sleeping hours and your balance increases. And every day you ‘spend’ this value in staying awake and being productive. So, by the end of each day you need more sleep to keep your balance in the black! If you keep a positive balance, then the Sleep Bank pays you interest in the form of creativity – quality sleep leads to increased creativity.

However, when we spend more in being awake and productive than we earn by accumulating quality sleep then we end up going into the red and managing a ‘sleep debt’. If you are in sleep debt, then you are not getting your creativity interest payments. Using the techniques discussed below will help you effectively increase the quality of your sleep and increase your creativity – to give you great ideas from a better night’s sleep.

Dispelling the myths

People are understandably very protective about their sleep and especially their dreaming! Getting great ideas from a better night’s sleep is not about creating a 24-hour working day – in fact these techniques help to improve the quality of your sleep whilst boosting creative ideas in the day. It’s also not about Freudian (or Jungian) understanding of your dreams! This is about neuroscience not psychoanalysis.

5 steps to great ideas from a better night’s sleep

There are countless stories of insights in sleep solving the problems of the waking world…but practically where do we start?

1.Preparing to sleep

As a society many of us have forgotten how to get ready to sleep. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as complex computers that can just be switched off at night. Instead we need to take some time to prepare to sleep. Make good sleep a good habit by keeping your bedtime reasonably regular, be sure to turn off screens an hour before sleep and keep bedrooms cool, dark and quiet.


If you want your brain to help you solve a problem creatively at night – you need to know the problem you want to work on. Choose any challenge you’d like to find a solution for. It can be complicated or easy – but it has to be something somewhat in your control (not how to bring about world peace please). Now write it down in a notebook.

How solvable do you feel this problem is? Mark it on the scale in the notebook. This is entirely subjective – we don’t need to know how tricky other people are finding this issue – this is all about your challenge, and the solutions you can find. So, what might be a 2 for you might be a 7 for others.

Now practise these incubation exercises, spending no more than 5 minutes completing one of the following:

  1. Rephrase your challenge by writing it as a paragraph starting ‘how might’ or ‘how to’
  2. Summarise your challenge as a simple single sentence
  3. Focus on your challenge by rewriting it considering every word


Stating the obvious – if you are not relaxed you will not get a good night’s sleep! Remember your brain is not a computer and sleep isn’t an off switch. You need to give your brain permission to relax into sleep. There’s a million ways to do this – but one of the simplest is focussed breathing. This isn’t all about meditation and Buddhist chanting – this is science.

Dr Alan Watkins, physician and neuroscientist is the country’s leading expert on Heart Rate Variability – the higher the variability of heart rate the more hormones you produce that pump into your system affecting how you think and react. But you can control this and the way you breathe controls whether you pump your system full of adrenalin to keep you awake or GABA for a feeling of peace and serenity! So rather than reaching for your phone to check Facebook before bed, instead after your incubation exercises relax through 2-3 minutes of mindful breathing. If you don’t know how to breathe (!!!) just follow the guide below:


There’s no secret trick here. If you’ve followed stages 1-3 then stage four requires no effort on your part.


You drift to the surface after a great night’s sleep…what’s the first thing you do? Reach for your phone? Well not anymore. Now before you get out of bed grab your notebook from last night and spend 3 minutes recording your most memorable and vivid dreams from the night. Sketch or write about this dream – include colours, scents, sounds, how you felt, anything that feels meaningful. You are not looking for direct links to the challenge you set yourself (though you may find that obvious connections start showing themselves) you are looking to continue the creative state you were in whilst asleep.

Now recall your work-related challenge from the night before and spend 5 minutes (no more) completing both of these post sleep exercises;

  1. Solutions: quickly record as many solutions to this work-related challenge as you can
  2. Support: quickly record what you might need to help solve this work-related problem

Now re-score your problem using the scale below. How solvable do you feel this problem is now? This is still subjective – you are comparing with how you felt about this problem last night not with how other people might feel about it.

Remember we are modelling the sloth. If you don’t see an obvious answer to your problem after the first night,  don’t worry. In my research some people took two or three tries before it worked for them. Others didn’t see the connection between their dreams and their work-related problem until they thought about it for a while.

Your take away

You are already immensely creative. Of course, there are techniques to learn and tricks to boost your creativity – but however many training sessions you attend, however many qualifications you get, however many extra hours you do in the office…

Remember you are at your best and most creative when you rest, so chill out, improve your sleep and boost your great ideas…

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Fundraising and Communications at Havens Hospices. In her ‘spare’ time she looks for new ways to bring creativity into everyday working practice…and is working hard on getting a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

If you’re looking for more insight, tips and support to get better results check out the Lucidity Network – a pick and mix of online and offline practical tools and advice as well as access to a dynamic network of expertise to help you take the lead in getting the results you want. The Lucidity Network is open for new members a few times a year.  Sign up to the waiting list to be the first to know when the Network is open. In the meantime you can join the Lucidity Community free Facebook group  for clearer thinking and better results.  



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Let’s sleep on it some more… How sleep and creative thinking are connected. Part one.

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley.

Last year, as part of my MSc in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership studies I wanted to understand more about the connection between sleep and creativity. You may have read my previous blog about creativity in sleep and whether we could use our inherent night-time creativity to increase our creativity problem solving in waking life.

More than 100 UK managers worked with me to develop real world ways to get great ideas from a better night’s sleep – and the good news is that it works! Of those who tried the suggested techniques, 100% reported finding more creative solutions for work related problems (measured as increased ‘solvability’), as well as showing increases in the quality and quantity of sleep.

So, what’s the problem?

My interest in sleep started after my daughter was diagnosed with sleep maintenance disorder – a nero-disability meaning she requires far more sleep that you or me. On average she sleeps an extra 35 hours a week compared to her peers, you could say that sleeping has become her full-time job.

I’ve been fascinated by whether we might make sleep an enhancement of wakefulness – so time asleep is not just a necessity but becomes a useful part of who we are.

The research backed up my personal experience of just how busy we are nowadays with 95% of surveyed managers feeling they need more creative solutions for work-based problems – the barrier is time (or lack of it) with almost 70% feeling they don’t have time to complete their daily ‘to-do’ lists let alone come up with new approaches to old problems!. In fact, if you’re anything like the average modern worker you always have too much to do and too little time, and that’s before dashing home to feed the dog, think about going to the gym, get some laundry done…and then log-on again to finish that final report. And in the meantime, your boss is telling you that the organisation needs to be more innovative, that you need to be more creative…

…so exactly when are you going to fit that in?

And nearly three-quarters of those asked said their mind is still buzzing before they go to bed – not helped by the fact that over 80% of them keep their phone by their bed, switched on with notifications coming through 24 hours a day (compared to only 10% of participants who have a clock!!!)

Why doing more isn’t doing better

But sleep isn’t the luxury we make it out to be. As humans we can survive for more than three weeks without food, but only 8-10 days without sleep. Yet as a society we are obsessed with the idea of proving ourselves good employees through long working hours. But the more work (and less sleep) we have, the less efficient we are. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) research in 2017 showed across the world’s richest countries, lower working hours correlates with higher productivity AND workaholism leads to: poor sleep, depression, burnout, depression, anxiety, recurring stress-induced headaches and stomach aches. The neuroscientist Matthew Walker feels we are facing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” because: “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. We chastise people for sleeping…We think of them as slothful”.

Practical perception of sleep has often been as a: “passive, dormant part of our daily lives” (American Sleep Association, 2017), yet far from an interruption in activity, sleep is vital for effective functioning of the human body. Studies with astronauts show disruptions in the circadian clock and sleep jeopardize mood, cognition and performance. Whilst most adults can manage challenges of short-term sleep deprivation, over a longer timeframe: “SD [sleep deprivation] impairs decision-making involving the unexpected, innovation, revising plans, competing distraction and effective communication” (Harrison & Horne, 2000). This is particularly important for those interested in high creative performance at work, as Harrison and Horne’s (2000) research shows innovation is particularly impacted by poor sleep.

Sleep and creativity

The correlation between sleep and creativity has been known as long as we have had ability to record our thoughts. Inherent creativity, shown through sleep in the form of dreaming, has fascinated humans through the ages; from dream records in Ancient Mesopotamia, through the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denys – the first to try to apply the scientific method to study lucid dreaming, to Jungian theories around the role of dreams integrating our conscious and unconscious lives. Throughout belief exists that within the creative experiences of sleep something useful occurs, that within dreams: “there must be a utilitarian aspect to these creative thoughts, or else they are simply just random firings of the brain” (Patel, 2014).

The development of scanning and imaging technology has allowed us to explore these ‘random firings’ more closely. Certain types of sleep state where you move between dreaming sleep (called Rapid Eye Movement or REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep has been shown to increase fluency, flexibility and originality of thought. Deirdre Barrett’s research published in 2001 shows we can direct our sleeping brains to work on problems we want to solve. Simply by focussing on the issue, over 50% of people found useful creative solutions to their problems during sleep.

The idea our sleeping brain may allow us to become better creative problem solvers is controversial, not least because so many have invested so much to develop problem solving methods for the waking world. The idea of simply ‘relaxing and having a nap’ seems counter-intuitive for those who have built careers on claiming creative problem solving is a skill that must be learned, with theorists like Blagrove’s stating: “…the place for problem solving is the waking, social world”. This however dismisses increasing evidence to the contrary from researchers such as Wagner et al where: “twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness, regardless of time of day”,

But not all sleep is equal! To maximise the usefulness of creativity in sleep it is important to reconnect to measurement of sleep itself.   It is within a certain type of active dreaming state (REM sleep) that individuals increase creative problem solving by up to 40% (Cai et al, 2009). Further work by Arico et al (2010) and Kirov et al (2015) show that whilst REM sleep remains crucial, it is the multiple transitions between REM and NREM sleep that increases fluency, flexibility and originality of thought, improving creative problem solving. Therefore, it is the process of a good night’s sleep, which creates a ‘useful’ night’s sleep; beyond merely creativity within a dream state.

Why the sloth approach may offer greater productivity…and creativity

We all instinctively know that a good night’s sleep must be good for us, but society puts pressure to work harder for longer each day. Hard work, long hours and reacting to everything instantaneously reminds me of the meerkat approach – but I am recommending we model ourselves after something much more laid back…Sleeping more…and working fewer hours may just be the answer if you want to be more creative, successful and healthy! The sloth is our model here: napping for up to 18 hours a day. I’m not advocating doing nothing – quite the opposite. I’m suggesting you trust the research – by resting more you will be a better more creative fundraiser.

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Fundraising and Communications at Havens Hospices. In her ‘spare’ time she looks for new ways to bring creativity into everyday working practice…and is working hard on getting a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

For how this all works check out part two…coming soon…

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