Sometimes, Tired People Are Creative People

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'Man Yawning', c1545-1569. From the collection of the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

You can probably think of a time when some lightning bolt of an idea struck you late at night. Whether that idea turned out to be as genius at 9 a.m. as it seemed at 2 a.m. is a little hit-and-miss, but there is something about fatigue that sometimes seems to lead to creativity, a subject Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work (which we excerpted here), discussed on the latest episode of “HBR Ideacast,” a podcast from Harvard Business Review. 

Friedman said: 

We’re actually better at being creative when we’re fatigued, which is kind of a counter-intuitive insight. And it’s partly because, in order to be creative, sometimes you need to consider some ideas that don’t necessarily feel like they’re on track with what you’re trying to achieve. And so having all these ideas come into your mind because you’re not quite as good at putting them off when you’re tired can actually make you more creative.

In other words, Friedman argues that your fatigued brain isn’t very good at filtering out weird ideas, something that can lead to creative insights. Likewise, at The Atlantic last week, writer Olga Khazan highlighted a 2011 study that found people were better at solving riddles or math problems when they were tired. Echoing that finding, Friedman recommends taking on creative tasks during the time of day when you know you’re going to be a little sleepy — such as, say, the afternoon slump during which I am writing this post right now! It’s a cheering thought that a little brain fog isn’t always a bad thing.