Tonight, pick one problem to sleep on

Takeaway: The next time you reach a strong impasse with a problem, sleep on it, by writing down the problem before heading to bed. Incubating unresolved problems overnight lets your mind wander, rest, and unearth insights you might not otherwise have had.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 13s.

Podcast Length: 18 minutes, 34s (link to play podcast at the bottom of post).

If you’re anything like me, you occasionally find yourself staring down what could be several more hours of work at the end of the day—maybe stumped by a technical problem or grasping for a way to connect seemingly disparate ideas in a presentation. Whatever it is, you’ve reached an impasse and you may not be sure what to do next. 

Pulling an all-nighter is one option—but a better option might be to sleep on the problem.  

Here’s how the idea works: as you’re disconnecting at the end of the day, write down one open loop or problem that you want to solve and think about until the next morning. Then, go to sleep. As you rest, your brain will continue to churn away on the problem, making it more likely that you’ll experience a eureka moment in the morning. Try to always go to bed with a problem in mind that you want to solve. 

Sleeping on a problem works for two curious reasons. 

First, it works because of a psychological phenomenon named the “Zeigarnik effect”. Named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, this effect suggests that we store unresolved problems at the front of our minds. Our brains are wired to continue connecting new experiences and thoughts to that problem until the loop is closed. That includes the new ideas that come up when our minds wander. By capturing a problem before bed, you’re more likely to store it front-of-mind for the night—when your mind will turn over the problem, in search of a solution to it. 

This is where the power of dreaming comes in—the second reason sleeping on a problem works so well. Interestingly, the brain networks we use to dream as we sleep and daydream are eerily similar—on a neurological level, dreaming is basically daydreaming on steroids. And, as I’ve written about in the past, a surefire way of becoming more creative is to daydream more often. 

Like daydreaming, dreaming creates the space for us to process problems and unearth new insights. When we wake up we find we’re not only more refreshed and able to focus, but that our subconscious may have pieced together the puzzle from the day before. (I dig into this idea more in Hyperfocus. Everyone from Thomas Edison to Salvador Dali have used sleep as a tool to come up with new insight solutions.)  

Going to bed with a problem to sleep on works best for a single specific, complex problem that would benefit from some additional time or thought. Something simple to try the next time you’ve reached an impasse in your work. Sweet, productive dreams! 

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