You’re faced with a knotty problem, but the more you think about it, the harder it becomes to unravel. After hours, days, or even weeks of agonizing, you’re frustrated, mentally exhausted …and still stuck.
So, now what?
Novelist John Steinbeck might have been onto something when he wrote that “a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
While you’re fast asleep, your brain is busy doing everything from storing new information to identifying meaningful patterns and replaying recent memories. Those functions, say experts, may be key to problem-solving. So put biology to work for you—and sleep on it.
Why sleep helps solve problems
Your brain may come up with fresh solutions to a challenge during sleep because it’s not bogged down with 10 other tasks and worries. When your conscious mind punches out during periods of sleep, some other “unconscious” work seems to take place, with your brain kicking in an active, goal-directed process.
In other words, sometimes you just need some downtime to make better decisions.
When you leave your preconceptions behind, you’re able to weigh more equally the various components that can help us arrive at a decision. Creative thinking flows more freely, and you come up with fresh options using the information you already know.
Here are three tips that could help you uncover that elusive “a-ha”:
1. Sit with your problem right before sleep.
To fully harness sleep’s problem-solving powers, researchers suggest thinking about your dilemma just before bed. Some research has shown that listening to a sound clip—for instance, ocean waves lapping the shore—while you think about your problem and also while you sleep may further spark your brain to tackle the problem.
2. Revisit it in the morning.
Spending a few minutes revisiting what had you tied up in knots the night before may yield helpful insights.
Just as you’re waking up in the morning, think about that one problem or task you’ll face today. Now let your brain ruminate. Don’t direct your thoughts in any particular direction. Because your brain has likely been kicking around the issue while you were asleep, your subconscious may offer up an idea or two—maybe even an unexpected flash of genius.
3. Write it down. Right now.
History has it that Thomas Edison would take his afternoon nap holding a steel ball in each hand. Upon dozing off, his hands would relax and the steel balls would crash to the floor, waking him up. With a pad and pencil at the ready, he’d write down whatever was on his mind so it wouldn’t fade away as distractions arose throughout the day.
How often has a lightbulb gone off in your head at 1:00 a.m., and come morning your brilliant idea is nowhere to be found? Keep a notebook and pen by your bed to jot down any midnight or early a.m. brainstorms.
Far from being a cop-out, sleeping on it may be more helpful than spending hours of conscious thought on a problem. As studies show, the brain tends to make sound “unconscious” decisions when we let it.