You’re most creative when you’re at your groggiest

Are you an evening person? Guess what? Early in the day, when you’re bleary eyed, stumbling about in the fog of sleepiness, you’re probably at your creative peak. In contrast, if you’re a morning person, then for you, the evening is the best time for musing.

How come? Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. You’re more likely to achieve that Aha! revelatory moment when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering.

Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks recruited 428 undergrads and had them complete a questionnaire to identify whether they were night owls or morning larks. As you might expect, based on factors like preferred time of day and peak performance, most of the students – 195 of them – were owls and just 28 were larks. The remainder came out as neutral.

Next, the students tried to solve six problem-solving tasks – half of them were insight-type tasks (e.g. a prisoner in a tower finds a piece of rope that’s half the length of the distance to the ground. He escapes by using scissors to divide the rope in half and then tying the two ends together. How could he have done this?*), and half were analytic questions that require a narrow focus (e.g. Bob’s father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. Four years ago, he was four times older. How old are Bob and his father?). Students had 4 minutes to solve each problem.

Crucially, half the students were tested first thing in the morning (between 8.30am and 9.30am), the others were tested late afternoon (between 4 and 5.30pm). Here’s the headline result: the students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when the time of testing coincided with their least optimal time of functioning. When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.

A potential weakness in the findings is that there were so many more evening people among the student participants (who therefore excelled at the creative tasks in the morning). So perhaps the results were skewed and the creative advantage has to do with the morning, not to do with performing at your least favoured time of day. To test this possibility, Wieth and Zacks looked at the data for the students with a neutral disposition (no favoured time of day). They didn’t perform the insight tasks any better in the morning than evening, thus suggesting the creative advantage specifically comes from operating at your least optimal time of day.

The researchers recommended that students consider designing their class schedules so that they take art and creative writing at their non-optimal time of day. “Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in sync with their circadian arousal;” they said, “however, the interaction between time of day and type of class has not been investigated. The results of this study suggest that the relationship between time of day and grades needs to be investigated and may not simply follow a uniform pattern.”

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Wieth, M., and Zacks, R. (2011). Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal. Thinking and Reasoning, 17 (4), 387-401 DOI: 10.1080/13546783.2011.625663

* The solution is that he cuts the rope length-wise into two thin strips and ties these together.

Related posts on the Digest:
Early risers are more proactive than evening people
The personality of early risers

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

25 thoughts on “You’re most creative when you’re at your groggiest”

1. There may be something to this … I am definitely not a morning person, but I do probably get a lot of “blue sky” ideas in the morning (often in the shower!).
However I would caution about interpreting these insight-based tasks as an adequate operationalisation of the complex natural process we call “creativity”. True creativity probably includes at least three stages: (1) setting yourself a well-defined problem; (2) the central “insight” component of coming up with a novel, un-obvious solution, that is measured by these tasks; (3) being critical about the strengths and weaknesses of one's proposed solution. These tasks were given to the students in a clearly defined form and had objectively correct answers, so they only measured stage (2) – but (1) and (3) can often be a lot more work! (at least if you are a naturally “creative” person).
Perhaps the lesson is that evening people like me should set themselves a problem in the evening, brainstorm it the next morning before they wake up properly, and then spend the rest of the day refining the solution. Hmm, I might try that actually…

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2. Anonymous says:

So students generally get up later (haha) but do they continue to be 'night owls' after uni? Unless most people are evening 'people', this study is still more to do with what time people get up.

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3. Anonymous says:

I certainly have continued to be a night owl. I finished uni in 1995 and I'm about to turn 40, yet still switch to late nights whenever I'm not taking care not to (setting a “bedtime” alarm on my mobile phone). On holidays/weekends I go from needing to ensure I go to bed around 11pm to not realising it's 3am, then sleep until I wake (~8 hours), and I've always been most creative the later at night it is.

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4. Jason says:

I think it should be pointed out that you can't cut rope in half length-wise and still have usable rope. You could unravel it though.

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5. Anonymous says:

I want an answer for the 2nd problem as well =))) Please.

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6. This article raises intersting questions and it would be interesting to know if changes occur with age or gender. Creative thinking and problem solving are sometimes easier in the bleary eyed early morning state as the world has not yet intruded or been allowed to intrude. Once the days distractions begin and andministrative tasks unfold it can be harder to solve complex problems or think creatively.

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7. Not working for me.
Once when I need to come up with a slogan for a billboard to giveaway a mini cooper…. Late night brilliance struck (not) with… the picture of a guy in a chicken suit and the headline… “Win a Mini Cooper not a chicken coop-er”!,

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8. Anonymous says:

The answer to the 'insight' problem is given in the question – divide the rope in two – it's so obvious that I thought it was a trick question. So my alternative explanation is that in the morning, larks were baffled by the trick question and looked for more complex answers, where the owls were dopey enough just to write down the answer given.

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9. As many IT support people can testify they can do some of their best work in the early hours of the morning when they are groggy from lack of sleep, feel like crap and would rather be in bed.
Resolving those IT problems often requires insight or a “6th sense” or intuition about where the actual problem is.
Not sure if that adds to the authors arguments however.

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10. Anonymous says:

This was interesting and explained why, as an evening person, I prefer to 'go with the flow' first thing, and then focus in on a meaty, challenging task later.

However, having read this article, I don't think the study sounds at all scientific. The sample was extremely unbalanced, and you can't assume that students are nearly all 'night owls' just because they are in the habit of getting up late!

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11. Anonymous says:

I'm a morning person, but can definitely relate to the experience of breakthrough thinking in the half-awake state I am often in (in bed) during the 30-60 mins or so before properly waking. Over the years all sorts of insights/solutions to intractable (work) problems have fallen into place effortlessly at this time.

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12. Anonymous says:

well, then I think you're a morning person…

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