How to take advantage of sleep for creativity

The entertainment and visual art industry is a very competitive one, one where everyone is playing catch-up or trying to be ahead of everyone else so they can stay as close to the top as they can or keep their jobs.

Art is a highly subjective thing, sure, but it’s quality and production when in high-demand – which is most of the time, as so much of it is a luxury, part of entertainment, or a form of highly-needed expression – means it consumes a lot of time to keep making and improving. This even includes the modern difficulty of making enough art to keep the social media algorithm satisfied.

It is really not rare for the commercial artist to skimp out on sleep and rest to be able to keep up. “I already have so much to do and so little time to do it, of course I’ll shave off some hours from my sleep time, or even all of it, it even shows how dedicated I am after all. I’m serious about art!” or “Yes, I’m sick, but I’m still going to be at work helping the production flow smoothly. What can you do, you know? A job is a job.” Those are the sort of things I hear and see way too often, even from family members in the commercialized art and entertainment industry.

I very much wish that it wasn’t the norm to skip sleep so much, and for many, they are often encouraged to do so.

Not sleeping well can ruin your artistic drive and make you feel awful!

A lack of sleep stunts our skills, abilities to think outside the box, and most importantly, our mental and physical health(*)! Especially when it becomes such a wide and pervasive trend. It really shouldn’t be normalized, though I do understand why it’s an issue.

I am not perfect, of course I’m not. Even I have had issues with sleep. I was even more of a mess than I am now. A bad combination of a delayed biological clock, falling asleep a lot at improper hours, and a need to finish pieces and projects I’d work on resulted in me not feeling well way too often. Heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches, delayed reactions, a horrible mood, and feeling sicker in the mornings. That’s just how it is for me whenever I skimped on sleep heavily. That awful feeling reminds me that a lack of proper sleep is correlated to several health risks, one that intuitively lets me know not to do that. Not sleeping just once has increased health risks and mental impairements as noted by different medical studies, so imagine the kind of damage regularly doing that does to you from it being so normalized*? For me though, it meant that a large chunk of my day would be ruined and it would mess up my “productivity”, repeating the cycle once again to try to make up for it.

You might find that… The consequences really don’t make it worth it, though it seems like such a necessity at the time or you might actually have no choice in the matter.

I can say that in the long run I lose my train of thought a lot more easily on those days, the results of my work can even look rather lackluster in the end. It’s with this personal experience in mind that of course I’m going to say not getting enough sleep is bad for you and your art! And it’s not just my lone experience either*.

On occassions that there is a choice on the matter, with enough effort and routine one can go back to a well-suited schedule to feel refreshed, in a better mood, and much more creative. Of course, that’s the part that’s a lot more obvious.

I usually factor in my sleep as part of the creative routine. To be exact, it IS a part of my creative routine.

lets sleep!

If you’re familiar with “learning how to learn”, the brain-child of Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, you’re most likely aware of at least a part of what I mean. That kid’s book (*)* and the college-level course () under the same name highlight how important sleep and rest is for creativity, learning, and problem-solving.

You know how you get groggy, less coordinated, and forget a lot more while half-asleep or from not sleeping? Yeah, that’s because not sleeping is like getting inebriated and leaving toxins and wastes floating in your body and brain.

When you’re alive, your body has to do so many things to keep you alive and functioning, which results in waste. The body has a bunch of different ways to manage that conundrum. One of the ways with flushing out waste that accumulates in the brain — a delicate and important organ in charge of so many things icluding cognition — is through sleep (-). The Glymphatic system activates by letting fluid around the brain and spine move out the toxins, facilitated by the different state and changes caused by sleep, preventing neurodegeneration. Not only that, but sleep reinforces “important” and repeated memories and their associations while severing less important memories that don’t come up as often, to tidy up the mind and it’s neural pathways to be more efficient. This includes learning new motor skills, “muscle memory”, where it’s retained a lot quicker through proper sleep by connecting new relationships between the skill and limbs and movements involved (-) — that certainly would help with sculpting or drawing or painting in new methods!

Dreams, while still being studied, arguably deal with several points of memory, worries, and ideas cobbled together in less linear logic, something that can even be used for problem-solving. It’s a piece of “out-of-the-box” thinking! Barbara Oakley often cites Salvador Dahli waking himself up from extra naps to have a lucid impression of his dreams to use in his surreal paintings. Santiago Gonzalez that’s known as a child coding prodigy uses his math and code-centric dreams to solve problems with his programming and his homework in computer science college classes that would otherwise have him stumped. You might have heard others say “it came to me in a dream” when talking about a project idea, in a bunch of different fields, it seems so mystical and mysterious but it’s not that uncommon. Do you get where I’m going with this?

Factor in sleep, naps, and rest into your creative process!

Manage your time!

Sleep at a reasonable hour for the time you’re supposed to wake up. For me where I need 8 hours when I don’t sleep late, I would go to sleep at 11-12pm to wake up at 8am or 7am. That is not the same amount for everyone, other people can function fine with 7 hours. Though remember that regularly using sleeping pills, which I used to do too from previous insomnia issues, have a very adverse effect that is worse than lacking a few hours of sleep (*) – so it’s pretty bad. It’s better, though harder, to use routine to get used to sleeping and waking up at around the same time, having your body adjust with less caffeine, alcohol, and technology close to bed time. Exercising and eating enough food and keeping yourself hydrated (keeping in mind your health dietary restrictions and intolerances) will boost ability to keep going on this routine by regulating circadian rhythmn and healthier hormone production in the body. If insomnia is an issue with you, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is much more effective than most sleeping pills, too (-).

You should also plan out your day.

Having a routine and a space for where to do your creating and where to rest even for off days can make you feel more fulfilled and manage your day without it feeling like it “slipped” by and not associate sleep with work and projects, stressing you out. Having a proper connection to your sleeping space by reducing associations to stressful ideas like work or not being able to sleep is part of CBT techniques.

You can use the pomodoro method or some other method, but keep in mind that the total you can have intense concentration isn’t always consistent and stretch your legs sometimes. Have your food and water on hand when you do plan to work, so you don’t forget.

This is where sleep and rest once again enter the equation. After you have yourself doing art studies, reading books on fundamentals, creating something, or anything like that — allot some time to take a quick nap if you can. I’m not telling you to take a nap on a train if you’re doodling strangers in your notebook, that’s probably not a good idea, it has to be somewhere safe and stable. I, personally, take a nap after studying or creating something at home or in a safe place. This might not work for everyone in the exact same way, but I find that after having this habit for a while now, it clears my mind and mood while leaving my perception of concepts I’m studying or what I learned just as clear. Each time you create something, it can be a learning opportunity as you build up on what you know and apply different concepts. On days I have something difficult to solve or feel indecisive, my dreams often transfer those worries and chop them up in ways i wouldn’t have thought of before. Those dreams can even give me ideas that I so desperately needed or didn’t even know I wanted. With that in mind, have a notebook on hand or have someone to talk to about the dream!

Also, there’s just doing other things like chores, exercising, and doing menial tasks. Those kinds of things besides taking breaks, are a way of activating a wandering mind in a way that feels more “productive”. As noted by “learning to learn”: The diffuse mode of thinking, or the relaxed way of thinking, can see things a lot more broadly than the focused mode that is detail oriented and expends a lot of energy to solve a problem. They’re two ways of thinking, and they’re both important. With that concept in mind, “putting things on the back burner” when you can’t figure something out, can result in an “aha!” moment when you take advantage of it and keep it into your routine.

Basically, don’t just brute-force your way into creating things, and especially don’t skip sleep thinking that’s good for you and that you should keep doing it. Instead, sleep a reasonable amount, do other productive things, rest, and think of it as part of your creative process!

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