How to have your best idea ever…before you even get out of bed
I’ve been practicing a new morning habit this year. It gives me my best ideas before I even get out of bed. It may help you do the same.
The habit involves these two items: A portable word processor, and a sleeping mask.
The sleeping mask, I already have on. I sleep with a sleeping mask. It’s part of my bedtime routine.
The portable word processor, I keep on the nightstand next to my bed.
So here’s my new habit: Each morning, before I even get out of bed, I grab the portable word processor, and I type at least 100 words. I do this with my sleeping mask on, and my eyes closed.
Why do I do that? I find that it gives me special access to my best ideas. It helps me exercise my most creative thoughts.
What do I do with the writing? I don’t transfer it to my computer. The writing does not become a draft. I don’t then polish my writing and post it online.
Nope, when I’m done, I delete it.
Why bother writing before I even get out of bed? Because it’s a very special time of day. It’s the time of day when I have my best ideas.
I’m sure you have unusual thoughts before you open up your eyes in the morning. Maybe you’re trying to recall a dream. Maybe you’re thinking through a problem, or fantasizing about a vacation.
If you’re like most people, you’re not yet a civilized human before you open your eyes in the morning. That’s when you’re actually having your best ideas.
My journey to writing before I even get out of bed started when I read The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. I later interviewed one of the book’s authors, neuroscientist John Kounios, on my podcast.
The Eureka Factor is a guide to the neuroscience of creativity. It’s full of scientific studies stitched together to make sense of the enigma that is creative thinking.
But one simple passage stands out:
You are most analytical at your peak time and most insightful at your off-peak time. For creativity, your finest hour is literally the low point of your day. —Neuroscientists John Kounios & Mark Beeman, The Eureka Factor
Creative insights come from connecting seemingly disparate elements. Imagine hundreds of blue racquetballs bouncing around in a racquetball court. When two or more of those racquetballs collide, that’s like a great idea.
One of the reasons you’re most creative when you’re groggy is because your prefrontal cortex is still sleeping. Your prefrontal cortex wants to filter your thoughts. It wants to follow the rules of racquetball. It wants make sure the racquetballs hit the front wall, and that they never bounce more than once before hitting the front wall again.
This is why people with prefrontal cortex damage solve creative problems faster than people with normal brains. You don’t want brain damage if you can help it, but these people have an advantage when it comes to isolated creative problems. They have no filter on the thoughts in their brains.
So I write before I get out of bed because that’s when I have the best chance of having a good idea. But why do I insist on writing while still wearing my sleeping mask? (Oh, and by the way, I also wear earplugs.)
Because creative thinking is also enhanced by sensory deprivation. This is why you have your best ideas in the shower. As Konious and Beeman said, “Taking a shower is an excellent way to cut off the environment, focus your thoughts inwardly, and have an insight.”
This is also why 17th-century philosopher René Descartes did almost all of his thinking in bed. “After my mind has wandered in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where I experience every pleasure imaginable, I awake to mingle the reveries of the night with those of the day.”
This is also why members of the “Dada” art movement would sit in a dark room and shout out nonsensical poetry. The sensory deprivation gave them access to their unconsciousnesses, and they could bring those thoughts into their conscious world.
What’s the point of doing this writing if I delete it when I’m done? Aren’t I doing needless work?
Here’s something I wish someone would have told me a long time ago: Writing is not writing. Writing is thinking. Before you can write writing worth reading, you have to think thoughts worth writing. The best way to think those thoughts is to write them.
The point of this exercise is not to produce writing. The point is to think thoughts. These thoughts are already floating through your mind. Writing those thoughts gives them a hand-hold they can use to climb their ways out of your unconscious mind.
The act of writing them also helps program these thoughts into your long-term memory. You can then more easily connect those thoughts to produce new ideas in your daily work. It’s like opening the door to the racquetball court to let a few dozen more balls bounce in.
If you want to try this exercise, you don’t even need a portable word processor. If you can type without looking, you can just use a normal keyboard, and close your eyes.
When you type, you’ll probably find that the movement of your fingers conjures up the corresponding words in your mind. It makes your thoughts more clear. It’s like having command-line access to your brain.
Here are some tips:
- Aim for a tiny target. I go for 100 words. You may want to try more, or less. The point is it should be a “tiny habit,” a technique I learned interviewing Stanford habits expert BJ Fogg. It should be such a tiny target, it hardly seems worth it. This way, you won’t avoid it.
- Quit when you like. After you reach your target, you can quit. But if you want, you can keep going. I sometimes write 2,000 mostly-nonsensical words before I get out of bed.
- No filter. I find that when I can’t think of anything to type, it’s because I’m thinking something but for one reason or another, I’m not typing it. Don’t filter yourself. Change the subject mid-sentence if you need to.
- Give yourself permission to suck. This exercise will bring you your best ideas. What I haven’t mentioned yet is it will also bring you your worst ideas. You can’t have good ideas without having bad ideas, so let the bad ideas flow. Each bad idea is a roll of the dice toward a good idea.
Try this exercise one morning. Better yet, try it for a week. If you cultivate a healthy connection between your subconscious and conscious mind, you’ll be creatively blocked less-often, and you’ll have your best ideas yet. Just don’t forget to get out of bed, so you can make those ideas a reality.
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