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How to be more creative: Do it when you're tired

Wayne Johnston is photographed at a local pub in midtown Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Wayne Johnston has never dug into the science of creativity, but the Toronto-based novelist's work habits are a perfect example of it.

As writers know, you can't just summon the muse at will. Anyone who has been stuck looking for novel solutions to problems similarly knows how elusive they can be. But research has shown that if you want to produce your most creative thought, you should do it when you're sleepy.

"There are actually more and more studies out there that show that's kind of how creativity happens – it's where you just let your mind be open because you're tired," says Dr. Mareike Wieth, an associate professor in the department of psychological science at Albion College in Michigan.

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In a study published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning in 2011, Wieth looked at how rest affects our ability to solve different types of problems. The study found that we tend to solve so-called incremental problems, ones that require analytic thinking, much better when we are well rested. But when it comes to "insight problems," the ones that require "aha!" moments, being tired is a huge advantage, with research subjects solving them 20- to 30-per-cent better when tired. The brain isn't working at its most efficient when you're sleepy, making it more apt to make unusual connections.

Just ask Johnston. Since he began writing full-time in 1989, the Goulds, Nfld.,-native, who is currently finishing the third book in a trilogy that includes The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Custodian of Paradise, has been the ultimate night owl.

"When I am working on a novel, which I am now, I usually would have dinner around 10 p.m. and then start writing around midnight." He'd finish around 7 a.m., then have breakfast and go to bed. He doesn't operate that way to chase inspiration; that's just always been his preferred MO. But around 4 or 5 in the morning, when he's at his furthest from sleep, the writing changes.

"That's when the poetry comes. I will sometimes switch at those moments, or when I'm feeling that way, I'll switch from writing a certain kind of section to writing a somewhat lyrical or poetic type section of the book that I know needs to be written."

It's a long journey through the night to those moments, Johnston says. There is exposition to write, dialogue to get down on paper, dramatic scenes to map out.

Writing is work, after all. It requires labour. But there's a lesson in Wieth's study and Johnston's work habits: If you're looking for flashes of poetry try searching when you're sleepy.

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