'Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.' - Thomas Edison
“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy —the joy of being Salvador Dalí— and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” - Salvador Dali
What do Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali have in common?
More than you might expect.
When Edison needed a creative idea for an invention, he would fall asleep in a chair with a handful of marbles. When Dali needed inspiration for his art, he did the same, with a key dangling over a metal plate.
During the initial phase of sleep, both would continue to hold onto their items. When they entered the deeper (REM) cycle, their grip loosened and the objects fell. Awoken by the sound, Edison and Dali then wrote down every thought that came to them during their cat naps. More often than not, the inspiration this odd pair needed had come to them.
Lately, I have been using something similar to make important decisions and have ideas. Unlike Edison and Dali who rejected the time wasted by a full night's sleep, I still get my eight hours. Sort of.
Here's how I have implemented it.
Each night before bed, I decide on one literal request to my subconscious (as Edison called it.) This might be a creative task or a problem requiring a solution, which I can reflect on. I tell myself 'I am going to think about X area, then do Y to work on it in the morning.' Nothing more complicated than that.
As soon as I wake up, I get to work on recording all my thoughts and ideas around the topic. The crucial part is that I do this whenever I awaken, even if it is earlier than usual. I have found that this ensures I can capture as many of my associated thoughts as possible. On occasions where I have gone back to sleep before transcribing my ideas, I find that snippets get lost.
Working on a relevant task very early in the morning also means fewer distractions. I get up, type up everything in my head at maximum speed, then take a nap if possible. Later on in the day, I can look over my work again and begin adding, editing and refining.
At night, I enact these requests in a specific manner. Mental looping (running over the same thoughts) needs avoiding. It's unproductive and distracting. Focusing on specific details which would need writing down is also a bad idea. Wherever possible, I aim for broad strokes around the topic or a basic solution to a problem. Even so, there is always a notebook by my bed for anything vital which would be a pain to forget by the morning.
Here's why it works.
In the first place, mind-wandering is conducive to having ideas. A pre-sleep state is an ideal form of this. It is a time when we are (usually) without any sort of stimulus. It's the perfect instance of a time when we are part distracted and part-focused. Going for walks, drawing, and exercising are other good time for mind-wandering. The advantage of using pre-sleep time is that it is far more reliable. We all fall asleep every day, often at the same time. This makes it a time for guaranteed reflection. Other activities (such as walking) can get forgotten or overlooked during the day. It's a flexible ritual which anyone can adopt.
Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that our unconscious minds work as we sleep. You have no doubt experienced this many times.
Sleep is not a passive state, nor is it wasted time. Although we cannot actively work during it, we can make use of it.
The purpose of this technique is to make a natural process become intentional. It gives structure to an otherwise formless behaviour. Mind wandering is natural and everyone experiences it. What makes this different is the act of being aware and encouraging of it.
We spend a third of our lives asleep. As someone who is serious about producing creative work, I want to make use of that time. Sleeping less does no one any favours. For me, it would be a terrible idea and not at all conducive to my work. So, I create a practical use for a slice of time which I would otherwise spend in a state of worry and anxiety. I have never been someone who falls asleep the second their head hits the pillow. It's rare for me to spend less than an hour in a state of deep thought before I somehow manage to pass out. I have had a lot of success with this technique.
Here are some more pointers for making this as effective as possible:
Be aware of what you expose yourself to before bed. The books I read or podcasts I listen to before sleeping often serve as springboards for my ideas. For this reason, I avoid scrolling social media or reading irrelevant infotainment sites at night. Research has shown that we retain more of what we learn before sleep than we do for any other time of day. When I'm working on a problem, scanning through some key information has a noticeable impact on my ability to solve it with ease. Going through the process of writing down or typing what I already know also appears to improve retention. I recommend reading a book full of provocative questions, like The Four Hour Work Week. Otherwise, some philosophy never fails- the older the book, the fresher the ideas.
Vocalise the issue (ask it out loud.) When it comes to making key decisions, nothing works better for me than talking over the issue before bed. Using my 5-minute journal technique boosts my thought processes if there is no one around to engage in a discussion. Even asking the question in my head is more effective than holding it at a subconscious level.
Experiment. For me, this only has a clear impact after a full night of sleep. Napping is my kryptonite - I wake up feeling like I have been hit by a truck, in need of a gallon of coffee. Everyone is different and it always crucial to see what works for you.
Make use of other opportunities for mind wandering. Exercise, showering and cleaning are common examples. My favourites are transcribing notes, tidying and making beverages.
Ritualise the act of recording ideas and thoughts. Most successful creatives have set routines surrounding their work. Many use positive mood anchors, work in the same place and at the same times. Read Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for some fascinating accounts of these. At the moment, I wake up by 6, take my vitamins, have breakfast, make mushroom coffee, then sit down to write by 7 am. When I write, I play a single song on repeat or listen to coffee shop sounds. My eye line needs to be clear, and my notebooks need to laying out beside me. Whilst I otherwise work in 25-minute blocks, my first session of the day is 45-90 to take advantage of fresh ideas. Then I break for tea.
The process should be a sort of gentle rumination, not an anxious mental frenzy. I run my mind over a basic idea in an open, calm way for a few minutes. For an essay, this might be a consideration of the topic, a few points, and relevant information. Or it might be as basic as keeping the planned title in mind. Too much pressure = no sleep = bad things.