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How Naps Can Jump-Start Your Creativity

Naps aren't just for lazy people, they are a proven technique to enhance creativity.

When you're staring at a blank page, trying to figure out where to start a project, or where to take the next scene of a novel, you may find that the best way to get your creative mojo back is to take a nap. As counter-productive as it sounds, naps can boost creativity.

Napping isn't just about resting. Naps reset your brain by sending it through a period of nonrapid eye movement (or N1) sleep. Naps don’t have to be long; even a brief nap can boost your creativity, because this "twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness" is where the brain weaves complicated stories. A recent study showed that even 15 seconds of N1 sleep was enough to help participants solve mathematical problems.

So, should you nap to turbocharge your writing?

The Edison / Dali method

Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali used similar methods to boost their creativity, taking very short naps, just long enough to lead the brain to that pre-dream state called hypnogogia, but not long enough to go into deep sleep. When Edison needed to figure something out, he would sit in an armchair holding a steel ball in one hand, and when he started to fall asleep, his hand would relax, the ball would drop, and the noise would awaken him. This brief nap was long enough to get him to that N1 state (which science didn't know about at the time), and spark creativity.

Salvador Dalí's approach was similar. As he wrote in 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, this "slumber with a key" sleep should be brief: "Know, therefore, that your afternoon sleep must last less than a minute, less than a quarter of a minute, since, as you will immediately realize, a mere second is infinitely too long."

Like Edison, Dalí held something in his hand and it dropped when he drifted off, waking him up. In order to achieve this "repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking," he recommended sitting in an armchair, "preferably of Spanish style." With arms hanging on the sides of the chair, "you must hold a heavy key which you will keep suspended, delicately pressed between the extremities of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Under the key you will previously have placed a plate upside down on the floor." The noise of the key striking the plate would ensure that the sleep would be brief enough to awaken you when you entered that N1 state mentioned above, but not long enough to make you lethargic.

The coffee nap

Another napping method involves coffee (or tea), and may seem paradoxical. It leverages the caffeine that is in coffee and tea, along with adenosine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes you feel tired. Interestingly, both caffeine and adenosine use the same receptors in the brain to do their work. When you've got enough caffeine in your bloodstream, adenosine can't connect with those receptors to make your tired.

As you certainly know, it takes about 20 minutes for the morning coffee or tea to stimulate you. So if you drink a cup of coffee (or strong tea), then take a nap for around 15 minutes - not enough to go into deep sleep, but just enough to get some rest - when you wake up, the caffeine will start kicking in and you'll benefit not only from the rest of the nap, but when you awaken you'll be doubly energetic.

You could even combine the Edison/Dalí method with the coffee/tea method. In most cases, you'll find that you don't drop the key or the steel ball for several minutes. You enter that phantasmagoric state of hypnogogia where you can have dreamlike hallucinations, which can be quite enjoyable. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about this state, saying, "I am aware of these 'fancies' only when I am on the brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so." When you awaken, you may be able to carry over some of those images to your writing, and the caffeine buzz will help you get working.

The full sleep cycle nap

When humans sleep long enough, they go through sleep cycles, which involve four different stages, from N1, described above, to N2 (light sleep), N3 (deep sleep), and REM sleep (the period when we dream). Each full cycle lasts roughly 90 minutes, and this type of nap is useful if you've had a bad night, or if you're jet-lagged.

Some creative people wake up early, work for a few hours, then take a nap for 90 to 120 minutes in the afternoon, after which they are refreshed and can work again. Many Mediterranean people still take siestas, where they sleep five to six hours a night, then take a long nap in the afternoon. This is a form of biphasic sleep, where there is a regular sleep schedule that is split in two parts.

Before the introduction of electricity, biphasic sleep was the norm. People would go to sleep at nightfall, and awaken for an hour or so in the middle of the night, to chat, pray, or have sex. We have lost this habit, because we stay up late with lights all around: we watch TV, read, look at our phones, and more. But, for many people, biphasic sleep can help them have two periods during the day when they are rested and refreshed.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important, but napping during the day has creative benefits. If you want to keep writing throughout the day, try one of these nap techniques and see if they help you maintain your progress.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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