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JacobCoverstone.net Analyze Everything

The Creative Energy of Fatigue: Distractable Brains Lead to Insights


Estimated read time: 3 – 7 minutes
Estimated read time: Attachments and sources: 25 – 68 minutes

Today marked the beginning of a conference filled with ideas and enthusiasm for healthcare education. Tired souls from around the world, many of them leaving behind better weather, met to discuss their passions and professions.

The first day is always electric. People catch up with colleagues, crowd around buffet tables, and scroll through PowerPoints in desperate attempts to remember what they revised during their flight. Ideas flow as freely as the coffee, and as research may show, it could be the chaos that generates the ideas.

In 2011, Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks took a look at how the “time of day” impacted our abilities to solve problems. But “time of day” is really a misnomer: they were actually studying the impact of fatigue upon cognition.

results showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times of day…Time of day effects on problem solving:When the non-optimal is optimal (You can read the complete study here.)

The frontal lobe is the boss of your brain: it sets the agenda for the day, keeps you on task, and optimizes your efforts. But, when your body is tired, your dopamine-hogging frontal lobe is one of the first areas to shut down. If you’ve ever been in a classroom after 3pm, you know what a tired brain looks like: chatty, not paying attention to the material, and all around distracted. It’s the same at many organizations. When bosses go on vacation, workers spend a lot more time on ‘side projects’.


The need for new insights

To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science. – Albert Einstein

In a 2009 survey of over 1,500 CEOs by IBM, creativity was called “the single most important leadership competency for enterprises.”

It turns out, having an unfocused mind is fantastic for creative work. When ideas seem to ‘come from everywhere’, what may be happening is that your brain’s boss isn’t there to keep you on track. Without the frontal lobe poo-pooing every new thought, you’re free to glide from one idea to the next. We fundamentally need the freedom for our minds to wander.

Anyone who does creative work for a living will emphasize that you cannot bottle inspiration. Hunter S. Thompson tired by waking at 3pm, binging as only Hunter could do, and hopefully being ready to write by midnight. That’s not an option for those of us who love our livers…. Thankfully, it’s not the only option.


A distractable mind is a creative mind

Maybe this correlation with problem solving and mental fatigue explains why so many people with ADHD have produced impacting, revolutionary ideas. Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Issac Newton, Beethoven, JFK, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Galileo, and Albert Einstein are all associated with a diagnosis of ADHD. Each of these men changed the World, and they did it through insights, creativity, innovation and hard work. da Vinci himself explained that the only way to ‘have a good idea’ was to “have a lot of ideas” and he advocated daydreaming about everything.

There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see. – Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps we should embrace fatigue. Skip your morning cup of coffee and give your frontal lobe take a break. Allow your mind to wander.

On the back of my office door, I have lists of tasks best accomplished in the morning and the afternoon. Aside from putting my lunch away and making a to-do list, mornings are devoted to creative work and problem solving. Answering emails and returning phone calls can wait; I’ll do that when I’m awake. Harness your creativity while you’re tired enough not to know better.



Now, “creativity” and “innovation” are impossible to cover in 700 words and I’ll be expanding upon these topics in a series of articles. For now, to inspire new ways of thinking, I want to share a truly creative performance: Lin-Manuel Miranda performing at the White House.

Mr. Miranda takes a leap, and lands gracefully. His subject matter, delivery, and performance are so far out of the box that he’s creating a new genre.

Lead-in photo credit: Abby Lanes

Sam Matla
Sam Matla

I'm a music producer and also blogger, I find that I'm more creative in terms of musical ideas during night time (I make electronic music and I think my mind associates that with night time), but if no matter how hard I try, I can't write well in the evening. Thanks for the great post!