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Bull Session

Sleep and Creativity

June 15, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week we explore sleep, sleep tech, and creativity.

Before technology ruled our nights, humans had a much different relationship with sleep. Our rhythms, creative and otherwise, were ruled by our internal clocks and the rising and setting of the sun. But with the advent of industrialization and electric lights, and the eventual influx of glowing screens into every aspect of our lives, sleep is something that we began seeking inconsistently and increasingly doing without.

For the modern day quantifiers and body optimizers, sleep is increasingly a new realm of interest. For instance, Apple recently acquired the Finnish sleep tech company Beddit, which makes a device for tracking heart rate, breathing, and sleep time.

And, sleep is, of course, vital to our health, our mood, and our productivity. For artists, designers, and creative people in general, the sleep cycle can be intricately entangled with their creative routines and output. Whether you’re an early riser, a segmented sleeper, or a night owl, the interaction of sleep and creativity can be very important. Join us as we discuss.

 

Resources

Broken Sleep
The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People
Apple just bought a sleep tech company
Beddit 3 Sleep Monitor

Jon:
Welcome to episode 211 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon and with me is special guest host, Sarah, artist maker and product designer at Involution Studios. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah:
Hello, Jon.

Jon:
So for our podcast topic this week, we’re gonna take a look at the world of sleep, sleep technology, and how it all relates to creativity. So sleep is this new frontier for a new realm of interest for technology. In 2013, I think, there was the Zeo Sleep Monitor. I don’t know if you remember that, but I think they are a headband you can wear on your head and tell whether you are getting the right amount of sleep or not. Then recently Apple bought this Finnish company called Beddit, which more or less does the same type of thing, monitoring your sleep, but they have some kind of flat strap piece that goes under your bed clothes. Goes right on top of the mattress and can tell you …

Sarah:
It’s like a flat little snake?

Jon:
Yeah, something like that. Although they probably wouldn’t want to … You wouldn’t sleep if you thought it was a snake under your sheets.

Sarah:
The sheet snake.

Jon:
So monitoring sleep is a hot ticket right now, especially if Apple is getting in the game. But I think there’s … It’s an interesting thing to be optimizing because we spend a third of our lives basically in sleep and in dream world. I think for creatives that’s very important. So I found that a wonderful essay on Aeon magazine, which really frames up this discussion of sleep and creativity and technology in a nice way. So I’m gonna play us that first quote from the essay and we’ll see what we think.

Aeon:
The Romans, Greeks, and Incas woke up without iPhone alarms or digital radio clocks. Nature was their timekeeper, the rise of the sun, the needs of the field or livestock. Sundials and hourglasses record the capacity of time until the 14th century when the first mechanical clocks were erected on churches and monasteries. By the 1800’s, mechanical time pieces were widely worn on neck chains, wrists, or lapels. Societies built around industrialization and clock time brought with them urgency and the concept of being on time or having wasted time. Clock time became increasingly out of sync with natural time, yet light and dark still dictated our working day and social structures.

Jon:
So I think that quote really touches on how human life has changed based on the technologies that we live with. Obviously, the electric light was a huge point of differentiation between the time before electric light when the natural sunlight was dictating your day, to now we have electric lights, and so now our days are unlimited. We can do work at any time, we can socialize at any time, we can go out at any time.

That’s I think a little bit dangerous, right? Because we’re human animals. We have circadian rhythms. We have a relationship to life that goes beyond our technology, but sometimes we take that for granted. We’ve got these iPhones, we’ve got our computer monitors, and all of these things make it really difficult for us to sleep. Sarah, how do you manage all the technology and does it affects the way your sleep cycle runs? What’s your relationship between sleep and technology and how does this all intersect for you as a creative?

Sarah:
That’s a big question. I think as a creative, a lot of things have changed over the years, but creatives are still eccentric and each one is going to be a little weird and unique in their sleep pattern. I don’t really differ too much from that prototype. Most of the time I’m kind of a night owl. You probably hear that pretty often with creatives. We’ve all grown up in a time of synthetic light dominating our lives so we make and set our own time schedules independent from whatever is going on around us. For whatever reason, it seems like a lot of us tend to be nocturnal in our activities. I choose to be nocturnal, or rather, I have found myself in such a position simply because in the evenings I have time to focus.

I don’t have kids, I don’t have clubs that I need to attend you. I have partitioned off my evenings intentionally because I have set barriers with my electronics, my chat, my work. That there’s a certain time when I put down my phone and I pick up my stylus and I keep drawing until I’m near unconscious. So to that end, the way I sleep and the way I work is as legal as possible and as much as possible. I will generally work until it’s pretty late at night. As soon as I feel like I’m starting to sleep and I’m doing myself … I’m making more work for myself the next day, I will cease and go to sleep to wake up and to the same thing again.

Jon:
So you find the evenings are the best time for your creative flow so that maps best to when you can produce things that are worthy?

Sarah:
I think so, but I also think that’s mostly from habit. There have been times in my life when kind of in the middle of the day it was. It wasn’t that I felt right or natural. That was just the time that my mom allowed me to be on the computer and it was lights out after a certain time and so I got used to working midday. Then I went to college and midday was really good at the classes and work, and evening became the time when I have free time.

Now, as a working professional, my days are spoken for. My evenings are generally given over to social time. Then the nights are purely mine. So out of habit I’ve developed a rhythm where I will intentionally teach myself and train myself to work uninterrupted from the time I start to the time I end. I incentivize this through micro-rewards. I’ll allow myself dinner if I reach to a certain point. I’ll promise myself coffee in the morning if I work to a certain hour, that kind of thing.

Jon:
Wow. So how do you … I mean it seems like you’re optimizing your routine and your sleeping patterns, and you have a system for that. How do you take the optimization of sleep push that we see here with all this sleep technology, whether it’s the aforementioned Zeo, which has since ceased production, or this new Beddit system that Apple is sensibly gonna roll out with their platform? How does approach to sleep strike you?

Sarah:
I’m actually put off by a lot of that sort of gadgetry. I touch gadgets occasionally like I’m interested in the smart watches they have for monitoring BP and various heart rate stuff and steps and all that. I’m a millennial, right? Taking metrics of every aspect of my life is as natural to me as breathing. I can’t go out and get a burrito without doing two hours of research. But somehow, for me as a creative, sleep is kind of a touchy subject. I’m getting less and less of it. Society demands that I get less and less of it to be successful.

There’s so much that I think we’ve given up in a way of time to ourselves, time to relax, time to think and read and daydream and do nothing. The one set of my day, the one section of my day where I’m not doing anything weird to my body is probably the time when I’m sleeping. And so if I can keep that as unharassed as possible with optimization and maximizing my REM sleep and all these other nonsense that I’m sure works great for some people, I would really just rather be left alone for just at least five hours of my day.

I just want to be unconnected sleep, sleep poorly, sleep well, because there are some things that your body can tell you that you can’t always guess with Math. Generally if I wake up and I’m feeling well-rested all by myself and I wake up on time, I wake up before a certain hour, I know I’ve been taking good care of my body. If I sleep up and I’m not well-rested and there’s just I had some bad dreams or I feel headache-y or hungover, I know I should be listening to my body more and I don’t want to get to a point where I’m trusting my phone more than how I feel.

Jon:
Right, that seems wise to me. I’ve got another quote here just about sleep and the creative process that I think might be enlightening.

Aeon:
In his 2013 book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey describes the routines of famous writers and artists, many of whom are early risers and several are segmented sleepers. Currey found that many hit on the idea of segmented sleep by accident. The architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, would wake around 4:00 am unable to fall back to sleep. So he would work for three or four hours then take a nap.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Knut Hamsun, would often wake up to sleep for a couple of hours. So he kept a pencil and paper by his bed, and would, he said, “Start writing immediately in the dark if I feel something is screaming through me.” The psychologist, B.F. Skinner, kept clipboard of paper and pencil by his bed to work during periods of night wakefulness. The author, Marilyn Robinson, regularly worked to read or write during what she called her benevolent insomnia.

Jon:
So I love that example of the writer with the notebook by the bed because I can relate to that. As soon as I think it’s time to go to sleep, I immediately start relaxing and the thoughts that enter my head at that point seem extremely valuable. So I assess their worth and then if I’m particularly infatuated with a particular idea, I’m like, “Oh, you better get up, go to the kitchen, grab a notepad, and write these ideas down because you’re gonna lose them.” Occasionally, I’ll take out the iPhone and tap up a note. But more often than not, I seek the physical connection of actually writing something down on a piece of paper.

But there is something magical, I think, in terms of that semi-conscious state that you enter just as you’re going to sleep where your mind … Whatever the constructs of the day, the waking day have on your thought patterns, those are slowly melting away, and the ideas just start bumping into each other, or however, you know, you want to explain it. I like this idea, which was talked about in the Aeon essay about split sleep, so getting up maybe in the middle of the night sometime and doing some creative work then and then going back to sleep afterwards. So it sounds to me like that habit was probably something that creative people could do more readily when maybe they weren’t subject to the rigors of nine to five work, driven by electric lighting and industrialization and information technology.

But that appeals to me because I know that when I wake up in the morning, for instance, I have a ton or writing energy. I’ve got about an hour where I can produce some really good stuff. I probably produce maybe five times the rate that I do at any other time of day. So if I get up in the morning, I can bang out pros really quickly. If I try to do that later in the day, I mean for whatever reason, the sentences just come really slowly and I can’t write as quickly. So Sarah, we talked a little bit about the relationship for you between sleep and technology. But we only slightly touched on your creative routines. How do you approach your cycle of the day as a creative person?

Sarah:
Sure. It’s regimented. I cut my teeth being a responsible human being in ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corp so I have gotten used to having a timetable and sticking to it. So unlike you, I don’t have much juice in the morning. I really just will get up at a certain time. I get up at seven every morning. That’s the hour that I allow to myself and I will spend that catching up on news, relaxing, seeing how my friends are doing. Then I will get into work, I’ll do what I need to do for the day. I will reward myself if I get in before a certain hour, and then do whatever I need to do, get home, and that’s really when I start my work day.

I don’t make dinner right away. I don’t watch TV. I get in, I cut all communication, and this is generally around like six-thirty, seven o’clock. I’ll start a warmup so some background, my own creative endeavors are generally aligned to comics. So I draw a web comic, draw it every week. I do a little commission work on the side and so most of my work on the side is illustration. I will take about an hour to get warmed up. I’ll work on whatever I’m working on that day. I’ll work on the easy parts that I know are a no-brainer. About an hour in, I’m losing off that I can tackle more challenging problems. I will go until I reach a certain part that I had decided on that day. I’ll reward myself with a light dinner. Then I’ll get right back to it.

Generally, I’ll put on something in the background that’s boring like some sort of documentary or a sitcom that I don’t really care about. Then I will continue to work until about 12 o’clock at night, 1am, and then I’ll go to sleep. When I hit the bed, I am so dog tired I pass out within five minutes every time. I don’t remember anything from hitting the bed to falling asleep. I don’t write anything down. I know people who do, I think I’m an outlier because I don’t. If I do, I pick a number and then I count up until I fall asleep. Then I wake up the next morning and same thing. Weekends, wake up at seven. I sit down, immediately start working, and then will reward myself with meals or social stuff when I hit certain goal posts, and continue that until about 1am or so.

Jon:
Yeah. Something I’ve noticed with productive, creative folks is they are very disciplined, the way you describe. I mean for me it’s, at least from a writing perspective, it’s all about getting in that hour in the morning, that sacred hour of just when I have my highest amount of energy.
Sarah:
You also, you have to balance a lot of chaos at home, don’t you?

Jon:
Sure. Yeah, I have two young ones so those guys definitely keep me hopping.

Sarah:
I’m kind of allowed the free reigns to choose my own timetable, and so that’s probably why I fall into the evening. My girlfriend also works in the morning so she’ll wake up every morning like clockwork. She’s up at 6:00 am and she’ll just do two hours of illustration before she even goes to work. I’m so impressed, I can’t do the same thing. But whenever she gets home, she’s used to doing that in the morning so she has a hard time getting going in the evening and she’ll leave that to games and getting her social time then.

Jon:
So have you done this split sleep thing? Or could you see yourself doing that? I mean obviously, it’s a little bit hard given that you have a day job. The modern day-to-day routines don’t seem like they would support doing that, but has that … Like when you were in school, did you ever do anything like that?

Sarah:
No. I never did, even when I was in college. I was probably sleep in class than I do right now. I just could never get into that routine. Naps have always thrown off my circadian rhythm. They make me feel sick and groggy and there’s another hour of warming up before I feel like a human again. So I try and cut as much time like that on my day. But one thing I noticed from that list is none of those people who I recognized were from the generation where we had to take our work home with us and our phones with us. We were essentially always on as a workforce. So I think that might be one of those differences is that whenever you don’t, you’re given leave to develop those sort of split sleep cycles and do whatever it is that you want to do at night because you don’t necessarily have to be awake and alert during your evenings.

Jon:
Yeah. I had an interesting experience. I worked on a literary magazine my first year out of school and my editor actually did this, the split sleep, because he wanted to get two days into one … He felt like when he got up from being rested he was a lot more productive so he tried to split his day into two days. So I think he would go to sleep really early like seven o’clock or something and then be up at midnight and then be working and then hit the sheets at whatever time, six in the morning or something like that, and sleep again. But he was an interesting guy to work for.

Sarah:
Yeah, you don’t hear much about people doing that these days. I can’t say I have any friends who I know who have openly admitted that. In fact, if I knew a roommate was doing that I’ll probably be a little worried about them.

Jon:
I had an experience when I was a working musician as well and I’d work at you know, I’d be out at a gig or whatever and I’d come back and would be … I don’t know. I’d be going to bed at four or five in the morning anyway. So I was really sleeping for a few hours until the afternoon time then I could get some work in. Then maybe I’d take a little nap before going to the next gig. So I don’t know, that’s more like napping not really a split sleep cycle. But because my cycle is so far off, it was conducive to me at least trying to get a little bit more sleep during the day to supplement.

Sarah:
See, that’s pretty familiar though that as a sleep cycle for a musician, right? That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I don’t know how your wife would feel about you trying to do something like that now.

Jon:
No, that wouldn’t fly.

Sarah:
No, I don’t think so. I mean you also hear about micro-naps, right? The people who take like six, half hour sleeps a day and they train themselves to immediately fall into REM and then get back out of that. You know, to each their own at the end of the day, but I feel like as a quintessential part of being a human being, part of that, for me, a joy is powering off for five hours every day. To have that is my one sacred time to be a weird, little meat bag that needs to sleep.

Jon:
Well said, Sarah. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com, that’s just one L in the Digital Life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

You can find the Digital Life on iTunes SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at Jon, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Sarah, if people want to reach you outside of the show, how would they do that?

Sarah:
Kaisermakes.com is a pretty good resource for that. It’s the intersection of all the weird stuff I make and do.

Jon:
Excellent. So that’s it for episode 211 of The Digital Life. For Sarah, I’m Jon, and we’ll see you next time.

Sarah:
See you next time.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Jon is Principal of Involution Studios and an internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design. His most recent book, Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics and the Internet of Things, was published by O’Reilly Media.

Sarah Kaiser
@TheKaiserMakes

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit @ebenoit

Brian Liston @lliissttoonn

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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Resources:
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