You're most creative when you're at your groggiest

Are you an evening person? Guess what? Early in the day, when you're bleary eyed, stumbling about in the fog of sleepiness, you're probably at your creative peak. In contrast, if you're a morning person, then for you, the evening is the best time for musing.

How come? Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. You're more likely to achieve that Aha! revelatory moment when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering.

Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks recruited 428 undergrads and had them complete a questionnaire to identify whether they were night owls or morning larks. As you might expect, based on factors like preferred time of day and peak performance, most of the students - 195 of them - were owls and just 28 were larks. The remainder came out as neutral.

Next, the students tried to solve six problem-solving tasks - half of them were insight-type tasks (e.g. a prisoner in a tower finds a piece of rope that's half the length of the distance to the ground. He escapes by using scissors to divide the rope in half and then tying the two ends together. How could he have done this?*), and half were analytic questions that require a narrow focus (e.g. Bob's father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. Four years ago, he was four times older. How old are Bob and his father?). Students had 4 minutes to solve each problem.

Crucially, half the students were tested first thing in the morning (between 8.30am and 9.30am), the others were tested late afternoon (between 4 and 5.30pm). Here's the headline result: the students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when the time of testing coincided with their least optimal time of functioning. When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.

A potential weakness in the findings is that there were so many more evening people among the student participants (who therefore excelled at the creative tasks in the morning). So perhaps the results were skewed and the creative advantage has to do with the morning, not to do with performing at your least favoured time of day. To test this possibility, Wieth and Zacks looked at the data for the students with a neutral disposition (no favoured time of day). They didn't perform the insight tasks any better in the morning than evening, thus suggesting the creative advantage specifically comes from operating at your least optimal time of day.

The researchers recommended that students consider designing their class schedules so that they take art and creative writing at their non-optimal time of day. "Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in sync with their circadian arousal;" they said, "however, the interaction between time of day and type of class has not been investigated. The results of this study suggest that the relationship between time of day and grades needs to be investigated and may not simply follow a uniform pattern."


Wieth, M., and Zacks, R. (2011). Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal. Thinking and Reasoning, 17 (4), 387-401 DOI: 10.1080/13546783.2011.625663

* The solution is that he cuts the rope length-wise into two thin strips and ties these together.

Related posts on the Digest:
Early risers are more proactive than evening people
The personality of early risers

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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