When an idea finds you, it doesn’t care what you are doing with your life. The archetype of the artist who goes without sleep, without food, without socializing, all while immersed in a state of flow for hours without stopping, is a timeless romantic idea world-wide.
But it's a damaging archetype.
Manic creativity is not realistic for daily functioning in society. However, it’s a state of operating glamorized throughout history while telling the biographies of people from Nikola Tesla to Voltaire. The creator disappears, then emerges days, months, or years later with a masterpiece.
But what about when the world moves on? What about people forced to move with the pace of the world? What if you prioritize mental health more than manic creativity?What about people with jobs, spouses, friends, and family?
Do ideas just hunt them down... at night?
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
I remember being really young when insomnia first hit. In elementary school, I would routinely cry at night. I was infuriated by the fact I couldn’t sleep. My mom would come to my room and ask me why I was so mad. I’d say I couldn’t shut my thoughts off. Then I'd listen to the radio to calm me. Instead, more thoughts would ensue.
Like most kids, I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t understand overexcitability.
Overexcitability is a term I first learned about while studying creativity and the Theory of Positive Disintegration. Someone can be overexcitable in up to five categories - imaginational, intellectual, emotional, psychomotor, and sensual.
- Knowledge seeking dominates.
- Truth is central to life.
- Theories and analyzation are prioritized.
- Conclusions, motives, behaviors, and the ways of the world are constantly challenged.
- A wide range of emotions dominate.
- Happiness and depression show up at once.
- Self-analyzation is used to traverse a general land of overwhelming feelings.
- An intense inner world is often documented or transformed into artistic works.
- Random associations dominate along with daydreaming.
- Different versions of the past and future are routinely visited.
- A preference for unique and unusual ideas shines forth.
- Imaginary friends and inventions may have filled the person’s childhood.
- A restless vibe dominates.
- Little need for breaks (or awareness of a need for breaks).
- Filled with gesticulations, fast-paced speech, and built up energy.
- Annoyance or enjoyment (depending on the outer environment) dominates.
- Hypersensitivity to light, temperature, sounds, tastes, and textures.
Insomnia and Overexcitability
When stimulated by an original event, the overexcitable person will take the event much further with their hypersensitivity, deep-processing, hyper-focusing, and rumination.
This causes an intense experience of the world.
Sorting out stimulating circumstances happens at some point in time - often when the person could be (or should be) sleeping.
The Musician Schedule: Working With Insomnia
I used to immerse myself in creative projects for days on end when I was young and single. I struggled immensely with set-shifting (moving from one project to another). While this was sometimes frustrating, I tried to use hyper-focusing to tackle the detailed task of songwriting.
Any activity that converted my inflexible knack for drilling into something useful became an exciting challenge. Any activity that built something out of nothing seemed extra special.
As a full-time musician, I didn’t care if I was up at night because I would sleep during the day. Lack of structure was the name of the game. Sometimes I didn't get home until three in the morning from a gig.
I didn’t need to function well in the world because I had dodged such responsibilities and replaced them with one responsibility - being an artist (or so I thought).
The Doze Years: Trading In Deep Creativity For Sleep
When I met the man that became my husband, deep creativity shut off for a while. By deep creativity, I mean long-form works that truly transformed my thinking (versus journaling or sewing to fix my clothes.)
Basically, for about a year after meeting my husband, I didn’t write many songs. This wasn’t a conscious choice. I just didn’t find love songs easy to write. Below is an attempt at one...
In the early stages of love, I found it hard to focus well enough to dive into deep thought. I just wanted to hang out with the future love of my life.
Then I became confused by some ridiculous default operating in my corner of the universe. With social processing maxed out, songs were the only place to go, so I wrote a lot again.
I started to notice I slept worse when I was immersed in writing and recording mode.
My head would knit-pick small detailed sections of something I was working on. Occasional breakthroughs would happen, but mostly I formed a negative relationship with creativity. Knit-picking myself and others was an annoying way to live. So I left deep creativity on the table again. I decided to design the best version of "normal" me, try that person on like a pair of pants, and see what life was like.
- AND SLEEPING.
No surprises. I found out it’s a simple way to live. And it can be great at times.
Across The Night
I slept great for about six years by cultivating healthy relationships, tackling straightforward work at school, setting attainable college goals, and carefully controlling my environment (all without deep creativity or making an album).
All in all, I slept like a baby.
Then I had a baby.
As a sleep-deprived parent, I started Savvy History and returned to social media. Reacquainted with the creative depth I felt in touch with during my youth, I noticed a change in my sleep almost immediately.
Obviously, our child kept us up at times. But after helping our child, I’d watch as my husband was able to fall back asleep.
Me? I’d just lie there glued to some sentence I was working on. Even when our child would sleep through the night, I’d be working on an idea in my head with the lights off, no plan to grab a notebook, no plan to fix my written works… just drifting, editing, and daydreaming when I should be dreaming for real. (Sidenote - when Adam's working on a house project, he's the one that can't sleep because he keeps reorganizing layouts in his head).
Insomnia Solutions For The Overexcitable?
Once our child falls asleep, it feels like “go time” for me. It's when I finally have time to myself.
As a result, there’s a vibe of revving up at the end of the day when I should probably be winding down.
- I could switch this revving up to the morning by trying to wake up before my son to write (instead of writing before bed).
- I think it’s important to keep the computer out of the bedroom and the phone out of the bed. Too much light from the devices too late at night prevents sleep all on its own, let alone the stimulating ideas streaming from them.
- I definitely shouldn’t check my email before bed!
- I might even read books that aren’t overly thought-provoking.
With a few schedule changes and some more self-knowledge, I think I can keep an exciting inner world without trading it in for sleep. Now that I understand my overexcitabilities and my specific creative triggers, I know what to avoid at the end of the day and what to tackle in the morning instead.
As a parent, sometimes I start a project and I’m not able to return to it until a few days later. Some ideas slip away and never return. If the idea is valid enough, can I trust it will find it’s way back? If I wake up and can’t remember the idea, can I assume - maybe it wasn’t that great in the first place?
(Here's a great article about Patti Smith's imaginative remedy for insomnia.)
Do you notice a direct contrast in your sleeping habits when you latch on to an exciting idea? Do you have a method for slowing your thoughts down at the end of the day?
DISCLAIMER: AS ALWAYS, IF YOU NEED PSYCHOLOGICAL OR FINANCIAL ADVICE PLEASE SEEK A PROFESSIONAL FOR YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION.