When Is Your Creativity Greatest?
New research published in the Academy of Management Journal shows that there isn’t one best time of day for creativity. Rather, peak daily creativity depends on your chronotype – preferred times of activity and sleep. People vary on a continuum from strong morning types (most alert in the morning, going to sleep early) to strong evening types (most alert later in the day, going to sleep late) and tend to be most creative when they work in sync with their chronotype.
This research challenges the common advice that the best time of day for creative work is in the morning. Eminent creators often describe daily routines that start early in the morning. Writers Haruki Murakami and Sylvia Plath would wake up at 4am. Printer, politician, humorist, and inventor (among other things) Benjamin Franklin would wake up at 5am, as did the neurologist and writer Oliver Saks, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and writer Toni Morrison. If this schedule does not seem appealing (or even doable) to you, new research shows this is not the only schedule for creating.
A Matter of Chronotype
Jana Kuehnel, Ronald Bledow, and Markus Kiefer conducted three studies to examine when during the day people tend to be most creative in their jobs. In each study they asked people about their typical sleep times – both falling asleep and waking up. Work tends to cut sleep short, making it important to specifically ask about work-free days when sleep is not restricted (such as weekends, vacations).
Another way to assess chronotype is more direct – researchers asked whether people considered themselves morning or evening types and asked at what times they would go to sleep and wake up if they were entirely free to plan their day.
Each study tested creativity at work in different ways. One study asked people to complete a test requiring them to come up with creative ideas either in the morning (beginning of the work day) or in the later afternoon (end of the work day) on two consecutive days. Participants were asked to think of as many different uses as they could for everyday objects (brick or newspaper).
Researchers examined three aspects of creative thinking: idea fluency, flexibility, and originality. Idea fluency is the number of different ideas people generated. Flexibility concerns the breadth of ideas – number of different categories of ideas. For example, one could mention that bricks are used to build a garden path, build a wall, be a doorstop, and a bookend. These ideas belong to two categories – building and holding something. Finally, originality of ideas is a measure of how uncommon, unobvious, or unconventional are the ideas. The overall measure of creativity – composed of fluency, flexibility, and originality – showed that idea generation was most successful for late chronotypes at the end of the workday and for the early chronotypes at the start of the workday.
Another study measured job-relevant creativity. In the morning and in the late afternoon of their work day, people were asked a series of questions about how creative they were in their jobs in the previous hour. For example, they were asked whether they generated novel, but operable work ideas and to what extent they were good role models of creativity. Again, creativity was highest for the early chronotypes in the morning. Those with later chronotypes did not show higher creativity in the late afternoon, possibly because their peak time is reached even later in the day.
The third study included a group of professionals whose jobs explicitly required creativity – architects, designers, artists, creative directors. Over the course of a work week, they were asked to describe what they did throughout their days, from 6am-9am, 9am-noon, noon-3pm, 3pm-6pm, and 6pm-9pm. For each of the different time periods, they were asked questions about their work creativity. Later chronotypes were increasingly creative during the course of the workday. Earlier chronotypes were not less creative as the day went on, but this was likely because the sample did not include many strong early chronotypes.
Why do morning people tend to be more creative in the morning and evening people in the later afternoon and evening? This research looked into two potential explanations, one about how people tend to feel at different times during the day and one about they tend to think about what they can do and accomplish. For morning people, their mood was related to daily changes in creativity. As they felt more positive and energized – they described being active, interested, excited, strong, inspired, and alert – they were also more likely to be creative. However, mood did not explain the whole story. For evening people, daily changes in creativity were not related to mood.
Was it that differences in when people are most creative depend on changes in how they think about their creative abilities? Creative self-efficacy is one’s belief that they are able to generate creative ideas and realize those ideas into products or performances. Although people differ in how much they believe they are able be creative in general (some are more confident than others), their thinking and self-evaluation also fluctuates depending on the situation or circumstances. You might believe you could be creative around close colleagues, but less so in front of your boss. Similarly, these beliefs can ebb and flow at different times during the day. When people say to themselves, “Right now, I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively”, they tend to attempt creative work and be more successful in working creatively. Again, creativity of morning people was paired with creative self-efficacy, but this was not the case for evening people. In other words, why daily creativity varies for morning and evening people does not depend on the same factors.
How to Boost Your Creativity
This research has some practical implications for how to increase creativity. First, people should be aware of their chronotypes. This is not an either/or proposition. You are not either a morning or an evening type. Rather, there is a continuum and some of us are on the far ends of morningness/eveningness, but many more will be somewhere in between.
Those in jobs requiring creativity will benefit from aligning the creative aspects of their jobs to their chronotype. Ideally, managers on work teams might take into consideration preferences of their team members. This is not simply a matter of being “nice” and taking employee preferences into account when scheduling meetings or providing space for creative work. Rather, allowing opportunities to match preferred time of day with creative tasks tends to result in better work.
There is good news for all those (myself included!) who used to read about Oliver Saks and Toni Morrison and thought to themselves that if getting up at 5am is required for creativity, then creativity is simply not going to happen. Creativity can also happen in the late afternoon, as many others (morning types) start experiencing a slump. And creativity can happen late at night. Knowing how best to create starts with knowing when best to create.
Kuhnel, J., Bledow, R., & Kiefer, M. (2020). There is a time to be creative: The alignment between chronotype and time of day. Academy of Management Journal. Published online: December 22, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2019.0020 https://www.thecut.com/2018/06/you-should-probably-do-your-writing-in-t… https://www.craftyourcontent.com/benefits-morning-writing-routine/ https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-…