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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Science-Backed Way to Solve Problems When You're Still Half-Asleep

Eat. Sleep. Solve problems. Repeat. You probably spend a large part of your waking hours tackling challenges, especially when you’re at work.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the world’s top business visionaries, from Sara Blakely to Richard Branson, owe their success to their ability to identify problems (in both their cases, unmet consumer needs) and deliver solutions.

Of course, regardless of how expected (or important) workplace problem-solving is, it’s still stressful, and some people seem to be better at it than others.

So, if you want to raise your game here, I suggest you start finding the answers in your sleep—literally. It’s called riding the theta brain waves. No, this isn’t not about self-hypnosis or Zen meditation: It’s pure science, and it works.

But first, let me back up:

What Are the Four Brain Waves?

As educator Ned Herrmann explains, brain waves—the “electrical activity emanating from the brain”—occur in four states depending on your level of activity. Herrmann continues on to break down each state by decreasing wave frequency.

At your most active, you generate beta waves (like, if you were in the middle of a job interview). When you’re relaxed—like when you’ve finally wrapped that big project and can take a breath—your brain switches to alpha waves. Now, jumping ahead for a minute, the fourth stage is delta and it’s when you’re in a deep sleep.

I skipped over the third stage, theta, because that’s the one that’s best for problem solving. Herrmann says:

Individuals who do a lot of freeway driving often get good ideas during those periods when they are in theta…This can also occur in the shower or tub or even while shaving or brushing your hair. It is a state where tasks become so automatic that you can mentally disengage from them. The ideation that can take place during the theta state is often free flow and occurs without censorship or guilt.

You’re also in theta when you’re falling asleep or waking up and between active alertness and deep dreaming. As Herrmann shares:

During this awakening cycle it is possible for individuals to stay in the theta state for an extended period of say, five to 15 minutes—which would allow them to have a free flow of ideas about yesterday's events or to contemplate the activities of the forthcoming day. This time can be an extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.

Is There Any Real Proof This Works?

Taking advantage of when your brain is prepared to give you the best ideas is something successful people have been doing for hundreds of years. Artists like Salvador Dali, writers like Mary Shelley, and great thinkers have understood that the early “nodding off” stage of sleep, when theta waves predominate in the brain, is the best time to let the creative juices flow.

Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison also relied on half-sleep moments to chew over big ideas. A nimble, creative mind is primed for solving problems, and that’s why mentally running through the day’s challenges early in the morning while you are still in this state (or even at night as you start to fall asleep) can yield amazing results. What worked for Einstein can work for you too, although maybe not in a theory-of-relativity kind of way.

How Can You Use Theta Waves to Get Ahead?

Learning to utilize theta waves takes some practice. Do it regularly, though, and you’ll develop a positive habit that takes your productivity to new levels. Here’s how to get started:

1. Pick a Task

Just as you start to become conscious in the morning, but while your eyes are closed and your brain’s still dreamy, think of the most immediate problem or task you have to face today. Maybe it’s having a tricky conversation, negotiating with a client, writing a report, or creating a new marketing campaign. No matter how many to-do’s might be racing around in your mind, choose only one and let the brain ruminate.

Don’t force your thoughts in any direction except to stay focused on the topic. Because your brain has likely been kicking around these problems in the background all night, as you begin to ponder the subject your subconscious will start to make headway on a solution.

Often, you’ll nab a useful idea or two. Every so often, you’ll score a sheer flash of genius. Now, to be honest, you’ll probably forget to do this every day when you first start, but over time you’ll be able to make it a habit, just another part of your morning routine.

2. Take Notes

If you’re like me, the most frustrating part of problem-solving in theta is that you tend to forget these inspired ideas once you get up and start rolling. You’ll be wracking your brain in the shower trying to recall those three brilliant bullet points you mentally drafted. That’s why you need to write them down in as soon as you rouse yourself enough to open your eyes.

Grab your smartphone (it’s charging on the bedside table anyway, right?) and jot down or voice record your thoughts. Make this quick. Stick to key words, descriptions, and phrases that’ll jog your memory later when you’re ready to use the information.

Added benefit: the blue light from your phone will help you wake up. (Conversely, if you’d like to near asleep-problem-solve at night, consider using the old-fashioned pen and paper method to record your ideas, so that the electronic light doesn’t disturb your sleep.)

3. Review

Keep track of your “theta thoughts” so you can look them over time and find patterns. You may find that, for you, it’s best for tackling creative work, like writing or designing. Or you could discover it gives you an edge in spoken communications or scheduling. This will help you know what questions to ask yourself during this mental state in the future.

Inspiration comes at us from all corners. But so do obstacles. Thinking in theta exploits the mind’s inherent problem-solving skills in a way that lets you recall solutions and use them. Often it’s just about finding a path around a block in the road, or crossing a bridge from a half-baked idea to a truly useful one—and why not do that before you even get out of bed?

Photo of person sleeping courtesy of Jin Chu Ferrer/Getty Images.