How to Make the Best of Exhaustion

by Site Author

When we’re exhausted at the end of the day, it seems as though we’re just worse at everything. But a recent study suggests that that’s not the case. When you’re tired, you actually might be better at brainstorming.

The experiment went something like this. The authors focused on two types of problems: “insight” problems and “analytic” problems. This is an insight problem:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found in his cell a rope that was half long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

You have to think about this for a while, generate lots of possibilities, and then you’ll eventually have an “aha moment.” In contrast, this is an analytic problem:

Bob’s father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. 4 years ago, he was 4 times older. How old are Bob and his father?

I’m pretty sure that Bob is 12, but I had to use paper and pen.

The authors had participants try to solve these problems at different times of the day. Their key finding is summarized by the picture below.


When people are given problems at their optimal time of day (for me, the morning), they are better at analytic problems. But at their non-optimal time of day (for me, late evening), they are better at insight problems.

Since insight problems primarily involve brainstorming, this suggests that we might be better at brainstorming late at night rather than in the morning. It suggests that exhaustion might make us better at brainstorming.

The study was small, and who knows whether the results can be replicated? But I hope that the finding is never discredited. It’s useful to believe in the study, even if it’s false. Believing in the study lets you believe that all those hours we spend exhausted can be put to good use.