Innovation and the (Spooky) Graveyard Shift

by | Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

At the age of 19, Thomas Edison worked the night shift at AP Newswire where he had ample opportunity to pursue his two favorite pastimes – reading and experimenting. Later in his career, he still preferred late nights laboring in the lab and midnight lunches with his team. Edison steadfastly believed he was more innovative at night, even while working by gas lamp or candle.

From late night hackathons to creative inventors, research conducted by Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa (London School of Economics) suggests that people with higher IQs and innovation capabilities are more likely to consider themselves to be late night owls like Edison. They FEEL eerily more productive while working “the graveyard shift.”

But are they mistaken? A study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks suggests that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are NOT at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms determine whether you are a “morning” person or an “late night owl” person, as measured with a short test called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. Surprisingly, self-professed night owls have MORE breakthroughs in the morning. And morning people have more insights by the light of the moon.

If you and your team want to spark innovation — to reinvent business as usual, boost problem-solving, and generate new ideas — consider these three tips:

  1. Switch up your schedule. If your team normally works late in the evenings, call for an early morning brainstorming session. Are you a team of early birds? Plan a midnite lunch.
  2. Consider adding a team DARK ROOM in your office environment. A room where the sun doesn’t shine, the shades are drawn, and the light is muted. Darkness in a room during the day disrupts your natural circadian rhythm and spurs innovative thinking.
  3. Conduct a brainstorming session in the dark, preferably outside the office. Record and playback the session instead of having everyone take notes. It may jump-start your team’s creativity and get you out of your left brain.

On a final scary note, working during the wee hours of the morning takes its toll. Circadian Technologies estimates that late night shifts cost companies a steep $206 billion annually — $8,600 per worker. Graveyard-shift workers make five times as many serious mistakes and are 20% more likely to suffer severe accidents.

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