Image Creative Commons licensed by Flickr user Allie Holzman

It can be quite exhilarating when you’ve been sitting on a problem a long time and, after allowing your mind to wander, the solution comes when you least expect it. Research has even shown that there is an upside to zoning out. But what happens when this great idea comes to you at 2 AM?

This was a big problem for me when I started my Masters degree. Many of my ideas and potential solutions would arise after 10 PM, leaving me with many sleepless nights. For example, I was trying to figure out how to set up cameras to record a person’s body position for a study (similar to what you see when a person’s movement is being tracked for a video game). I came up with a plan, but couldn’t stop thinking about the execution and ended up not sleeping. I was convinced the plan was going to work though, and I went into the lab the next morning only to quickly realize that I hadn’t taken into account how I was going to connect the cameras. As a result, I incorrectly estimated their line of sight, leaving me right back at square one and thrown off for the rest of the day.

But even if I were correct, would losing that night of sleep have been worth it? Probably not. I should have written down my idea and gone back to bed. I could’ve then addressed the problem in the morning instead of letting it stew in my head for hours. After this happened to me more and more, I started to keep an informal research ideas journal. The entries are quick and informal since you are trying to get the idea out of your head quickly, and with as much detail as possible. When doing this exercise, first write down your idea, the possible solutions and details, and then let it go. If you keep thinking about it, keep writing. When you wake up, you can then attack the idea with a rested mind because you haven’t lost an entire night of sleep. I also find that this approach helps me relax when I become anxious, as there is something liberating about getting thoughts into writing.

My research idea journal is mainly stored on Evernote for easy access, as I can find my mind spinning just about anywhere. Notability is also good if you have a stylus and would like to free-hand your ideas on your iPad. For people who are having trouble sleeping as well, pen and paper may be the best option, since you can easily scribble down your thoughts and you don’t startle yourself awake at night with a computer screen.

No matter how clear I believe my thoughts to be at 2 AM, I inevitably forget a key step or can’t test my idea until I get into the lab the next day. Using a research idea journal has helped  to quiet my thoughts and decrease anxiety at night. In the end, don’t let these potentially great ideas prevent you from being as effective and mentally focused as you can be when it comes time for their execution.

If ideas come to you at night, do you work through them until you are done, or do you write down your idea and address it in the morning? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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