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I Know I'm Productive When...

...I dream about work.

The first time I remember dreaming about work was during the summer between eighth and ninth grades, when I labored my little butt off as a corn detasseler. (I love how happy the detasselers pictured in the Wikipedia photo look... I think of it as miserable work now, but then it didn't seem horrible.) My whole life that summer was about corn (not by choice). I would wake up, pack a lunch in my L'il Playmate, fill a cooler with water, put on sunscreen, and walk the half-mile to the school to be on the detasseling bus before sunrise. Ten hours and probably twenty miles later, the bus would return to the school to drop off us sweaty, stinking workers.

The work was so hard, the heat so intense, that I never really ate anything. All I wanted was water water water. I still don't understand how I had the energy to work like that for several weeks in the blazing sun, walking and walking with hands above head to pull off tassels--or crouched over with a hoe for the length of a field, or bent over to walk beans, or occasionally having to outrun a piece of farm machinery whose driver didn't know we were among the corn!--when all I did was drink water. I was probably up to a couple of gallons a day, and it never seemed like enough.

Illinois is a Yankee state and generally regarded as a cold one for its nasty winters, but a whole swath of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri makes some of the most miserable hot weather there is. There's nothing like the 99-degree, 99% humidity wallop of an Illinois summer, the kind that drives up electricity bills (and crime rates) to alarming rates. I was always aware of Illinois summers being hot, but I never felt it like I did that year.

When I would finally collapse in bed at the end of a work day, belly full of water, I'd close my eyes and see rows of corn. An older detasseling veteran warned that this would happen, so I assumed I would occasionally dream about corn. Instead, I literally would close my eyes and see vast fields of corn--before even falling asleep! Of course, my dreams were all about corn and my work with it. I had enough of corn during my waking hours and wasn't interested in dedicating sleep hours to it, but I didn't feel any control over it and thought it was just a sign that I was too immersed in the detasseling world.

The big draw, in case you're wondering why someone would subject themselves to such work, was money: How many 13-year-olds in 1990 were making $13/hour? (Sadly, according to Wikipedia, the current pay rate hovers around that mark. Ouch.) That was decent money for a high-school graduate in the area, and earning that in the summer allowed me not to work during the school year (when I'd instead be overinvolved with too many extracurriculars). 

Years later, I read about how Billy Joel composed his hit "In the Middle of the Night" while he was asleep and often dreams in music. It had not occurred to me until then that dreams could be partially controlled, so I started trying to steer my dreams before falling asleep. 

When I have a design problem, instead of sitting at the drawing board or computer to try forcing a solution, I'll mentally place it in the back of my brain. I visually putting it there, then think about what I've done so far, what the specific issue is, and some possible avenues of resolution. (I recently realized that the back of the brain is the visual and visual association center of the brain... how fitting for a designer.) I often do this when I first talk with a new client or hear the initial details of an upcoming project. Then, if I am retained by the client or secure the project, I recall what's been stewing on the back burner. My execution becomes really fast, because I've already done the grunt work in my head.

That practice evolved into giving my brain specific "tasks" before bed. Although I was already primed for controlled dreaming, I think I stumbled upon it as a natural extension of working long, late hours on design (and specifically coding and programming). At 2:00am, after 12 straight hours staring into a monitor, eyes losing focus, I would find myself simultaneously at the "I give up" point and "there must be an answer" mindset. So I'd lie down for much needed sleep but find my thoughts still focused on the task at hand, and exhaustion would eventually make me fall asleep. I started noticing that the solution was often known or easily found upon waking or getting back to work.

Currently, I occasionally give myself a specific design problem before sleep, but now it usually is subliminal. Last night's dreams were all about work and produced answers for problems I hadn't yet actively acknowledged. Cool, huh? I wish I weren't such a natural eight-hour sleeper... the concept of Da Vinci (polyphasic) sleep is so appealing to me, since I always have so much on the to-do list. (Life will only suck when there's nothing left on the to-do list.) Imagine if the brain was working on solutions all the time AND I had more time to execute.

Want to give multitasking sleep a try? I'm not an expert and can only offer information based on my own experience. I have no idea if these ideas are considered detrimental to mental or physical health (haha), but consider this a disclaimer since I am not a doctor, psychologist, or scientist. This is simply what developed over many years and has often worked for me.

1. Believe it's possible. Obviously, if the idea of commanding your brain to dream specific things is too out there for you, it's hard to believe that it would work for you.

2. Give your brain a problem to work on during waking hours. You'll have to find something that needs solving -- try a logic problem, design issue (if you're a designer), or hard crossword clue -- and visualize adding it to your brain's workload. 

3. Acknowledge the problem and the fact that you need an answer. Once a day for the next few days, acknowledge that it's sitting in your brain. Observe (and acknowledge) times that your conscious thoughts naturally turn to the issue. Experiment with #2 and #3 to see if they work for you. If so...

4. Before going to sleep, give an assignment. After you close your eyes and before you fall asleep, actively "ask" your brain to get to work on something. Summarize the problem, what you've done so far, and what you need. This can all be done mentally... no need to wake your partner! P.S. This works best when you've had a full, active day (and aren't just being lazy), so you can quickly fall asleep and "get working."

5. Give permission for your brain to get creative. Understand that sometimes your mind will come up with alternatives to what you think is the "correct" answer... or produce more than you asked for! That's not a bad thing in my book.  

6. Record successes.
When you do find an answer or solution, mentally thank your brain or otherwise acknowledge the event (such as in a diary). Noticing and celebrating progress encourages more of the same by keeping you open to your mind's potential.

I understand that these concepts may sound hippy-dippy or "corny" (har har), but don't worry... I'm not starting a cult or anything!