Sleeping On A Problem Is The Best Way To Solve It

Sep 16, 2020 - 7 minutes read time

Never stay awake on a problem: Sleep on it

“Creativity is just connecting things,” Apple’s Steve Jobs once commented. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” 

To Steve Jobs’s observation, neuroscientists can now add that plentiful sleep is a major factor. Sleep helps in the “seeing” and “connecting.”

In a fascinating experiment, Ullrich Wagner of the University of Lubeck in Germany assigned his study subjects a mathematical puzzle. It consisted of a string of eight numbers. Wagner provided the participants with two rules for generating a second string of numerals. They were told to work through these problems using the rules. The miserably laborious exercise looked a lot like doing long division for an hour or more.

But the sneaky researchers included a hidden rule. A shortcut could be used to quickly arrive at the target answer for all the problems.

After the initial training, some participants were allowed to get a good night’s sleep. Others were less lucky. They remained awake. When everyone returned to the problem eight hours later, those who had slumbered were far more likely to discover the shortcut — almost 60 percent returned with the aha moment. But among those who stayed awake, despite their total effort, only a paltry 20 percent were able to figure out the hidden rule. That’s a threefold difference in creative solutions afforded by sleep. 

Try asking any employer which group they would like to hire.

Still, of the many companies I’ve interacted with, none pay real attention to the sleep quality of their employees. They run them down even in a retreat. It’s all too common for a company to host an executive conference in some exotic location. They finish the first day with a late dinner, and they’re out drinking later still. People don’t hit the hay until well past midnight, after clearing their email inbox. Then, the next day, they’re expected to head for a run at 7:00 a.m. in the name of health and well-being. By 8:30 a.m., everyone is back in the conference room to develop some “creative solutions” and “think big.” Why would anyone expect this to work? 

This insane, unscientific, sleep-deprived approach also extends into even the most elite business schools. During my time at Harvard Business School, I observed a peculiar work ethic that’s not too distant from toxic masculinity. Dean Jay Light would give a welcome speech reminding the aspiring MBA candidates that earning the degree would involve a lot of hard work. “It will be like drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “There’s going to be many more than 24 hours of work that has to be done every 24 hours.” But the MBAs don’t go to bed on the weekends to pay off their sleep debt. They “work hard and play hard.” They party. 

Then comes Monday and more drinking from the fire hose of case studies, theories, and financial analyses. All the professors are world-class, but they constantly wonder why so few aha moments are triggered among the students. With tired brains and exhausted minds, what quality of education are these future business leaders receiving? I don’t know. 

Smart bosses do things differently

Dysfunctional culture dies hard. At its core, it’s based on the idea that people need to suffer in order to do great things. Self-flagellation is sometimes born out of necessity, but then other people start practicing it indiscriminately.

Combat soldiers, for instance, can’t just flop down and snooze. When on a patrol, they can drink and eat, but only once they’ve reached a secure position. When they finally get a chance to rest, they must remain vigilant and aware so the enemy doesn’t surprise them. They have no choice but to wake up early every day, no matter their level of exhaustion. 

Then there are these senior executives of Fortune 500 companies who wrongly believe they are just as heroic. Their outsized egos imagine a marketing strategy of selling instant coffee and laundry detergent as a military operation. They forget a tour of military duty usually lasts for 12 to 15 months and confuse it with their own corporate careers, which will likely last for decades. One is on a sprint by necessity. The other is on a marathon.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Smart bosses have figured this out. Some decide that being present in the workplace and making better decisions are important. Staying alert in the office will improve business fundamentals. As Aetna chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini said, “You can’t be prepared if you’re half asleep.”

And why wouldn’t a less torturous approach be superior? Studies have shown driving after staying awake for 24 hours is worse than driving drunk. Why would any CEO put a sleep-deprived accountant in charge of a company’s finances (unless they’re at Enron)? 

So Bertolini added an incentive system. Aetna rolled out the option to earn employee bonuses for getting more sleep, using fitness trackers like Fitbit. The company pays $25 a night if an employee gets seven or more hours of uninterrupted sleep for 20 nights in a row. That’s rightthey’re getting paid to sleep, up to a total of $500. 


Aetna isn’t a small company. It’s a giant insurance company with almost 50,000 employees. Some may scoff at Bertolini’s approach. It sounds parental and patronizing. But many workplaces are tolerating yet another even more paternalistic, but destructive, culture. On Wall Street, interns can’t leave until the big boss leaves his corner office. They jump the moment they receive a text from the big shot. And if you’re not doing the same, you’re not a team player. 

What Bertolini overrides is the norm of grinding down employees with incessant emails after working hours. He refuses to burn managers out under a business model of disposability and declining productivity. He doesn’t want people to come to work sick and then cause low morale and contribute to high turnover rates. He’s started a sleep revolution at Aetna.

The payoff of sleeping well

All this is not just whimsical talk. Racking up more consistent and plentiful slumber makes great business sense. Bertolini proved it. Under his 10 years of care, Aetna grew into one of America’s premier insurance companies. At the CEO’s insistence, the company announced it was hiking minimum pay to $16 per hour and eliminating health care costs for employee families living under 300% of the federal poverty level. 

That didn’t sit well with his executive team at first. Even the human resources department didn’t think it would be beneficial. Executives had proposed raising pay by a mere 50 cents per hour. The CEO persisted. He saw the new benefits as a financially justifiable strategy to reduce turnover and improve productivity. So there was friction to overcome at the top. There’s even a parting of ways with the head of human resources, but the share price continued to climb. In 2019, at the height of its financial performance, Aetna received federal approval to merge with drugstore giant CVS. 

Never stay awake on a problem: Sleep on it - graph

Why the merger? That’s the same question CVS CEO Larry Merlo asked Bertolini. Bertolini referred to CVS’s model as making money on a fee-for-service basis: The more patients visit the drugstore, the more money there is to make. Aetna, as an insurer, doesn’t want patients’ claims. It makes money by keeping people healthy. So there’s a need for change in the health care sector. “You need a different revenue model,” Bertolini told Merlo. “And if you continue doing the things that you’re doing, our revenue model is the right one.”

These are bold moves. Changes in the health care industry don’t come by quarters — they occur over years, decades. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Aetna needs its people to think outside their routines. Bertolini needs his leadership team to think independently. Employees need to act patiently, but with urgency. Market opportunities, as always, favor only those who are prepared. As author John Ernst Steinbeck said, “A problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

People need to practice good self-care for the long haul. A great place to start is with sleeping well every night.


Stay healthy,

Howard Yu signature

PS. Have you seen other companies encourage employees to take good care of themselves? With the remote work arrangements during the coronavirus crisis, do you find it easier or harder to enjoy a good night’s sleep? Any tips? Join in the discussion below. I’d love to hear from you.



hong zhu Sep 27, 2020 at 1:41pm

So true. Great work!

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 28, 2020 at 5:10pm

Excited that you like the piece. Thank you!

Smita Suchde Gruetter Sep 20, 2020 at 10:50am

Excellent article, Howard!

Henry Sep 19, 2020 at 10:12pm

Really brilliant. Thank you. Really (really) look after the team because they are the most important thing the business has. Get smarter about what the customers really need (better health not better insurance) and you have a great chance of winning.
Fabulous article. Matthew Walker....

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 20, 2020 at 8:23am

Thank you, Henry! I am glad that you like the piece. Also thank you so much for referring to Matthew Walker's work. He's such an inspiration.

Jana Sep 19, 2020 at 3:44pm

I am 78 y old. Sleeping 8 yrs is great. Sleeping less ... is pretty regular Sliding Scale of Titedness, slow stinking, low Energy, unable to read and Risk of falling asleep while driving.

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 20, 2020 at 8:27am

Dear Jana, Thank you so much for your note. Yes, our society has not emphasized enough about the impact of sleep deprivation, whether it's chronic or occasional. Feel better. Best wishes, Howard

Terry Gilmore Sep 16, 2020 at 7:44am

Wonderful article Howard! We really need to give ourselves a good sleep because creativity needs it!

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 20, 2020 at 8:31am

Thank you Terry! Yes, solutions to our challenges all depend on it.

Susan Bert Sep 16, 2020 at 7:20am

Absolutely fascinating program for employees from Aetna. A good night's sleep can really pay off - literally!

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 20, 2020 at 8:32am

Thanks Susan! Yes, we need more examples of such for positive change.

Sophie Gillett Sep 16, 2020 at 7:09am

Great read!

Howard Yu:
Howard Yu Sep 20, 2020 at 8:32am

Happy that you enjoy the reading, Sophie. Thanks!

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