Problem At Work: Sleep On It

In 1993, Christy Ann Conlin quit her job as an Ottawa file clerk and headed to Germany with her boyfriend. “I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalls.

Until one night, after she fell into a deep sleep.

“In my dream, I was Madonna’s file clerk,” she recalls. “As I worked in this dusty chamber, she told me tales of her own success, which she’d achieved by daring to aspire beyond the ordinary.”

Two weeks later, Ms. Conlin – never a Madonna fan – started writing stories. Then she enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s master of fine arts in creative writing program and soon landed a publishing deal with Doubleday.

Today, Ms. Conlin, who lives near Wolfville, N.S., thanks the Material Girl for the success of her debut novel, Heave, a national bestseller.

But she still wonders why the celebrity starred in her dream in the first place.

“Maybe I’m such an oddball that I needed a weird dream to convey career advice for me to take it seriously,” she surmises.

Or maybe she was onto something. It turns out that dreaming about your job – or “sleepworking” as it is known – is actually common.

Fifty-three per cent of nearly 7,600 respondents to a Globeandmail.com on-line poll last week said that they dream about work.

That coincides with the roughly half of about 300 U.S. small-business owners recently surveyed by retailer Staples Inc. who said that images of work also invade their sleep. Of them, 70 per cent said they act on those dreams come daylight.

And get this: 6.3 per cent said they get their best ideas in bed, edging out brainstorming sessions (6 per cent) and the workplace itself (5 per cent).

“Work occupies our minds at night because it occupies our minds all day,” says Tina Shore, a Toronto psychotherapist who specializes in dream interpretation.

Indeed, whether you’re jolted awake by a brilliant idea or nightmarish images of your boss lunging at you with a knife, everyone has dreamed about their jobs at some time or another.

But while most people shrug them off – if they even remember them – they’re better off holding onto them, dream experts advise.

These nighttime images in the mind elicit valuable information – anything from unresolved feelings you may be harbouring about colleagues to strokes of genius sure to catapult you to office superstar status.

The trick is to harness all that insight so you can use it to your career advantage, says Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who is a dream specialist.

In her book, The Committee of Sleep: How Scientists, Artists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving – And How You Can Too, Prof. Barrett shows how to use dreams to solve workaday problems.

“Dreams are the best place to see answers that elude you when you’re awake because they’re just so visual,” she says. “They’re also the ideal place to help you think outside the box.”

Some dreams are so vivid, they appear like an aha! moment in the night, she says. For instance:

Paul McCartney awoke with the words to his ballad Yesterday already formed in his mind; about 160 years earlier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is said to have done the same for his famous poem Kubla Khan.

Before writing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed the two key themes: the doctor transforming with, then without, drinking a potion.

It was in a dream that German-born American pharmacologist Otto Loewi saw a medical experiment proving nerve impulses are chemically transmitted. For that, he won the Nobel Prize, she says.

You can will yourself to solutions in the night that elude you by day, Prof. Barrett says. If there’s a particular problem you want to solve – like how you’re going to land that huge account – you can perform what she calls an “incubation ritual” during that hypnotic period before you nod off.

“Just by telling yourself to dream about the problem, you increase the chances you’ll solve it overnight,” says Prof. Barrett, who has studied this phenomenon.

She asked 76 college students to record a problem of personal relevance, then to follow specific dream incubation techniques every night for a week. The results: about half the students recalled dreaming about the problem; of those, 70 per cent actually discovered a solution in their sleep.

While “discovery dreams” are certainly valuable, the bulk of work-related dreams target problems people may not even realize are rattling around in their brains, says Layne Dalfen, founder of the Dream Interpretation Centre in Montreal, and author of Do Dreams Come True: Decoding Your Dreams to Discover Your Full Potential.

“Dreams are coded messages about whatever happened during the day that’s bothering you most,” she says.

“Your mind will fixate on that problem and turn it into a dream, where your subconscious can test different possible reactions.”

It’s a wakeup call of sorts, she says, to bring the issue to your attention. But only for those who can remember the oft-fuzzy details.

To strengthen your recall ability, you can follow simple steps, such as keeping a pen and paper nearby to record the details, or lingering in bed with your eyes closed before getting up, suggests Craig Webb, executive director of Montreal-based Dreams Foundation, a non-profit organization that works in collaboration with the dream and nightmare research laboratory at Montreal’s Sacre-Coeur Hospital.

Still, remembering your dreams is just the first step to understanding their meaning. The next is interpreting them.

Some dreams appear in crystal-clear form: You knock on your boss’s door and ask for that long-deserved raise, say.

Often, it all may seem like so much bunk – that nightmare where you show up in the boardroom stark naked, or, even more bizarrely, with a monkey clinging to your chest.

But “it isn’t bunk,” Ms. Dalfen insists. “Whatever form the insight takes, you’re trying to tell yourself something.”

The question is: What?

That naked moment? You likely felt exposed, vulnerable or unprepared, she says. The monkey on your chest? “Believe it or not, having an animal stuck to you can have a literal meaning, like you have to get something off your chest or you have a monkey on your back,” she explains.

For starters, if the dream takes place at work, it should be assumed that it is about work, she says. “There’s no guarantee. But it’s the obvious place to look.”

Even if the dream takes place elsewhere – you’re back at school about to fail an exam – you should turn your mind to the workplace, advises Ms. Shore, the psychotherapist. The dream could be triggered by anxiety over being unprepared for something that’s coming up, maybe a file you’re behind on or an unreasonable deadline, she explains.

Once you make the connection between your dream and your work, there’s an immediate click, Ms. Dalfen says. “You’ll know if you’re right because your subconscious already knows what’s bothering you.”

And once you understand the meaning of your dreams, no matter how anxiety-provoking they may be, you can no longer consider them nightmares, she says.

Now they are gifts. “When a psychological truth resonates with you, it changes how you conduct yourself,” Ms. Shore says.

Ms. Dalfen agrees: “Once you get that you really hate your job, or that you’re scared to stand up to your boss, or that you can’t work beside that chatterbox, you can finally do something about it.”

Whether that something is to hand in your resignation or not, to speak up or not, to switch desks or not, it doesn’t really matter, she says. The point is that you have insight into the problem, and, therefore, can figure out what to do.

“Now you have a tremendous amount of personal power,” she says. “And in your career, there’s nothing more important.”

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DREAM DIAGNOSIS

Wondering what your dreams mean? Here are some typical work-related dreams, and interpretations from experts Layne Dalfen and Tina Shore:

THE DREAM: You stand up to give a speech, but no sound comes out of your mouth.

THE INTERPRETATION: You have something you want to say to someone at work but, for some reason, you are afraid to voice your feelings. Or you may have recently tried to tell one of your co-workers how you feel about an issue but, when the conversation ended, you did not feel you’d been heard.

THE DREAM: You’re at your desk, completely engrossed in a project, when you suddenly realize you’re completely naked. You are mortified and you can’t hide, but no one seems to notice.

THE INTERPRETATION: You are not comfortable with the level of scrutiny you are experiencing at work. As a result, you feel vulnerable and inadequate about your abilities or performance. But since no one notices your nudity, there’s good news: Your fears are unwarranted.

THE DREAM: You are behind the wheel of a car that won’t respond to your actions.

THE INTERPRETATION: You are feeling a lack of autonomy or control in your workload. You know you need to speak to your manager about the amount of work you’re doing, as well as timelines for completing it. You may be considering whether it’s time to start an entrepreneurial venture.

THE DREAM: A former boss or your old job has invaded your dreams.

THE INTERPRETATION: You feel inhibited in your current position, and have been ignoring the fact that you have greater career aspirations. You’re unhappy and you think your talents would be better utilized in a different job or on a different team.

THE DREAM: Your boss is lunging at you with a knife.

THE INTERPRETATION: You may fear you’re in trouble at work. Perhaps you’ve done something you think you shouldn’t have, or forgotten to fulfill an important obligation. As a result, you tell yourself, “Uh-oh, my boss is gonna kill me.” Et voilà: your mind takes that expression and turns it into a dream.

THE DREAM: Someone now unconnected to you – an old boyfriend or the pop star Madonna – suddenly appears in your work-related dream.

THE INTERPRETATION: He or she is a symbol of something you need. Ask yourself what phrase immediately pops to mind when you think of this person. Maybe he’s the most assertive person you know, which means you feel the need to be assertive at work. Maybe she symbolizes a religious figure, such as the Madonna, which means you feel you need to have more faith in yourself.

Mr. Sandman, mentor

Want to put your dreams to work? Here are some tips on how to harness them from the experts:

Drink to your dreams

Before bed, drink water to increase the chance you’ll wake for a bathroom break right after a dream cycle.

Will yourself to wake

Just before nodding off, tell yourself what time to wake up in the morning, rather than letting an alarm clock intrude on your dream.

Bedtime prep time

Write down any work problem you have in a brief sentence, and review it just before bed. Arrange any objects related to the problem – such as the company file or a newspaper story – on your nightstand. Keep a flashlight, pen and notepad handy to record any dream details.

Close eyes, and visualize

Once you crawl into bed, picture the problem, them picture yourself dreaming about it, awakening, and writing it down. Just as you’re drifting off, tell yourself to dream of a solution.

Stay still

Upon awakening, lie quietly in a fixed position, eyes closed, before getting up. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return.

Review it, step by step

Consider the overriding feelings you experienced: Were you scared, vulnerable, embarrassed?

Take note of actions you took. Were you running, drowning, attacking?

Consider any symbols that appeared: a person, place or thing that seems out of place. Then ask what comes to mind when you think of that person, place or thing.

Describe the strangest dream details using puns or clichés. For instance, if there’s an animal stuck to your body, perhaps that means you have something to get off your chest or a monkey on your back.

After writing it all down, ask yourself whether anything relates to your experiences at work.


by Randi Chapnik Myers