Stop It: Dreaming Isn’t Working

I object to this new term ‘sleepworking.’ That’s what they’re calling dreaming about work. I say dreaming about work is dreaming about life, an extremely good sign sometimes, a bad sign other times, but not — never — as simple as more work.

Let’s not pollute the language with this sleepworking prattle. As if dreaming about work counts as working. It’s not just silly, it’s also counterproductive. It messes with something important.

The latest along those lines is a Staples survey of small business, released this month. The headline is “Staples Small-Business Survey Reveals People are Constantly Working, Even While They Sleep.”

According to the 2nd Annual Staples National Small-Business Survey, more than half of small-business professionals said that work has actually become part of their dreams. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said that they “sleepwork” (i.e. dream about work), and nearly 70 percent of those “sleepworkers” report they wake up and put their “work dreams” to action.

Come on, get real. Dreaming about work means you care. It might be struggle, excitement, the creative process, stress … but when what you do during the day creeps into your dreams, that’s not more work. That’s involvement.

Dreaming about work can be wonderful. How many times have you come up with solutions to problems, or new ideas, by chewing on them in your subconscious mind? Work is what we do a lot of, many hours a day, most days; wouldn’t it be awful to not dream about it? The dream means you’re relating to it, thinking about it, and, ultimately, enjoying it. It’s the challenge. It’s the creative process. This kind of involvement has kept me happy for most of my adult life. When I lose it it’s been time to switch jobs.

True, dreaming about work can be bad too. Stress is bad. Worry is bad, at least unproductive stressful worry. Go listen to Robert Sopolsky on Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Remember the helicopter dream in the first scene of Apocalypse Now? The helicopter noise and the throbbing engine seems inside his head while he sleeps. That’s replaying stress.  That’s bad.

Even in those cases, though, dreaming is a sign and a signal. It’s not just more work. It’s the real you fighting back at the you you’re in danger of becoming. Or something like that.

The creeping (and I might say creepy) use of this dreamworking motif is just fun if you don’t take it seriously, but it’s also evidence of how we subvert language sometimes to serve our own purpose. The authors of the Staples study clearly wanted to show how hard small business owners work. They could have done it without bringing in this sleepworking theme. Consider the data they do have:

The survey also revealed that 98 percent of U.S. small-business owners and managers are working during their time off – including nights, weekends and vacations – and nearly 54 percent expect to work even harder in 2008.

The results revealed organization and teamwork are the top factors why owners and managers are working so many hours. Nearly 70 percent admitted they do not have a written business plan. Almost three-quarters consider themselves organized, but only 33 percent said they complete the tasks on their “to-do” list each day. Slightly more than two-thirds said they feel constantly challenged by not having enough time to get work done and nearly 44 percent said customer fulfillment takes up the majority of their time while at work.

When asked to compare their businesses to a track and field event at the Olympics, a mere 14 percent said their business operates like a relay race, with everybody working in tandem toward the same goal, whereas 26 percent think of business operations as a 100-meter dash, always sprinting and trying to do everything quickly.

So okay, this is interesting data. Not surprising at all, but interesting. So go with that. Leave my dreams out of it.

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Tim Berry, Entrepreneur and Founder of Palo Alto Software, and Borland International About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning; and a Stanford MBA. His main blogs are Planning, Startups, Stories and Up and Running.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

16 Reactions
  1. Some of my best thinking time about work comes overnight, subconsciously while I sleep. No matter what you call it, I’m better off for that thinking or dreaming time, er … whatever you want to call that time. Like you, I’d be worse off if I didn’t have it.

    I suppose I wouldn’t call it “work”, per se, either. I mean, I’m not actively doing anything during that time except sleeping. Hopefully I’m getting rest while that’s happening.

    But if the point of this survey is to highlight something we all do subconsciously, then I agree with it.

  2. This is an interesting post – right up my alley. Dreams can be interpreted many ways, however, this information is kind of a double-edge sword to me.

    Although it’s fantastic that people are driven to be successful and take pride in work to point of problem solving or creating in dreams. . . .it’s also data that’s somewhat indicative of career taking precedence over family – no?

  3. Dreams can be very therapeautic when it comes to cleansing the subconscious mind. But if one particular subject matter comes up again and again – it’s more indicative of a deep rooted problem than therpeautic.

    Surely wouldn’t classify it as “work” though.

  4. I would hate to dream about work. I rather have a fun and weird dream.

  5. I work as a stocker for a grocery store here in Atlanta. I never dream about work. I do sometimes have nightmares about it.

  6. Jenna, we’ve all had jobs like that at one point or another. 🙂

  7. I would have to agree that dreams can tell us where our priorities lie. Before I started working for myself, I too had some “nightmares” about my previous job. At the other end of the spectrum, good dreams can tell you if you are content and happy with your life.

  8. I agree with Chris-very interesting post. I feel a dream may be a signal showing you a problem or issue that needs to be resolved, or how you are reacting to the problem-all in the subconscious mind.


    I personally would not like to dream about working because working isn’t the ultimate goal for me. Now if we’re referring to dreaming about “my” business, then that’s different! I love thinking about my business and dreaming about it too! Every time I dream about my business, it’s always positive and motivates me even more. I guess you can say I forecast the fruitful results of my hard work and dedication on a regular basis to stay motivated, so my business quite naturally slips in my dreams!

    Dwayne Lattimore

  10. After ten years of Jungian analysis almost exclusively through dreamwork, I can testify that your comment that dreams are psychically necessary (but not necessarily work)…although we (as a planet) still do not understand exactly how dreams function, it is worth remembering that even the armidillo dreams…dreaming predated humans and has been with the life process a long, long time.

  11. I agree – dreaming about work can be a positive experience. Some of my best business ideas have come to me upon wakening.

    Also, some of my worst customers have come to me in nightmares!

  12. I don’t know if dreams enter this equation, but I’ve always found the alpha stage of sleep to be a great incubator for ideas and writing projects of all kinds. Many of my 56 books had their trigger points originated from grerminated thoughts, concentrated upon, just before drifting off to sleep. Habitually, I would awake in the morning and dash to my old IBM Selectric typewriter, eager to get these overnight brainstorms down on paper.

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