Sleep Is Not My Friend
Sleep has never come easily to me. I remember being young, pre-secondary school, and having chronic insomnia, wide awake for hours. Letting my imagination run riot, planning things I would do when the day rolled around and the rest of the world finally woke. Sometimes getting bored. Sometimes lonely, sometimes anxious about an imagined catastrophe.
The hours move slowly during the night, when you’re there, lying silently. I remember being taken to the doctor eventually and him explaining to me carefully this was half a barbiturate and I was never to take more than that or I would go to sleep forever. I dutifully took my half each night. Zero difference.
As I’ve gotten older a good solid eight hours has always eluded me. I remember going on holiday twice and being fairly tired and sleeping for 14 hours solid on those occasions. Seven hours is a good night for me. When I’m very active, it drifts back to six hours. When I get to six I start to feel a little wired. I get into a slowly descending loop, tiredness feeding off itself and making me more tired.
How Much Sleep?
I read an article two days ago on Elon Musk being a workaholic and him – shock – only sleeping six hours a night. Uh-oh I thought. Six hours sleep is not enough. And I have no desire to have any shared characteristics with Elon, not even his money. It’s well documented that a number of long term health issues derive from lack of sleep. Also mental health issues affecting focus, depression, mood and others. I dived off into the Harvard Medical School resource as I wrote this and found an even longer list of health issues, see here – if you’re not worried already about your lack of sleep, this will sort it out for you.
I sleep better when I exercise more. Correction, when I cycle more. Last year I cycled more than at any time in my life and my average crept up to seven hours. Gym training isn’t the same, a tough session has me thrashing around in bed, muscle fibres ablaze.
Sleep: My Reality
1,149 nights ago I started to use the Sleep Cycle app which tracks my sleep from my bedside iPhone through the microphone. It’s sort of accurate. I say sort of because I can get up in the night for the bathroom and when I check the data next morning it shows I was asleep. But it’s directionally good, at least I have trend data to work with.
Over the tracked days I go to bed at 10:48 on average, which is an hour before the UK average. My sleep quality is 79% which is ahead of the 77% UK average; I struggle to believe that, it’s an insult to my insomniac tendency. I snore for 19 minutes, three minutes more than the UK average. Over the last year my average sleep per night was 6 hours 26 minutes. Not Elon, but not great.
Lifestyle affects sleep: exercise, work, personal life, season, weather, stress, caffeine, stimulation. A lot of discussion on the subject centres on negative events causing lack of sleep. My sleep does reduce when I’m feeling good about life, my mind gets energised by the possibilities and that keeps me awake. My brain churns and throw endless subjects out and then analyses them fifteen different ways each.
Sleep Factors To Consider
I’m in a low sleep mode this month, I’m now a smidgeon over six hours average because I’m enjoying what I’m doing at work, plus my new venture. Intellectual overstimulation I guess. I go to bed, wake up thinking I’ve been asleep for hours, when in fact I have only slept for 90 minutes. Then back to sleep and then wake at two-ish. I always like to wake up at 3:15 plus or minus five minutes no matter what time zone I’m on. On some nights I can see most hours of the night on my bedside radio clock. Quite a few times I have been up at five, simply bored with lying there.
Now this can’t continue, but equally the habits of a lifetime won’t change. From this point onwards only minor adjustments can be made. I live in an urban environment, so a quiet night is never going to be possible. I live near a hospital, fire station and police station therefore sirens are a given. Sometimes hovering police helicopters.
Blacked out rooms make me uncomfortable and are not conducive to good sleep for me. I need to be able to see the monster exiting the wardrobe. So there is always a bit of light in the room. Indeed when I travel to different time zones, I leave the curtains open to help me adjust to the time zone. Except for my last visit to San Francisco when leaving the blinds open meant a floodlit pair of 20 foot high shiny domed plastic surgeons were peering in my room from their billboard.
Time To Act
I switched the display off the radio last night, I’m such a numbskull it never occurred to me that was an option. It helped, the tyranny of the digital clock can be invidious. I’m going to leave my iPad out of the room, kill the blue light stimulation off. But I’m conflicted about the phone as it tracks my sleep, so I’ll use flight mode.
I did think about cutting back caffeine, I drink 4-6 cups of coffee a day. I generally don’t drink it after early afternoon. Sometimes with dinner at a good restaurant. I don’t want to cut back, so if it’s the coffee causing it then hello my good friend insomnia, we are in this for life. I dumped alcohol almost a year ago and that brings more quality sleep when it does occur (easily measured with heart rate variability).
This is a pretty feeble revolution so far. I’m going to cast out my iPad and turn of my clock radio digital display. My third offer is to restart my daily meditation practice, I only got to day 14 of 21 days of Calm before becoming less calm and forgetting to do it. Some mindfulness practice might help. I’ve don’t eat heavily in the evening, so that helps. Reading something non-business before bed helps, so the Kindle is fully loaded and ready to go.
Make A Choice
The best change of all is taking action to do something. Even a handful of small actions. Being aware of a dimension of your life you want to improve is a positive in itself, it shows you’re paying care and attention to yourself. It’s a healthy practice to exist in the world on the terms you want to exist on, rather than being washed through life by your environment. Easy to say, we don’t always get a choice. But even in a less than optimal situation, it’s your choice to carve out even tiny areas where you can influence your wellbeing for the better.
Let me report back in a while. It’s night 1,150 tonight, who knows what will happen?
Also published on Medium.