Writers & Their Sleep

This post is a part of an ongoing series entitled MIP {Man In Progress}. After my 25th Birthday I decided to improve three aspects of my life, one of those aspects was my physical well-being.  My philosophy is that a writer’s work and his life are irrevocably intertwined and in order to improve one, we inevitably have to improve the other.

On December 7, 2010 at 8:00 a.m., a conference room in Washington D.C. is crowded with women awaiting their next lecturer. At once, the crowd grows silent as Arianna Huffington, a writer, a media titan, and the founder of The Huffington Post–the second most viewed news site on the Internet–takes the stage and begins to share with the rest of the women in the room the secret to her phenomenal, meteoric success.

What is her secret?

One word.

Sleep.

Five years earlier, on a similar winter morning, I am sitting in an auditorium filled with dozens of other college students. We’re all waiting for Dr. Dement to appear. Dr. Dement, if you didn’t know, is the guy who discovered R.E.M. sleep. He also runs the most sought after and visited sleep clinic in the world.

I am taking his class, “Sleep & Dreams,” not out of my own personal interest, but to fulfill a mandatory degree requirement. At the moment, I am completely unaware of how Dr. Dement’s class is about to change the way I look at sleep forever.

At once, the auditorium grows silent as Dr. Dement saunters onto the stage. The Doctor is followed by an entourage of teaching assistants, making The Doctor look like the rock-star-version of a college professor.

As if it couldn’t get more surreal, when Dr. Dement finally takes center stage, the entire auditorium cheers him on. I even hear several people in the audience whistle and holler.

Gradually, the cheering dies down as Dr. Dement starts the class.

After The Doctor reviews some of the points he made the week before, he continues the day’s lecture in a somber tone. He begins by addressing the dangers of sleep deprivation. A stream of images is now projected on a giant screen behind him. First, he mentions the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster of 1986 and how, after an intensive investigation, it was discovered that the shuttle’s malfunction was largely due to lack of sleep. The managers who were overseeing the shuttle’s launch were too tired to catch their deadly mistakes. Then, Dr. Dement mentions the famous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989 and reveals that it, too, was caused by lack of sleep. In that case, it was the overworked and exhausted crew that eventually piloted the oil tanker straight into disaster. The giant screen behind The Doctor now displays the aftermath of several car accidents. The Doctor proceeds to explain how dozens of families have lost loved ones in these types of crashes. What caused these crashes? Not alcohol, not drugs, not even cell phone use–it was lack of sleep, he says.

Leaving this tremendous food for thought in each student’s head, The Doctor ends his class by leading the whole auditorium in shouting his sacred mantra: “DROWSINESS IS RED ALERT!”

A mantra that reminds us all that if we ever find ourselves driving too hard and too fast, and our eyes are closing in on us, that we should pull over in a safe area close by, park our car and go to sleep.

At last, Dr. Dement, the rock star professor, saunters off the stage as his entourage of teaching assistants scrambles after him and an auditorium full of college students cheers him on.

On a similar winter morning in December 2010, I am opening my laptop and starting the work of finishing the first draft of my novel.

But I find myself staring at the blank screen for what seems like two hours. I have nothing, absolutely nothing going through my mind. It’s no use. My brain is just not there. It’s gone. It checked out. I can’t even summon the effort to write. I look around the room. All is fuzzy. My eyes close for a moment, but they don’t open again. At last, a heavy warmth surrounds me, and my forehead falls onto the cool desk, while my arms wrap around my head like a blanket.

I fall asleep.

I don’t write a single word the rest of the day.

I am certain that at that moment, the living ghost of Dr. Dement was hovering over me, whispering something like: “Drowsiness… is… red… ALERT!”

Today, a month later, I am finally moved to action. I realize that if I want to nurture my creativity and live a more vibrant life, I HAVE to get a good night’s sleep.

Today, I am asking you, dear reader, to take the same pledge with me:

When life drives you hard and fast, and you feel your eyes closing in on you, I want you to promise me you will pull over, find a safe area close by, park yourself and go to sleep.

Not only will you have some sweet dreams, but you might even safe a life.

Your own.

much love,

Ollin

Here are some tips to help you get better sleep:

AMOUNT

The average person needs about 7-8 hours a night to stay fully alert and refreshed all day. (UPDATE: There was some confusion about the recommended amount of time, some people thought you should sleep 9 hours, unfortunately, recent research found that sleeping longer than 7.5 or 8 hours MAY actually be BAD for you. Read this to learn more.)

CONSISTENCY

Sleep at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time in the morning, even on the weekends. If you are not consistent, you’ll get less sleep than you need and you’ll risk building up a whole lot of “sleep debt.” An increased amount of sleep debt can lead to serious health problems down the line.

SLEEP IN TOTAL DARKNESS

Easiest way to make this happen is to wear a night mask. Read this to find out why sleeping in the dark is so important.

NO ALCOHOL OR CAFFEINE

Alcohol, caffeine, and even some teas will keep you up at night. Try to avoid them.

NO FOOD OR DRINK TWO HOURS BEFORE YOU SLEEP

If you’re like me, you know that having to go pee right at the moment you are falling into a deep sleep is the most annoying thing EVER. Avoid this by not drinking anything right before you go to bed.

RELAX

John Kabit-Zinn delights in noting that sleeping is one of the few things that humans do that requires us to exert the least amount of effort. Sleep requires that we do nothing. In a world where we always feel required to do something, this non-doing drives us crazy.

But, ironically, the only way to fall asleep is to stop trying to fall asleep.

HAVE A ROUTINE

A bedtime routine helps send a signal to your body that you are getting ready for sleep.

Try taking a hot bath, or reading an inspiring book right before you go to bed.

WARNING: Surfing the Internet and watching TV right before bed is not recommended. These activities actually over-stimulate your brain and this will likely disturb your sleep.

WEAR SOCKS

Turns out the temperature in our bedroom affects the way we sleep, too. A simple way to address this issue is to wear socks at night to help keep your feet warm. You can also make sure your heater or AC remains at the same temperature all night. About 70° degrees is what is often recommended.

WEAR EAR PLUGS

If you are a light sleeper, I recommend buying some earplugs to help shut out all the noise made by rowdy neighbors and roommates.

EXERCISE

Regular exercise is probably the easiest, quickest way to get better sleep.

GET HELP

If EVERYTHING on this list does not help you, you may have a serious sleeping condition. Talk to your doctor about treatment.

What do you do to make sure you get good night’s sleep? Do you also find that lack of sleep gets in the way of your writing?

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43 comments on “Writers & Their Sleep

  1. G E N E V I E V E says:

    What great timing. This was the very morning for me when my own head hit the desk. I got up at 4am but didn’t write a single word until nearly 5:30. I promise I will be more diligent in my chase of the ever-illusive aide, sleep. Thanks for this.

    • Ollin says:

      You’re welcome Genevieve! Isn’t funny how we tend to overlook an issue that seems to have nothing to do with writing, but really, it has A LOT to do with it? Good luck getting better sleep!

  2. T.S. Bazelli says:

    I sometimes have trouble falling asleep, especially when I’ve been writing before bed. This is a good reminder. I need to come up with a better sleep routine.

    • Ollin says:

      You know, you may have my problem. I had trouble getting to sleep, I would be up for a whole hour before I feel asleep. Then I realized that I actually needed less sleep than I thought I did. Apparently all i need is 7 hours a night. The amount differs for each person. Trying sleeping 8 and then try 7 and see which is better for you. You might find, like me, that you need less sleep then you think.

  3. WEAR SOCKS — I’ve always worn socks to bed! My husband thinks it’s funny — good to have scientific backing for my “eccentricity”. (My husband’s snoring is the reason I have to wear earplugs.)

    • Ollin says:

      I know right? I used to not wear socks at bedtime and then when I learned this trick, I realized that in the past, I often WOULD wake up because my feet would get cold. Wearing socks has definitely helped me. And keeping the temperature the same really helps, too.

  4. Ollin,
    Excellent, timely post. Sleep deprivation is such a chronic epidemic right now, it’s insane. Personally, my downfall is the Internet before bed. Not only does it make it tougher to fall asleep, it lulls me into thinking I’m “relaxing” which usually ends up keeping me up 1-2 hours later than I would stay up otherwise.
    It totally effects my writing too, because my “routine” involves getting up early to do my most creativity-intense work when I’m freshest. But if I stay up too late, that early time lessens or completely evaporates.
    Thanks again!

    • Ollin says:

      I totally know what you are talking about Justin. I had an obsession with News websites a while back. I used to consume endless amounts of news for hours and hours, with the excuse that I needed to be “informed.” But truly, it was an addiction. Every once in a while I do “binge,” I can’t help it, but now I know that it is bad for me. The awareness at least helps.

      But it used to keep me up all night worrying about the problems in the world I just could not control.

  5. Nikole Hahn says:

    As I was working today, suddenly my eyes began to try to close. I had the hardest time staying awake at my desk. I know I had enough sleep. I went to bed at a decent time. So…I took a long three mile walk in the sunshine and felt the crisp air tingle in my bones. Now I am awake.

    • Ollin says:

      Yes, if you read the article I linked to above, where I talk about sleeping in total darkness, it explains more in detail how the sunshine has a lot to do with our ability to feel awake.

      Turns out humans are not supposed to be up past sunset, the modern world and artificial light really screws us up.

  6. Ollin says:

    I loved it, and it was only 4 minutes! She is an incredibly talented woman. Great summation, again! You’re so good at that.

  7. sarah says:

    oh, sleep. yes, yes, yes.
    if only *to sleep or not to sleep* was a factor dependent only on myself.
    i look forward to functioning more fully when my three young children are a bit older.
    until then — i limp along, and try not to count the years that are probably sloughing off my life🙂

  8. jannatwrites says:

    I don’t get enough sleep (not enough hours in the day), but when I’m not getting anything done, I know it’s time to pack it in. I do wear socks, though – so I’m doing something right!

    Thanks for sharing the suggestions.

  9. 83October says:

    Ok this post hit me hard. My struggle with sleep has been a roller coaster ride. I don’t get much sleep at all.Insomia. I’m either sleeping during the wee hours of morning or waking up in the middle of my sleep. Back when i was a teenager i couldn’t care less, but these days I’ve seen its effects. I’m actually recovering from a series of illnesses and all caused by stressed and lack of rest.
    Great post. And i really think sleep gives us more clarity.

    • Ollin says:

      I’m sorry to hear that. I know how terrible not sleeping well gets to you. I hate it. You feel so unenthusiastic about everything. It really isn’t good.

      I hope you find peace with your sleep. Good luck!

  10. Pico says:

    This is such a timely post. I woke up this morning at 530 (without an alarm!) I even got out of bed and wandered around, but I knew if I actually started doing things from then, I was going to burn out by 9am. So I went back to sleep. Good decision, I think. Also a bit scary- am now driving longer distances on big roads to get around, often when I’m tired. I was looking at it as just something I needed to get used to. Bit terrifying, that attitude in retrospect. People take being tired as a badge of an honour- like ‘I’m so busy I never sleep, or I’m so hardcore I stay up til 5am.’ I’ve never seen it that way- I love my eight- nine hours and this has just brought it home to me not to ignore that.
    DROWSINESS IS RED ALERT!
    i.e. I take the pledge🙂

    • Ollin says:

      YES! Maybe we can start to change this. Let’s make NOT getting enough sleep a stigma. Let’s make it a badge of honor that we got 7-8 hours last night, and start to make sleep COOL again, right?

      Because the people who aren’t getting enough sleep aren’t cool. Their putting their own health on the line, and more seriously, they might be putting others in danger if they are driving and they are seriously sleep deprived.

  11. […] Writers and Their Sleep, by Ollin Morales […]

  12. Addy says:

    I don’t have a problem as yet with my sleep cycle! I fall asleep on dot! However I do agree that I sometimes do feel drowsy even though I get good sleep at night!!! Great post Olly!!!

    Best Wishes,
    Addy

  13. Awesome, I was just wasting time the last half hour trying to decide If I should turn in for the night (12:15) or edit my guest post for your blog. I’ll sleep🙂

  14. souldipper says:

    While studying the significance of REM sleep, our Psych prof was explaining the possible consequences of not experiencing our necessary quota of dream time. The lack of purging can lead to neuroses, psychoses, etc. Over coffee, during our break, sitting across from the prof, I suggested that dreams could be considered mental bowel movements. He nearly sprayed me! However, that is the significance. I don’t know if anything has changed, but he said that taking sleeping pills tampers with REM – and can lead to the same symptoms.

    So, Ollin, exhaustion is one red flag. Emotional health is another.

    Great post with a highly significant message. I question how we allow ourselves to reach such an exhaustive stage in the first place. This is a reminder to get honest!

    • Ollin says:

      Great thoughts souldipper. I didn’t go into the serious side effects but the list is exhaustive in itself, and like you said, it makes me wonder why people think lack of sleep is so cool and something to brag about. Crazy.

  15. Sleep is so important. I don’t sleep very well…but I am beginning to master the art of a Sunday afternoon nap every week.

  16. Kendra says:

    I think generally it is said that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep, not 7-8. I need 9, unfortunately – I often wish I only needed 7!

    • Ollin says:

      You know I remember Dr. Dement mentioning it was 7-9 hours. But in my recent research all I saw was 7-8. I figured they had changed it. But if you are right, then I am glad, I was write the first time!

  17. I can’t wear socks, hahahah. I’ve tried! Sometime through the night? They always end up off my feet and on the floor. Apparently I like to sleep sock-less.

    • Ollin says:

      Try knee length socks so they won’t fall off. Or if not, just keep things the same temperature. But if you don’t have a problem sleeping this may not apply to you. Hehe.

  18. […] My friend, a med-student, would keep telling me I’m too stressed.  That horrible week, plus Ollin’s (courage 2 create) post on sleep struck a chord. I’ve been an insomniac for most of my life. I’m constantly struggling […]

  19. Cities of the Mind says:

    I am an insomniac, born, so I try (and usually fail) to do everything on this list all the time. But I am an expert on not sleeping, and Ollin, you are 100% right about how important it is.

    • Ollin says:

      Are you sure you are not a teeth grinder? Does your jaw get sore? I had that problem about two years ago, turns out I just needed a mouthguard. You can get one at your local dentist it that is the case.

      Also I updated this to an article about how some insomniacs were cured by getting LESS sleep, turns out I was also getting more sleep than I needed. I’m still figuring this out, but I think I’m more a 7.5-8 guy than a 9 hours guy.

      If that doesn’t work, you might want to check if you have “sleep apnea,” if your sleep deprivation is really causing a lot of problems with your health. They have a one step procedure that Dr. Dement explained to us, and it dramatically changes people’s lives.

      Good luck!

  20. True dat. Years ago, my brother drove straight into a utility pole because he fell asleep while driving. He was perfectly sober, just sleep-deprived after weeks of burning the candle at both ends. (he was perfectly okay, by the way…couldn’t say the same for the car) Now that I work from home, I worry that I’m actually getting too much sleep for once in my life, but, regardless, my overall creativity, stress level, and skin have benefited greatly. I’ve as late been trying to cut down on caffeine consumption as well and have noticed a significant difference in the quality of my sleep—at the very least, I’ll swap coffee for yerba mate, which provides a healthier-feeling energy by day that doesn’t interrupt my sleep by night.

    • Ollin says:

      Oh my god! I’m glad your brother is okay.

      Really, it improves your skin! I never heard of that before. Nice. You have a link to an article that I can share?

      Whenever I drink coffee I am up the whole night. Literally. So I just stop drinking it.

      What’s Yerba Mate? I’d like to try it.

      • Aw, thank you—yes, thank God he was okay, just in shock at the time.

        Isn’t it wonderful that sleep can help our skin rejuvinate? I wasn’t thinking of an article in particular, but I did just find this one about it: http://www.skincare-news.com/a-2437-A_Good_Nightrsquos_Sleep_for_Great_Skin.aspx

        Mm, yerba mate…I first discovered it in Argentina; they drink it out of these little gourds through metal straws that have a filter at the end, which makes it very strong. I have it that way, too, sometimes, but more often I use a tea press. The only places I found it in the States were specialty tea stores (for loose leaves) or Trader Joe’s, which has it in tea bags. Now we order it by the half-kilo online – goyerbamate.com is one source. It supposedly has more antioxidants than green tea, and the energy it gives doesn’t feel like heart palpitations, which coffee always does for me🙂. And when it gradually wears off, it doesn’t make you feel lower than you started as coffee sometimes can as well. I recommend it! The flavor isn’t an immediate “Yum!”, but I acquired a fondness for it (best with a wee bit of sugar, or you can try a fruit-flavored kind).

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