I burst into sobs. The alarm has just gone off. My poor husband snaps awake to two urgent inputs, his chirping phone and his crying wife. I’ve been awake since 4:00 AM and I’ve slept maybe twelve hours in the last three days. It’s a fight and I’m losing it.
We’re under an unusual amount of stress. We’ve just moved, a chaotic process that is not quite finished, and our dog is in the midst of a serious veterinary crisis that has him up and whining several times throughout the night. Our upstairs neighbors are active from 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM or later every night of the week, and they start their day by launching into vigorous housework. Their blender, washing machine, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and vacuum cleaner have all been running eight feet over our bed by the time the clock strikes 8. I take a day off to try to nap, and coincidentally the maintenance crew runs an air compressor twenty feet outside our door from 8 AM to 5 PM. Plus a second air compressor about a hundred yards away just for good measure.
“I feel like a desperate, wounded animal,” I text to my husband.
I rack my brain, trying to think where I can go, just anywhere I can get away and sleep somewhere silent, even for an hour. I consider burying myself in sand at the beach nearby. I consider dragging a comforter to the laundry room and trying to stretch out on the floor. I run through nearby hotels and motels, realizing of course that the middle of the day is the time when maid services throughout the world are running their vacuum cleaners.
My hands shake. My hands shake all day.
I’m so tired that I somehow bonk my head on the bathroom door while standing still. I stumble and trip on the sidewalk. I’m so tired that I can barely walk in a straight line.
I try again to take a nap. I’m startled awake by the 77-decibel sound of the neighbor child jumping onto what is their floor and our ceiling. Either he’s jumping off the last few steps of their staircase or he’s leaping off a piece of furniture. This happens unpredictably multiple times a day, often several times in a row, anywhere from 8 AM to 8 PM. There’s no way it’s as loud in their home as it is in ours. Nobody could survive the demands of parenting under that kind of constant bombardment.
The first couple of days, I pray for two consecutive nights of decent sleep. Then I realize what I really need is two consecutive hours.
Sleep deprivation can drive a person insane. I feel a kinship with a homeless man in our neighborhood, who often walks down the sidewalk shouting at nothing. Trying to sleep outdoors in a city or in other loud places, like a shelter or a jail, must feel this way all the time. A fractured, fitful few hours at best. An exhaustion that settles into your bones, a weariness that feels like it will never end.
People who are sound sleepers have a lot of trouble getting their heads around this. My husband knows, because we’ve been together for twelve years and he’s had to chase me through the house during the occasional episode of pavor nocturnus. Otherwise, he’s one of the lucky ones. He can sleep under almost any conditions and slumber through bright lights and loud noise. I’ve seen him fall asleep before his head has actually reached the pillow several times. He’s an extreme lark and a heavy sleeper, and his hearing isn’t so great. This is probably true of a lot of people who have no idea how many noises they aren’t registering.
Me? I can hear myself blink. I can hear my eyelashes brushing against the pillowcase. I once woke up because I heard a spider’s footsteps, and sat up to see it crawling toward my face. Don’t believe me? I have a witness, a female friend who happened to be in the room while I took a nap.
I buy a special eye mask with built-in speakers, designed specifically for light sleepers, people who work the night shift, business travelers, and others of my ilk. I try a sleep hypnosis app and various types of white noise, such as ocean waves. It’s a great product but it’s helpless against the 63-decibel spin cycle of the upstairs washing machine.
Our dog finally gets through his illness, with the help of five separate veterinary drugs. He starts sleeping through the night again. He sets his favorite toy next to my foot and wags his tail. I start sleeping closer to six hours a night instead of four.
At this point I’m probably operating under a sleep deficit of at least twenty hours.
What I want to know is, why do so many people choose to stay up and deprive themselves of sleep voluntarily? What is behind sleep procrastination? Why would anyone who has a quiet room and a soft, warm bed stay up binge-watching TV, playing games, reading, or anything other than getting a full night’s rest? Why do people do it to themselves?
I try to look at my situation as an opportunity to become more robust. If I can learn to sleep here, I can sleep anywhere. If I ever want to fulfill my dream of traveling the world, it will be really helpful if I can sleep under conditions of jet lag, erratic schedules, and culture shock. Eventually, I’ll be tired enough that I’ll start sleeping through my neighbor’s laundry cycle. Eventually, I’ll be able to rest my weary head on my pillow and be asleep before 10 PM every night. At some point, either I’ll be getting enough sleep to survive or it’ll be time for us to move house again. Sleep, sleep and plenty of it, is my sole priority in life right now.
Those in the world who, like my upstairs neighbors, seem to be able to get by on fewer than eight hours every night, those people should pause a moment in gratitude. They should pause another moment and double-check that they don’t have downstairs neighbors. Those who, like me, are chronically tired, should maybe pause and see whether they have underestimated their opportunities. If anyone out there has a chance to spend more time in the dream world, spend an extra hour there for me.
Winter is here, in case you haven’t noticed. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means short days, long nights, and icky weather. Well, as far as I remember. The city where I live is south of every single city in Europe; we’ve only had to kick our heater on for a few hours over the past few weeks. That’s exactly why I live here. It’s a lot easier to be active when it’s bright and the weather is nice. Take that into consideration when you set your health and fitness goals for the year. Probably, it’s better to focus on getting your pajama body right now.
Gyms and magazines play on our emotions. They try to convince us that buying what they’re selling can get us the results that their models achieved by training several hours a week for years on end. I’m here to tell you that those photos are in fact real, and the people in them are, too. Here in Southern California, everywhere you go there are genuine actors, models, professional athletes, stunt people, dancers, and fitness trainers just buying groceries and getting into their cars. It really is possible for real humans, even those of us of grandparenting age, to reach those goals. It just isn’t possible overnight.
Don’t worry about that for now. Let’s talk about how you, too, can get your pajama body.
The first thing is to respect the season. If it’s cold and yucky out, and you can’t bear going out there, skip winter. Train in the spring, summer, fall, or whenever you are most likely to do it. Don’t skip the entire year just because the weather is so foul right now. Hanging out in your pajamas every night for a few months of the year is perfectly respectable. There’s plenty of time during the rest of the year to get yourself out there.
If you’re a beginner, set yourself up for success. You want to lecture your ego and prepare yourself emotionally to just do iddle-biddle baby steps. If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to pace yourself. A huge part of this is respecting the sleep schedule that you have right now. Don’t expect yourself to train AND suddenly start waking up an hour or ninety minutes early. If you’re used to scraping by on 5-6 hours a night, and you suddenly start working out, your body is going to insist on at least 8 hours. Possibly more. Professional athletes are extremely disciplined about their sleep, and many of them sleep more than twelve hours a night. You’d better believe that they have their pajama bodies!
Sleep is when the body repairs tissues, removes junk cell debris, and builds new cells. The longest session of fourth-stage sleep happens in the last cycle, at the end of the rest period. Most of us never even get that last, long sleep cycle because we’re simply not staying asleep long enough. If you sleep less than eight hours, you cheat yourself of that. The result is chronic exhaustion, inflammation, pain, irritability, loss of concentration, poor memory, and lowered immune response. Nobody would do that on purpose. We just aren’t taught as much about it as the professionals, who earn their living based on their physical performance.
How can we possibly believe we can get the same results as someone who behaves in a completely different way?
The weird thing is that pro athletes don’t just sleep more than we do, they also eat a heck of a lot more than we do. Training gives you a real appetite, and more importantly, it drives the thirst that the average person does not feel or respect or supply. Drinking vast amounts of water is another thing that the professionals do that we don’t. They do it for their energy level, they do it because it makes their skin look dewy and fresh, and mostly they do it because they’re so thirsty they can’t not do it. The only way to get enough sleep and enough water, though, is to start guzzling it right when you first wake up. Otherwise, if you wait to drink until you feel thirsty later in the day, you’ll wind up waking yourself up throughout the night.
My favorite thing to do while wearing my pajamas is to curl up and read. This is an ideal way to start studying up. If you want to train, if you’re tired of having a kink in your neck, if you’re tired of groaning every time you stand up, it’s a great idea to learn a bit first. Look at one of those cool anatomical charts and learn the names of some of your muscle groups. Skim through new recipes and allow your natural curiosity to guide you toward something with a little more green in it, maybe? Watch some videos of people doing the thing you’re interested in doing. When you do start with those small daily steps, you’ll do it with a bit more context, and your newfound knowledge will help to make the work more interesting.
You’ve got the pajamas, right? They’re super comfy? You’re giving yourself permission to sleep more, and figuring out how to shift things around in your schedule so that you can get more quality rest. This is a big deal, because when you do start to train, after the weather turns, you’re going to love those pajamas more than you ever have. The thing about training hard is that after your session, you get to lie around guilt-free. You kinda have to. If you’ve pushed yourself hard enough, you’ll be so wiped out that you’ll need a long nap afterward. It’s like first breakfast, get dressed, second breakfast, train, first lunch, shower, second lunch, nap. Your pajamas are going to get more of a workout than they’ve ever known.
All right, are you ready? Are you ready to get that pajama body? Do you have big dreams of big dreams? Well, what are you waiting for? Plan your next nap right now. I’ll see you when the sun comes out.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
I'm standing in my kitchen, shaking and crying in my underwear. Why? I just woke up and I can't figure out how I got here. My poor husband has had to chase me down because I have this annoying tendency to run through the house screaming in my sleep. This has been going on for years and I have no idea what to do. Guilt crashes over me. I've woken up my life mate on a work night yet again. He doesn't deserve this. What is wrong with me? WHY THIS?
If you ever get caught up by worries late at night, believe me, I know what you mean.
Fortunately, I figured out that my problem was pavor nocturnus. Through diligent, meticulous tracking of every health variable I could think of, I learned that my problem was manageable mostly through timing when I eat. It's best if I don't eat within three hours of bedtime, and I try to avoid overeating at dinnertime. Running and intense, strenuous cardio, with a minimum duration of 45 minutes per session, also really helps. In nearly three and a half years, it's only happened twice. Another factor has to do with the things that tend to preoccupy me late at night.
My husband and I share certain alerts and reminders on our phones. One of them is a chime that comes up at 9 PM. It comes with a reminder that reads: "Moratorium on news or household business."
The reason for this is that if I start thinking about these topics after this time of night, I get completely wound around the axle. Usually I won't be able to fall asleep until 2 or 3 AM. Often I wind up thrashing and moaning in my sleep throughout the night, flailing my arms and reminding my husband yet again why we have this conversational boundary. Once my sleep starts to deteriorate, it rapidly declines. The worse it gets, the worse it gets. Without discipline, my stress levels make life very hard for both of us.
Why news? That should be somewhat obvious. Almost anything considered newsworthy is either alarming, dark, depressing, scary, bloody, explosive, or otherwise intellectually stimulating. If I want to read or discuss the news late at night, it needs to be restricted to tested topics that work for me. That includes tech news, medical innovations, good news, humor, and anything to do with cute or funny animals. Anything else, we're postponing until daylight. I'm a total news junkie and I trust myself not to miss anything. My awareness of it just needs to be restricted to the hours of 7 AM to 9 PM.
Why household business? I will get completely spun up about anything I can't handle immediately. Making phone calls, scheduling appointments, making travel arrangements, any kind of noisy cleaning or home repairs, all fall under the category of Can't Do at Night. I like to get things done as soon as they hit my to-do radar, especially if they can be done in under five minutes, so I can preserve my precious mental bandwidth. When I start thinking about stuff I need to do at a time when I can't move forward and get it done, for some reason, it eats me alive. I'm efficient enough that there's no reason to discuss this stuff after 9 PM. Assuredly, it can wait.
We're middle-aged empty nesters. It's pretty easy for us to maintain a rhythm in our daily life. At the end of the work day, we both do a total brain dump, sharing every interesting thing we heard, saw, or read all day. We text and email each other off and on all day, every day, sometimes even when we're sitting right next to each other. At dinner, we do our gratitude practice. We talk about future plans, travel, upcoming visits from friends, and projects we want to do. On Saturday, we have Status Meeting. That's when we deal with anything business-related, like moving money between accounts, booking tickets, or other annoying bureaucratic details of life. We basically never stop talking to each other. That's why we need this reminder to pop up that certain topics are now canceled until tomorrow.
Mental bandwidth is the entire key to feeling in control of your life. It's really stressful to feel burned out, confused, frantic, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied all the time. What we want is peace of mind. There can be no true peace of mind for a person who is chronically sleep deprived. Take it from me, the crazy girl crying in her nightgown because she can't figure out how she wound up four rooms away from where she went to sleep. Sleep is something you want in your life, the more the better!
How do we restore mental bandwidth and find that elusive peace of mind? A big part of it is feeling that we can trust our own mind to handle everything that needs to be handled. For this, I recommend what I call the "101 List." This is doing a brain dump on paper. Write down every last single minor tiny thing that you can think of that needs doing. Whether that's mailing a letter, scheduling an appointment, cleaning out your car, or oiling a squeaky hinge, write it all down. Keep this list, and continue to add anything else to it that pops into your mind later on. Over time, you can gradually learn to trust this list to retain everything you used to have to try to memorize. The other piece of this, besides just tracking all the details of your life, is to TAKE ACTION and get some of this stuff handled. I try to do at least one non-routine task every day to keep it from building up. Really, almost all of this stuff can be handled in under ten minutes, and some can be delegated. There's no reason to let it all clutter up our poor worried minds.
Another piece of mental bandwidth has to do with settling emotional conundrums. So much of our nightly tossing and turning has to do with upsetting events we can't seem to resolve. DO NOT DO THIS AT NIGHT. Try to figure it out during daylight hours, out of doors and in motion if you can do it. Everything seems a hundred times worse late at night. Why this is, I don't know, but it's true. Don't do that to yourself. Build some kind of routine where you are only chasing your own tail about dark emotional stuff while... going for a walk, listening to cheerful music, scrubbing the bathtub, or something else physical and constructive. It really helps.
There you have it. If you get worried at night, the reason is almost entirely because you worry AT NIGHT. Catch yourself in the act. Bring your attention to it. You're not alone; this is a near-universal problem. When you get in bed, think hypnotic words to yourself such as SLEEPY, DROWSY, COZY, CUDDLE, SNUGGLE. Right before bed, look at cute photos, maybe of sleepy baby animals. Fill your mind with things that make you smile. Sufficient unto the day is the bad news thereof. As your sleep quality improves, it becomes easier to relax and let go of the torments of worrying at night.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
It's been a week, so I think it's safe to say that I dodged it. I didn't get my mom's cold. She was coming down with a sore throat and a cough when I got to town a few days before Thanksgiving. We spent a week and a half together. We hugged. We sat together at meals. We sat together on the couch. I went running in the rain and cold. I came and went via two international airports and sat on four planes. I touched doorknobs. I rode several buses and trains. Every opportunity came up for me to get sick, but I didn't. Past experience has me convinced that this is because of reasons, which I will now share.
I used to come down with everything. It felt like I had a runny nose at least three months out of every year for my entire life. I had to get an inhaler once because I had a respiratory infection and wound up coughing up blood. Over the last few years, it seemed that every time I got even the most minor cold, it would go straight to bronchitis. I figured I just had "weak lungs" or something.
Then I decided to question this idea. I have an immune system, don't I? It can theoretically be weakened or strengthened, can't it? There's no cost to trying to strengthen it, is there?
There are four changes I have made, to which I attribute my stronger resistance.
Sleep. I have a parasomnia disorder, so I never felt that my sleep was within my circle of influence. Learning to sleep a solid eight hours a night has revolutionized my life. I used melatonin supplements on a timer for several years, and now I can sleep without assistance.
Vegetables. When I started tracking my micronutrient consumption, I was very surprised to discover that I was low in a couple of nutrients. How could I possibly be eating as many as 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and still be short on anything? The secret is that each fruit and each vegetable has a slightly different nutritional profile, and they are not interchangeable. I learned to plan meals around what I was missing with the help of the MyFitnessPal app and some careful research. (Example: foods rich in potassium) I did a ten-day juice fast last month. Oh, and I started drinking a mug of hot water with the juice of one fresh lemon in it several mornings a week.
Washing my hands a little longer. I decided to time myself washing my hands. My default wasn't as long as recommended, so I decided to spend 20% longer scrubbing with soap.
Not touching my eyes or nose. I asked a coworker once why he never seemed to get sick. He promptly responded, "I never touch my eyes." I had never thought of this as an issue before, and I started to realize that I rubbed my eyes all the time. Now I am very aware when I am in public places that this unconscious habit is a quick route for germ introduction.
The first two of these changes affect my immune system. The second two affect my exposure to the human environment.
The thing about health advice is that everyone knows what to do. We just don't like doing it. We're never going to tell ourselves, "Oh, I know I should be going to bed earlier, but I'd rather stay up playing this game and just get the cough that will last three weeks." Or, "Getting a cold is totally worth not having to eat anything green most days of the week." We accept illness as fate.
The other thing about health advice is that we aren't always aware of things that our doctors might assume we know. For instance, I never knew that the spleen plays a role in the immune system until I started researching how to get sick less often. I did know that the spleen does not like processing sugar or fat. It makes sense to me that switching more of my food intake to vegetable matter would also reduce the amount of sugar and fat that I eat. Vegetables are valuable for what they contain, and also for what they displace or drive off our plates. Cabbage, not rice; kale, not pasta; chard, not breakfast cereal; cauliflower, not bread; sweet potatoes, not bagels.
To get into the world of woo-woo a little, not everyone wants to be well all the time. Getting sick is an escape hatch. Especially for people with poor boundaries who get little privacy, a bout with a cold can be a way to be alone, catch up on sleep, and maybe do a bit of reading. Being ill gives us a chance to be waited on for once, rather than waiting on other people all the time. Being the strong one means you get stuck with more than your fair share of drudgery. I've always tried to be really conscious of this with my husband, who has only been sick a couple of times in the decade I've known him. No matter how sick I might be, I still put my clothes in the hamper, put my trash in the wastebasket, and put my dishes in the dishwasher. The worst case scenario at our house is that the bathroom doesn't get cleaned for an extra week. But then, I make my own schedule, and I see getting ill as 100% unpleasant and unnecessary.
To toss one other idea out there, I think there's more to dust than just dust. My clients tend to get sick and stay sick, with the adults and kids coughing and sniffling for three to six weeks at a time. Sometimes this happens several times each winter. There seem to be three parts to this: the "I don't feel like cooking" diet, the lack of schedule/solid sleep, and the coating of biofilm on every surface. Squalor means living with mold, mildew, dust, cardboard particles, and usually a lot of pet hair and dander. My clients tend to resist dusting or vacuuming because "it stirs up the dust!" (And "the cat hates it.") I cut back on my home visits because I would always have sneezing fits during jobs, and sometimes my eyes would get all red and puffy as well. If I'm having respiratory reactions within minutes of walking in your front door, how are you breathing in there night and day? The risk of acting on this hypothesis is quite low. If you deep-clean the entire place and still get sick, it didn't cost anything and at least the house is clean.
First, do no harm. I'm certainly no doctor. I'm just an average person who used to get sick a lot and now does not. As I get older, I feel like I'm aging in reverse. I'm healthier and more energetic than I was twenty years ago. It feels worth sharing my ideas for other people to test or to disregard. There are no real downsides to getting more sleep, eating more vegetables, washing your hands slightly longer, avoiding touching your eyes, or deep-cleaning your house. The downsides of having a cold don't necessarily feel all that bad unless you're in the midst of one. Maybe that's why so many people go out in public and cough all over the place. Here's to not being one of those people.
Every so often, it happens. I find myself stuck in a negative habit pattern, and, despite the fact that I know I am annoying myself, I can't seem to turn it around. This is when I do a "reset." I make a firm decision that enough is enough. Then I go through a brief, concerted period of focus until I'm back where I want to be. This particular time, I needed to reset my sleep habits.
I identify as a night owl. I started having insomnia problems at age seven. It's always been a struggle for me to wake up early, and I'm slow and dopey for the first couple of hours after I wake up. Still, sleeping during the day is not a viable lifestyle for me, even though I set my own schedule. It's hotter and brighter, and the leaf blowers and lawn mowers start up early. At my current house, I live across the street from a school. When my natural tendency to stay up late starts creeping up on me again, I wind up sleeping about three fewer hours per night. Enough to get by, but not enough to make me sleepy enough to go to bed earlier. Hence, the need for the reset.
I had been up until 4 AM and hadn't been able to fall asleep easily. My husband wakes up at 5, so clearly it was high time for me to do the reset. I set the alarm for 8:30 AM and made myself get up. The priority at this point is to STAY AWAKE until at least 8 PM. Taking even a brief nap spoils the reset, meaning I have to try it again.
Note that a reset for any habit will only work when you are fully convinced that you are DONE with the self-annoying habit. This is not a willpower thing. It's a decision thing. Gradual transitions don't work well for me; I get too impatient. I'd much rather push myself hard and get something over with quickly, like ripping off a bandage.
When my alarm went off, I was so tired I felt nauseated. This seems to be a blood sugar thing for me; I started having it when I was maybe six years old. I know it goes away, though, so I got up and had some tea. I was fine for a few hours.
There are two methods to fight drowsiness: physical activity and natural sunlight. I have been known to walk as much as seven miles on a reset day, just to keep moving and be out in daylight. For a sleep pattern reset, outdoor natural lighting is a major factor in regulating sleep and wake hormones. Given adequate nutrition and hydration, hormones will get the job done, unless, like me, you are a Type A workaholic who has trouble deciding to shut down at the end of the day.
As far as physical activity, I always use a reset day to do low-level tasks. This includes regular housework, but also nitpicky details like wiping down baseboards, dusting the tops of door frames, and wiping down cabinets. The common reaction is to believe (not just say, but believe) that I Am Too Tired For That. I look at it from the contrarian perspective that I Will Not Waste a High Energy Day on Scutwork. I do at least minimal housework even when I have the flu. No matter how sick or tired I am, I can still drop clothes in the hamper, I can still put a dish in the dishwasher, and I can still put things in the recycling bin or trash can. On days when I'm feeling great and bursting with creativity, I can put all my focus on that and have fun, because nothing else needs to get done. Why on earth would I spoil a day when I'm feeling good with a backlog of chores?
Part of this involves differentiating between System One and System Two types of tasks. My work is almost entirely System Two, needing to concentrate hard and not being able to work with distractions. I need to beat back the System One tasks so they don't drain my mental bandwidth. System One includes all housework, most mending and repair work, almost all mail, most filing, some phone calls, and a surprising amount of computer work. In my case that means skimming email, updating spreadsheets, organizing photos, formatting images, loading stuff on my blog, bookmarking news articles, and several other routine tasks. If I can listen to a podcast and do the task effectively at the same time, it's System One.
The great thing about a reset is the day after. I wake up well rested at a reasonable hour. That's reason enough to do the reset. Ah, but then there are the bonus externalities. My house is gleaming. The weird little tasks on my 101 List are caught up. I've even blasted through my podcast queue. I've chosen one of two possibilities.
What comes naturally. Fall into a rut and get stuck there. Feel a very, very low level of energy. Be distracted by things I wish didn't annoy me, but they do. Feel like every day is like yesterday and that tomorrow will be more of the same. Start to doubt my ability to do anything in life. Feel sorry for myself. Wish I hadn't been "born this way" or that this hadn't "happened to me." Ah, me, what am I to do?? This is the fixed mindset trying to hypnotize me into a lesser life.
Bias toward action. Know that nobody but me can do anything about this situation. Probably nobody other than me cares, either. Get up and move my body. Take even the tiniest actions that will improve mine or anyone else's life in even the smallest way. Feel convinced that I have the power to control my attitude, my behavior, and my personal environment. Feel proud of my stamina and drive, both of which I am strengthening by facing challenges. Give thanks to my mentors for all the memoirs and biographies from which I have drawn examples. Look for the "level-up." I didn't "feel like it" and I wasn't "in the mood" - but I DID IT. I got through it. I've done it before, in fact I've been through worse, and I can do it again if I need to.
Resets can be useful in many situations. Another sleep-related one is taking NyQuil during a cold; I have trouble sleeping for two or three days after using NyQuil for even one night. Other reset opportunities include overeating (skip breakfast, drink water, eat vegetables); stomach bug (take probiotics for ten days); jet lag; messy house (turn on radio, clean all day); clearing out a storage unit; or breaking a dependency on a pharmaceutical (nasal spray, maybe?). Not all resets can be done in one day, but many can. A short reset can be good psychological preparation for a longer reset. (Weight loss, demolishing debt, remodeling a room).
The point of a reset is that I feel like I need one. A secondary benefit is that a reset reminds me that I don't need perpetual problems in my life. Almost all problems can be dealt with cleanly and quickly. Tolerating a lower quality of life means that I GET a lower quality of life. I won't settle for annoying myself or disappointing myself. Let's get started and get this over with quickly.
New Year's Resolutions aren't something most people are thinking about in September of any given year. That's because most people don't choose goals that they find so interesting they'll still want to work on them nine months later. Well, some people do, and those goals are called "babies." I figure if someone can make an entire human being in nine months, then surely I can make at least minor progress on something less significant! I keep a written list and make sure to check in at least quarterly. Do the goals I chose on New Year's Eve still matter to me? Am I putting in the effort that Future Self wishes I would?
The first resolution, my Most Obvious Thing, is to earn more money. This goal has expanded into a new direction, which is that my husband and I are now assiduously working on becoming financially independent. I should have my student loans paid off by the end of next year, a few years early, and at that point we will be completely debt-free. We were introduced to a spreadsheet that shows that anyone at any income level can become financially independent by saving a specific percentage of income for a designated period of time. Metrics are very motivating for me, and we've both been galvanized by this concept that has an exact dollar amount attached to it. Something specific to work toward by a set date. It's like training for a marathon, only you're not as sweaty at the end.
My second goal was to work on my fear of public speaking. I joined Toastmasters. When I started, I would wake up every Wednesday morning with a pit of dread in my stomach. Just walking in the door of the meeting room scared me, much less being called on to do an impromptu speech. My legs would shake so much I could barely walk back to my seat. Six months later - total transformation! Apparently I am "a very witty, sophisticated comedian." I've won a best speaker ribbon and three for best table topics. Who knew impromptu speaking would become my strong point? I came in second place in our humorous speech competition, against much more seasoned speakers, and I placed higher than an actual stand-up comic. Someone even suggested that I perform at a local open-mic comedy night! The most bizarre part is that it actually sounded fun and like something I would do well.
UPDATE: I spoke again the day this was posted. I won another Best Speaker ribbon!
My next resolution was to work on cross-training. I wasn't even sure exactly what I was looking for, just that I knew it was time to level up physically and that most of what I needed was information. I finally joined my husband's gym and did a package with a personal trainer. His focus is on corrective training and rehabilitation, and we worked on my lingering ankle issue. It turns out to be referred pain from a hip stability issue and tight calves. I learned that many of my go-to exercises were exacerbating some chronic tension issues. I now have a very clear idea of exactly where to focus, a depressing image of my actual vs. ideal posture, and a set of corrective exercises to do. I've gotten much better results from the trainer than I did in six months of physical therapy, where they focus on the precise area of pain but don't spend much time on broader structural issues. It also turns out that I'm not so great at proprioception, or the sense of where my body parts are at any given moment, and that's why I keep crashing into things. Weight training and yoga are really helping with this. Also working out next to a mirror and having a partner (my husband) guide my wandering limbs back into proper position.
I wanted to be able to run again. It's been two years, but... I ran! Just a little bit, a run-walk to the gym, to test my ankle. I told my husband last night, "I'm going to start running again next month," and surprised us both by bursting into tears.
I had a goal to make a new friend. One day, I was walking through downtown, and I happened to run into someone from my Toastmasters club. He said, "Hello, friend!" I was so surprised and happy I almost fell down. Little did he know he had granted my wish. Also, we went to World Domination Summit this summer and made some real connections there. I still need to keep pushing myself to show up, to answer my email, and to check in on Facebook, where I have been a virtual non-presence all year.
Still not taking melatonin, and still able to sleep without it. WINNING!
After twenty years, I somehow find myself able to eat spicy food again without giving myself an instant migraine. I have no idea how this happened, but I'll take it. I've been putting chili sauce in my food, eating jalapeños, and gradually starting to trust that I am now "allowed" to eat what used to be a trigger food. (Gut flora? Spleen function? Adequate consumption of micronutrients?)
This is a big part of why I keep written records of my goals and my attempts to meet them. It helps me to take notice of other wins that come up throughout the year. Anyone who is lucky enough to sleep without thinking about it, or fearlessly enjoy spicy food, should pause to be grateful for that. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everything comes easily to everyone. After all these years of making and keeping my New Year's Resolutions, I've come to realize that most things are far more amenable to positive change than is generally believed.
Here is the FI spreadsheet link: http://www.madfientist.com/financial-independence-spreadsheet/
Imagine passing out from exhaustion and breaking your face on your desk. Arianna Huffington famously collapsed and broke her cheekbone after a string of eighteen-hour days. This was her moment of clarity, and she started taking her need for rest more seriously. Since publicizing her story, she has met other women to whom the exact same thing happened. There is something seriously wrong with a culture that promotes overwork to the extent that 'work until you break your face' becomes some sort of micro-trend. The Sleep Revolution aims to expose this and encourage all of us to get the sleep we need.
Most sleep manuals spend the majority of the text focused on the personal impacts of sleep issues. I know, because I read most of them as I sought a solution for my little "run through the house screaming in my sleep" problem. Even one night of sleep deprivation is enough to make it hard to think about much else besides crawling under a fluffy comforter. Or a desk. Or a park bench. Or anything, really, if I could just lie down for a few minutes... We don't realize the societal impact of hundreds of millions of people staggering through their days, exhausted, burned-out, distracted, and driving in the lane next to us. The statistics on how many drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel are terrifying. That alone should scare us all into going to bed earlier.
Speaking from experience, getting enough sleep really is revolutionary. It makes me a little crazy when I hear people talking about their sleep procrastination habits. You mean you could fall asleep whenever you want, and you're tired because you chose to stay up late?? No movie or book is that good. No game is that much fun. Nothing on social media is going to disappear before tomorrow. I was 34 before I started to be able to sleep as much as I needed every night. Do not throw that gift away! If you do have insomnia or parasomnia issues like I did, I promise, if someone like me could overcome something like pavor nocturnus, there is a solution for your sleep problems too. Nothing else you could do in life would provide as much of a lifestyle upgrade as being able to sleep peacefully every night.
Sleep is the best! It's free, it feels fantastic, and it makes your skin look great. It puts you in a good mood and makes you more patient and fun to be around. It strengthens your immune system. Sleeping eight hours a night is like being on vacation every day. I highly encourage everyone to read The Sleep Revolution and start looking at sleep as a hip new hobby.
A common issue with basic self-care is that it seems selfish. It can feel like spending any time or focus on taking care of ourselves takes away from what we owe to others. Our mates, kids, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and random strangers on the street somehow seem more deserving of our attention than the source of that attention. This source of attention is, of course, a self. A single individual heart. We are each like candles, our inner light illuminating those around us. When we let that candle burn too low, the light begins to fade and gutter, until finally it is snuffed out. The better we are at tending this little flare, the brighter it can burn and the farther into the darkness that light can shine.
Hangry. Why is this a word? It’s a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry.” Like “adulting,” it’s a concept readily understood across society. It’s a part of modern life. Why would we do this to ourselves, though? By the time we reach adulthood, surely we’re aware that going too long between meals makes us grumpy, irritable, distracted, clumsy, thin-skinned, and hard to be around. The first question is why we would do this to ourselves. The second question is why we would do it to others! Why would we inflict our hangry, snappy selves on others around us? It’s like voluntarily turning into the Incredible Hulk, except with no villains to crush. A friend of mine named her irritable alternate persona “Snarla.” Maybe we can’t bring ourselves to eat a proper breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack for our own sakes. Don’t we owe a bit more consideration to the people around us, though? If we know we have this tendency to let ourselves down, deprive ourselves of basic nutrition, and perform poorly all day, don’t we then have a responsibility to plan around that?
Another area where almost everyone collapses under the burden of modern life is that of getting enough sleep. Sleep procrastination is a real problem. The more tired we are, the less likely we are to want to go to bed early enough to get a good night’s rest. The key factor behind this is the desire for High Quality Leisure Time. We’re looking for an uninterrupted block of a specific amount of time so that we can unwind. If we’re partway into our HQLT, and it’s interrupted, the clock starts over. Especially for parents, getting that critical time block feels almost impossible. We’ll stay up hours later than we should in the quest for peace of mind. The cost is that we’re perpetually an hour or more deprived of sleep each day. This is a lot like cashing out your retirement to buy scratch-off lottery tickets. It robs the future to pay for a temporary burst of hope that never really pays off.
When we’re chronically exhausted and burned out, we have nothing left for anyone else. We wind up with barely enough energy to vent about things that are bothering us. We can’t reach the threshold where we feel capable of taking action to change anything negative in our lives. That might be a terrible job, a wretched commute, an energy vampire, a bad pattern of communication with a specific person, a health issue, or financial problems, among other things. Not only do we wind up going through life feeling like positive change is impossible, we feel defeated and unhappy. That means it probably doesn’t cross our minds that we also don’t have the energy to pay close attention to the people in our lives. How can we listen deeply and be emotionally present when we’re exhausted and annoyed by life? Can we even realize and take in the fact that others are doing their very best to be there for us? Are we receiving support and affection graciously?
Another area where most of us impact others around us without realizing it is in organization and time management. When we’re burned out and overextended, we also tend to drop details. We rush from commitment to commitment, sometimes late for every single engagement for years on end. (Guilty as charged, Your Honor). We can’t manage to fit in time to organize our belongings, so we’re constantly searching for things we’ve lost. That can be a major root cause of chronic lateness, too. We may have personal possessions spread across every room of the home, we may lose track of important documents and files at work, we may miss recording appointments, and our attention may be spread so thin that we can’t even remember where we parked our vehicles. Guilt and shame are not helpful here, assuming they are ever helpful anywhere. What does help is to see better organization and time management as gifts that keep on giving. When we take care of the details of life, we can be present and fulfill commitments. We can show up prepared and ready to engage. We can stop causing concern, distraction, or frustration to others. The fact that we can also stop annoying ourselves is just an extra bonus.
Being well nourished and well rested creates a place of stillness in the room. Others who interact with us can feel the difference. We’re relaxed, responsive, and able to be attentive listeners. Our peace of mind can spread and soothe others, who may be under stress we can’t begin to imagine. Being organized and a few minutes early allows others to go through their day and complete their work without any interference from us. If everyone did it, how easy everything would seem! We can give so much more to others when we take care of ourselves first. We can be fully present. Sometimes, we can even be leaders and role models, inspiring others to take better care of themselves as well.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.