You’d think sleep would be the easiest thing to coach. Free and it feels good, right? Better sleep can take your daily life from ‘miserable’ to ‘five-star resort’ in a remarkably short period of time. It doesn’t seem to have the air of preachiness that people detect in the areas of organization or weight loss. For whatever reason, though, people hang onto their poor sleep habits harder than anything else. It’s hard to get people to start taking sleep seriously.
The main reasons are obvious. Late at night is when we want to turn off the clock and indulge in all the habits we don’t want officially recorded. Late night is off the books, isn’t it? The other reason is that we want a part of our lives to ourselves, something that doesn’t belong to our employer. Pushing out bedtime means sleeping later, and sleeping later means coffee, and coffee often means treats. Why mess all that up by going to bed earlier like some smarmy goody two-shoes?
At some point, in spite of all this, we decide that we’re sick of it and we’re done. Done. We need something better. The unrested life is simply not working. It’s time to start taking sleep seriously, like, immediately.
This was me. My moment was the night I tried to shove my husband out of bed because there was “a robotic spider crawling down the ceiling” and I was prepared to let it eat me as long as he got away. Night terrors. I could live with restless leg syndrome, I could live with chronic insomnia, I could live with waking up throughout the night, I could live with grinding my teeth, I could live with occasional nightmares. Pavor nocturnus was my line. Not this. I was willing to read anything, listen to anyone, record everything, and literally try anything for weeks or months on end if I thought it had a slim chance of working.
That’s the attitude it takes to fix a chronic sleep problem, because it’s not a “one and done” kind of a project. It’s a permanent lifestyle input. Why would you only want to sleep better for a couple of nights here and there?
Another important thing to understand is the concept of the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This means that tiny incremental changes in multiple, different areas can add up to a noticeable improvement. It can also mean that doing only one thing won’t make much of a difference.
An example of the aggregation of marginal gains would be trying to get to work earlier. You lay out your clothes the night before, buy a case of protein bars to keep in your car for a backup breakfast option, make sure to fill your gas tank in the evenings on the way home, pack your lunch while you’re cooking dinner, and streamline your makeup routine. Each of these saves you five minutes. Suddenly you’re ten minutes early instead of fifteen minutes late. Aggregation of marginal gains!
This is all the stuff I really wish I knew when I first started my personal sleep research and experimentation journey. Of course, if I’d known all of this when I started, I probably wouldn’t realize how important it all was.
See that even a 1% improvement in each of these areas would be enough to get your total grade up? Try rating your sleep quality on a scale of 1-5, and track your personal adherence to these areas, also on a scale of 1-5. See if you can bump that up even a tiny bit on a consistent basis.
Sleep is a complex system, poorly understood by medical science. That’s partly because we require superhuman acts of heroic self-mortification from our medical students. A doctor is the last person to ask about sleep, because so much deprivation is demanded of them that they can’t be much more than sardonic about it. Sometimes, the best we can do is to guess why we’ve tried so many things, only for sleep to elude us still.
Other times, we know full well we’re doing it to ourselves. All it takes is the decision that that’s enough now. It’s time to start taking sleep seriously.
The Cabin bus from Santa Monica to San Francisco caught my attention before it even began operations. As a startup idea, I thought it was brilliant. All I needed was an excuse to visit someone in the Bay Area. Any opportunity to indulge my fixation on alternative travel would suffice.
The adventure began when I lucked into an empty berth with only a day’s notice. There wasn’t another available spot for ten days, so I used reward miles and booked a flight for the return trip. This sort of arrangement involves a certain amount of planning what to pack, in what sort of bag, because there are things that can be brought on a bus that can’t go through TSA, and also things that fit in a suitcase that you don’t necessarily want in your bed, especially a narrow one. This is foreshadowing.
I took a Lyft from my home to the pickup location, which is scenic and convenient as can be. Unfortunately, when I got out, I wound up on the wrong side of the street, facing the wrong direction. All I could see were city buses. My driver took off. I checked the street address of the nearest building, realized I was in the wrong spot and had no data reception, and freaked out. Where am I?? Where is my bus?? Then I turned around and saw it parked a block away, the lights of the pier behind it. Derp.
Onboarding couldn’t have been simpler. I walked up, showed the hostess my confirmation email, and left my bag with her. I stepped inside, climbed the stairs, and took an empty bunk at the back of the bus.
Getting into the bunk proved a bit complicated, possibly the hardest part for people regardless of size. Slightly above waist height, I couldn’t just lie down or throw myself onto the bed. I had to hoist myself. I’m 5’4” so this would probably be harder for a shorter person. On the other hand, a taller person might have more trouble kneeling or crouching to get into the lower berths. My compact frame was definitely an asset when it came to spending eight hours in a confined space, a space I later jokingly referred to as a ‘ComfyCoffin.’
The bedding on these things is first-rate. Probably the most comfortable pillow I’ve ever used, I’m sorry I forgot to take a picture of the tag so I could order one for myself later. I also really loved the sheets and the duvet. I am a chilly sleeper, so I was a bit paranoid about being too cold. Not a problem.
What was a problem was that it’s impossible to sit up in the berth. There’s nowhere to use a restroom or change clothes before boarding the bus (except at home, of course), and if I tried it again in future, I would definitely brush my teeth and all that before departure. One bus restroom for twenty-plus people isn’t really enough for everyone’s bedtime routine. It would have been nice to have a curtained changing room on board, or popped up on the sidewalk at the bus stop for that matter.
I managed to wrestle myself out of my clothes and into my pajamas. I waited about forty minutes from departure for an opportunity to use the restroom before trying to sleep.
The fact that I was able to sleep on this bus speaks volumes for its overall comfort. I have a major parasomnia disorder and sleep is what I do worst. Out of the eight-hour trip, I think I slept about six hours, which is amazing. I’ve slept worse in my own bed at home. I took 10 mg of melatonin, double my usual dose, but then I’ve done that at home too and it hasn’t always worked.
The passengers were, as a rule, quiet and professional. The one exception was the gentleman who claimed the upper berth opposite mine. He coughed throughout the night, waking me up several times, and evidently also giving me his cold, because I wound up being really sick for over a week. Thanks, jerk. I don’t care WHAT is going on in your life, do not leave your house and cough on people when you are ill. We really need to get some sort of fishbowl for folks to wear on their heads. Especially when they are sleeping three feet away from someone else’s face.
The disadvantage of arriving half an hour early is that you claim dibs first, and then later arrivals set up camp around you. If I’d heard coughing I would have known to go to the other end and stay away.
Enough about that; back to the foreshadowing. Something funny happened. I was having a vivid dream about a horrid black millipede crawling on my foot. It felt like something was physically crawling on me and tickling me, and I woke up nearly screaming, shaking my foot. In the morning, guess what I saw? A weird little black beetle on the curtain, right next to my foot! It was easy to see what happened: my shoe bag with my boots on the left, leaning against my bare feet in the middle, with the curtain a couple of inches away on the right, making a direct path. Obviously I carried the creepy-crawly in on my own footwear. The moral of the story is to never bring your shoes into bed without thoroughly inspecting them first.
That’s one of the major drawbacks of this form of transit. Anything you want with you while undressing, sleeping, or dressing is going to have to spend the night on the mattress with you. There are no shelves or cabinets, just a little mesh pocket. If I’d understood this better, I would have probably taken off my boots and changed into flip-flops outside when I handed over my suitcase.
I packed a protein bar and a bottle of iced green tea for my breakfast. There are coffee and hot tea, for those who like them, but the bus doesn’t arrive all that near civilization and I like to eat the moment I wake up. That was 5:55 AM, incidentally, when the bus started to approach the city and the rhythm of the road changed. This gave me plenty of time to use the restroom before anyone else and then get dressed and packed before arrival.
Overall, I liked this style of travel, and I’d do it again. I’d especially do it now that I know how nice the bedding is, how quiet it is, and how to organize my stuff and my routine for the most streamlined trip. I’d take some extra vitamin C for a couple of days ahead of time. (A wise precaution before traveling anywhere, by any means). I’m just not sure I’d take my husband, who is 6’2” and who I can’t really picture fitting into one of these bunks. Finally, there’s one area of life where it pays to be a short person.
Pick Three is the answer for anyone who feels constantly busy, burned out, and utterly confounded by the concept of “work-life balance.” When I first saw the cover of this book, with its cheery sticky note implying that Sleep is something optional, I scoffed at it. Ha, if other people think they can have a happy life by just sacrificing sleep, then good for them, but not me! I gave Randi Zuckerberg a chance to make her case anyway. Now I agree with the book’s subtitle: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).
There is great good sense behind the suggestion to Pick Three. The “three” are: Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, Friends. (Or, you can choose your own, such as: Netflix, School, Tacos, Dating, Yoga). Trying to make equal time for all five every single day will lead to doing poorly at all of them. Zuckerberg offers ways that different people have structured their lives and made decisions about their big three. We’ll recognize ourselves here, as different people are profiled who have had to work around disability, addiction, major illness, losing their parents, relocating, having a disabled child, and other serious challenges. This is real life we’re talking about here.
For instance, I’m a Sleep person because I have to be. I feel lucky that this is my biggest health issue, but it still is one! I have a parasomnia disorder, and when my sleep starts getting messed up, I quit functioning. Not only that, but anyone who sleeps under the same roof as me is impacted, because with pavor nocturnus I flail in bed, sleepwalk, scream in my sleep, and even run through the house opening doors. I feel irresponsible and unfair when these symptoms resurface. I see others with garden-variety sleep procrastination who are irritable and snappy due to their VOLUNTARY sleep deprivation, and I shake my head. This is manageable. Leave sleep out of your Big Three only for brief periods when you know you usually get plenty of rest. If you usually don’t, then why?
There are ways to combine some of these elements. In my personal life, I’ve chosen Sleep, Work, and Fitness because I keep having to relocate, and my oldest friends all live hundreds of miles away. When my Family needs me, I drop everything to travel to them, and my main three get put aside until the crisis has passed. This is part of why I work three weeks in advance and mostly outside the time dimension. My projects can keep going even if I lose a week to something urgent. Most of my social life happens at my gym, because that’s where I’ve made most of my local friends.
Pick Three is a book about self-forgiveness and self-compassion. It’s also a book about being good to the people around you. When you feel a sense of purpose and that you’re making strong choices, it helps you to be fully present with your loved ones and give your utmost to your most important contribution. Feeling overextended and under-appreciated leads directly to resentment, hostility, and low quality of life. A book like Pick Three can help to reevaluate and check in with yourself to see if you really are living your values.
As a tourist in the land of mornings, I appreciated this book. It’s much more about starting your day on a positive note than it is “rah rah, get up at 4:30 AM.” After reading My Morning Routine, it seems that there is a strong correlation between people choosing to own their morning and people who actually get enough sleep.
Much like Mason Currey’s book Daily Routines, this book includes a very broad range of behavior. Sixty-four people are interviewed from all walks of life. Not only is it a fascinating peek into the intimate lives of others, it’s also a solid demonstration that not everybody has to do the same thing in order to succeed.
Having battled sleep issues since the age of seven, I will probably never consider myself a “morning person.” I fell in love with an extreme lark, though, and I’ve gradually learned to shape a morning routine. My husband and our dog both wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5:30 AM, without an alarm, seven days a week. He has his routine down to 27 minutes, and he prefers that I’m not up and around at that time because it makes him want to hang out and talk to me. I sleep until 7:30 or 8, and I need at least 45 minutes to get ready. If I haven’t had a shower and eaten a big hot breakfast, I’m useless. Walking into walls, virtually drooling on myself, that kind of useless. This is why I make my bed every day, to give my vestibular system a chance to get me vertical. I support my chronotype by organizing my stuff, my schedule, and my to-do list in the evening. I know not to plan any creative or mentally challenging work early in the day, just as I know not to expect my mate to make decisions or have important conversations late at night.
The diversity of habits in My Morning Routine, and the reasons for them, are sometimes astonishing. One person sets an alarm to wake up early, even if she hasn’t had much sleep, and then spends the early morning hours reading. ?!? Another person cuts articles out of a newspaper with scissors, (rather than bookmarking the digital version?), because it feels crafty. Another person plays jazz piano, and another rides a bicycle 45 miles to work a couple times a week. Someone else plays ping-pong with a ping-pong robot. That just cheered me right up!
A great feature of My Morning Routine is that it includes sections called Reversals. They show that for every habit that works for many or most people, the exact opposite seems to work for others. An example of this is hitting the snooze button. Snoozing makes most people more groggy and tired, but for a few others, it can create a pleasantly creative subliminal state.
I started developing a morning routine as a way of pushing away from stress and chaos. I would wake up feeling so physically terrible that I needed to do anything I could to make my life easier. I used to be late everywhere, always, and it left me feeling miserable, anxious, and incompetent. Adding more formal structure to my day has, paradoxically, been freeing and relaxing. Even on travel days, I can wake up knowing that I have a handle on things and that I’m not going to be launched immediately into crisis mode. Out of everything I do, being able to start the day with enough time for a fancy breakfast has become one of the highlights. If you’re like me, SO Not a Morning Person, maybe considering some of the ideas from My Morning Routine can bring some fresh perspective and a little hope.
I remember being little and going to sleep so excited to begin again.
I also try not to pointlessly stay up late.
If the day were to end after my routine, would it have been a successful and fulfilling day?
Sundays are my “delicious” days.
Remember: Done is better than perfect.
I think the most apt metaphor for my mornings is that of being shot out of a cannon.
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.
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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.