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.
Even if you’re Vicki the Robot from Small Wonder, and you spend every night in a cabinet, you need this book. If you’re a human being, then you definitely need this book! I can’t possibly recommend it enough. Shawn Stevenson is hip, funny, and deeply knowledgeable about sleep. Even complicated charts and medical terminology are accessible through his engaging, witty prose. I’ve followed sleep research closely for at least the last decade, and I learned a great deal from Sleep Smarter. I can also validate a lot of the information as crucially important for healing sleep problems.
Before I talk more about the book, I’ll share a bit about myself. I started having problems with insomnia at age seven. At fourteen, I woke up one morning and couldn’t open my mouth because I had clenched my jaw so tightly. I wound up cracking four mouth guards, and I wore through a set of amalgam fillings in eighteen months. I also had restless leg syndrome; sometimes it would start early in the evening, before I even went to bed. In college, the clinic sent me to the school psychiatrist to make sure I didn’t have a neurological problem, because I was only sleeping about three hours a night. Garden variety stuff. The real issue I had in my thirties was pavor nocturnus, or night terrors. I would wake up in a different room, shaking and crying, with no memory of how I got there. My poor husband would have to chase me and bring me back to bed. I don’t have sleep problems anymore. If someone like me can learn to sleep eight peaceful hours every night, then it stands to reason that anyone could. I’m also including a thumbnail of my sleep issues in case Shawn Stevenson reads this. If he does, HI! In the second edition, which you know is inevitable with a book this great, would you please consider including an appendix on insomnia and parasomnia disorders?
Sleep Smarter includes short, fascinating chapters on sleep research. At the end, there is an easy set of micro-habits to try out over two weeks. It would be pretty easy to start with the chapter that seems most relevant; they don’t necessarily have to be read in order. For instance, anyone who has ever tried to share a “full” sized mattress with another person knows to start with the chapter on beds!
If you’re reading this because you have annoying sleep issues, attend closely. Stevenson and I both make magnesium deficiency the first priority. If you can’t handle dietary change at this point in your life, you can buy a spray-on topical supplement. At least 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, so if you have any kind of sleep problem, be objective before you rule it out.
For restless legs, talk to your doctor about an iron supplement. (Or you can keep a food log for three weeks, look at your micronutrient consumption, and make your own judgment).
For tooth grinding, my dentist leveled out my bite by replacing my fillings. It changed my life.
For pavor nocturnus, I discovered that it was related to blood sugar levels. I make sure not to eat for three hours before bedtime. I also became a marathon runner, and I believe that this changed my body’s ability to store glycogen in the muscles. This most likely helped my body to regulate blood sugar more efficiently, as I never get hangry anymore. I also quit getting migraines at the same time that I quit having the night terrors, which is now over two years ago.
I took melatonin for five years, and it helped me learn to sleep properly. About three weeks ago, I quit taking it, and was astonished to find that my sleep is the same quality and duration! I was very worried about experiencing sleepless nights, but it didn’t happen once. To me, this is verification that all the other changes I made really did have an impact.
For everything, I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption. What Stevenson has to say about nutrition and fitness is completely true. I was also extremely interested in his personal story about battling degenerative disk disease as a teenager. He asked his doctor if his diagnosis “had anything to do with what [he] was eating, or if exercising a different way would help.” His doctor completely blew him off. That was precisely my experience with talking to my physician about my thyroid disease when I was 23. Stevenson’s disk disease had nothing in common with my thyroid disease, but the bogus, unscientific professional opinions we got were the same. I believe in medical science, but I seriously question whether doctors are keeping up with the most current research before they convey life-changing opinions to people. That’s before we even begin to consider nutrition and exercise, which few doctors seem to take seriously on a personal level, much less a professional one.
Please read this book. Please take the quality and quantity of your sleep seriously. Please believe that improving your sleep truly does have the potential to revolutionize your life.
Oh, and PS: Noelie says that if you have a pet parrot or other bird, please make sure it gets twelve hours of sleep in a dark, quiet room every night.
Give yourself jet lag in advance. Why not? What follows is the log of my 12-day jet lag experiment. It worked pretty well, and I plan to repeat it the next time I travel across time zones.
For the first time, I’m planning ahead and trying to do what I can to avoid jet lag. I’ll be traveling east by 9 time zones. The trip will last over two weeks, which is a long enough span of time to make the adjustment worthwhile. Since I work for myself and set my own schedule, I can make my own constraints. I’ve decided that it’s better to suffer at least some of the effects of jet lag in advance, at home, rather than have it spoil the first few days of our trip.
This morning, I woke up at 9:45 AM. This is unusually late even by my standards, but it’s 6:45 PM where I’m going! I like working late at night, and when I get into a groove, my schedule will start creeping later and later. I have been known to swing around the clock until I’m going to bed at 6 AM. This is a way I have of annoying myself, because I always sleep badly during the daytime, being woken up by every lawnmower, ice cream truck, and barking dog. My current schedule is not optimal either for home or travel. (Well, it would be fine if I went to Hawaii).
I’ve always hated taking early morning flights. In light of the reading I did on jet lag planning, I am changing my attitude. Getting up at 4 AM to go to the airport would not only give me more options and probably save money, but it would also put me closer to my goal of adjusting to the destination time zone. The tickets for this trip are already booked, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future trips.
My flight leaves in 12 days. I’m planning to adjust in 30-minute increments. I happen to be writing this on a Friday, so this plan won’t infringe too much on my husband’s ability to snooze a little over the weekend. I already know that the easiest way to get up earlier is to go to bed earlier, and that is more or less impossible unless you’re tired enough to go to sleep. Thus, I will be setting both a bedtime reminder and an alarm. Within a few days, I’ll be tired enough to start drifting off earlier. If I can keep to my plan, on the morning I leave, my alarm will go off at 3:45 AM, or 12:45 PM destination time. (My husband is leaving a few days before me, meaning on his travel day we would be getting up right around the same time).
I’m a childhood-onset insomniac, so I’ve been through every iteration of fully or semi-sleepless night possible. If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s to drag myself through the day no matter how tired I am. Let’s see how it goes.
Night 1: We’re both super-tired for some reason. It’s a Friday night and we’re asleep by 11. I wake up at 7:45 AM. The previous night, I slept from 2AM to 9:45 AM. I’ve already shifted two hours earlier and gotten an extra hour’s sleep. I feel groggy and out of sorts. Immediately, I make the connection to jet lag. If I feel this way after a 2-hour shift, how would I feel without the adjustment, being off by 10-12 hours?
Night 2: Stayed up until 1:00, woke up at 7:50. Not as tired as the 9-hour night.
Night 3: In bed at 11:30, up at 7:00. I have awoken before my alarm every day so far. I’ve shifted roughly 3 hours in 3 days with no real effort. Just keep reminding myself why I’m getting up.
Night 4: In bed at 10:30, up at 6:30. Took a while to fall asleep. Today I needed the alarm. The first 3 minutes were really bad, and all I wanted was to roll over and go back to sleep. Then I was fine. Unfortunately, I found out that what I thought should be an 8-hour adjustment was a fluke, an artefact caused by the difference between Daylight Savings start dates in the US and Europe. This definitely validates my plan, because I have more adjusting to do than I had thought.
Night 5: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:15. My husband gets up at 6, and he’ll only be here through the end of the week. I’ve decided to slow my rate of adjustment and just get up with his alarm. He did not sign on to be part of my experiment, and I can’t think of a way to wake up earlier without disturbing him. I’ll still have four days to adjust downward after his flight. Pretty tired. Going to bed earlier is definitely the complicated part of this plan.
Night 6: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:30. Forgot to set an alarm and gradually woke up while hubby was getting ready for work. Really tired and feeling stupid about not going to bed sooner.
Night 7: In bed at 11. Woke up while it was still dark, thinking hubby was leaving for work, but he was just using the bathroom. It was only 1 AM and I had mostly dragged myself awake. Woke up at 5:45 before the alarm. Managed to read quietly without waking him up. Feeling fine.
Night 8: In bed at 10:40. Up at 4:20. Not even tired. Had lunch at 11 AM and realized it’s probably time to shift my mealtimes earlier.
Night 9: In bed at 8:30. Up with the alarm at 3:45. Woke up at 1 AM for the second time in two days, feeling like I could get up, but made myself go back to sleep. My dog has a grievance about being put to bed at 8 PM, and he whined for a while. Trying to figure out how to continue adjusting over the next few days without making life too difficult for my pets. (The bird sleeps from 7 to 7).
Night 10: In bed at 9:30. Up at 2:45 without an alarm. Took a nap from 6-8 AM. I’m still committed to shifting my wake-up time, because I believe it will work, and also because I believe half of the reason it works is drinking water and eating at the new wake-up time. But I’ve been getting pretty tired, and there’s the dog factor to consider.
Night 11: In bed at 9:45. Night terrors at 10:40. THIS. SUCKS. I deal with pavor nocturnus, and I hadn’t had an episode in over two years until this point. I woke up in my bathroom with the light on, panting, alone, and with no immediate idea what had happened. As my heart rate returned to normal, I remembered that I had “dreamed” a lizard was slowly crawling up my wall. Pavor dreams are more like split-second images of things that bother the primitive limbic brain, like spiders and snakes, rather than regular dreams, which are more like movies on any topic. I have always liked lizards and think they’re cute, so it annoys me even more that my sleeping brain decided an imaginary lizard was cause for doubling my heart rate and launching me out of bed in my sleep. Listened to podcasts until 11:15, back to sleep until I awoke naturally at 4:15. My experiment is effectively over. Even if this wasn’t Travel Day, I don’t feel comfortable tinkering with my sleep for a while. I’m not precisely where I wanted to be, but I am waking up naturally 5.5 hours earlier than I was at the start.
On the plane: I managed to sleep between 10:15 and 2:15, waking up every hour in between to readjust. One hour, I slept folded over the tray table, waking up when both of my arms went numb from the shoulders down. Nodded off for 20 minutes on my connecting flight.
First night in Hamburg: Fell asleep at midnight, then woke promptly at 2:30 AM. Lay awake for two hours. Comfy bed, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, no sleep! Got up at 7:30 to catch flight to Barcelona.
Results: I was exhausted from sleeping roughly 8 hours in two nights. I was able to go to bed and fall asleep at an appropriate time on the first night in Barcelona, and woke up naturally at about 8 AM. I slept pretty well throughout the trip. On the trip home, we had a 20-hour travel day and went to bed in our own home around 8:30 PM, or 5:30 AM Spanish time. My husband took Benadryl and slept for 11 hours; I woke up at 2:15 AM. On the second night home, I slept from 10 to 6. I can live with that.
There are several factors that contribute to the complexity of adjusting to a time zone change. Some are psychological, but most are physical. The psychological adjustment was easy for me to make because I had a specific deadline for something desirable. I didn’t feel like my default schedule had much going for it. Changing my sleep schedule would have a net positive impact, both for me and for my husband. The only drawback for us has been that I sometimes distract him when he’s getting ready for work in the morning and would rather talk to me.
The physical adjustments have a lot to do with hormone regulation. This includes melatonin, and it also includes leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that control satiety and appetite. There are most likely others, but three separate sleep-related hormones are enough to get my attention. The other, more obvious physical factors include mealtimes, hydration, and elimination. Gradually adjusting mealtimes also gradually adjusts the digestive system. It’s easier to get up earlier in the morning when you’re hungry. The easiest way is to respond to a full bladder!
About the pavor nocturnus problem: I’m pretty sure what set me off was messing with my blood sugar. That was the key to my two-year remission. I ate too close to bedtime because I was running around preparing for the trip. I already know that it’s best for me to plan meals to end at least three hours before bedtime, and this time, I pushed it to 90 minutes. That, combined with weeks of shifting my sleep times, stress about planning everything, and mild anxiety about sleeping in the house alone, was enough of a trigger. I haven’t had any more episodes in the following three weeks, and I believe it was a fluke.
I believe this gradual adjustment plan would still be feasible for someone working an ordinary 8-5 workweek. It would be difficult to come home, eat dinner, and go to bed almost immediately afterward. If I were doing this at an office job, I’d heat up a meal and eat it during my afternoon break, partly because of my parasomnia issues, partly because I’m sure I’d be hungry after eating breakfast at 4 AM. Our kid is 21 and out of the nest, but this plan could conceivably work for parents of young children because they get put to bed early anyway. Sleep deprivation in children is a real problem that affects their learning and development. Children of every age from infancy to 13 need at least 9 hours a night, and most age groups need at least 11. Going to bed weirdly early could have positive results for a family; let them get "extra" sleep while you get up early and do grown-up stuff. Being awake anywhere between 2-4 AM is a reliably quiet time to get through a great deal of work without interruption. Every family is different, but it’s something to think about. It’s not like travel itself isn’t going to cause some disruptions to the routine.
Be your own test subject! Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not to everyone. It brings to mind Arthur Dent’s unintentional experiment with eating the least alarming leftovers out of his fridge and thereby preventing the spread of some space plague. By ‘designing a life experiment,’ I don’t mean to imply turning oneself into a petri dish so much as creating an interesting hypothesis (my dog is physically capable of learning to jump rope) and then testing it. (If I jump rope in front of him, will he eventually cut in?).
Daily life is really too boring most of the time. About 80% of life is maintenance. Bathing, preparing and eating meals, commuting, working, doing housework, paying bills, cleaning the gutters, looking for things the dog buried in the yard… It never ends. That’s part of the reason to have pets, because they introduce an element of unpredictability into the mix. Setting up controlled life experiments is another way.
There are two different approaches toward setting up a life experiment. The divergent way is to ask, “What happens when I go like this?” Commit to a new action and attend to what happens afterward. What happens when I give up soda? What happens when I initiate more phone calls? What happens when I quadruple my vegetable intake? What happens when I try to listen to everyone more attentively? The convergent way is to ask, “How many ways can I think of to tackle this problem?” If my issue is poor sleep quality, I could experiment with nutrition, hydration, mealtimes, exposure to different types of indoor and natural lighting, exercise, hypnosis, weight loss, sleep hygiene, snore strips, a visit to a sleep lab, ear plugs, melatonin, a white noise generator, prescription drugs, or kicking my pets out of the bedroom at night. The convergent approach is probably what most people are doing when they claim that they’ve “tried everything.” The drawback to “trying everything” is that we may be testing a bunch of irrelevant variables, and we may also be eliminating them from consideration without applying them for the necessary duration, frequency, or intensity. For instance, improving my vitamin A and C intake by eating better may not resolve my problem if the real issue was deficiency in D and magnesium. Nutrition was the correct approach, but we needed to get more specific.
When we’re genuinely willing to “try everything,” it helps if we can pinpoint what we are doing with exacting, meticulous, painstaking detail. Many elements of one’s lifestyle can be tested in a lab or recorded with objective data. When someone says “my blood sugar is low” or “[X] gives me migraine,” that is a factual statement (“the moon is made of green cheese”) that can be tested and proved or disproved. We can test our micronutrients. We can record what we eat. We can keep time logs of the hours we slept. We can go to sleep labs and get monitored whatever it is that they monitor. We can have our body composition clinically measured. We can record the barometric pressure. We can examine our food logs against a record of our various health mysteries and look for patterns. (“Paprika gives me night terrors.”) When we’re not sure what’s wrong and the doctors aren’t, either, we can just record everything we can think of and eyeball it for a while.
Tried everything? I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I’m saying I’d really love to take a look at your documentation.
What I have usually done up to this point is to have a harebrained idea, such as “Next year I will take up running.” Then I dive in and wait to see what happens. There have always been more unintended, unexpected results than there were predictable results that conformed to my model. When I am pursuing a new interest like this, it tends to become all-consuming. Curiosity dominates my attention. I HAVE TO KNOW. I don’t always do well simply reading something, believing it, and implementing it. Sometimes, I try something because I want to debunk it, or because it confuses me and I can’t rest until I’ve figured it out. Most of the time, I just have an idea and it doesn’t seem like a bad idea until later. Questions have included: Is it possible to make Brussels sprouts taste good?, Can I walk on the treadmill barefoot?, Are walnuts good in minestrone?, and Can I tap-dance in roller skates? (Yes, bad idea, horrible idea, and yes but why?).
What I now want to do is to try an extremely specific input for a very specific purpose and find a way to test whether it does or does not work.
The goal I have in mind is to reduce my anxiety about public speaking. It’s already getting better through practice – my legs don’t shake anymore, although my heart still pounds and I have a lot of trouble making myself stay at the podium for an entire minute. I didn’t qualify the other day because I only made it 29 seconds out of 60. My mind goes blank and I lose my train of thought. My focus fades out into the middle distance, and it’s like the colored lights aren’t even there, much less the faces of my audience. I believe there is a significant physiological input that I can master, in the same way that I trained myself to be able to run more than 1/3 of a mile.
I haven’t been able to run in a year and a half. It started with an ankle injury that responded only slowly to physical therapy. Just as I had healed enough to start running short distances again, I fell and tore open my knee. That took weeks to heal. While I was still wearing gauze pads for that, I bruised my nailbeds while hiking, and it’s taken six months for the nails to grow back properly. One darn thing after another. What I noticed was that my background mood dropped from a 9 out of 10 to more like a 7. Running initially helped me to beat my problem with night terrors, and I feel like it had a way of eliminating stress hormones. My suspicion is that reigniting a regular running practice will help to diminish my speaking anxiety, even though they seem to have nothing to do with one another.
How do I design this experiment? What kind of metrics can I track to tell whether it’s working? Most of the variables involved in public speaking are subjective. How did I feel? How competent did I seem to others? Was my speech any good? There are a few numbers that are relevant, and the group does track them. How many times a month did I give a speech? How many seconds was my speech? How many times did I say “Um”? I know I say “um” more often when I’m nervous, although I don’t notice it at the time, and I also know that my speeches get shorter when I feel more nervous and less prepared. Lowering the first number and increasing the second will be positive signs that I am improving. As for running, I can easily and automatically track metrics with my sports watch and the RunKeeper app. How often did I run? How far? How long? What was my pace per mile? What were my split times? I can also subjectively track my daily mood, sleep quality, soreness, or anything else that seems relevant.
There is the possibility (probability?) that my speaking abilities will improve over time anyway. I won’t be able to prove anything to anyone but myself, but I couldn’t with a sample size of one anyway. In the worst case scenario, I give myself something to do while waiting for time to pass. At best, I might notice that the “butterflies in the stomach” [factual statement again] fade as soon as I get in a good 5-miler.
Learning to quantify my life taught me a lot. It taught me that my certainty about my behavior was almost always unwarranted. I went to bed later than I thought. I drank about ¾ of the water I thought I did. I ate about 50% more than I claimed. I exercised about 2/3 of the frequency I thought, at a lower intensity. (Walking instead of running, running instead of calisthenics, calisthenics instead of body weight resistance training, etc.). I can’t even say for certain whether I lied to myself deliberately or carelessly. All I know is that my picture of myself, based on doing what came naturally, did not match with the reality of an honest record of my actual behavior. My real habits did not match my perception of my habits.
Part of why I like to plan life experiments is that it helps to focus my awareness. I want to live intentionally, and that is more or less the opposite of doing what comes naturally, at least at first. What I want is for a better life to start emerging naturally from new and improved behaviors. My natural tendency to interrupt people needs to be consciously replaced with a strong effort to listen more carefully. My natural tendency to have my feelings hurt by other people’s thoughtless remarks needs to be replaced by a conscious effort to reinterpret the situation. I annoy myself all the time, and my quest is to pause, reevaluate, and act in ways that I find more acceptable.
Another reason that I like to plan life experiments is that I have overcome some serious difficulties, and it would have been much quicker and easier if I had been less stubborn. I often look back and feel that I could have saved myself years (or decades) of pain and frustration if only I had heeded certain signs. I beat fibromyalgia and thyroid disease. I beat poverty. I beat obesity. I beat the odds and found love again after my divorce. These problems were so difficult for me that almost anything else seems simple and easy in comparison. I have every reason to believe that action and habit change can bring me improved results, as long as I focus my attention and actions in the correct places.
There are a million problems and situations that could respond to a life experiment. Weight, depression, energy level/vigor, headaches, punctuality, debt, shyness, loneliness, cooking skills… Can I prevent family quarrels? Can I streamline my morning routine? Can I earn a promotion at work? What happens when I try to put on 10 pounds of muscle? What happens when I clear six carloads of clutter out of my house? Any frustration, irritation, or annoyance probably has a solution. What I’ve found is that taking any positive action toward any issue tends to have unanticipated positive side effects. When we try to eliminate hassles from our lives, it tends to ripple outward, benefiting everyone around us.
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.