I was just thinking how long it had been since I participated in the 24-Hour Readathon, when I had a surprise occasion to be up for 24 hours. This should have occurred to me sooner, or in other words it should not have come as a surprise at all, because it was built into our trip to the UK. Would I have used the time differently?
More importantly, is a 24-hour sprint a useful tool for other situations?
Whether being awake for 24 hours feels interesting, fun, or terrible depends entirely on the reason and your attitude going in.
After 35 years of chronic insomnia and parasomnia issues, I’m trying to decondition myself from the thoughts that I AM TIRED and I’M BAD AT SLEEPING. What if occasionally being tired was not a problem, but rather a neutral, useful, or interesting experience?
The readathon was something that I used to find thrilling, and something that my now-husband and his grade-school-aged daughter looked on with bemusement. I would spend weeks deciding what to read and planning my snacks, my outfit, where I would sit, etc. Then my record was crushed by an adult who read a big stack of YA and kids’ books. Grr! I bowed out after reading all of The Recognitions in 24 hours - finishing just before the clock was up - and retiring on a high note.
It’s different when you’re in your early thirties. You’re still used to waking up rung-out after late nights having fun, going to concerts or parties or simply staying up playing cards until all hours. A day of physical exhaustion may be a regular part of your week.
All-nighters in college are a mark of grit, and turning in a paper before the deadline or doing well on a test after a cram session are the rewards. Everyone is doing it and it has its bragging rights. If you’ve done it once, then you know you have the capacity to do it again.
Lying awake and not sleeping due to mysterious insomnia problems feels bad. It can approach the level of an existential crisis. WHY? Sleep Y U hate me? Yet it’s the same 24 hours that anyone else has, and not every sleepless person is having the same emotions or the same thoughts.
What if we approach sleeplessness with curiosity?
I might do it in solidarity with someone. Say if my niece or one of my nephews was up studying, although they undoubtedly have study partners for that. If a friend was running a relay race, I might go out and support. The same sleeplessness I can experience on a hot pillowcase at home could feel like an act of friendship or compassion or service.
On rare occasions, when I’ve been writing at night or my sleep schedule has been bonkers, I’ve done what I call a “reset.” Stay up, go out into natural daylight, walk all over town, eat an early dinner, and force myself to remain awake until 9:00 PM, when I am then able to fall fast asleep. It’s possible then to sleep for as much as 12 hours, if you can, and be back on a more-or-less normal schedule.
In this sense, being awake for 24 hours can be a useful tool.
What happened in this most recent case is that I went to bed a little early in Edinburgh, knowing we had to get up and leave for the airport. I woke up an hour before the alarm. What followed was twenty hours of moving through three airports, two sets of security, customs, and a rideshare, bookended by getting ready and bag-wrangling. Much of the time vanished while shuffling through mild chaos or eating meals on a tiny plastic shingle. Close to fifteen hours, though, involved sitting quietly still in a confined space and trying not to bother the eight other people sitting within three feet.
Through experience I know when it’s better to stay awake to fight jet lag. I understand that the payoff is a quick and relatively painless adjustment, rather than up to three weeks of brain miasma. There was a ten-minute period when I caved, but after putting my head down on my lap tray I was delivered from temptation by sheer discomfort.
What did I do with the “bonus time” of being in jet lag limbo?
I caught up on my travel journal, which I’ve never successfully done before. I took notes about our trip and added items to our travel checklist while they were fresh in my mind. I discovered that I was unable to work offline on email, which was Plan A. Having no keyboard, I didn’t plan to do any extensive writing. I read a non-fiction book. I planned out an online workshop. Almost the entire trip, I read through my perpetually out-of-control news queue, which now feels totally manageable.
There are so many things that we never feel we have “enough time” to do. Culturally, we all tend to be exhausted and over-scheduled. Thus it says a lot when we’re trapped in a situation when there are very few options for activities. What do you do when you can’t sleep, can’t exercise, can’t call a friend, can’t check social media, can’t clean your house or run errands?
Now I have my own personal image of what it looks and feels like to actually read all the articles I have bookmarked. When I inevitably start getting all crazy and saving dozens more, I can ask myself, when do I think I am going to have fifteen hours to read all this?
Am I afraid I’m going to run out?
When we came home, our apartment was clean, the way I left it. There were clean sheets on the bed. Our only problems would be washing the two loads of laundry we brought home from our trip and stocking our now-empty fridge with groceries. Another person might use a 24-hour reset experiment to clear out closets and do chores, and manifest the same all-caught-up, nothing-left-to-do feeling that I have now.
The real question is, how long can it last before we mess it all up again? What do we do with the very next 24 hours, and the next?
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.
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