The Idea that Won’t Quit
by Ian Doescher
Sleep is very important to me. If I don’t get an average of about 7 hours of sleep per night, I get grumpy and irritable. Ask my wife or my kids—everybody in my house knows when I’ve stayed up too late or gotten up too early. Sometimes my lack of sleep is self-inflicted; I have a regimen each morning that takes a little over two hours and involves working out and reading about 60 pages of various books. Nobody is making me do that, it’s not required for my job or my family life. If I get up too early, I have only myself to blame.
Most nights, going to bed on time isn’t too hard. My wife and I watch Netflix, then the clock hovers somewhere around 10 p.m. and I turn into a zombie and fall asleep. Thankfully, insomnia is not an issue I’ve had to deal with in any serious way in my life.
But (you knew that “but” was coming, right?), that’s not always the case. Some nights, an idea or a worry or a fear or something exciting gets into my psyche, and I can’t let go of it. Does this ever happen to you? Whatever issue it is that’s on your mind—whether positive or negative—creeps into your brain and won’t let go. No matter how much you close your eyes, toss and turn, sleep is elusive.
I believe those moments can be beautiful. Huge creativity can come from those moments, even when they are sparked by fear. I’m writing this article because this happened to me just last night—right before bed, I got worried about a particular issue (which I won’t go into because it falls somewhere in that “politics and religion” vortex that our grandmothers told us not to talk about!). I was even trying to go to bed early—it was only 9:30—and I thought, “Great, I’ll be refreshed and ready to go in the morning!” Instead, 10 p.m. rolled by. Then 10:30. Then 11 p.m. Then 11:30. I finally made it to sleep close to 1 a.m. Am I tired this morning? You bet.
But (another “but”!), I was also able to deal constructively with my worry and something creative even came of it. Over the years, I’ve learned the best way to deal with these late night moments of worry/inspiration/fear/excitement/whatever’s-not-letting-me-sleep. Here are some thoughts, in case they’re helpful to you:
- Listen to the voice. When something nags at me so much that my otherwise decent ability to sleep is rudely interrupted, I know it’s important to listen to it. It’s usually then that something deep inside me is calling for attention. Like I said, sometimes it’s a creative burst waiting to be expressed and sometimes it’s a fear or worry I didn’t know was so strong, but whatever it is, if it’s disturbing your sleep, it’s probably worth your attention.
- Go ahead and get up. Almost every time this happens, the thought that is keeping me awake won’t let me go until I have dealt with it in some way. As much as I want to go to sleep, I’m often better served by just getting up and dealing with it. Sometimes “dealing with it” means getting up and writing a to-do list, doing some research online, finishing something I’ve been meaning to write or taking care of a task that is nagging at me, and so on. Last night, it was getting up and writing an email to someone. That’s all it took before I was able to settle down and go to sleep. That said, I lay in bed tossing and turning for about two hours before I finally got up. It took that long for me to realize this particular issue wasn’t going away anytime soon.
- Don’t send anything there’s any chance you will regret. If you are contacting other people in the middle of the night—sending emails or even making a phone call—stop before you do so and make sure it’s not something you’ll regret. You may have heard of the acronym HALT, which reminds us that we shouldn’t make big decisions when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. The middle of the night isn’t the time, for example, to tell your boss you are leaving your job or ask your brother for a $30,000 loan. You can write the email if it’s on your mind, then save it to your Drafts folder and send it in the morning. (The email I sent last night was innocuous, I’m happy to say!)
- Spend some time reading. Although generally what I need to do to set my mind at ease has to do with my computer—like last night’s email—after that’s done if you need to get back to sleep reading is often a good way to do it. I love reading dearly and would never say reading is boring, but just about every study every done says that screen time is terrible for sleep. Do what you need to do (#2 above), and then spend some time with a book to help yourself power down.
- Check in with yourself in the morning. The next day, see how you’re feeling. As I said in #1, the things that keep us up in the middle of the night deserve our attention. Not just at night, but the next day, too. Has the fear worsened? Has the worry improved? Does the idea still seem like a good one? Is the email we wrote and put in our Drafts folder (#3) still something we want to send? Sometimes, the day after a night of insomnia brings perspective that we weren’t able to have while we burned the midnight oil. Take a moment and reflect, and follow up if follow up is needed. (Yes, now you can hit Send on that email if you still think it’s a good idea!)
Late night creativity, late night worry, late night excitement, late night fear—all of it is meaningful. Though I don’t love missing the sleep, I do try and gently welcome these nights when they come, because really, what are my other options?! Staying in bed and trying to force yourself back to sleep is generally unproductive. But dealing with what’s on your mind will help you feel better, and can even change your life.