The comments section of a previous PickTheBrain post inspired me. The post itself contained some great information about how to be more productive when you’re on a “night owl” schedule, including telling people to “Schedule Around Your Energy Cycle”. But it’s the comments from this post where I think we can all learn the most important lesson on this topic.
For better sleep consistently, we need to listen to our bodies. When I read comments like “maybe I’m just meant to be a night owl”, or “I’m constantly trying to figure out what the heck I am – night owl/early bird…”, it made me realize something. We’re always categorizing and labeling. Sometimes it helps. But, when it comes to this topic (and many others) it can be dangerously disruptive.
Sleep is a dynamic process. And, our body clocks do change over time. Most of us are very naturally predisposed towards “night owl” behavior through our teens and into our 20’s. Then, as we continue to age, our body clock continues to shift earlier. This is why a 20 year old might not feel tired until midnight, but grandma and grandpa had their early bird dinner at 4:30 and have been sleeping since 8.
Here’s where this can get dangerous: Joe TwentySomething is posting comments like “I can never get to bed before 1 AM, I guess I’m just a night-owl”. Of course, he now believes this. Unfortunately, over the next few years, his body clock may undergo a massive shift. His “natural bedtime” may advance by 2-3 hours. But, Joe’s belief is now hard-wired.
So, as Joe approaches 30, his belief about never being able to go to sleep before 1 AM is still true (to him). His body wants to go to sleep at 10:30, but Joe won’t listen. In his head, Joe “knows” that going to bed that early is fruitless; he’ll just toss and turn, right. So, he works late, eats late, watches Conan, and gets ready for bed at 1.
What he doesn’t realize is that his body wanted to go to sleep over 2 hours ago. When Joe ignored that signal, his body went into “emergency mode”, and flushed him with adrenaline to keep him awake. After all, if he’s ignoring a clear signal from his body, there must be an emergency to deal with, so the body reacts accordingly. Just like an “overtired” toddler, Joe is now wired.
And, that’s when his head hits the pillow, and his brain won’t shut off. It bounces from here to there, from one thought to the next. And, Joe doesn’t fall asleep until 2:30…four full hours after his body wanted to go to sleep. In the morning, Joe is beat, so he turns to coffee. “I just couldn’t fall asleep last night”, he thinks.
After a few months/years of this pattern, Joe will start to develop a new belief. Unfortunately, that new belief is unlikely to be “Hey, I need to go to sleep earlier”. It’s more likely to be “I guess I just have insomnia”. Yikes! A new label and one that is very difficult to shake!
People cling to their “insomnia” label like a teddy bear. It becomes a part of them, a part of who they are. They try pills, prescriptions, anything external is worth a try. They always ask the same thing, “Will this help ME? With my insomnia?”
In many cases people would rather defend their identity and their label than actually solve the problem they’re experiencing.
I know PickTheBrain is a community comprised of a different caliber of people, so we can be very direct about this. The sooner you let go of the labels and are willing to change your beliefs, it’s amazing how fast can change anything. Whether it’s sleep patterns, diet, relationships, anything. Be willing to deal with what really exists, rather than what you labeled something to be yesterday, last week, or 8 years ago.
Maybe you can think of other situations where reality might shift, rendering our labels useless (or worse, disruptively inaccurate)? When you see something in your life that isn’t working the way you think it should, go back to your beliefs and reevaluate. Sometimes, a small shift can make all the difference.
And, by the way, you’ve probably realized everything is easier when you’re well rested. So, as you continue on your journey, always protect your sleep. It’s a tremendous investment in your health, outlook, and productivity.
Sean Folkson is the founder of TheSleepGuy.com, and NightFood: Nutrition for Better Sleep. To try NightFood for yourself, go to http://www.NightFood.com and request a risk-free sample.
Photo Credit: Paul Sapiano