The Sleep Imperative

You’ve doubtless seen, read, or had shouted at you dozens of articles, studies, and artistic renditions on the necessity of sleep. Going into that dream-filled or dream-less state is, the many “they” say, required for life. At least, for a life well-lived. And for a long time I’ve maintained a loose relationship with that idea.

Namely, from night to night the amount of sleep I’d manage would swing wildly. Sometimes 7 hours, sometimes 5. This, especially, came about in the traveling days when a delayed flight and an early presentation could mean arriving at the hotel at 1 AM and getting into the conference room, dressed and ready to present, at 7.

Guess what? With a couple of espresso shots, it wasn’t all that terrible. The eyes drooped, perhaps, and I certainly wasn’t going out that night, but I could swing the presentation and make a successful day out of it. Caffeine became a crutch, but a useful one that didn’t bother to judge how many trips I made to the coffee shop.

With writing, it doesn’t work the same way. I can’t, after four or five hours, even six, come up with words in quite the same way. It’s like the mind is stuck in mud – I can see where I want to go, but have to work so much harder to cover the same distance that, the day before, I could speed along. It’s simply more difficult (for me) to write creatively than it was to present, answer emails, or partake in meetings all day.

In the time I’ve been doing this, though, I’ve come up with a few tricks for getting through a day when I’m tired – and I should note that I’m not a napper unless I’m sick or so dead tired that nothing’s going to happen except lethargy.

1. Dictation

I’ve talked about dictation before, but it really shines on those days when I’m struggling to get the finger music going. If I’m zonking out, I’ll actually take the glasses off, lean back in the chair, and hold the mic close and just talk. The result is messier than normal typing, sure, but I find editing to be a faster process than writing from scratch anyway. As a result, my tired eyes don’t stare at a screen and I can get, if nothing else, the core of some scenes down. Then I’ll go back and butter them up on the next day. Just getting away from a blank page sometimes acts as that first step, and then I’m off and running, even if I’m still waking up.

Another way to do this is to walk around and talk into a recording device, like your phone, and transcribe. Moving around helps keep you awake, and I’ve found that I can come up with good ideas while on the move that I don’t while sitting down – I read once that there’s a theory around walking being healthy for the mind because, way back in the day, humans used to wander around most of the time, so our minds are used to working while on the go. I dunno. It works.

2. Change Tasks More Frequently

I’m not saying “multitask”, but rather attempt to swap what you’re working on every 20-30 minutes (like the Pomodoro method, for example). Unless you’re really into a scene or whatever it is you’re doing, I’ve found that swapping up activities is like blowing a bit of fresh air into the smoldering fire of your brain on low sleep. It can ignite some sparks, get you jazzed a bit. So what I’ll do is write a scene, then do something like wash the dishes, clean a room, or chase the cats around the house like an insane person as a way of giving the tired brain a break. Note there that I don’t say “switch from writing to another computer task” because I’m trying, here, to give my eyes a rest from the screen too. Ultimately, what tasks you want to switch between is your call, but give it a try.

3. Get some exercise

Yeah, working out when you’re tired might seem like the opposite of a plan. It might, in fact, seem like I’m just spouting nonsense (and I’m neither a doctor, nor a personal trainer, but a writer, so it’s likely that this is all pointless meandering). Still, a workout often does wonders for my attitude on a down day. Doesn’t mean I’m talking about loading up the bench press and shooting for a personal best, or doing a marathon just ’cause you didn’t get your full eight hours, but maybe you do some push-ups and situps for 30 minutes, or take a jog around the neighborhood. Get the blood flowing and all that. I’ll often make a point to walk to the nearby coffee shop, getting the ol’ 2-for-1 benefit of exercise¬†and¬†caffeine.

Lastly, of course, is making sure you get the amount of sleep you need the next night. One of the things Nicole have done, though we don’t always succeed at it, is understand the amount of time it takes us to get ready for bed, and adjust our “bed time” such that we’re generally falling asleep at the same time most nights. This did mean sacrificing some time that we’d normally spend watching a movie or playing a game, but the result is that we’re getting the sleep we need to be productive more days than not, which is the real benefit.

Also, sleep is quite nifty. If you haven’t tried it, you should!

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