Sleep is something I’ve struggled with all my life. Being a writer has only complicated things, as, over the years, I’ve lain awake many a night for hours on end, my story unfolding in my head, tempting me to get up and write things down. More than once in my lifetime I’ve used it as an opportunity to rise at some insane hour like 12:45am and write, sometimes even making coffee and working until just before sunrise.
I can’t do that anymore, and in fact I’ve learned that, sleepless nights or not, I’m wise to see those periods of nocturnal windmill-mind as times where I need to focus on how I might better enter the land of Nyx, not on how I might defy the laws of nature.
Why sleep matters (especially) if you’re a creative person
But why bother, though? Shouldn’t writers defy the rules of reality and embrace the creative spirit when it strikes? Is it about art above all, that desperate need to get out of the way of yourself and your limits and let something far greater than you come into being?
I used to think so. But then I started to get health problems, and, my natural default being to tackle all problems proactively, I started to do research and lo and behold, I discovered the importance of sleep — namely, the role of sleep in a host of health problems, many of which were the ones I was having. I made some radical changes to my lifestyle and made the priority of getting 8+ hours of sleep a night my top priority above everything else, and my health problems went away.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg, and not the actual eureka moment that made me jump in fully to this paradigm shift. It was an article I read by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/sleep) which outlined not only the health considerations of sleep, but the impact on cognitive function as well. I highly recommend you read that article, but the main point that struck me was one of the studies that was done on sleep. It showed that people who slept 6-8 hours / night were as cognitively impaired as people who slept 4-6 hours / night. While those who slept 8+ hours were top of their game. Specifically, this was for complex processing and learning tasks.
Any writer I’m sure can agree that writing a book is as complex as neurosurgery. Maybe more complex. Thesis stated: if you want to be at the top of your game as a writer, you need to be getting that extra bit of sleep, and here’s why.
Every night once we fall asleep, we go through a series of 90-120 minute sleep cycles. During one cycle, we pass through REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep — when dreaming happens — and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep has three stages, but it’s the third when our brain frequency drops to its lowest (called Slow Wave Sleep, or SWS) and our body tends to deep maintenance tasks like cell repair and growth. When you fall asleep, you are essentially returning to the well and dipping in two different ladles every sleep cycle, one for the SWS sleep and one for the REM sleep.
You might have experienced how in the morning you wake up and are aware of your bedroom, and you’re still tired but could get up, so you choose to go back to sleep and then you wake up after having had some bizarre dream, but then when you wake up this time it’s like the cobwebs have cleared and you have a big stretch and feel rested and it’s time to get up. In other words, both ladles for SWS and REM are full and you’re ready for the day.
For writers, it’s the REM ladle that is most important. Though the function of dreaming is still not well understood, the function of REM sleep is known to help in the formation of new memories and restore brain chemistry to its normal balance. If you want a metaphor, think of a computer defrag. If you don’t run it, your computer will still do it’s job, but it won’t take long for things to end up a real mess and for your processing to slow right down. This is what happens over time to people who consistently sleep less than 8 hours / night. The REM ladle keeps coming up every morning 80% full, and the damage is slow and mostly invisible.
How to get 8+ hours of sleep a night so you can write better books
For me, getting a good night’s sleep is all about priorities. I work out regularly, and follow a specific regiment of strength training and running, and the days I show up to the gym are as fixed in place as a meeting with the doctor. In fact, I schedule them so that I don’t book that time for anything else.
Exercise is a high priority for me, but sleep is my top priority, so just like with exercise, I’ve found forcing my life to flex around my sleep time has allowed me to ensure I get the sleep I need so I can approach my writing and editing work with my creativity fully juiced.
The strategy is going to differ for everyone because some people fall asleep quickly, others don’t. If you can’t fall asleep though, my recommendation is to read a book. Not on your phone (screens can stimulate your mind, and your phone will tempt you to go on Facebook where you will be as mentally active as someone at a late night party), but a back-lit ereader is fine. Go ahead and read and read and read and read (and read and read …) until you feel tired. I find when I do this it doesn’t take long to get to sleep, and most importantly, I go to bed with some new fresh insights about storytelling that have struck me from what I’ve read.
The hardest part now is the other end. Have you ever gone to bed planning out your day, seeing how it’s going to start at, say, 6am, and with that you block in all the things you’re going to get done. But then you’re lying in bed unable to sleep, and that’s just getting you more frustrated. It’s now midnight and you’re only going to get 6 hours, but screw that, you have so much to get done, oh well — and hey, there’s coffee, a couple of cups and you’ll be talking a mile a minute, even thinking a mile a minute (never mind if those thoughts will be bordering on manic chatter). Then tomorrow comes and you either do one of two things: hit the snooze button and sleep in, then get angry all day and grumble about being behind; or, get up and find for the rest of the day you feel like a ghost haunting a caffeine-possessed body.
Okay, I’m personalizing that paragraph, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone in that kind of experience. What I’m trying to illustrate is just why the waking up part is the hardest part of making sure you sleep enough: rationalization. Specifically, our scarcity mindset.
For those not familiar with the terminology, scarcity and abundance are two sides of a coin. Those with scarcity mindsets look around and see problems, and where things are lacking. Those who have cultivated an abundance mentality look around and see solutions, and how many opportunities abound. I used the word cultivate intentionally: our default is to look around, see all the problems creeping in like weeds, panic, and into survival mode we go. 6am comes and we’re up, or we give in to our frail mortal coil and we go through the day crucifying ourselves for it.
What if, instead of laying there at 12am freaking out over the fact that you’re only going to get 6 hours of sleep, you instead decided to throw your plan out the window and decide you’re going to get up when you feel you REM ladle is full? What if you instead decided to wake up and go into that next day not beating yourself up for having less time, but cherishing the fact that for what time you have you’re going to feel energized, creative, present, and grounded in it?
So there might be consequences. I had to embrace the consequences when I decided to treat my gym sessions like appointments. I even had to turn down editing jobs that would have paid well, because they were on deadline and I knew I would be housebound for the few days it would take to complete them. Likewise with sleep I’ve had to change around my entire lifestyle to make sure I get those 8+ hours, even on nights when I don’t get to sleep right away.
Strangely enough (and here’s that scarcity mentality lie shown up) I’ve found that my daily life has actually gotten easier and, like with the gym sessions, grown around that commitment. Most importantly, when I’m working, be it on my novel or on an editing project, or overseeing production and direction for my company, I’m full present and doing the best work I know I can be doing.
What about you? Do you prefer Edison’s 2 hours per night so you can dust off your best creative ideas? Are you a night owl? A morning bird? Are you a reformed night owl like me and if so, what habits have helped make that lifestyle work for you? How do you cultivate an abundance mentality in how you put sleep first?
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You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.