Surviving a Sleepless Night

I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled series on striving without burnout or rebellion to focus on some advice that is very timely for me today: how to survive a sleepless night.

Thankfully, I don’t suffer from chronic insomnia. My sleeplessness is acute. I may have trouble sleeping every few months for one or two nights at a time. But that limited bit of sleeplessness tests my coping skills. Studies show that dealing with a sleep deficit slows reaction time in the same way as if a person has been drinking alcohol. I am especially aware of this as I have a long commute, almost an hour one-way on high-speed Interstate highways. Occasionally vertigo also accompanies my sleeplessness. Because of slowed reaction time and my experiences with vertigo, I try to work from home on days that I have a sleepless night, if possible.

No matter if I’m working from home or if I’m trudging to work, I’ve found some tips that help me cope with a sleepless night.

Get up. I have a threshold for staying in bed trying to fall asleep. Once the clock hits around 4:00 AM, I know I’ve tried my best and I might as well dig into the long day ahead. Since I’m sleep-deprived everything will take longer anyway, so I might as well get going.

Take care of my physical comfort. It feels like I have a hard time regulating my body temperature when I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I feel hot and cold all at the same time. The last thing I want to do when I’m overtired is put on something itchy or restrictive. I try to go with layers of comfortable clothes.

Don’t indulge in a tired look. While I try to be comfortable in my dress, I also try to go with something that is a complete outfit and one that I’ve been complimented on in the past, if possible. I have a few comfortable options that fit the bill. I try to do my makeup and hair as normally as possible, too. I don’t need to broadcast how exhausted I am and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror looking like a schlub only reinforces tired feelings.

Don’t overcaffeinated. In our Starbucks society, we often think that caffeine is a remedy for lack of sleep. We can just pump ourselves up with a Venti Latte and stay up a couple extra hours to knock out a project. This isn’t the case and too much caffeine + lack of sleep is an especially bad combo for me. My tolerance for caffeine is low. I can have a cup of coffee in the morning and maybe a caffeinated beverage before or with lunch, but any more than that and I get jittery: my heart pounds, my hands shake, and my head feels fuzzy. If I’m dealing with a sleepless night, I may already be experiencing these symptoms. No need to double down on them with a double shot of espresso.

Make a to-do list / plan my day. On any regular day, I like to make a plan. My planner is an hour-by-hour planner and I pencil in appointments and meetings and then fill in the rest of the day with projects and tasks. This is especially important on days when I haven’t gotten to sleep. Unless I have a plan, it is easy to get stuck staring blankly into space trying to figure out what do next. I focus some time right at the beginning of the day to plug in the holes on my calendar so you don’t have to tap into executive functions of my brain when I get the most tired.

Knock those pesky chores off my list. Throughout the day, accomplishing little tasks will help to keep me motivated. If I’m up early, I go ahead and unload the dishwasher or fold that basket of laundry. At work, I take the time to file that stack of invoices that is piling up. Doing the tasks I can accomplish that make a big visual difference but that require little abstract thinking give me a boost and help keep me motivated throughout the day.

Do something creative. Color, rearrange my office pictures, sketch, doodle. I take a break from whatever I’m are doing and use my brain differently. What I do doesn’t have to be good, but if I feel like I can’t possibly accomplish another thing on my to-do list, I give the part of my brain that has been working hard a break and do something else.

Move. Get outside and go for a walk. Stand up while I take a phone call. I don’t overtax myself; a five-mile jog or 100 burpees are probably a bad idea, but a little physical movement throughout the day will help get me through until bedtime.

Eat healthy and pack extra snacks. It took me awhile to realize it, but I get a pit in my stomach when I have a sleepless night that seems bottomless. I am so hungry all day. I’m not sure why I feel so hungry all day, but it probably has something to do with the relationship between sleep and leptin. To avoid snarfing down three-day-old donuts or taking an emergency detour to the drive-thru for extra large french fries, I try to add a boost to each meal that I pack for work and also to pack extra snacks. I may put an extra scoop of yogurt into my smoothie or include a heartier mid-morning snack of a peanut butter-banana sandwich. I may not eat everything I have, but if my monster appetite demands food, it’s better for me to have something healthy at the ready.

Strike my best Wonder Woman pose. Research shows that if you strike a power pose, it can affect how other people perceive you and how you perceive yourself. I try to remember this especially when I am extra tired. I remind myself to stand/sit up straight. I can get a small but instant boost of vitality anytime I roll my shoulders back and down, put my hands on my hips and strike a wide-legged stance.

Unitask. I run into a lot of articles that say humans cannot multitask. We are unable to do two things at once. While I try to take this into account, it is especially important for me to remember after a restless night when my mental reserves are already low. It is important for me to focus on one thing at a time rather than keeping an eye on incoming emails while writing a memo or trying to address envelopes while sitting through a meeting.

Put some music in my ears. While I’m fully aware that listening to music while doing other work is technically multitasking, selectively listening to music that will pump me up during discrete points throughout the day can be a good strategy for surviving the day after a sleepless night. Whether it’s Vivaldi or Stevie Wonder or Adele, the energizing strains of a familiar song can give me life.

Listen. It’s very easy to miss something if you’re tired. I try to listen actively all the time, but it is even more important to do when I’m tired. This is also why I try to avoid talking on the phone when I’m tired. I do a bad job paying attention on the phone because I need that combination of visual and auditory stimulus for something to really stick and to be able to interpret accurately. My best trick for paying attention while listening is to take lots of notes. Whether I’m sitting through a team meeting or a church sermon, I do a better job listening if I have a paper and pen in hand. I suspect this is why I’m the secretary/recorder of different organizations and committees. I’m doing the work anyway because I have to in order to pay attention.

Don’t talk about how tired I am. Nobody really cares how tired I am. Chances are, they are tired, too. It’s not a competition. I think when you talk about being tired, it just reminds people that they are also tired. If anyone asks what’s wrong the night after I didn’t get sleep, I just say, “I didn’t sleep well last night” and leave it at that. (I stick with the standard, “fine” or “pretty good” in response to a more generic “How are you” inquiry.)

Go to bed. Finally, after a sleepless night, I feel free to go to bed as soon as I can and I am tired. I try not to miss my first wave of nighttime tiredness to watch tv with my family or to empty the dishwasher. If I want to put myself to bed right after work and I have the opportunity to do so, I go for it. I know I’m not really going to wreck my sleep schedule in one night and I’ll be better equipped to get my bedtime back to normal after a night of rest.

If I can’t fall asleep that second night. If sleep isn’t coming that second night, I don’t mess around with any non-chemical techniques for falling asleep. I either take a Benadryl or have an alcoholic drink. I don’t do this often, but on rare occasions that I’m so nervous about suffering a second consecutive night of sleeplessness, I’ve found it is easier for me to take my brain out of the equation with booze of Benadryl. I know that alcohol actually disrupts sleep, so I stick to just one drink. For me, if I’m stuck in a worry-cycle, getting bad sleep actually lets me get over my anxiety about not sleeping and helps me reset for subsequent nights. I’ve also found that, besides Benadryl, over-the-counter sleep aids just make me uncomfortably dizzy and paranoid, which increases my anxiety and decreases my ability to fall asleep.

Luckily my sleeplessness is episodic and manageable. If you’re reading this and feel that your sleeplessness is unmanageable or is negatively affecting your life for more than just a day or two at a time, you should see a doctor.


My Fourth Key: Show Up

Showing up is 80 percent of life. – Woody Allen

I think we’ve established already that I listen to a lot of podcasts. In addition to On Being and Happier, the podcast that I listen to most faithfully is How to Be Amazing. Hosted by Michael Ian Black, the podcast’s format is an interview between Michael and some person who does something creative or interesting. The thing that they all have in common is a commitment to showing up.

The concept of showing up is so simple it is easy to overlook, and yet, without it you would never get anything done. It can also encompass so many other pieces of advice that people believe are necessary. “What you do every day is more important that what you do once in awhile.” “If something is important to you, but it on your schedule.” “Gather the tools you’ll need to get the job done.” etc., etc. But for me, showing up can be distilled into two simple and distinct concepts:

  1. Put your butt in the chair (or wherever else it needs to be to get the job done).
  2. Dress the part.

Put Your Butt in the Chair

Building the habit of writing this blog helped me to grasp this all-important piece of showing up. It’s so obvious it seems a little ludicrous to put into words, but unless I sit in front of my laptop, I don’t get any writing done. Almost by accident and certainly without plan, I started showing up every morning between 5:45 and 6:20, butt in chair and fingers poised above the keys. It all started one morning when I woke up ridiculously early, unable to sleep. Then I got up early the next day, and the next, until it just was a thing I did. Obviously it is helpful that this is something I want to do, but even if it wasn’t, putting my butt in the chair is a prerequisite to doing the work.

I experience the same simple phenomenon when I need to take care of the flower beds. I secretly love weeding the garden and have a hard time stopping once I get started, but oh, getting started… It is so difficult to overcome the inertia. All it takes, though, for me to get the job done is putting my butt in the garden. Once I’m where I need to be, logic overcomes any objections and I do the work.

Dress the Part

I can and have pulled weeds in both pajamas and business casual. But if I really want to get in the dirt and stay awhile, it is necessary for me to get into my “yard work clothes.” I used to never understand when stay-at-home moms or people who worked from home regularly talked about how important it was to take a shower and put on an outfit. That didn’t seem to resonate with my experiences.  

But then I noticed something curious, when I came home and put on pajamas or loungewear (really the same thing in my book), I was more likely to lay around the house and accomplish nothing. When I came home and put on jeans, I was more likely to do chores. This realization led me to understand that I have different “uniforms” for different work.

For actual work, I dress in business casual, but usually wear some kind of jacket. On Friday I wear jeans and a work-logo shirt. When I’m working outside, I have a designated pair of work jeans that I wear with an old tank or race t-shirt. Now that I understand that I can’t just put my pajamas on after work, I changed into a transitional outfit of jeans and a “weekend” top. Even when I stumble out of bed to blog in the morning, I pull on pants and a sweatshirt/robe/cardigan over my pajamas and stick my feet into slippers.

I experienced the same phenomenon when I was running. The biggest stumbling block was getting ready and shutting the door behind me. Once I was on the road or the trail, the running part came relatively easy. The hard part was overcoming inertia to get out of bed or to go back out after work. In running and writing and life in general, just showing up will get you on the path to where you want to be.

My Third Key: Above all else, guard your heart

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

The New International Version of Proverbs 4:23 is most representative of all the translations that I found on Bible Gateway, but a few of them are translated more along the lines of this version, from the Good News Translation, “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.” While I’m far from qualified to say which version is more representative of the intent of the original Hebrew text, I do think they both are a good explanation for my third key: mantras.

I don’t mean mantras in the Om santih santih santih sense but more along the lines of an affirmation.


The thing about mantras, for me, is that they are a way to short-circuit my negative inner monologue. I use them to interrupt negative, discouraging or lazy thought-patterns and replace them with some positive encouragement. In an interview with Kate Bratskeir for a Huffington Post article, founder of The Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network Kathleen Hall said that every thought and emotion changes the neurochemicals within our brain immediately. This change has an impact on our mental and physical health. By repeating a mantra, we have the power to “right the ship” of our mind.

Mantras may be my most effective tool for habit change. When I tackled two big habits in my twenties, stopping smoking and starting jogging, I used the same mantra: I can survive anything for two minutes. Even though these two habits are very different, the mantra worked for riding out a nicotine craving as well as it worked for pounding the pavement when every system in my body was screaming at me to stop.


At work, I’m working on incorporating a mantra that I heard on the “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcast episode about “observing a threshold ritual.” Gretchen’s sister, Elizabeth Craft, has a sign in her office that says, “It’s a fun job, and I enjoy it.” This mantra helps me shift my attitude when I’m feeling fatigued or burnt out.

I’m still working on developing mantras for the big three habits I’m working on: keeping up with household chores, exercise and writing. Here are some contenders:

  • For Chores
    • It’s a small investment for a big payoff.
    • What else would you be doing right now?
    • If you never change, you’ll never change.
    • If I don’t, who will?
  • For Exercise
    • Know your limitations, and then defy them.
    • It’s the start that stops most people.
    • Be in the minority. (Only 20% of Americans get the recommended amount of exercise.)
    • Squats now, knees later.
  • For Writing
    • What am I trying to say?

While there are lots of mantras out there to choose from, picking something that is personal is important. My mantra of “I can do anything for two minutes” grew out of my personal experience with running. A lot of my chores mantra choices use guilt as a motivator, which usually works and, for me, guilt avoidance can produce a positive feeling. Three of my exercise mantra choices speak to my “rebel tendency,” while the fourth is about family medical history and avoiding a potential future that I witnessed in my grandfather and mother.

It is also important that my mantra speaks to my particular stumbling block for the habit. While my stumbling block for chores (sometimes) and exercise (always) is just doing it, I don’t have the same problem with writing, right now. Instead, I can sometimes ramble off on tangents or get stuck at the end of a sentence or paragraph. Asking myself, “What am I trying to say?” is often enough to move me forward in the direction I need to go.

Mantras aren’t a one-size-fits-all key for habit change. The cat hanging from a tree limb on a poster might now do it for me and Tony Robbins might make me roll my eyes. I like to tailor my mantras to fit the particular obstacle that I’m struggling with at any given time. But in the end, guarding my heart and my thoughts does help shape my life.

My Second Key: I can do anything, but not everything.

“You can do anything, but not everything.” – David Allen

The above quote is from an interview of productivity guru David Allen but the concept originally came to me when reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In the chapter on “play” she included several comments from her blog readers that were on a post about “the ‘sadness of  a happiness project.’” They included the following:

I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember the incident very clearly:

One day–I was about 34 years old–it dawned on me: I can DO ANYTHING I want, but I can’t DO EVERYTHING I want.


While this concept of “anything but not everything” seems obvious, it isn’t something that we are told as children. We are quick to tell our kids that they can do anything they put their minds to and that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. But we seldom tell them they can’t do everything. Sure, only those special select few five-year-olds respond to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a fireman-teacher-butterfly-princess,” but when we do grow up many of us hang on, a little bit, to our special five-year-old selves: putting out fires, teaching our kids, emerging from our cocoons with Princess Kate hair, all the while holding down a full-time job.

And for me, realizing that I can’t be a fireman-teacher-butterfly-princess, both literally and metaphorically, is it’s own kind of ambiguous loss. The Pauline Boss quote I referenced in Part I, “I don’t like to use the word acceptance, but I think we can try to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.” broke open the idea of ambiguous loss of an alternate self for me. While the ambiguous loss of a loved one is a serious matter, I think we can experience ambiguous loss for our imagined selves as we realize that an alternate path we may have held for ourselves is no longer open to us. For example, I will probably never be a marathon finisher. I have too much pain in my back and hips when I run long distances. I haven’t run more than a mile in probably four years. But I couldn’t keep myself from including the word “probably.” I still hold out hope, however dim, that my alternate self may its way back to me, however unlikely. I can’t make myself believe that the marathon-me is totally out of the question, yet.

For me, there is too much grief in closing a door on my alternate reality right now. I am learning to accept those limitations in baby steps. It is easier to accept that I can’t do something right now because my time is limited or because I need to take a first step. I can’t devote time and energy to growing all my own food right now, because my husband’s and my responsibilities as a couple have changed since he got a new job and we have to strike a better balance of shared duties first. I can’t run a marathon right now because I need to work on strengthening my core.

In the interview I linked at the beginning of this post, David Allen goes on to say “Just control your aspirations. That will simplify things. Learning to set boundaries is incredibly difficult for most people.” For me, although I may not be able to completely give up on some pipe dreams just yet, I am working hard to set boundaries and control my aspirations in the short term. I can’t do everything right now, but I can take a step toward doing anything.

I decided that for right now, I can work on three habits and two projects. Even though I’m thoroughly taken with the idea of having a strawberry patch, I’m resisting all research related to this topic because it isn’t one of my projects. I don’t want to abandon what I want to get done right now for my imagined future self. I can do anything, but not everything.

The habits I’m trying to cultivate right now include:

  1. Posting on this blog daily.
  2. Assuming more of the daily household upkeep chores.
  3. Exercising daily.

The projects I’m trying to complete right now include:

  1. Making cushion covers for our ancient, hand-me-down couch.  I finished this project! My next is another sewing project: taking apart a skirt that is too big for me and coming apart and fitting it back together. Because of the way the skirt is made this is more complicated than it sounds.
  2. Making 36 cakes in 12 months.

I’m working very hard to not move on to any other habits until I have at least a solid month in with these three and to not move onto other projects until I have completed these. I can do anything, not everything.

Being Comfortable with What I Cannot Solve

I have a difficult time resisting the urge to dive into a big project. I can get instantly hooked on the next big idea to improve myself or accomplish something. Case in point, last week I wanted to become vegan and to grow all my own food in the back yard. These things aren’t related, though. It wasn’t “I can become vegan and since I’m not eating animal products I could produce a lot of my own food.” It was, “I know, I’ll be vegan,” followed three days later by “I know, I could eat local by growing food in the back year.” It’s an impulsive desire to save myself and the world through taking on a big project.

I am a consummate planner and project starter, but a terrible follow-througher and project finisher. This is why, before I even settled into a more balanced mindset for a week, I immediately started thinking about things I needed to do to be a better version of myself.

Sanity in the Summertime

This is not the version on our basement bookshelf. It was a much more early 1980s cover.


This impulse doesn’t surprise me one bit. I’m a sucker for the self-help/DIY category. In elementary school, I got this book from the book order that was all about how to be better organized. I read it over and over. Same with this book I found on my parents’ basement bookshelves called Sanity in the Summertime. Clearly as a very young reader, I was not the target audience for a book with a frazzled cartoon mom being pulled in different directions by three children on the cover. But I must’ve flipped through the book dozens of times.

My book about organization didn’t make me the extremely organized person I envisioned any more than Sanity in the Summertime made me a good mom (at 9 years old). Likewise, my charts and checklists and plans don’t make me a fundamentally different person. That’s not to say that I am incapable of change. In my past, I’ve become a runner; I’ve stopped smoking, for Pete’s sake, and that is supposedly one of the most difficult habits to change.

The difference between my charts and checklists and the changes I’ve been successful with in the past is how I’ve approached the changes I want to make. Ultimately, when I create an elaborate plan for habit change, I’m prone to suffering from burnout and rebellion. I either get so worn down trying to keep up with everything (or neglect my plans for a few days because I feel worn down from other stressors) or I get resentful that I have to do all this stuff (which is stupid because I’m the one who decided to do that stuff in the first place). I need to identify a better path to habit change for me that will allow me to strive for better without burning out or rebelling.

What follows over the next few weeks are the keys I am identifying and refining to allow me to navigate my way through those tensions that Gretchen Rubin identified in her Happiness Project. How do I “accept myself while expecting more from myself” and I do I cultivate a healthy atmosphere of growth while intensifying my good feelings and avoiding the bad feelings.

My First Key: Being Comfortable with What We Cannot Solve

“I don’t like to use the word acceptance, but I think we can try to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.” – Pauline Boss in “On Being with Krista Tippett”

Originally I had called this key “acceptance.” I had written part of this post and left it unfinished for a day and a half while I attended to my real-world life. This afternoon, on my way home after a meeting, I decided to finish an episode of the podcast “On Being with Krista Tippett” that I had started listening to over the weekend. (I suspect, gentle reader, that I will mention this podcast many times in the future. I love listening to it and have years of old episodes queued up.) The episode was an interview with Dr. Pauline Boss who studies ambiguous loss and unresolved grief. At the very end of the interview, Dr. Boss utters the line above. She’s referring to emotionally fraught issues such as the disappearance of a loved one, but the quote resonated with me as a good mantra for this key.

Except for a few areas of my life (making regular doctor’s appointments, for example, and exercising regularly) none of my goals are things that so obviously and negatively affect my health and longevity. And while there are several things I would like to change about myself to positively impact my mental health, striving to achieve those things in a way that has never been successful for me in the past is actually detrimental to my mental health. I can’t count the number of times that burnout, rebellion and their attendant shame (“Why can’t I even do this one simple thing?”) has deeply contributed to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.

I’m currently re-reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (another name I will probably mention often over the course of the next few weeks) and this line near the beginning jumped out at me: “I wanted to take on pleasure like a homework assignment, or a giant science fair project.” I suddenly realized this is how I’ve tried in the past to approach my life. After way too many years of the educational system, I want to be able to sign up for a class, take notes, complete papers and assignments and hand them in for a grade. I thought this need for accountability meant, in Gretchen Rubin’s terms, that I was an obliger (which I am but with a severe tendency toward obliger rebellion) and needed a better system of accountability. In reality, I think the real temptation is in taking on myself “like a homework assignment” is completion. I don’t need accountability; I just want to pass the class.

So instead of structuring my self-improvement projects like I would structure a lesson plan, with goals and objectives, and a step-by-step guide complete with a rubric, my new grounding principle for change is this, “If this is it, that’s ok.” If I never complete another project or form a new healthy habit or break a bad habit, no big deal. I’m okay just like this. Sure it can feel neurotic inside my head, but I can also turn that part of my brain off and notice the golden light of the sunset bouncing off the playhouse and garage. Yes, I probably eat too much fast food, but I love spinach and kale and almost every other kind of vegetable. No, I don’t get regular dedicated exercise, but I try to move more in my daily life. My house doesn’t look like it belongs in a magazine and it never will, but it holds the things I use and love and that bring me joy.

In other words, I don’t have to accept the things I don’t like about myself, but I can learn to be more comfortable with the fact that, even with perfect plans, I am problem to be solved and there is no final exam. I am an unsolvable, imperfect person and that is something that is much more interesting and joyful and comfortable.