Recently, I was coaching a client I’ll call Justin, who was complaining about his difficulty falling asleep. As his company goes through major structural transitions, Justin is, unsurprisingly, very stressed out. As a senior executive, he has a lot on his plate, and often finds himself obsessing about what he needs to get done rather than just diving in.
To be clear, Justin has good reason: as an analytical guy, he typically tries to address all sides of a given issue before making major decisions or taking definitive action. While this problem-solving impulse is definitely a huge asset for him on the job—when having to develop new business strategies, or engage with clients—it can be hard for him to turn it off at night when he’s trying to go to sleep.
And Justin’s definitely not alone. I can’t tell you how often I hear about sleep issues in my work. There are the top managers who rely on cutting back on sleep as a way to get more done (especially before big meetings or presentations); then there are the company founders plagued with insomnia, who spend their sleeping hours stewing in questions and obsessions about high-level business matters. Across the board, the likely result of poor sleep is fatigue, poor concentration, and hampered productivity—plus a range of conditions spanning diabetes to immune suppression. Needless to say, pulling all nighters is rarely “worth it.”
So, how common are sleep issues?
Well, let’s just say it’s not just company founders who are finding themselves struggling to get some shut-eye. According to the American Sleep Association, 30% of Americans experience short-term insomnia, and 10% have chronic difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep during the night. Further, inadequate sleep (or consistently getting low-quality sleep) has been shown to increase stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, leading to all the ill effects associated with chronic stress—from reduced focus to hypertension and high blood pressure, among others.
Bottom line? If you have sleep issues, they are affecting way more than just the quality of your life—because the quality of your life affects the quality of your work.
If, like Justin, you often find yourself awake at night stimulated by work-anxiety, here are some suggestions.
1. Tire yourself out.
For those who deal with chronic insomnia, moderate aerobic exercise has been proven as an effective sleep-aid: regular exercise has been shown to halve the average time it took to fall asleep, while also improving sleep quality and feelings of restedness in the morning. These research results stem from a relatively long-term study (the duration of which was several months), suggesting that regular exercise isn’t a short-term fix, but a worthwhile investment that will have a positive impact on your sleep (and your mood, your relationships, your diet, and a myriad of other facets of your life).
2. Be disciplined with a bedtime ritual.
Those of us who have children know that parenting experts frequently suggest having some sort of a routine to get the kids mentally and physically prepared to fall asleep (e.g. I use a bath, book, and lullaby with my preschooler). Yet most of us ignore this wisdom when it comes to ourselves, instead choosing to “lull” ourselves to sleep by checking email, surfing social media, reading news reports about crime or politics, or something else equally unsettling.
Well, the parenting experts have long-been right: just like our children, we do far better when we are conditioned for sleep with a wind-down routine of our own. So try going to bed at a consistent time each night, choosing a relaxing activity or two (e.g. bath, reading, quiet time, meditation) as a lead-up to bedtime, and you might find that it helps you to wind down and go to sleep.
3. Resist the temptation for digital distraction.
Perhaps it’s comforting to know that our entire culture is constantly tempted by distraction, inundated with images, updates, notifications and more at all times. Whatever your reaction, it’s clear that indulging these distractions isn’t a recipe for relaxation.
When you’re tossing and turning in bed, it is certainly tempting to pass the time by scrolling through social media or getting caught up on your stack of magazines. However, by doing these things, you’re engaging your mind in activities it finds “interesting,” and therefore increasing the odds that you’re not going to fall asleep.
Fortunately, I’ve never had problems with insomnia; but I have spent countless nights staying up later than I wanted to be because I got sucked into Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. (If you’re wondering if that extra time spent scrolling was particularly edifying or enriching to my life, the answer is no). If it’s too hard to resist the siren call of your smartphone, don’t keep it near your bed.
4. Establish—and maintain—healthy spatial boundaries.
Commit to putting your work away at a certain time, and stick to it. And, while it might be comfortable set up your laptop and work in your bed (even before your cut-off time), if you have sleep problems, you should really avoid doing this. Aside from the fact that it’s bad for your posture (my massage therapist has admonished me for this on multiple occasions), it’s also strengthening a connection between your bed and work. (i.e. like Pavlov). A classic piece of advice from sleep experts is that the bed should be reserved solely for sleep (and sex). (Similar reasoning to the wind down routine – want to condition yourself appropriately).
5. Schedule your “worry-time.” Really.
This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s a Cognitive Behavioral Technique (CBT) for people who suffer from anxiety disorder. Select a time on the calendar during which you deliberately decide to devote 15 – 30 minutes to worrying. You can aim to do this every day for a week or more. And instead of leaving it to chance, insert it as an entry on your calendar, along with a reminder. Think of it as a trick for your mind.
Strangely, when we are having anxious thoughts, we usually try to avoid them; we feel like we shouldn’t be worrying, or start telling ourselves stories to try to convince ourselves that we feel differently. But with this paradoxical technique, you are actually embracing your worries, and giving them less power. During your “worry appointment,” spend the whole time worrying about whatever problems are bothering you.
This might cause anxiety the first few times, and that’s normal. But what tends to happen over time is that people can become bored with their own worries, which are often repetitive. The other benefit of this approach is that when you catch yourself worrying about something at other times during the day, you can tell yourself, “I don’t need to think about that right now— I’ll worry about it later during my scheduled time.” (And, since you have the time scheduled to do so, you actually will).
6. Vent about your stress…to your journal.
Research has shown that expressive writing can help to reduce intrusive and avoidant thoughts. To make this exercise effective, focus on creating a cohesive narrative, using words related to cause and insight. In other words, try to use the writing to make sense of the experience – instead of just getting stuck in the worries, look at the meaning you can make of it, or the learning you can experience from the events. (e.g. If you have a friend that is constantly complaining about the same thing over and over, it’s unlikely to make her feel better. However, if she is gaining perspective and growing as a result of the experience, then the mental exercise is much more likely to be beneficial to her).
7. Keep a notepad by your bed.
When you have a lot going on in your daily life, it’s totally natural to feel your upcoming tasks and agenda items tugging at your mind when you’re lying in bed each night. There are the projects steps that need to get done, the ideas that need to be generated, the people you need to remember to call.
To deal with this, it can be helpful to keep a notepad by the bed, so you can make a quick note of these thoughts when they came up, rather than ruminating about them. In my own experience, this little trick saves me from the worry that I’ll forget the thoughts. And once you write the thoughts down, think of it as a release—then you can think about something else. (And, if you’re thinking you’ll save yourself a step by entering these ideas straight into your favorite organization app of choice, I recommend staying with the old school approach so that you don’t get pulled into all of the other potentially distracting delights that your smartphone has to offer).
8. Give your mind something else to do.
Instead of counting sheep, you might want to try out University of British Columbia researcher, Luc Beaudoin’s technique called the “cognitive shuffle.” To do this, when you are in bed, come up with a word that has no repeating letters. Then, think of words that start with each letter of the word. For example, if you came up with the word “plate,” you would first, come up with a list of words that start with “P,” then “L,” “A”, and so on. Apparently, this strategy is engaging enough that it gives your mind something to do instead of worrying, but not so exciting that it will get in the way of falling asleep.
9. Meet your new friend mindfulness.
I know you’ve probably heard the benefits of mindfulness touted for productivity, but hear me out. Developing a regular mindfulness practice will also help you to create a different relationship with your thoughts, and help you relax a bit—especially before bed, when monkey-mind can go wild.
The Greater Good Center at the University of Berkeley defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” A simple mindfulness practice is to strive to observe your breathing. As you notice thoughts coming up, gently notice them, let them go, and resume focusing on your breathing. Repeat this process throughout your practice.
By learning to observe your thoughts with a greater sense of spaciousness, you’ll get more skilled at letting them go, instead of getting caught up in them. With consistency, your mindfulness practice will create changes in your brain that will help you to better regulate your emotions and stay calmer.
To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how to develop a practice of your own, click here.