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Yesterday, I woke up after a terrible night of sleep for the second day in a row and promptly spent most of the morning in tears over various things going on in my life. At first, I couldn’t fully understand what exactly was going on with me. Was I PMSing? Are some of these things really stressing me out that much? Can I blame anyone else for my shitty mood? But no, it turns out, most of what was to blame was my lack of sleep.
I’ve had a strange relationship with sleep throughout my life. In high school, when I had to wake up at 5 in the morning to get ready for school, I would usually go to bed by midnight in order to get in a minimum of 5 hours of sleep. Then, on the weekends, I would catch up with epic 14-hour sleep that drove my mother crazy since I would often wake up on Saturday afternoons, eat dinner, and then lock myself back in my room.
Somehow, that “in bed at midnight” habit stuck and I’ve mostly adhered to it throughout my life. Still, spending my early 20s in New York City didn’t exactly provide me with the best sleep habits since the city, as they say, really doesn’t ever sleep. Although I still usually went to bed by midnight during the work week to get around 6-7 hours of sleep, weekends were a completely different story. I stayed out late and woke up late, frequently logging in 12 hours of sleep. Just catching up on my sleep debt, I thought at the time.
But sleep debt isn’t real. The truth is that you can’t magically catch up on all of the sleep you have missed during the week with your weekend sleep. At least, not in the long run. In the short term, sure, I can sleep a little extra today and tomorrow to make up for the less-than-adequate sleep in the past week but, over time, sleep debt accumulates into chronic sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep over a long period of time can eventually lead to weight gain, anxiety/depression, diabetes, worsening immune system, memory problems, and… yes, a loss in creativity.
As writers, creativity means a lot to us. I value it highly since it takes real creative energy to come up with story ideas, to write a really enthralling pitch, to respond to emails with enthusiasm, and even sometimes to write the most boring of stories. It takes a certain amount of creativity to write even the most basic sentences but, most of all, we need the drive of creativity to make us feel like our most successful, writerly selves, right?
Unfortunately, a lack of sleep messes with all of that.
And as freelance writers or any kind of creative types, the last thing we can afford is to lose some of our creativity because we didn’t get adequate sleep last night. Even worse, a lack of sleep leads to less productivity
— so whether you have a day job or writing is your full-time, being less productive can ultimately mean making less money, which can mean more stress and even LESS sleep. Trust me, I’ve been caught in that cycle before and it sucks.
That is precisely why this first Self-Care For Writers newsletter is dedicated to the topic of sleep.
I first stumbled upon just how much good sleep can impact my life when I met my now-husband. He needed to go to bed on the earlier side because he had to wake up early for work and so I started going to bed earlier, too. Almost immediately, after a few weeks of getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night, I noticed that I was feeling generally better. My mood was sunnier, I had more energy, and I was feeling really gung-ho in my creative pursuits. Now, three years in, good sleep has become a cornerstone of our relationship.
Friends often ask me how I manage to get so much sleep and my answer, as much as I know you don’t want to hear this, is to go to bed earlier. You don’t have to go from falling asleep at 2 am to 10 pm in one day. Instead, I recommend doing it gradually. I don’t remember exactly how gradually we did it but, now, our bedtime is 9 pm. That’s right: 9 pm!
And when I say 9 pm, I don’t mean that we start our nightly routine at 9 pm (putting the dishes in the dishwasher, brushing teeth, etc.). I mean that, most days during the week, we are actually already in bed by the time 9 pm rolls around. In order to achieve this, we start our nightly routine an hour before.
I know what you’re going to say because I’ve said this a million times before: But 9 pm is so early! That sounds so boring! I can never do that!
Trust me, though, YOU CAN. I’m not saying that it’ll be easy and I’m not saying that you have to do it exactly how I do it or even go to bed as early as I do but what I am saying is this: Getting better sleep is going to dramatically improve your life. In fact, and I hate to put it so bluntly, getting 7-9 hours is the single best thing you can do for your body and mind. It’s better than exercising, eating right, or having a strong social support network. Combined.
Good sleep matters. Period. And for most people, good sleep means 7-9 hours per night on a consistent basis. No sleep debt games here.
How do I know all this? Well, for one, I lived it. Secondly, last year I read a wonderful book titled Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams that goes into all of the reasons why getting good sleep is so crucial to our overall health. So don’t take it from me, take it from the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science. In this fascinating book, Walker explains how a good night’s shut-eye can “make us cleverer, more attractive, slimmer, happier, healthier, and ward of science.”
But what you really care about is your writing, right? Well, it can help with that too.
So when it comes to your self-care as a writer, begin by making sleep a top priority. I can’t give you as many tips as you’ll learn through Why We Sleep or through the millions of articles written on the subject but what I can give you is this:
DO IT. Do it today. Don’t wait. Don’t keep accumulating sleep debt. Don’t keep pretending like staying up to work on an article tonight isn’t going to make you exhausted, grumpy, uncreative, inefficient, unproductive, and generally difficult tomorrow. Don’t keep perpetuating the cycle of getting less sleep and feeling more frustrated. It leads to burn out. Trust me. In my case, it led to a serious problem with drinking and losing a job I loved.
Bad sleep is a bitch. Stop doing it to yourself. If you’re serious about your self-care, go to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual tonight. Then another 15 minutes earlier tomorrow. Keep doing that until you get to a place where you are getting consistently good sleep. Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that means at least 7 hours a night but for most of us 8-9 is better.
Do that and you’ll soon find yourself being more productive and creative during the day, which will mean never again having to stay up late to work on a deadline and more time to do the work that truly fulfills us. And isn’t that what all us writers want?