Using Your Bloody Red-Eyed Insomnia to Get Things Done

I had two good friends make suggestions on what I should blog about and I liked what they suggested, so here’s the first post for my good friend Laura Thanks to X’s “Nausea” for inspiring my title.over at Learning Catalan.

The mark of sleeplessness

My name is Karl and I am an insomniac.

As a kid, I always had a hard time falling and asleep and would toss and turn two-three hours before I finally fell asleep. I’m pretty sure my mind was filled with kid-thoughts like: What if I fall asleep and don’t wake up? What if mom and dad disappear while I’m asleep? How will I get out of the house if there’s an earthquake? (I grew up in California, lived through several earthquakes, and thought about them constantly.)

The insomnia got worse as a teenager. My sleeplessness was fed by teenage angst and a steady diet of post-apocalyptic SF. My mind would bounce from, Does Leslie like me? and I wonder what it’s like to kiss a girl? to What if the Russians really are aliens and bomb Ventura tomorrow? and Am I punk enough?

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I would flop around in my bed in the dark, mind racing, examining my worries, my longings, my ideas, dissecting every song I knew, every skatepark I wanted to skate, until eventually sleep would open her gentle arms and invite me in.

As far as I can remember, insomnia left in college and in my 20s. I’m sure the new-found combinations of work, alcohol, relationships, and staying up late sent the insomnia into hiding… for a while.

At the same time, I cultivated two bad habits that invited insomnia back into my life: Napping and staying up late to write.

I taught myself to nap in college so I could stay up later and study longer. That habit served me well while I was memorizing the Krebs Cycle and would serve me well a few years later when the most important thing in my life was going out to see a band or hang out at a club. Today, that habit means I can basically fall asleep on demand. Give me a chair, a bit of floorspace, or a subway pole to hang onto and I’ll crash for fifteen minutes and feel refreshed.

The second habit, staying up late to work seemed pretty normal when I started  it. I’d come home from my job at the PR agency, at the dotcom, even from working as a freelancer, then start writing at 10pm. Often, I’d stay up until 4am, go to to work, sleep on the F-train to and from work (only missing my stop once in the 8 years that I did that). The upside to this is I realized that working from 2 am to 4 am is extremely productive. I have five completed novels and six screenplays to prove it.

I suspect those two habits along with the inconsistent sleep habits of three growing little boys invited insomnia back into my life in much more permanent way.

When each boy was born, I learned to get by on four hours of sleep. I would got up for feedings, changed diapers, sat with little baby boys until they fell asleep, then would climb back into bed and wait for sleep to invite me home. Unfortunately, when the boys finally got on their regular sleep schedules – it took Alejandro and Felix until they were 5 and Tomas until he was 3 – my insomnia came back with a vengance.

At first, I didn’t mind. I went back to late-night writing and became productive again. I’d leave the bedroom, do client work, then dedicate time to my latest fiction project.

The problem arose when I had to start getting up at 6:30 every school day to feed the boys and get them to school. Going to bed at 4 or 5 then waking up an hour or two later just didn’t cut it. I found I was moody, grumpy and downright mean. And the last thing I want to do is be the MEAN DAD, though I fear I’ve already cultivated that reputation.


No one is surprised by my insomnia. Every parent goes through that brutal sleepless night phase. I Googled “number of Americans with insomnia” and found an NPR story that says there are a staggering 60 million of us.

My friend Tab though, he said, consider your insomnia a blessing and use it productively.

So I did and I do. And here’s what I do when I find myself up between 1 am and 4 am and I know – because if you’re like me with your insomnia, you know – I’m not going to fall back asleep.

First of all, I make friends with the sleeplessness. I give thanks and tell myself I’m going to do something productive and move myself as far away from Kristen and the sleeping boys. I remind myself that there is nothing from earlier in the day that I need to pay attention to and I can start on something with a new outlook.

Used to be the first thing I would do is fire up the laptop, answer email and mindlessly surf the web, shopping for vintage Porsches and VW Microbuses, catching up on the news in Chile, checking the waves or downloading obscure music. The hours would go by and I’d realized I wasted two-three precious hours.

I don’t do that any more.

Especially now that we know your computer screen contributes to your insomnia.

These days, if I’m up and I absolutely, positively have to use the computer, the first thing I do is boot up the Freedom app to disconnect me from the Internet and its time-sucking temptations.

Insomnia (1997 film)

Second, I decide what I’m going to accomplish: I sometimes wish I could be one of those people who cleans the house or cooks while I’m not sleeping. I’m not. I restrict my night-time activities to writing, reading or yoga/meditating.

Since I’ve already spent years of my life writing late at night, that’s usually what I do. How I am productive as a writer is a topic for another blog post.

Reading is also pretty simple since I have an ever-growing list of books that I want to read. Since I also have the bad habit of staying up all night to read books I’m into (I just did this with The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo triology), I have to decide if I’m going to try to go back to sleep (business book) or stay up (fiction).

As for the yoga and meditation. I practiced yoga at 11 PM for several years. It helped me tremendously with my insomnia.

(I had a yoga teacher say she was surprised I could practice yoga so late  then go to sleep. She called yoga “energizing.” No doubt it is, but the purpose of yoga is to prepare the mind for meditation [the yogis elegantly say, “the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature”], so late-night yoga is great for calming the mind and falling back asleep. Plus, you can do it quietly.)

Meditation is a relatively new thing for me. The Meditation Society of Australia’s free podcasts really helped me kick off my meditation practice. If I decide I’m going to meditate late at night, I’ll turn on the White Noise app or use my Insight Timer app and sit and meditate for 30 to 45 minutes. I am finding meditation is one of the most productive uses of my insomnia.

Third, I do it. I  tell myself I’m going to read, write, meditate or do yoga, for an hour or two, then quit and try to fall back asleep. Usually that works.

(In a separate  post, I’ll outline what I’ve done and do to keep insomnia at bay, but our friend James Altucher has a good section on dealing with insomnia in his blog post How to Live Forever. In short, I’ve dealt with mine by (1) turning off all electronic devices at 11, (2) cranking up the exercise, (3) (occasionally) supplementing with melatonin, and (4) meditating.)

So, if you’re suffering from insomnia, what do you do to be productive?

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Thanks to X’s Nausea for inspiring the title.

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