Writers & Their Sleep

Writers & Their Sleep

This post is a part of an ongoing series entitled MIP {Man In Progress}. After my 25th Birthday I decided to improve three aspects of my life, one of those aspects was my physical well-being.  My philosophy is that a writer’s work and his life are irrevocably intertwined and in order to improve one, we inevitably have to improve the other.

On December 7, 2010 at 8:00 a.m., a conference room in Washington D.C. is crowded with women awaiting their next lecturer. At once, the crowd grows silent as Arianna Huffington, a writer, a media titan, and the founder of The Huffington Post–the second most viewed news site on the Internet–takes the stage and begins to share with the rest of the women in the room the secret to her phenomenal, meteoric success.

What is her secret?

One word.


Five years earlier, on a similar winter morning, I am sitting in an auditorium filled with dozens of other college students. We’re all waiting for Dr. Dement to appear. Dr. Dement, if you didn’t know, is the guy who discovered R.E.M. sleep. He also runs the most sought after and visited sleep clinic in the world.

I am taking his class, “Sleep & Dreams,” not out of my own personal interest, but to fulfill a mandatory degree requirement. At the moment, I am completely unaware of how Dr. Dement’s class is about to change the way I look at sleep forever.

At once, the auditorium grows silent as Dr. Dement saunters onto the stage. The Doctor is followed by an entourage of teaching assistants, making The Doctor look like the rock-star-version of a college professor.

As if it couldn’t get more surreal, when Dr. Dement finally takes center stage, the entire auditorium cheers him on. I even hear several people in the audience whistle and holler.

Gradually, the cheering dies down as Dr. Dement starts the class.

After The Doctor reviews some of the points he made the week before, he continues the day’s lecture in a somber tone. He begins by addressing the dangers of sleep deprivation. A stream of images is now projected on a giant screen behind him. First, he mentions the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster of 1986 and how, after an intensive investigation, it was discovered that the shuttle’s malfunction was largely due to lack of sleep. The managers who were overseeing the shuttle’s launch were too tired to catch their deadly mistakes. Then, Dr. Dement mentions the famous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989 and reveals that it, too, was caused by lack of sleep. In that case, it was the overworked and exhausted crew that eventually piloted the oil tanker straight into disaster. The giant screen behind The Doctor now displays the aftermath of several car accidents. The Doctor proceeds to explain how dozens of families have lost loved ones in these types of crashes. What caused these crashes? Not alcohol, not drugs, not even cell phone use–it was lack of sleep, he says.

Leaving this tremendous food for thought in each student’s head, The Doctor ends his class by leading the whole auditorium in shouting his sacred mantra: “DROWSINESS IS RED ALERT!”

A mantra that reminds us all that if we ever find ourselves driving too hard and too fast, and our eyes are closing in on us, that we should pull over in a safe area close by, park our car and go to sleep.

At last, Dr. Dement, the rock star professor, saunters off the stage as his entourage of teaching assistants scrambles after him and an auditorium full of college students cheers him on.

On a similar winter morning in December 2010, I am opening my laptop and starting the work of finishing the first draft of my novel.

But I find myself staring at the blank screen for what seems like two hours. I have nothing, absolutely nothing going through my mind. It’s no use. My brain is just not there. It’s gone. It checked out. I can’t even summon the effort to write. I look around the room. All is fuzzy. My eyes close for a moment, but they don’t open again. At last, a heavy warmth surrounds me, and my forehead falls onto the cool desk, while my arms wrap around my head like a blanket.

I fall asleep.

I don’t write a single word the rest of the day.

I am certain that at that moment, the living ghost of Dr. Dement was hovering over me, whispering something like: “Drowsiness… is… red… ALERT!”

Today, a month later, I am finally moved to action. I realize that if I want to nurture my creativity and live a more vibrant life, I HAVE to get a good night’s sleep.

Today, I am asking you, dear reader, to take the same pledge with me:

When life drives you hard and fast, and you feel your eyes closing in on you, I want you to promise me you will pull over, find a safe area close by, park yourself and go to sleep.

Not only will you have some sweet dreams, but you might even safe a life.

Your own.

much love,


Here are some tips to help you get better sleep:


The average person needs about 7-8 hours a night to stay fully alert and refreshed all day. (UPDATE: There was some confusion about the recommended amount of time, some people thought you should sleep 9 hours, unfortunately, recent research found that sleeping longer than 7.5 or 8 hours MAY actually be BAD for you. Read this to learn more.)


Sleep at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time in the morning, even on the weekends. If you are not consistent, you’ll get less sleep than you need and you’ll risk building up a whole lot of “sleep debt.” An increased amount of sleep debt can lead to serious health problems down the line.


Easiest way to make this happen is to wear a night mask. Read this to find out why sleeping in the dark is so important.


Alcohol, caffeine, and even some teas will keep you up at night. Try to avoid them.


If you’re like me, you know that having to go pee right at the moment you are falling into a deep sleep is the most annoying thing EVER. Avoid this by not drinking anything right before you go to bed.


John Kabit-Zinn delights in noting that sleeping is one of the few things that humans do that requires us to exert the least amount of effort. Sleep requires that we do nothing. In a world where we always feel required to do something, this non-doing drives us crazy.

But, ironically, the only way to fall asleep is to stop trying to fall asleep.


A bedtime routine helps send a signal to your body that you are getting ready for sleep.

Try taking a hot bath, or reading an inspiring book right before you go to bed.

WARNING: Surfing the Internet and watching TV right before bed is not recommended. These activities actually over-stimulate your brain and this will likely disturb your sleep.


Turns out the temperature in our bedroom affects the way we sleep, too. A simple way to address this issue is to wear socks at night to help keep your feet warm. You can also make sure your heater or AC remains at the same temperature all night. About 70° degrees is what is often recommended.


If you are a light sleeper, I recommend buying some earplugs to help shut out all the noise made by rowdy neighbors and roommates.


Regular exercise is probably the easiest, quickest way to get better sleep.


If EVERYTHING on this list does not help you, you may have a serious sleeping condition. Talk to your doctor about treatment.

What do you do to make sure you get good night’s sleep? Do you also find that lack of sleep gets in the way of your writing?

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Categories: MIP (Man in Progress)