Garrett (garote) wrote,

About exhaustion and sleep

I wrote this as a series of journal comments in late 2011, and I found it randomly today and realized it was worthy of more attention, and some cleanup.

Being a night owl:

I'm the sort of person that is content to be alone for long stretches of time. I'm also the sort of person who stays up very late at night. These traits go together in a well-established tradition of computer geekery, and in a larger perspective, have probably gone together since the invention of the light bulb, or perhaps even as far back as the first candles somewhere around 300 BC. As long as there has been a steady light source and things to stay up late obsessing about, folks like me have done it.

For myself personally, this started in late elementary school when I began to stay up late messing about with the computer, reading books, and walking around in the woods. I got my best solo work done at night when the world was quiet, still, and private. Of course, I was still forced to get up around 8:00am no matter what, and this situation carried all the way through high school - eight years of my life. Crucial development years, too.

I remember being continuously harassed by my family - all the rest of whom are early risers - for my "tardiness", as I ran to catch up on school mornings, or slept in late on weekends. For a long time I bore this in shame, until I realized that it was relative. It didn't actually make me lazy. My family just had a habit of setting agendas to suit their own tastes, and had absolutely no respect for mine.

One consequence of this is, I have had permanent rings under my eyes since I was in my late teens. They are part of my face now and never go away.

Another consequence is, staying awake is now too easy for me. It's effortless to evade sleep so I can finish a book, play a game, complete a road trip, ride my bike to the next city... Just a few more hours to square things away... And it's also very hard for me to fall asleep without completely exhausting myself first. Being a night owl is a habit that is physiologically difficult to break, and it has psychological repercussions that can wear you down - make you feel less human. I sometimes feel separated from my community by a gulf of hours as impassable as any real terrain. At its worst, when I've been stretching night all the way into dawn the next day and sleeping until mid-afternoon, people stop being people, and start to seem like fictional characters that I read about instead, or ghosts that move things around in the world and then vanish before I catch them.

Given this tendency to slide farther into a night owl existence, I've learned to fight in the other direction. It's strange, but true, that I found some of the most important tools to help me when I entered a career that caters to night owls.

All-night hack-a-thons!

Working in the Silicon Valley as a computer geek has been very validating. I joined an army of programmers and designers who routinely stayed up just as late as I did, pursuing the tidy completion of some important milestone, day after day. The industry worked around us. Management would schedule and attend meetings as early as 9:00am, but any meeting that involved programmers was scheduled for noon or beyond. It was tacitly understood that if you hauled a programmer into a meeting before noon, chances were you would be waking them up early, and one of the quickest ways to make a programmer less productive is to deprive him or her of sleep.

Having a work schedule that fit with my "natural" sleep schedule boosted my productivity, and my confidence. I learned that I could manage a dense calendar, adapt plans and keep everyone informed, and hit meetings on the dot with notes prepared, every day of the week, ... as long as I was allowed to roll into the office no later - but no earlier - than about 10:30am. For a change, my brain could fire consistently on all cylinders.

The scheduling tactics that I learned at work became useful in my family life as well. When they tried to fix early agendas I would roll my sleeves up and start negotiating, and if a deadline sounded too stressful or tentative, I made a Plan B or an escape route. I felt like I had an army of fellow programmers standing behind me, giving weight to my needs as a late-riser.

Of course, being a night owl still had all its downsides. The gulf of hours encouraged me to confine my social life to my fellow geeks and workmates, and that in turn encouraged me to work so hard that I forgot how to enjoy the outside world.

As I took on more and more responsibility, I eventually got to the point where I could not indulge my desire to stay up late finishing tasks. If I did, I would be in danger of missing a meeting, or being absent from my desk when someone needed me to answer a question or give input on a design problem. I could no longer avoid the fact that being a night owl was a kind of pathology. I had to confront it, or risk stagnation and declining health.

Getting sleepy

Early in my struggle with being a night owl, I realized that my sleep schedule is disconnected from a normal light/dark cycle. I don't have a true circadian rhythm, because I don't run on a 24-hour day. My body doesn't want to sleep for eight hours and then stay up for sixteen, it wants to sleep for nine or ten hours and then stay up for twenty. The traditional way to combat this would be to deprive myself of sleep, go through a day or two like a zombie, and then go to bed "on time". That fails because as soon as I catch up and erase my sleep debt, I want to stay up for 20 hours again. There has got to be a better way to be "normal" than being constantly sleep deprived, like I was in high school and for most of college. It's murder to a programmer's productivity, for one thing.

Part of the solution has been to recognize that there are different kinds of tiredness. There is a tiredness that climbs up and slaps me in the face, making me think longingly of the bed, and then there is a tiredness that politely rings the doorbell, and then stands around tapping one foot and muttering impatiently. The most important - and the hardest - thing to learn has been that the second kind of tiredness will work just as well when it's time to sleep, as long as I set the stage for it. That means putting myself horizontal under some bedsheets with the lights off and my eyes shut.

But for tiredness to do its work, my brain also needs to get out of the way. I have to convince myself that it's okay for me to lose grip on all the things I'm worried about or fixated on, because I will definitely have time to pick them up again later, after I rest. Even though tomorrow's schedule doesn't appear to have enough room available for those things. Even though it feels good to finish a task - much better than it feels to leave it half-done with a pile of unsorted notes. This is very difficult. Often I lay awake in the dark room, in silence or with ambient music playing, for hour after hour, as my brain writhes around in my skull like a housecat stuck in a carrier box.

It gets even more difficult when I have failed to maintain divisions in my life, between the different tasks I am responsible for; when obsessing over just the right order of tracks in a playlist gets just as much emphasis as obsessing over a demo for work. Most tasks can be weeded out, but it's far too easy to drag them all to bed with me, each like a separate boat anchor, yanking me back towards a reef of consciousness. Any task that I have no set schedule for - an amorphous future task that I must hold in limbo, until some unresolved detail presents itself - is the worst kind of obstacle to a good night's sleep.

So I write everything down. Even little things - dumb ideas, questions, reminders about inconsequential tasks - things that I'll probably think of again later anyway. My obsessive nature wants to preserve all the little bits of paper left over on the worktable of my mind, and as long as I'm clutching them, I won't fit through the door of sleep. I push the scraps out, to writing, to external memory, and that way I keep them safe. They will be there even after my mind gets tangled up in dreams.

I got used to scrawling notes like this at the end of a workday. It was partially to help myself find my place the next morning, and partially to act as a logbook to prove to my managers that I had been productive. I adapted that habit to cover everything - every thought that my mind wanted to keep - and started doing it just before bed. Now I do it while I'm actually in bed, thanks to the iPhone. If something feels particularly important, I write it as a memo on my alarm, so the message is the first thing I see in the morning. Sometimes I also toss a summary of the day into my private journal, just so I don't have to remember that either. A habit I cultivated to stay ahead of my workload is now a habit that helps me fall asleep on time.

Another thing I had to learn - re-learn, really - was that exercise does get me tired enough to sleep in spite of my brain, but it takes a lot more exercise than I thought.

When I was living in San Jose I would occasionally ride my bicycle 10 miles to work, during the off-commute hours. I'm sure the benefit to my cardiovascular health was offset by my constant exposure to exhaust fumes, but a nice side-effect of the riding was an ability to fall asleep just a little bit easier at night. Later on, when I went on a marathon bicycle ride across the country, I realized that my body was actually capable of a whole lot more exercise than I gave it credit for. Twenty miles a day was alright, but eighty miles a day was even better. After days like that I climbed into bed and was out in a matter of minutes. It was like discovering two superpowers at once - my ability to ride a long way, and my ability to sleep like a normal person.

The lesson was obvious: At least part of my problem was that I was exercise-deprived. Imagine that! A computer geek being exercise-deprived!

But seriously, this is an ongoing struggle. It's harder than it seems to integrate consistent, thorough exercise into the life of a person who thrives on constant intellectual stimulation. I can't just ditch an hour of reading for an hour of sit-ups, I need to keep it interesting. So I find myself re-learning this habit over and over again, in different forms, with yoga, or hiking, or chopping wood, or bicycling, or gardening.

Audiobooks have been an enormous help here. To draw one example from many, I got antsy a few days ago, so I got on my bike and rode randomly around Berkeley, up and down the streets in big zig-zags and loops, while listening to a Terry Pratchett novel. I loved the story, and when I got home I looked at the GPS and saw I'd gone almost 20 miles.

Ongoing balance

I've done battle with my night owl ways and made progress, but it remains the case that I get my best solo work done at night, mostly for the reasons that instilled the habit in the first place: It's quiet, calm, isolated, and unscheduled. There are never any deadlines in my calendar labeled "2:00am". Those all stop before midnight at the latest, and the late night stretches before me, for my use in any way and at any pace I want. I've learned that this habit is not always a bad thing; I just need to have control over it. It took a long time to develop that control, and even after 25 years it's imperfect, but I feel a lot more at peace with it than I did as a teenager.

Unlike my earlier self, I can now see myself finding a groove in an early schedule and thriving in it. For a big chunk of last year that's what I did, in fact. Nevertheless, I'm sure I'll be working against the set-point of a night owl for the rest of my life.

Which reminds me ... why does school start so damn early? Wasn't there some movement to begin classes at 10:00am or later? Whatever happened to that?
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