Perhaps the biggest change in my life since I started writing full-time has been the fact that I generally sleep 7-8 hours a night. It turns out that this is a huge deal. I mean, it’s a major, big-assed deal. Yes, back when I worked the corporate desk I read all the scientific studies that described exactly how much damage I was doing to myself when I didn’t sleep enough, but I did what pretty much everyone else I knew who read those studies did.
I ignored them.
If you’ve followed me for the 20+ years this blog has been in existence, you’ll know that back then I was one of those guys who got up at 4:30 AM to do my writing. The job I had was one of those full-time+ kinds of things—you know, the basic gig where 40 hours a week is just the starting point of the negotiation. And, let’s face it, I generally loved my job(s). The work was fun and I could see its value. It was mostly interesting. I was dedicated to the company and the people I worked with. I did not half-ass my work, so sometimes that meant 70 hour work weeks. Other times it meant 50. Others maybe only 42. You get the idea.
And I have a wife and daughter, who I have always known I could not deal with losing. Ever. Which meant my evenings were generally spoken for.
So, yeah. Four-freaking-thirty. The alternative was to not write at all, and the bottom line for me was that if I chose a path that didn’t include writing I would then be, for the most part, considerably unhappy. So in my days as a corporate guy, I probably averaged four-to-five hours of sleep a night, with the occasional six or seven-hour night.
Add it all up and it meant that for much of my life I’ve walked around in a state of sleep deprivation. I was, as the New Yorker article I’ll link to at the end of this piece would say, a member of the Walking Dead.
I’m thinking about that right now because all day long today my attention span has been terrible. All day long I’ve been physically incapable of concentrating for long periods of time. My brain fought my attempts to stay on task. It slithered away from the pressure of thinking about hard decisions on complex word choice or other elements of twisting words onto the manuscript page. Every now and again I would catch what I thought was going to be a solid word-wave (you writers know what I mean), but I would inevitably be disappointed when that wave faded away all too quickly. I just couldn’t stay on the board, you know?
Looking at the past few days shows where the root of the problem is.
Today is Tuesday. Sunday night, with the soldiers of nearby Camp Atterbury machine-gunning away throughout much of the night, I couldn’t sleep (though I did manage about two hours of a nap in the early part or Monday morning). Then, of course, last night in Indiana was full of dramatic thunder, gale-force winds, lightning, and hail—which meant we got to bed quite late (past 1:00 AM), and received uneven sleep. Getting up this morning was like trying to pull Excalibur from the stone.
This means that for the past two days I’ve probably averaged about three hours of sleep. This is a major dip from my now-normal seven or eight hours.
I felt it in my work today. I felt it in the way my brain slithered out of the pressure of thinking about hard decisions as I tried to twist words onto the manuscript page. A time or two I caught what I thought was going to be a great word wave, only to find that I couldn’t stay on the board for very long. What work I manged to get done was (I think … I hope) good, but I can attest to the fact that I did not get nearly my normal production accomplished.
Bottom line here: Overall, today felt a lot like I was listening to an old cassette tape that was on its way to getting stretched out. You guys of the 8-track age know what I mean. I could make out the music and all that stuff, but it felt like it should be backing something by David Lynch.
It made me think about my friends where I once worked. It made me think about Lisa, my gorgeous better half who still works there. It made me think about the articles that recently ran in the New Yorker (which I highly recommend, and which I’ll link to below—thanks to Srikanth for the links). It made me realize that I am no longer walking around in a daze like I once was, and it made me wonder about how much more effective I would have been at work if I had not worked so many hours. The almost certain truth is that I would have been much more valuable if I had cut my work time an hour a day (and given that time to sleep).
This issue I’m feeling today will go away because I’m sleeping well overall. But I’m happy to experience a day like today because it serves as proof that those stories are right—I was clearly less productive today, and it was clearly because of my sleep patterns.
So, my friends who are still sacrificing sleep to work major hours on a routine basis, you can take my word for it that these articles are as spot-on as they are interesting to read:
Why Can’t We Fall Asleep?
Why We Sleep
The Walking Dead