Fighting the Insomnia Machine

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I try to avoid writing prescriptive blog posts. One man’s top ten list is another person’s junk science. But sometimes a nut of an idea can stick and help the next poor shmuck down the line. So this is my struggle with insomnia.

I’ve had insomnia on and off for 30 years. When I don’t have insomnia, I fall asleep instantly and sleep like a rock. When the insomnia creeps back in, I’m lucky to get four hours of sleep a night. While knowing the root cause is comforting, there are few effective strategies for combating it. This is what I know.1

The clock is your enemy. It’s a filthy, filthy liar. Ignore it. Block it. Burn it. Every clock is a harbinger of anxiety. They bring to your bed the worry that you’ve already failed at sleeping. There has never been a time that I’ve checked a clock and been relieved that it’s 2 a.m. During my most serious attacks of insomnia I block all clocks in my room. I still must have an alarm clock but it’s my phone and it’s across the room from my bed. My phone is also a filthy liar.

If the devil were to create a doorway from hell straight into your bedroom, it would look a lot like an email app. While email is a valuable tool, it’s also a giant funnel into my consciousness. The single biggest change that helped me resist insomnia was to ignore work email when I get home. It’s damn hard because I like to solve puzzles and make stuff. That’s generally what I do for a living. I make computer systems for scientists. My teams are spread around the globe. In theory this should all be fun.

To allow myself to ignore work email, I first needed to adjust the expectations of everyone that I work with. I allow text messages for emergencies only. I respond to emails sent after my work hours on the following morning (in most cases). This also means I need to demand more of the folks I work with. With a large range of time zones on my projects, everyone needs to forecast work better and deliver on the previous days commitments predictably.

I also had to adjust my own expectations.

My productivity skyrockets during the early onset of insomnia. For a few days I can work 20 hours per day. This is not sustainable and drops quickly as biology catches up to insomnia. To offset the increased sleep, I added more restrictive blocks of my time in the morning so I can process my tasks for the day and organize my time more efficiently. My days are mostly full of emergency decision making. I noticed much of my insomniac hours were spent troubleshooting things that were already in my task list. This is a clear sign that the emergencies are having a negative effect beyond their own scope.

“What are you going to do about it?”

That simple phrase changed how I interact with the world and it’s increasingly bad news. I no longer read world news because I decided I was not going to do anything about it.2 The consumption of news did not change my life in a positive way or even really make me live my life differently. It just made me depressed. So I stopped.

What Insomnia Isn’t

My insomnia comes and goes. I can have it for months at a time and then have a few years of relief. It’s almost always caused by stress, but not just the ordinary stress of too much to do and not enough time. My insomnia is not work-a-holism. I don’t actually want to work. I’m looking forward to retiring some day. I maximize my vacation time every chance I get.

Try not to think of an elephant.

That’s what most advice is like for an insomniac. It’s human nature to turn to simple answers (and advice).

“Just close your eyes.”

“Turn on white noise.”

“Read a book.”

“Imagine a cloud.”

The insomnia I live with does not respond to simple answers. My insomniac hours are 50% problem solving and 50% anxiety. I love problem solving which means I’m not able to turn it off at will. The hardest problems I encounter all have to do with humans.3 Humans are unpredictable, unreliable, and frail. This causes me no end of scenario testing and then worrying about variables I’ve missed or the consequences I’ve predicted.

The only relief I can build is to pre-occupy my mind with sleep friendly problem solving. Much of that for me comes from science fiction. Through pure accident, I’ve discovered that reading, watching, and listening to more science fiction during the day results in some relief. Perhaps it gives me an easier problem to consider when lying in bed: An interesting problem to think about without the consequences that cause anxiety.

There are things that impact my sleep which are not insomnia. I keep sleep journals during bouts of insomnia and this helps me exclude various factors.

Alcohol wreaks my sleep patterns but it does not reduce or increase my insomnia. Morning caffeine consumption (increase or decrease) seems to play no role in my sleep patterns. Afternoon caffeine destroys my sleep but does not result in what I consider insomnia. Increased exercise does not alleviate my insomnia, but it does make the days more painful. The temperature, darkness, or noise of my bedroom, beyond a point, does not alter my sleep. I do like a dark, cold, quiet room though.

The root cause appears to be between my ears.


So where does that leave the weary late night traveler looking for suggestions? If I could sum up my results I’d say, make some changes that help your brain avoid problems with useless anxiety.

  1. Turn off email after work
  2. Don’t have a clock visible in your room
  3. Don’t read the news
  4. Structure your day to get your work done more efficiently and predictably
  5. Get a hobby with interesting problems that fun to think about

Good luck.

  1. While I appreciate any kind offers of advice, I’m not seeking any for this problem. I’m intimately familiar with the problem and available solutions. This is not a plea for help. ↩︎

  2. This is not cynical, it’s fact. I know from my own life and watching those around me, that I’m simply not going to travel the world and try to engage with its problems. I vote, donate to charities, and try to be a generally kind and helpful person. I focus on reality, not some aspirational version of myself that would protest child prisons in the desert. ↩︎

  3. Both myself and other humans. Sometimes the problem is as straightforward as trying to figure out why I have insomnia. ↩︎