I wasn’t a fan for a long time…of sleep.
My mom would tell stories of how I barely slept as an infant. I’m the oldest child, and so when she went on to have my brother 21 months after I was born, his devotion to napping and sleeping through the night really threw her. She was concerned something was wrong with him, instead of realizing I was the outlier.
And what an outlier I was.
Enforced nap times were an exercise in torture. Early bedtimes would leave me covertly reading books by the slivers of light coming from my cracked door. I was restless, frustrated, and highly energetic. Sleep seemed like a colossal waste of time. There was a wide big world out there and I was afraid I was going to miss it if I caught some zzzzs beyond a handful of hours a night.
That attitude about sleep lasted a long time for me, well into my college years and early career in radio and television. It was a good thing, too, because nothing says college like pulling all nighters to study. And post-college, in my on-air career, living the television news life is directly correlated to massive sleep deficits.
Then came my own babies, many of whom seemed to have inherited my gerbil hours and miniscule sleep needs. My husband and I developed a highly-caffeinated, chronically sleep-deprived, cortisol-infused way of life.
Sleep was for the weak, we would tell each other, guzzling our way through another pot of coffee.
And then, one day, it all came to a crashing halt.
I have a theory about what I call a sleep bank account. There are long lines of credit available at the sleep bank account. For years, you can get away with it, choosing activity and work and entertainment and babies with the sleep cycles of owls over nocturnal recharging. The line of credit is generous enough that you can forget you’re living on borrowed time, borrowed from the sleep you actually need to stay healthy and rested. But there comes a day when the debt comes due and you pay, with high interest, for all that suspended sleep spending you’ve been doing.
That debt snuck up on me until it tackled me full on. I found myself tired, radically tired, all the time. I would hit 2 o’clock in the afternoon and would find myself green jealous at one of my toddlers passed out in their car seat as I ran the kids to all their afternoon activities while I fielded work phone calls and answered emails from parking lots of dance schools and soccer fields.
To cope, I raised my already sky-high coffee consumption and scolded myself for being tired. There was a schedule to maintain, goals to chase, and not enough hours in the day. And still, I craved sleep. My heart was always racing, my mind was blurry, my temper short, and irritation was always at the ready. And when heart palpitations and frequent colds and flu and extreme fatigue symptoms continued, a lifestyle change ensued. I wanted there to be a prescription or some other solution that wouldn’t require me to change what I was doing, but that wasn’t it.
The answer should be obvious, but for a lot of us in the hustle mindset, we can deny this underlying truth: we were created to sleep. We have to have it. Lack of sleep lowers our immunity, raises our risk of heart disease and diabetes, and messes with our coordination and mental focus. We’re also learning more about the connection between sleep and cognitive decline and dementia risk. With so much research available about the correlation between our health and sleep, I could no longer deny that I’d allowed my unhealthy relationship with sleep to create potential health challenges for myself. What I found was that by making some adjustments to my mind and habits, sleep could become a superpower.
Change your attitude.
Turns out, I had a lot of pride tangled up in my sleep attitude. Quotes like “I’ve got a dream that’s worth more than my sleep,” and other hustle verbiage kept me in a steady state of pushing far past reasonable hours. And frankly, some of it was necessary in the juggling of kids and work and family life. I liked being able to brag about how little sleep I got while still keeping all the plates spinning. But it was my constant status instead of the occasional push.
Poor sleep is still better than no sleep.
Once I leaned into the truth of needing sleep, I didn’t automatically adopt a robust night of sleep experience. Sleep is still somewhat elusive for me several nights a week. I can have a handful of nights of solid slumber and then find myself blinking awake at 3 am, chasing thoughts and ideas in the wee hours. I’ve had to learn to embrace these nights, letting myself keep my body prone and resting, even if I’m not sleeping. I’ve learned there is still something restorative about laying in the dark, listening to the quiet, letting my mind wander where it will while I physically repose. I used to get worried about these kinds of nights, and then would guiltily feel that as long as I was awake, I should get up and do something productive. But I’ve leaned into the idea that even poor sleep is better than none, and I try to appreciate the time dedicated to rest, even if deep sleep is elusive.
Napping is noble.
I know, I know. It seems decadent or something for babies and octogenarians. But it turns out, many notable people in business, ministry, and history were partakes and promoters of naps. Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Fred Rogers and a host of others were all known nappers and felt it was an important component of their achievements.
Get the gear.
We have a noisy household, with teenagers and college-age kids coming and going and making midnight snacks at all times. As a light sleeper, I’ve learned it’s important to have the gear to overcome these kinds of distractions. We use a white noise machine to help block out household acoustics. We also installed blackout shades in our bedroom, which has been a game changer. Ear plugs and sleep masks help round out the sleep accessory kit. A more recent discovery has been a weighted blanket, which is particularly great for a quick afternoon nap. The weight of the blanket is calming to the body and seems to reduce anxiety. And while I’ve long been a Kindle ebook reader, I discovered several years ago the ability on my Kindle to make the screen black and the print a cream color. As I go through the motions of trying to drift off, I can have our bedroom fully darkened while still being able to read, but the black background dramatically reduces the light output of my ereader. Keeping your bedroom darker gives a direct signal to the brain that it’s time to sleep.
Make it a priority.
Again, I weirdly felt that it was a human failing on my part to need sleep. I would be the last one asleep and the first one awake, whether at a slumber party as a kid or around the house as the mom. Any and everything was allowed to supplant sleep, from social events to travel to late movie nights. That’s definitely changed. As I’ve embraced the importance of sleep to my health, I’ve become unapologetic when I get tired. Even if the party is still rockin’, I’m more comfortable now with saying my goodbyes and heading home. I have a standing rule with my husband that we don’t talk business or serious topics after 7:30 pm, lest I spend the next several hours turning over options and ideas and concerns. I don’t always get it right, I still have nights I toss and turn, and I still sometimes lament just how inconvenient sleeping is. But then I’m reminded afresh that God created us this way, that sleep was his idea, and who am I to keep fighting it?
For a lot of us, sleep doesn’t just happen; it’s something that has to be fought for and protected. When you take care of your sleep habits, you’re taking care of your health, in the very same way as that workout or eating plan. Take steps today to improve your snooze and your mind and body will thank you tomorrow!
Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.