Sleeping the Sleep of the Must

Okay, I need to set all modesty aside for a moment in order to write this post, mostly so that I can start with the premise that, all in all, I get a lot of crap done. I’m not saying it’s all amazing, wonderful crap, but I’m pretty proud of most of it. Somehow I manage to work a demanding, full-time job; I write fairly lengthy posts for this blog; I keep up with a nontrivial set of duties at AIGA New York; I design and co-publish A Brief Message; I maintain a robust enough social life that I get to see friends I genuinely like several days a week; and, not least of all, I take pretty damn good care of my dog.

Now we’ve established that, I can address the fact that, fairly frequently, people ask me how I get all of it done. It’s not easy, but it’s not that hard, either, mostly because there’s not a thing on that list that I don’t care about passionately. I like my life, my career, my work, my friends and I love my dog. All things considered, I feel like a pretty lucky bastard.

On My Own

Admittedly, being single again (my ex-girlfriend and I broke up last spring) affords me a lot of free time that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to devote to all of these pursuits. Having the freedom to spend your time on what matters to you is another luxury not to be underestimated. (Of course, there’s a whole discussion to be had about what I’m giving up in personal intimacy in exchange for careerist productivity, but for now, I’m going to conveniently set that aside.)

But really, aside from having the time and having the passion, I think a lot of this productivity comes down to a problem I’ve been having for the past few years: I don’t get enough sleep. I don’t mean that I can’t sleep, because you can pretty much just lay me down horizontally, leave me to sit idly without multiple mental stimuli, or put me on any kind of motorized transportation (what with the gentle rocking back and forth and all), and I’ll pass out straight away. No question.

I could sleep just about anywhere. The problem is when.

Nights of the Living Dead

As each night draws on, I could pretty much lay myself down any time after 10:00p and, again, pass out like a light. The problem is that I just don’t want to. Nighttime is when I feel fully energized; it’s the time I want to just keep writing and designing and surfing — I just want to keep going, and turning in at a decent hour seems like the least attractive course of action I could take. If I could stay up every night until 2:00a messing around online or tinkering with my blog or hanging out with my friends rather than sleeping, I clearly would.

On the other hand, regardless of what time I go to sleep, I open my eyes at 6:00a the next morning. Like clockwork. Oh, I’m tired and all, for sure, but it doesn’t matter how exhausted I am; my eyes just open like some sort of atomic alarm clock. Even if I’ve only had a few hours of rest, I just can’t sleep past a certain hour of the morning. Partly, this is because 6:00a is the hour Mister President starts demanding to go for a walk, but even he sleeps in later often enough for me to know that it’s just my body, ready to get up and tackle the day.

This inability to take to sleep is partly age, too, right? Only old men wake up so early without an alarm clock. But they also tend to turn in really early — soon after the early bird special and well before the ninth inning of an evening ball game. That’s not me though. Heck, if I get a full eight hours of sleep (as I forced myself to do over the weekend), I feel even more tired the next day.

Mostly, I think it just comes from wanting to do so much; I’ve got a to-do list brimming with projects I want to tackle. And, again setting aside modesty, it comes from having what amounts to a pretty good life. I’m excited by everything going on in my life. Why would I want to sleep through it? I’m a lucky, lucky bastard. I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time.

Okay, I’m off to bed now.

  1. I am happy to learn I am not alone in my disinterest for sleep when the rest of the world tells me it’s time to turn in.

    There’s too much to do! So many ideas, projects, songs to write, books to read, plans to set in motion.

    Is there a support group for us somehwere?

    a fellow lucky bastard

  2. Wow, Khoi, did I ghost-write this post and not remember it? This is an eerily accurate description of my own life. You really hit the nail on the head. It’s like being little and not wanting to miss anything by going to bed early. Great post, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who suffers from chronic euphoria.

  3. I echo those sentiments, Khoi. Generally, a spurt of energy hits me around 10p demanding me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning—well around 4a—toiling on things here and there until my body finally says enough. But, at the same time, 9a comes and I’m right back into the groove of a “new” day. I worry that at some point all this lack of sleep will have an adverse affect on my body, but until then I’ll continue to burn the midnight oil.

    But a bit of advice, mid-day naps are spectacular, especially with the help of Pzizz. I’m sure your milage may vary, but it has helped me a bit in the always feeling tired department.

    Hmm, considering I’m starting a new job tomorrow I should probably head to bed as well. Goodnight!

  4. i agree – i wonder if this is a design profession phenomenon? There is so much great design work and design thinking accessible online that it makes sleeping soooo unapealing. And instead of Mr. President I have twin 2 year old girls that ensure a 6:30am wakeup call.

    But now at 1:15 AM i’m feeling guilty, as Khoi “the night owl” signed off at 11:30.

  5. Ah, youth. I’m in bed, laptop perched on chest reading at 11:15, and 6:00 AM may find me awake (decades of practice). But, damned if it doesn’t catch up to me now and I have to take naps in the afternoon. My most productive time is 6-10 AM.

  6. Well, you cannot simply put aside that relationship issue, I guess. If I wouldn’t be married, I would do exactly the same thing like you. But I can’t. But I think, for the general balance of my life, that’s a rather good thing.

  7. I am with you there. I am also not able to sleep. Well better to say I don’t want to sleep cause I am afraid that my life is passing by and I will not have enough time to handle all things that I want to do.

    Biggest problem is that I have two daughters and they take time too. In morning when I stand up they are already awake and waiting to get their breakfast. In such time I say I will never again go so late in bed and comes evening and I am full of power and there is it I go again about 2:00-3:00pm in bed. Every day is like that.

    You are not alone, and I’m glad to see that I’m not alone too and I do understand you.

    Nenad Petkovic

  8. I find myself in exactly the same dilemma (—lucky dilemma, I grant) every day, but it was a couple of month ago when I suddenly realized, that it’s less the amount of sleep that makes the difference and keeps me tired all day than the kind of sleep I get.
    Laying in bed I often start to think what a great time it would be to focus my thoughts on all the small things and future projects, that got somehow forgotten through the day. It seems like wasted time to spend this perfect peace (darkness, silence, no phone, no meetings, etc.) with just sleeping. And this seems like the worst possible starting point for sleep. I nod away with the head full of important things which can’t let then go the whole night. And that makes me even more tired the next day.

    Hello from the polar circle where things are actually perfectly arranged for a good night of sleep,

    P.S.: I’ve been reading your fabulous blog for quite a while now, but nothing before hit the nail on the head (for me personally) like this post.

  9. Ah, well do I know this lifestyle, these urges and creative boosts, the ravenous mind that will not stop whirring. I’m writing this at 5:42 am — haven’t gone to bed yet, have to be at work in a matter of hours. Ack. I agree, it’s an ongoing challenge. There is so much out there to do, create, absorb, tackle, discover, after all… sometimes sleep seems like an inconvenient off-switch.

  10. I also have no problem staying up and working or playing. It’s the getting up that gets me. I’m up by 7:30 or 8:00 every morning, but it’s a struggle that involves an evil alarm clock and the temptress Snooze. I would love to have your insistent internal alarm clock and get an extra hour or two in my day.

    I have found that the 20-minute power nap, even if you don’t fully fall asleep, can work wonders. It even helps with creative block. I actually read somewhere that Buckminster Fuller spent 2 years only sleeping 15 minutes every 6 hours. Hardcore.

  11. I just had a long term relationship end this past month, and I too have been working like crazy–both for “the man” and on my own projects (so that one day I don’t have to work for the man).

    Work does fill life up quite nicely, I think, and in certain times that’s good. Work is one way we give meaning to our lives.

    As to the sleep . . . I had one job years ago that ended my late sleeping forever; I’m up at 6, no matter what, which is kind of a drag when everybody else is sleeping in on a Sunday morning.

  12. Well, can’t blame you, I wouldn’t like it either, to know that I’ve been sleeping half of my life away 🙂

    If only we didn’t need to sleep, just close our eyes for 30 mins and be fresh as daisies 😛 Indeed we are slaves of our own bodies.

  13. wwwahhhh! this is how my life was before i had a child 🙂 i used to love being up late and working until i wanted to pass out. now i’m ready to hit the hay at the god-loving time of 9PM. it’s pretty bad. but not just old men wake at 6AM, babies do too. i can’t get my daughter to sleep past 6:30AM no matter what i try. i could put her down to sleep at 6PM or 10PM and her eyes would still pop open at 6AM no matter what. i miss good sleep. i haven’t slept well in over a year.

  14. 9pm is my bedtime too…I have two girls under the age of five. Enough said.

    I still consider myself mega productive, just in a very different way. And sleep is a must.

  15. I have the same “problem”, but can’t afford the same “solution”. It it were up to me, I’d sleep only two hours a night. But unfortunately I’m useless if I sleep less than, say 7h30. At least I’m able to wake up exactly eight hours after I went to bed, but that’s one third of a day wasted…

  16. I have the same problem, most days I stay up till 12:00 – 1:00 in the morning, just to wake up around 7:00 when my 2 year old daughter wakes up. I usually lounge around in bed flipping back and forth between cartoons for my daughter and Sports Center for me.

    The problem with me is I go to work all day for my job. I come home around 5:30 and it’s all about my wife and daughter. So all my time is devoted to that. So once 8:30 rolls around and we put our daughter down to bed. Then my own personal time kicks in.

    So I totally understand where you are coming from. Only everything you produce (design wise) is so much better than what I produce.

  17. Good to see I’m not the only one with the same dilemma. If the day could have 48 hours instead of 24, I’d probably be the one who would demand at least 50 hours.

    I have so many personal projects going on that, if I could afford not to sleep, I probably would. But I can’t. Specially not when it is expected from you to give 200% of yourself every morning at work. That, and the 3-times-a-week gym after work routine I’ve been to over the course of this year have ensured that, no matter how hard I try, I’m not able to get past midnight in most days (100% flawless cure against insomnia).

    But, coming to think of it, I wouldn’t have it other way – I certainly wouldn’t trade the physical well-being I sport now for the overweight, moonlightning, always-tired geek that I was just a few months ago. It’s all about choices.

  18. Certainly me as you know, a few years back. 4am sleep time, 7/8am wake time. These days I get my 8 hours but I’m itching to get back to those days when I could be a bit more productive…

  19. I’ve been struggling (maybe it isn’t a struggle?!?) that I’ve dubbed “Sparring with the Sandman”. Even though I lose every night, the point at which I get knocked out is quite close to when I wanted to hit the bed in the first place.

    Several times have I done experiments to discover what my optimal sleeping time is (6.45 hours), the minimal I can live with and be sane in the morning (4 hours), and the point which sleep begins to make me feel ill (7.5 – 8.0 hours). Quite a bit of that baseline is impacted by how much exercise I am getting as well.

    Usually once every couple of months, i will sleep 16-18 hours; that is probably catch-up, but, it seems to work fine. Hopefully we aren’t cutting our lives too short because we choose to live, rather than sleep!

  20. You’re a lucky SOB. I wish I woke up at 6am with no effort.

    I set my alarm for 6…and I get up, walk across the room, and hit snooze…I do that until 7:30. It kills me but I can never stop. It’s been a habit since I was in high school. If I could get up at 4am I would…as after I take a shower in the am, I am at my most productive moment.

  21. Consider the possibility that you are a depressed person in need of medication or therapy. Sleep disturbance is a major symptom. The late night bursts of creativity are the manic side. You might end up happier and more productive with greater balance.

  22. I really relate to this post. As a recent inductee into the world of singledom, a dog owner, web developer, and someone who is passionate about his work to the point of overloading himself with normal work and side work on top of that, I’m glad someone else is out there like me.

    Out of my many blog subscriptions, this one is by far my favorite.

    Thanks, man. Sorry for the creepy email.

  23. If you’re leading a life you love, you may not need as much sleep – your other activities are feeding you. But remember, zzzz’s are good for you, too.

    I find I wake up at the same time every morning, too. I do pay for staying up too late though. And then I wish I could nap during the day.

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