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How to Battle Sleepless Nights

How to Battle Sleepless Nights

It all began with an idea I had before going to bed.  Quite excited, I turned to write it down, stressed that I would forget it.  The problem is that my enthusiasm didn’t settle down, I know that I had written everything down but I was anxious to begin and the possibilities swirled like a maelstrom in my head.  When I finished, lo and behold, I had the entire workflow in front of me and I was quite content as one might expect. But guess what? Being content was not enough to cool down my enthusiasm; I had to see it through! So I set out to battle the night, began the project and when I finished it 3 hours later, I slept like a baby.  When I woke up, I had more insight about why I had problems going to bed that night and how to avoid it in the future.

1. Deal With Issues, Ideas and Unfinished Tasks Before Going to Bed

As it turns out, when we turn to sleep, we lower our guard. Our body relaxes, our body temperature drops and, as a result, our brain’s floodgates come tumbling down, sweeping away our sleep and bringing into our conscious mind thoughts from our subconscious that lay dormant during the day.  I found out in retrospect that I was entertaining this idea the entire day and I was unaware that not dealing with it in that exact moment, (i.e. writing it down) would cause me to lose several hours of sleep! Unresolved projects, unfinished tasks, a full inbox that demands our attention – they all come back at night to haunt us. And to make things worse, if we fall asleep, those things that we were not able to solve during the day, visit us in our dreams. If you’re not suffering from insomnia or other sleep depriving medical conditions, the best way to fight sleepless nights is to process everything that needs to be processed during the day, without procrastinating or postponing to-do things that you’re already partially aware of.  This doesn’t mean you have to do it, you just have to get it out of your head and into the right list.

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2. Tackle your Tasks 2 Hours Before You Go to Bed

The phenomenon that propels this suspense/excitement/anxiety that catches us unprepared at night and prevents a much needed shut-eye is called the Zeigarnik effect.  The Zeigarnik effect is our innate tendency to remember an uncompleted or unresolved tasks rather than a completed one.  When we complete tasks and projects, they evaporate from our memory, leaving much room that is instantly occupied by unprocessed business and as a result leaves us awake at night. That’s why the things that cry for your attention on the to-do list must be closed before you go to sleep.  If you can’t close them, at least have a plan that will detail (preferably step-by-step) how you’re going to tackle that pesky task the next day.  This way your mind will know it’s taken care of. The key is to do all of this at least 2 hours before you head hits the pillow.   This will give your subconscious enough time to process that your tasks have been handled.

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3. Follow Your Real-Life Dreams

I also found the above phenomena stealing sleep from me on projects that were not that urgent, i.e. those on my someday/maybe list.  Since it’s a list of things that I dream to do one day, they have the potential to occupy the slot between dream and day time. Another dangerous side effect of not following up on your dreams (and what are someday projects if not dreams waiting for realization) can result in remorse – and remorse can and will keep you awake at night. Make sure those items are handled as well as the more pressing ones, but whatever you do, leave enough space between planning and sleep.  Cutting it too close might create an opposite effect.

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What do you do to battle your sleepless nights? Leave a comment with your own personal tips and advice on how to get a good night’s sleep.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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