Why Am I So Damn Good at Insomnia?

No conspiracy theories needed—you brought this shit on yourself

One third of all Americans actually train themselves to be great at insomnia. Unsplash/Xavier Sotomayor

Ah, insomnia—my old friend. How is it that I’ve come to know you so well?

The science behind mindfulness training suggests we’re training our brains all the time. We actually get better and better at the things we do most. Those of us who practice piano or violin regularly get to the point where the brain just takes over. Likewise, for LeBron James to dunk or Steph Curry to drain three pointers, they’ve built up the muscle memory to just perform without thinking about it too much. Performing at this level requires thousands of hours of practice. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

They practice to the point where they build muscle memory. The brain creates neural pathways to make connections automatically. In other words, the brain just does its job really well.

Think about applying this knowledge to our sleeping patterns, and ask yourself: what is it that you practice constantly? Are you training good sleep patterns? Or are you like one third of all Americans who actually train themselves to be great at insomnia?

Many of us lay down at night and set the stage for an awful night’s sleep. We start with a hint of strong worrying, add a big dose of regret, sprinkled with anxiety and a splash of grief, longing, and maybe a few conspiracy theories for dessert. The more we do this, the better we get at driving ourselves nuts when we’re trying to go to sleep. We actually train ourselves to become better and better at insomnia.

Now let’s pressure test how you may be building up your insomnia expertise. Over the past five years, how much sleep have you lost due to brain rumination (i.e. thinking about all manner of things instead of easing into sleep? There are 365 days in the year. On average it takes 10-20 minutes to fall asleep. An insomniac can take hours to get there. If that’s you, in the past you may have “practiced” staying awake for hundreds of hours. Now that’s commitment. We train ourselves to worry, worry, worry. In five years that’s approaching 3,500 hours. Most insomniacs suffer for years and years. So it’s not hard to see how easily we put in those 10,000 hours to become top notch experts at insomnia. If only we committed to the gym like that.

For those of you looking to break the pattern, here are five tips to put insomnia to bed:

Recognize your poor bedtime patterns

Track what it is you do during the day to rev up your central nervous system. Those carry over into your evening. What you do when you lay down in bed at night? Experts suggest turning off the TV and doing stuff to calm the mind, like reading a book. Too many of us spend our bed time watching TV or surfing the web under the bright lights of iPads. Both tend to keep us awake and excite neural pathways versus relaxing them.

Make the bedroom a sacred place

By sacred we don’t mean in the biblical sense (but that’s good too). We actually mean use it for its intended purpose. The bedroom is for sleeping and sexual activity. Use it for its intended purpose—instead of studying, entertainment and mindless web surfing. And, whatever you do, don’t have a work desk in there. These things don’t help us get to sleep—they actually help us stay awake.

Focus on your breath

Mindfulness training helps people to sleep by calming and focusing the mind and relaxing the central nervous system. One particular study found that, insomniacs went to sleep 30 minutes faster and slept 22 minutes longer thanks to mindfulness training. How much is 52 minutes of sleep worth to you? If you’re like me—a lot.

By focusing on your breath and making it the sole focus once the lights are out, you’re removing distractions.

Recognize that your day impacts your night

Too many of us do whatever we like during the day, without realizing the impact that has on our sleep. That includes drinking lots of caffeine and soda and eating heavy meals after 8 p.m. The basics of human anatomy tell us that different foods have different impacts on our systems. Focus on what you’re putting into your body by day, and understand how that impacts your ability to sleep at night. And if you’re still going to worry while you’re laying in bed unable to sleep, maybe start worrying about what you put in your body that day that caused that. No conspiracy theories needed, you brought this shit on yourself. Make a commitment not to do it again the next day.

Learn to treat sleep the way kids treat Pokémon cards

I have young kids who recently got into trading Pokémon cards. Yes, that’s still a thing. They quickly develop an expertise and understanding of the value of the individual cards. Early on, they may get tricked into trading a really valuable card for a really low value “chump” card. They quickly learn better. What if we all treated our sleep as a precious object that wasn’t to be traded away for another glass of wine or a big piece of cake? We’d quickly learn to train ourselves in new ways, to protect what we value most. As I get older, sleep has moved way up on that list.

Having spent 25 years as a corporate road warrior, I learned this the hard way. As we age, sleep becomes increasingly more important to not only our physical wellness, but also our mental well-being. Good sleep also has the intense side effects of decreasing grumpiness, snarkiness and back pain.

Don’t wait to learn this in your 40s or 50s. Start treating sleep like one of the most important things in your life today. 

Joe Burton is the founder and CEO of Whil Concepts, Inc. (‘Whil’), a digital training platform helping employees to reduce stress, increase resiliency and improve their sleep and performance. He’s an entrepreneur in scientific wellbeing, former President of Headspace and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. Joe is an alumnus of Harvard Business School and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, employee safety and mindfulness as competitive advantage.