I used to have a lot of trouble getting to sleep. These days I manage better (partly because I’m sufficiently tired all the time that I’m much sleepier when I’m trying), but for a long time the biggest obstacle to my sleep was just that I couldn’t shut off my mind well enough to go to sleep.
And there are still nights where that’s the case and my thoughts end up keeping me up. e.g. because I can’t shut my brain off thinking about work, or because I’m having an anxiety day and my brain really wants to remind me of all my failings. Thanks brain.
The trick for those nights which I hit on ages ago is basically to give myself something to focus on that is sufficiently mentally engaging that I can keep paying attention to it, but insufficiently so to keep me up.
Historically I’ve basically made up stories to do this – not high quality ones, often just variations on whatever I’ve been reading recently (i.e. basically bad self-insert fanfic. Don’t worry, I won’t inflict it on you). This works… pretty well, some of the time. It rather relies on my feeling sufficiently creative in order to work though, which I often don’t.
But I’ve recently found a new technique that I think works strictly better. I thought I had got it from this article about a sleep app, but on a recent reread I realised that not only had I completely got the wrong end of the stick about what their technique was, what they’re actually proposing is completely impossible for me to use due to my inability to visualise.
So, uh, yay for creative misunderstanding?
Anyway, here’s the thing I do now:
- Pick a starting word. Usually something short with three or four letters (cat, was, rim, keel, etc).
- Repeatedly try to change your current word into another word. I vary what counts as a change but usually go for allowing you to add, delete, or replace one letter, or swap two letters.
- When you can’t find any new words starting from the current one, start again from the beginning with a new word (you can repeat words if you want to, you just don’t have to).
I tend to set myself minigoals while playing it – e.g. I normally default to trying to make the word longer, or if there’s some word that looks reachable nearby I try to get to it – e.g. how do you get from child to shield? (this one is actually moderately hard. I don’t currently know the answer and decided not to get distracted from writing this to figure it out. Edit: See end of post). Sometimes these turn out to be harder than expected and I abandon them. If I find I’m getting frustrated with a minigoal I definitely abandon it.
That’s all there is to it really. I just keep playing the word game until I fall asleep.
This ends up working pretty well – it’s mildly engaging, certainly enough that I don’t get bored of it, but it’s also not that interesting, so it doesn’t stop me falling asleep playing it.
The major limitation I run into with this (and all techniques in this space) is that sometimes when my thoughts are very fragmented – the sort of fragmenting that comes from say a headache or a fever, not the sort that comes from sleepiness – my working memory is shot and I can’t actually hold things coherently enough to. I don’t really have a good answer for that sort of scenario other than taking some painkillers and hoping that I’m drained enough already that that’s enough.
Fortunately that’s not the normal case for me (although I’ve got a bit of it at the time of this writing. Fortunately external memory is a good substitute when writing), and this works pretty well for the common case when the problem is just that my won’t shut off properly and it’s stopping me from getting to sleep.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go implement A* search and get a computer to figure out that damned child to shield play.
Update: ‘child’, ‘chid’, ‘hid’, ‘hied’, ‘shied’, ‘shield’. I’d probably have given up before I got that (there are other shorter ones but they go via stupid words that I wouldn’t use without sowpod in front of me to check). If you’re suspicious of even that chid (past tense of chide, obviously) then there’s ‘child’, ‘chile’, ‘chide’, ‘hide’, ‘hied’, ‘shied’, ‘shield’.