If I were a fairytale princess, you know which one I’d be?

Not Sleeping Beauty, that’s for sure. Seriously, what drugs is she on? Also, um, where does she get them?

Possibly Cinderella, as I always leave parties early. Plus I like cute heels and am just absent-minded enough to lose one.  But I lack domestic skills and as a rule prefer to dress without avian assistance, so maybe not.

No, if I were a fairytale princess I would be the one in The Princess And The Pea. The one who had multiple mattresses and still couldn’t sleep. Because there was a pea in the bed.

She sounds just like me.

The Introverted Princess And The Pea

Honestly, is this not a great metaphor for what it’s like to be an introvert? Noticing every little thing? Being hypersensitive? And, let’s be honest, getting uppity over what seems like nothing to others?

But for those of us who are not great sleepers, the resonance of this fairy tale is not only metaphorical.

My bed has to be well made. The sheets must be pulled tight. I like to have my eye mask and earplugs. A glass of water by the bed and a towering reading pile to lull myself to sleepiness. Things have to be pea-free.

My husband is one of those easy sleepers. We both read in bed, but when he’s ready, he simply turns out his bedside lamp, closes his eyes, and… (I kid you not) falls asleep.

On the rare occasions he doesn’t immediately drift off, the conversation goes like this.

Craig: I’m not sleepy!

Me [finishing the paragraph I’m reading]: You’ll be asleep in no time.

Craig [annoyed]: What? You woke me up.

I’m not even exaggerating.

But although I’m not going to win any prizes for sleeping (a Snoozy?), I have managed to improve my sleep quality over time.

One thing that made a huge difference was having surgery on my nose a couple of years ago. Before that I would wake myself throughout the night with wheezing, whistling, and various other nasal orchestrations. Honestly, it was like a Philip Glass opera in there.

But once that was solved, it became clear I was still a poor sleeper and needed to look further for solutions.

So I stopped drinking caffeine after midday. That was a very difficult time and I don’t like to think about the many people who suffered during the adjustment.

More recently I experimented with a 15-minute mindfulness practice every day. Me and mindfulness are like chalk and cheese: only one goes well with a lovely Shiraz. (I probably should have worked harder on that simile but I get distracted when cheese is involved.) It was not a success.

Still, I would lie awake for ages, my brain abuzz. Mentally drafting blog posts in my head. Making to-do lists, thoroughly categorised and colour-coded. Trying to visualise Gantt charts. Ruminating. Fantastrophizing.

Eventually I realised what was missing from my approach.

No, not a good swig of a single malt, though I considered it. Okay yeah there may have been some occasional late-night swilling.

What I needed was a longer period to disengage from the thinking and working part of my day.

Are You A Quick Switcher Or Slow Switcher?

Here’s what I worked out.

I’m a slow switcher*. It takes me ages to warm up and get into something. But once I do, I have good momentum. Then it’s actually hard for me to stop. I’ve found this with exercising, writing, learning French, studying – pretty much everything.

I’d much rather do any kind of endurance exercise, like a long walk or a long combat class, than suffer the start-stop of even a short interval-training session – which to me is torment in trainers. If I were ever captured and asked to reveal secrets (of which I thankfully know none), I’d only have to be threatened with 8-seconds-on/8-seconds-off on the treadmill and I’d sing like an off-key canary.

I’d much rather batch my work tasks and have entire days each for writing, research, and admin, than do a little of everything every day. On ‘everything days’ I feel like I waste half the time getting into each new task.

So here’s my theory.

Because of my slowness to switch, when my mind is in work mode it stays overactive for some time before letting go. Like an electric oven I guess, versus a gas one. (I don’t cook so I’m hoping this analogy works.)

Before I cottoned on to this switching idea, I would often do an online check-in right before bed – email, Facebook page, blog, Facebook group.

Now here’s where this was seductive.

If there was nothing that needed my attention, I’d feel all happy and peaceful as I went to bed. So that made it positively reinforcing. It was lovely to do that late-night check-in and know that all was well. I was actually just checking in to get this reassurance.

But seeking reassurance is always a double-edged sword.

What if all is not serene? What if someone has asked a question that you feel you should respond to? What if there’s an email that gets you (over)thinking?

Often I would see something that could easily wait till morning, but once I’d seen it, it bothered and distracted me until I dealt with it. I’d have to answer the email. Reply to the comment. Return the message. Some people can put these things aside – that’s never been easy for me.

You guys, this niggling little thing is a pea. A nothing. But one that can keep you up for ages.

So what would happen?

I’d go to my desk and deal with the pea and get dragged back into work mode and my brain would get provoked and I’d need to disengage all over again.

My Shut-Down / Switch-Off Ritual

So what do I do now?

I now have a discrete shut-down ritual*.

  1. When I’m done with work for the day, I tick off the to-do items I’ve completed (I love this part!) and transfer any incomplete items to the days I plan to work on them.
  2. I leave my browser tabs open (you’ll see why) and take a shower. I generally play music and I find that really helps me unwind. I may or may not grab a shampoo bottle and sing along.
  3. Invariably I have a bunch of ideas in the shower.
  4. After my shower I add any ideas that have survived the vocal extravaganza to my diary or I create drafts in my still-open blog browser tab.
  5. I do a final check of email and social media.
  6. Then – this is the most important part – I close my browser tabs, plug in my phone to charge, turn off my monitor, close my diary, and turn off my office lamp. This little ritual makes me feel like I’m pulling up the drawbridge on work and letting my brain move into relaxation phase. It’s really therapeutic!
  7. Next I watch some TV. Often an episode of a European crime show, or some stand-up comedy.
  8. In bed I read until I feel sleepy, then try to put down my book, turn out my lamp, and snuggle down to sleep before my brain knows what’s going on and has a chance to get all fidgety about something that can totally wait till tomorrow.

Adding this shut-down ritual to my life has been great. I’m less distracted while watching my TV shows and while reading, so I enjoy them both more. I sleep better. And whatever is waiting for me online is still there in the morning.

I doubt I’ll ever sleep as soundly as Sleeping Beauty. I have my doubts about her.

But those peas? I am getting better at knowing they’ll be there in the morning.

And not taking them into bed with me at night.

*Thanks to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for the idea.