Chronic sleep deprivation had been a long-time companion. Sleep? What a waste. All through college and my first real job at a small New Hampshire newspaper I thought like that: filing my articles late before parking it at a bar with colleagues and waking at dawn on weekends, bleary-eyed, to hike the White Mountains even if I was too addled for wonder.
Sleep was last on my list. Even more so once I had my two daughters and started freelancing. Always there was a reason for averaging less than six hours a night: laundry or a story to pitch or a Norovirus attack to contend with while my husband was away on business. Or my biennial attempt to learn the guitar because that kind of frustrating, challenging experience keeps a mind agile. So I've read.
Then I did something that strangely enough opened my eyes to sleep: I let go of my identity as a journalist to become company storyteller for a cleantech start-up in Portland concerned about climate change. This is something I never thought I'd do. Reporters refer to this as crossing to the dark side, to the land of promotion. Becoming a flack. The idea being, however unfair, that public relations people spin whereas journalists uncover truth.
But the head of this company, who happens to be the son of a former newspaper editor, made the case that telling one company's story with passion could be just as important as reporting the news with dispassion, that a small business can effect positive change.
I almost said no to the offer for this reason: I didn't want to endure the discomfort of a job I'd never done before. Trying to stay happy here! Or at the very least even-keeled with all the myriad obligations and duties of parenthood like ensuring the child who swallowed the nickel passes it and figuring out why there's black ooze seeping from the exterior clapboard.
Why do something outside my vocation?
Then Robert Biswas-Diener, who has been an instructor at Portland State University, caught my attention. He reported in Psychology Today that the happiest people do slightly risky things that make them uncomfortable. Counterintuitive for sure. And a friend reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg said "whatthehellyoucandothisevenifIyouhaveneverdoneitbefore. reallycarrie"
Just before the opportunity disappeared, I embraced my considerable discomfort and took the job. In doing so, I ended up -- oddly enough -- learning the value of sleep.
For my new position I had to research sleep because it turns out the company makes window inserts that create a quiet, dark bedroom, which is particularly good for night-shift workers who need to sleep during the day when the rest of the world is awake. I got to be a secret nerdy reporter and troll wonky government sites like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I wrote lines like this: "The U.S. has a large number of shift workers: More than 21 million wage and salary workers or 17.7 percent usually work an alternate shift that falls at least partially outside daytime work hours," and "America is chronically sleep deprived with between 50-70 million adults suffering a sleep or wakefulness disorder."
And since reporting on something often prompts introspection, I wondered: What was my excuse for not sleeping? I'm not a shift worker, just part of a culture that lacks an off button. But then I found Sharon Keenan at The School of Sleep Medicine, Inc. in Palo Alto, who pointed out society is built on an extended day with factories and other entities that run all night. While people have adapted, "We have paid a price."
Have we ever. Sleep deprivation can lead to more mistakes, reduction in creativity, emotional problems, weight gain and even cancer. Realizing it's neither a luxury nor a waste, I changed. No more bad guitar until midnight. Less caffeine. No watching Philip Seymour Hoffman play Truman Capote on the iPad in bed.
Other important advice:
- Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Create a dark, quiet sleeping space.
- Keep cell phones and computers away from the bedroom.
- Realize you can't do everything and that overwhelming tasks appear less so if you're well rested.
Since I started prioritizing sleep, I'm more patient with my children despite taking on a new job. I'm also consistently more creative. And I learned this: It's way easier to bear uncomfortable changes that might be great for you if you're not exhausted.
Carrie Sturrock is company storyteller for Indow Windows in Portland, Oregon.