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How I Finally Ended My Battle With Sleep

Dean Paarman
December 10, 2020

Im awake!

It’s just past 6 o’clock in the morning and I’ve got my cup of coffee & laptop ready to write this post.

It is quite unlike me to be up so early. I’m usually not a morning person at all. I’ve always been a sleepyhead. In fact, when I was a baby I used to sleep so much my folks took me to a doctor to see if there was something wrong with me. The doctor politely smiled and told to my parents to count their blessings.

I’m 34 years old now and not a hell of a lot has changed. I’ve been saying things like this for years:

“I can sleep with pots & pans clanking next to my head.”

“I can sleep in, with the curtains open.”

“I can fall asleep just about anywhere.”

The problem: I say these things with false pride.

Truthfully, I wish it weren’t so. I don’t want to be a sleepyhead!

An aptitude for sleeping

Many people reading this might think I’m crazy. It’s a gift. I should embrace my aptitude for sleep. Insomnia is a serious problem and it is becoming more and more common. There are millions of poor souls out there lying in bed praying for sleep to arrive like a great miracle. And here I am bitching about sleeping too much.

We all know the “eat your food, kids in Africa are starving” concept doesn’t work. We might feel bad while we think about it, but we don't really care about other people’s problems while we are dealing with our own.

Furthermore, the extreme-opposite can exasperate the situation. Rather than wanting to just be healthy, people wish they had the "opposite" problem.

It’s like an obese person wishing they were anorexic instead. Solving being “too skinny” sounds like a walk in the park when your problem is eating too much. Life would be easy.

Similarly, people telling me to “count my blessings” and to “just enjoy it”, has done little to make me feel better. Sleep has been a topic in my life that comes up again and again, and it brings me discomfort. I have to accept that I have a problem with sleep too.

I struggle to wake up

As long as I can remember I have been fighting to wake up earlier. I’ve tried all the tricks.

  • Placing my alarm clock on the other side of the room
  • Double alarm clocks
  • Bult-in snooze time
  • No snooze time allowed
  • Changing the alarm tones (Never use your favourite music!)
  • I placed a kettle by my bedside to make coffee as soon as the alarm goes off
  • Asked people to help wake me up
  • Accountability challenges
  • Going to be “earlier”

And a bunch more.

10 more minutes... snooooze

Some tactics did not work at all. Others worked for a bit, usually only until the novelty wore off.

When I have to be up for work, I will fall out of bed last minute. Punctuality is important to me, but it’s a drag until I’m awake. And waking up takes me forever. I'm not productive in my first hour at all.

You might think why don’t I give it up? So I’m not a morning person. Accept it. Stop fighting who you are and go with the flow. That would be a better low-tension solution, right?

But when I wake up later than I want to, which is most days, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on life. I'm placed in a state of high-tension. Without fail, every single time I wake up early, like today, I feel empowered. I feel more energy and focus. I feel productive and best of all; I feel proud of myself. 

I love the mornings. Right now I hear the birds chirping and it makes me smile. I love morning hikes before sunrise. My favourite sport is surfing, and it is a morning sport. You need to get out there before the wind comes up, especially where I live.

Best time of the day.

Yet, I’ve missed so many days of surfing in my life. I’ve missed countless sunrises from the top of the mountains. I’ve missed so much of this golden, productive time as an entrepreneur.

I’m not the bird that gets the worm. That bothers me deeply. Motivational videos telling me to "sleep when I'm dead" are forever ringing in my ears. That Arnold Schwarzeneggers quote is stuck on loop:

“You have to recognize that there are 24 hours a day. We sleep six hours a day. I know there are some of you that say, “Wait a minute, I take more time to sleep.” I say, “Just sleep faster, okay?”

My usual late-rise-MO makes me feel like I’m wasting my life.

“Why can’t I just wake up!!!”

Wanting to wake up early pulls me out of a state of low-tension, because I constantly want to be different to how I am. The battle to want to be a morning-person has been exhausting until...

I recently found a way that is looking more promising than ever.

A shift in attitude

I’ve always known how incredibly important sleep is. We need a good amount of it regularly to function. Of course, there are loads of studies to support this. I knew they were out there, but I never took the time to read them, let alone even watch a video.

Instead of focussing on “why sleep is good for you”, I opted for the “how to trick yourself to wake up earlier” approach. In hindsight, I have always been looking at this from a “add more pressure to succeed” point of view. Because of this, I was looking for a quick fix and it stopped me from appreciating the bigger picture.

Sleep is good for you. Cats know that.

Since joining ikario, my life’s focus has been about self improvement. I am taking the time to understand and implement practices that are good for me. I am reading more books. I’ve been journaling to resolve inner conflicts. My last video on the blog was about the connection between movement and my sanity. And so, for the first time, I took the time to understand the benefits of sleep. I spent little more than an hour on YouTube taking it all in. Through a series of videos, I got to know sleep scientist Matt Walker. He enthralled me. I got to see where I have been going wrong all this time. (I have listed some of my favourite videos below this article.)

Through this exploration of how good sleep is for me, I have had a shift in perspective. I don’t want to sleep less. I want to give my body exactly what it needs, but I want to be in control of it. I want sleep to be a positive thing, a tool I can count on and be proud of, not constantly trying to fight off and even be ashamed of.

4 things I have corrected about my sleep behaviour

For the last 30 days I have shifted towards some low-tension wake up tactics. There are quite a few for me to still explore, but I want to share with you the 4 things, in order of their discovery, that have made a massive difference already.

Listen to what my body wants

If left uninterrupted, I will usually sleep around 9 to 10 hours. For whatever reason (I will address this next), 10 hours is what my body wants. If I am adamant that I want to wake up at 6AM, then I should go to bed 10 hours earlier.

I never go to bed at 8PM. Never, ever.

But when I tried it, I woke up at 5:30AM, no alarm clock.

Bingo.

I built an idea of what it means to go to bed early around the “recommended 8 hours of sleep” rule. If I want to wake up at 6AM, then I would go to bed at around 10PM. I rarely got to sleep before 11PM, though. I was on average sleeping closer to 6 hours. I was 4 hours short of what my body wants. No wonder I didn’t want to wake up!

If I really want to be a morning person, then I have to sacrifice time in the evenings. If I am not willing to do that, then I must accept that I will not easily wake up early.

I have opted to to push my bed time to earlier. I am now down by 9PM most nights. (Still feels weird though.)

So far, so good. I feel less FOMO about what happens after 9PM at night, than I do about missing a morning.

Pre-sleep activities

There are a series of bad habits that occur with “pre-sleep” rituals. The most common one is staring at a screen before closing one’s eyes. People watch TV or scroll on social media mere moments before they retire for the day. That light has a lasting effect on your body. It confuses the brain by telling it "it’s daytime, you should be awake". So as a result, it prevents people from falling asleep easily.

So bad for us, yet we still do it!

The other major pre-sleep habit (one I was not taking into account): What time I eat versus when I go to bed. The closer together your last meal and sleep are, the more strain you are putting on your digestive system. This will lead to impaired sleep quality. Instead of resting your organs, they are fighting off their usual sleep state to work through the night. Sugary deserts, snacks before bed and obviously caffeine are all no-goes.

I am guilty of not paying attention to both of these rules. Although I fall asleep super fast (perhaps I’m lucky there), it is likely that I am not getting the rest my body needs to reset for the next day because of small bad habits. This could be the reason I need 10 instead of 8 hours. My sleep is not optimal and I’m unaware of it. In the morning my body is telling me NO, you need more.

We eat dinner slightly earlier now. I avoid putting anything in my mouth after dinner, expect water. I have also developed a 30min wind-down routine which involves a full body stretch as the last thing before turning off the lights.

Alcohol is the worst

Alcohol consumption destroys good sleep. Alcohol is a sedative, meaning it makes you shut down, but not sleep. Your body goes into a type of stasis that only mimics sleep. When intoxicated, you do not get healthy rest because you never reach REM sleep, which is the most important phase to get the benefits out of sleep.

Even small amounts of alcohol will negatively affect your slumber.

Just one of these and I'll sleep like a baby. (Apparently not.)

Alcohol and I have a strained history. (It’s a story for another day.) But in essence, I was guilty of sometimes drinking more than I should. Other times more frequently than desirable. And occasionally both, abundantly and frequently, all at the same time. In my quest for a low-tension state of being, I have decided to let alcohol go. With the array of other negative aspects alcohol brings (It’s a story for another day), I have seen an opportunity to kill multiple problems in one go.

I no longer drink alcohol.

No alarm clock

Experts prescribe one goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day to set a routine for your mind. I have tried this on separate occasions for months on end. I tried it through 12 years of school. I tried it for 5 years while working at a production company. If one day I forgot to set that alarm, I slept in. 

As of a month ago I have stopped setting alarm clocks all together.

This may seem counter-intuitive and I'm sure it may not work for everyone. It is a personal experiment, and so far it has been working. Given my long struggle with waking up early, I have put an excessive expectation to get it right. My failure to succeed has made me feel inadequate and diminished. How can a simple goal like waking up at 6AM be so difficult? I'm a loser.

I need to let go of this paradigm.

The relationship I have with my alarm clock is toxic. We abuse each other. I will allow myself a snooze. It lets me have 3. I get pissed off with it, then myself.

Every time I hear that tring-a-ling-a-ling, I am reminded of my failure. I let myself down again.

I have pressured myself enough over the years to “force” an early wake up. I will not force it anymore.

Instead, I use mental, social and environmental triggers. I know I'm getting enough healthy sleep. The sun is having a more profound impact on my natural wake-up times. When I hear my wife wake up, I feel like getting up too. It’s not forced on me, I make the choice to get up. Without the added pressure, I am already finding myself waking up naturally more often.

I want lots more of this in my life.

Low-tension solutions

The thing that made all the difference was opting for a path of low-tension. This is not always the shortest, most straightforward or easiest path, but it is the one that provides lasting change. I still have a journey ahead of me here, but suddenly I am enjoying the process. Im getting results through a process that is rewarding, rather than a deeper, harder, high-pressure struggle to succeed.

For the last two weeks, I am waking up naturally earlier than ever before. I am waking up more refreshed than ever too. Today I woke up at 6AM naturally for the third time in the last 2 weeks.

I was excited to write this blog and share my progress.

If you struggle with sleep, whether too much or too little, take a little time to inform yourself about sleeping. Perhaps, like me, you are doing something wrong. It might be something small that you are not aware of. To help you get started, meet Matt Walker. Below is a list of videos that helped me change the way I am working on my sleep behaviour.

Links to supporting research

Ironically the reason I struggle to wake up is very closely related to insomnia. I might well be sleeping, but my sleep is not optimal. Watching a video on what causes insomnia was the first step in my research process and it helped me identify the path ahead.

What causes insomnia?               https://youtu.be/j5Sl8LyI7k8

Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker        https://youtu.be/5MuIMqhT8DM

Here's Why It's Not Good To Sleep After A Meal                 https://youtu.be/jUYtbRcqYoM

How caffeine and alcohol affect your sleep      https://youtu.be/KQ9FfzMKBNc

6 tips for better sleep              https://youtu.be/t0kACis_dJE


Dean Paarman

About the author

Enthusiastic, optimistic, easily motivated and passionate about people and creative projects. His hunger for skill diversification has often led him off the focussed path, but he always finds his way back, in a better position than he was before.

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  • Great video! Thanks for sharing on this important topic. I share the same pain. And after years of trying I agree with your conclusions: 1) going to sleep earlier, 2) Not eat to late (as then it is difficult to go to sleep earlier), 3) no alcohol and I guess the 4 depends on more factors. What I can add, after many years of “study” is that “the best ideas that we have” come when we are sleeping. For example, the shape of the DNA, the sewing machine, or even Google tech system. Here is a link with some curious ones https://www.theclever.com/15-famous-ideas-that-were-invented-in-dreams/ And some others that could be missed if not paying attention to this important topic 🙂

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