Like many people, I’ve long had problems falling asleep. Sleep has always felt like such a terrible waste of time, a third of my life lost. Imagine what I could have done living an extra ten years of life up to this point! But curtailing sleep was an unmitigated disaster, the loss of performance and quality of life was so bad that I might as well not have bothered at all. For those extra 2-3 hours I lost an entire day. So when I did go to bed, I wanted to lay down and get on with it.
That was always a ludicrous aspiration. Simply lying down does not shut off one’s mind. Now that I didn’t have other things to distract me, my brain could start going over every little thing that happened to me that day. Analyzing it, dissecting it, suggesting alternatives (too late) and estimating how it affected other’s opinions of me. And I would start contemplating what I would do the next day, sometimes elaborate plans. Or I’d start forming opinions of things I’d watched or read or witnessed. Then I’d realize what I was doing and get annoyed at myself for not falling asleep. And on and on like this for hours. The only way to avoid this was to first get so exhausted I’d just collapse into sleep when I went to bed, which required staying up way too late and suffering the next day. During my alcoholic phase I discovered that drinking a lot would also work, but that’s hardly an ideal solution.
This had been a blight upon my life since at least my early teens. Basically as far as I can remember I’ve been tortured by my inability to sleep. And I hear this is very common.
So when I discovered an easy and extremely reliable way to fall asleep in almost no time every single night, I was in awe for weeks. It was like I had developed a freakin’ super power. In fact, I’m still sorta in awe of it, although familiarity has dulled the shine a bit – I’m sure Superman isn’t constantly amazed that he can fly either. Seriously though, this is one of the most useful abilities I’ve ever developed in my life. It is such an amazing relief.
In the interest of spreading all superpowers to as many people as possible, I present:
How To Fall Asleep (in 2 steps)
1. Get some Melatonin and take 1-2mg just before you go to bed.
I generally don’t trust supplements, but this one came recommended by Gwern, who’s done a full write-up on it. It convinced me to try it, and it works. In short, Melatonin is a hormone your body makes to regulate your sleep cycle. Check out Gwern’s article for all sorts of details in an easy-to-read well-written format, which includes citations.
2. Lay down, close your eyes, and do some light meditation.
Meditation is also something I don’t trust, because it’s been associated with some much New-Age Woo that even hearing the word generally makes me roll my eyes. Which is too bad, because when you remove the mysticism it apparently actually helps to train you in various mental skills (such as focus and concentration). Anyway, the level of meditation required to fall asleep is absurdly light, you can almost just call it “relaxing”, but it is a focused and regimented relaxing that will GET YOU ASLEEP. Here’s the process (which I first lifted from Less Wrong) –
* focus entirely on your breath. Not on the process of breathing, just let that come naturally. Simply observe the air flowing into your nostrils, filling your lungs, and then leaving again. Nothing else, just that.
* this will work for about 3 seconds. Then your brain will randomly generate some thought. You won’t notice at first, but eventually you’ll realize “Oh hell, I’m thinking about what I want to do tomorrow instead of my breath!” Stop thinking about that and re-focus on your breath.
This is the tricky part, so there are many tricks on how to do this. My personal favorite is label the thought under a category – give it a tag like “plans” or “memory”. If there’s a song running your head tag it “music”, if you’re listening to a dripping sound, label it “sensory input”. If these very instructions on how to do it are running through your mind, label them “process.” If you’re annoyed that you’re thinking about thinking, label it “meta”. Then picture yourself throwing the label aside. I often make a mental wrist-flick as though tossing it in the trash. Don’t get upset, just refocus on your breath.
Early on this will happen constantly, you’ll be amazed how wasteful your brain processes are. As you get better you’ll be able to refocus more quickly, and be distracted less often.
You’ll fall asleep quickly once you’ve put your mind to bed. At first this can take 20+ minutes (still better than the hour+ it often took me to fall asleep). In 3-5 days (seriously, the learning curve is that quick) you’ll be able to do it in 5 minutes, maybe 10 on bad days.
That’s it. You can still lay in bed and contemplate projects or stories or whatever, when you want to. But now you can fall asleep when you want/need to as well. Congratulations on your new power, and you’re welcome. :)