The Discipline of Sleep

When I”m overloaded with work, the first thing I do is cut my sleep short. Waking doesn’t require an alarm clock, I have cats who believe that first light means food, so lacking opposable thumbs, they wake me. The earlier the sun comes up, the earlier I get up.

Getting to the heart. © Quinn McDonald, watercolor pencil on paper. 2012, All rights reserved.

Trouble is, I’m a night person. I can easily work till past midnight, but not if I am up at first light, now happening around 5 a.m.

I cannot burn the candle at both ends any more. Sure, it makes a lovely light, but a lovely light is no longer enough. I need combustion to fuel the day. So, I’m forcing the discipline of an earlier bed time. It rarely works, but it’s necessary.

Self-discipline is rarely amusing or fun. But it is the heart of success, whatever your success might be. Without a good rest, without rich and complex dreams, we become shaky and weak. It’s harder to think, to plan, to appreciate, to imagine the future. It’s impossible to concentrate, do good work.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those splendid people who can live on five hours of sleep. I need seven, and eight is welcome.

Knowing what you need and giving it to yourself is not self-indulgence. It is a discipline.

What discipline do you need to nurture yourself with?

—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach whose energy drains without enough sleep. There is always a well that needs filling, isn’t there?

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25 responses to “The Discipline of Sleep

  1. Since I’m no longer in the workforce, I make up for loss of sleep due to my husband’s schedule by taking naps. A siesta is sometimes a lovely thing and there’s nothing nicer than seeing two dogs in their own beds while you’re in your own. But discipline is always something to be desired: be it to be sure one eats properly, takes regular exercise, and gets enough sleep to organizing and cleaning workspaces and even lowly tasks like cleaning the bathrooms, having a structure within which one can work helps a lot. Women especially tend towards the unstructured to deal with the demands of spouse, children or house but a schedule helps corral those demands.

  2. “What discipline do you need to nurture yourself with?” is such a good question! In addition to adequate sleep which is also difficult, I think what I need is scheduled studio time that I honor as faithfully as my morning walk. Doing creative work following the walk is usually my plan, but weather and family obligations can shift the time of my walk, and create ripples (or crashing waves) in the order of my day. More discipline/consistency is needed…

    • When we work in a corporation, we feel justified to tell friends and relatives “I have to work, I’m sorry I can’t meet you.” But when we manage our own time, and that time is spent in creative work (which may be the most important work anyone does anywhere), the boundaries we carefully built get pushed down easily. Complex reasons, of course–family should come before anything else, we can “always” work on a creative project. I think this is an important discipline. Incidentally, “discipline” comes from the same word a “disciple” and means “learning” or “training.”

  3. This is my big struggle right now. I am a lifelong night owl. But people and things are on during the day. It is easy to make a resolution to get to sleep earlier, but at 2 in the morning, when I feel really good and the juices are flowing, it seems silly to stop. There is no doubt my vitality suffers–but not all the time. If it suffered all the time, there would be no problem; I would simply fall asleep earlier. If nothing interesting went on during the day, I could just follow the biorhythms. Part of the problem is not discipline, per se, but knowing which discipline I need. I have long felt that my metabolism does not fit neatly into what we humans have labeled a day. As I grapple with the dilemma of the more-than-24-hour person, I look forward to hearing what others say. Kate

    • Smart people read my blog, for which I am grateful. Actually, most of us don’t have a 24-hour circadian rhythm. We are more attuned to the sunrise than we know, so the cycle varies over the year. Also, circadian rhythms vary from 22-hour cycle through 26-hour cycles. Unfortunately, most of our schedules don’t. That’s where the discipline comes in. I’d stay up till 2 every day, but that would kill me on the days I need to get up at 4 a.m. and drive across the Valley to teach. It seems that under a work schedule, the physical body likes a regular schedule; if you go to bed at 10 every night, you will eventually start to feel sleepy at 10. That’s the discipline. That’s also how come shift workers have a big problem, the schedule is not regular.

  4. Yes, going to be earler because now have to get up earlier – no cats and winter is coming on and I have an urge to hibernate or at least not get up until it is light!
    I liked the question, ‘What discipline do you need to nurture yourself with?’ as it neatly reframed the situation. Now, I need to nurture myself and get up!

    • Because of our unbearable summer heat, we estivate (summer hibernation), so I understand the need to tuck oneself away from the elements. That link between nurture and discipline was a stroke of understanding when it struck me. Women tend to shy away from nurturing themselves.

  5. This is my problem, and something I am trying to resolve to do better with! I’m a Night Owl, and even after a long day, will get a burst of energy when I should be winding down…(I pay for it the next day). But often I will get creative inspiration and feel compelled to act on it. The other night I “had” to make a nicho—not a 3D one, but rather a collage one and so I did…when I “came to”, it was after 3 in the morning!!!

    • (Lisa)

    • This happens to me, too. And of course, I do the art, like you do. And pay for it. For me, there is a feeling that if I don’t do it right now, I’ll forget or it will be the last good idea I ever have. Does it work that way for you, too? (I finally created a work around, but it’s not as much fun, but you get to sleep.)

      • I don’t really worry that I’ll forget or that it will be the last good idea I ever have, lol—it’s more that I have fixated on that certain idea and have that inspiration swirling inside of me that makes me feel I have to work on it NOW, because that’s when it has the potential to be it’s best, because it’s the current obsession…I don’t want to risk that I won’t care as much about it at another time…so how do you do your “work around”—put the materials and any notes to yourself, etc. on your work table and let it wait while you are sleeping?

        • i think the “potential to be its best” is related to “the last good idea I’ll ever have.” I give myself a brief time limit–10 minutes, let’s say, to start. The limit sends me to the heart of the project, but leaves it unfinished. I never forget where I was, and the work, in it’s partial state, calls me unmercifully.

  6. I have finally learned that I need to listen to my body and pay attention to what it’s telling me. I too am a night person and am doing my best to get to bed before midnight because I definitely can’t function properly without 7-8 hours of sleep.

    I really need to discipline myself with my scheduling. I am not getting any artwork done (part of it is I feel no creative energy) and need to schedule at least a few hours every day to make some attempt to make art. So far, I’m not succeeding. The one thing I’ve been focused on and accomplishing is a good workout schedule, which is vital for my peace of mind and energy levels.

    Now back to my art…

    • That’s another thing–without exercise, I feel drained. You are smart to schedule it regularly–and it shows! Sometimes, when I’m not doing art, I need to spend some time not thinking about it. Sometimes, I need to kick myself. Hard to get it right all the time, though!

  7. I too am a night person and often notice your post arriving in m y mailbox around midnight when I’m on the computer. I try to go to bed earlier but I’m just not good at it. Have resolved myself to a routine that I go to bed when I start yawning! Most of the time it works. Sometimes I sneak in an afternoon nap. I just want to feel good and be healthy.

    • Most often, I write late at night. But I also take advantage of WordPress’s ability to auto-post my blog right after midnight. I have a good number of European and UK readers, and it keeps me current around the world. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

  8. Isolation. I can concentrate on one thing for a pretty long period, but it’s a fragile state; a soap bubble. One interruption and it’s instantly gone. This is why I use an obsolete computer that is not connected to the Internet, does only one thing at a time and doesn’t display anything but text.

    • Isolation is so fragile, you are right. I find that if I chew gum it distracts part of my mind that looks for chickens crossing the road.

      • Ah, the Gallus Trajectus Cortex — MRI scans show that part of the brain lighting up like crazy when the subject plays Frogger.

        • i always have to look up those things, because I’m never sure exactly how hard you are pulling my leg, or cortex.

          • Hmm, did you get any hits searching for ‘gallus trajectus cortex’? ;-)

          • Just yours. *snort* I found some of the separate words. From my Latin it meant “the part of the brain engaged in throwing French” which brought up “Frogger” and piqued my curiosity enough to make me look it up. My late French mom would slap you for being fresh.

  9. I have been going through a similar adjustment, Quinn. I am a night owl, and most enjoy working and reading at night when everyone else is asleep and the house is quiet. However, my children are waking up earlier and earlier these days, and while we have a “don’t come to Mommy’s room until 7 am” rule, I can still hear them playing loudly in their room! It has forced me to start going to bed earlier to get enough sleep (I need 7 to 8 hours!). You are right that it’s not a self-indulgence; it’s what I need to be human toward my kids the next day!

    I am also nurturing myself with the discipline of jogging. I am starting to feel more physically and spiritually fit as I near 40 than I have felt in my whole life!

    • A lot of women simply believe we can push ourselves in several different fronts and our hearts and souls will renew us magically. Being slightly ahead of you on the age scale, I can guarantee it doesn’t get easier!

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