My compelling reason to sleep

What am I working on this month myself? Getting the right amount and quality of sleep that I need. It’s been a process, but I’m ready to solve it once and for all. It’s something I’ve been putting off. I’ll tell you why in a second.

Long story short and simple – I have acquired many poor sleep habits starting from when I was a young kid. It’s time to change them.

As a kid, I would stay up late reading under the covers with the flashlight on (with ears listening for mom coming up the stairs.)

As a teen, it was the newness of the cell phone, romantic relationships, and the pressure I put on myself even then to be the best in everything I did. (Does it even matter now who was on the honor roll?) Late nights were the norm.

In college, it was staying up to try to complete a never-ending list of what I needed to study next. Why did I do this? It was in order to get the grades I wanted (to get into medical school.)

In med school, it was much of the same, with late nights studying and preparing for my clinical rotations. The continued sense of “there’s not enough time to learn it all” drove me to stay up later. I was simultaneously driven by an enthusiasm for living the dream I had worked for all during my youth.

In residency – the context for poor habits included the long hours at work, the continual learning curve, and trying to create the feeling of a normal life outside of work. Some rotations were better than others. 

As an attending – things eased up for a little while, and then it was the question of how I would keep up with my admin tasks and growing practice (answer then: give up sleep.) Before long, my son was born, and frequent awakenings were unavoidable. 

These are the things that happened, and these were my behaviors in relation to my sleep. But why did I chronically overwork at the expense of sleep?

For a lot of reasons, into which I now have insight. We need to look at my thoughts.

Some of them were…

-Wondering if I was enough the way I was. (Now I know I am enough.)

-Wondering if I would be liked. (Now I know that some people will like me, others won’t, and that’s okay.)

-Wondering how I could do everything I wanted in the limited time I had. (Now I know that there is no rush at all, and I enjoy everything I’m doing in life.)

-Thinking my body could handle it because I had done it before. (Now I realize that there was no need to stay up late and that it was a choice all along. Staying up late was something I didn’t have to give into, even though society and medical culture said in many ways I would be better off to live that way. It might have meant that I not choose medicine as a career, and that’s okay. There would have been other ways to live my purpose in life without hurting my body through sleep deprivation, which is a usual part of medical training.)

Why do I continue to work on my tendency to overwork? 

Because our society is constantly feeding us thoughts that we have to do more, that we have to have more, that we have to be more than we are in order to matter.

Because old thought patterns can diminish, but depending on how long you’ve been having them, they may never go away completely, or they will come up in a new way with new goals and life challenges. This is okay. Have awareness of this and manage it.

My life has changed a lot in the past two years. I have new perspectives about my self-worth. I know how to set boundaries for myself. This is good news, because now I know how to create a balanced life around my part-time clinical practice, my health, my family life, and my passion for coaching. 

I know it’s possible to have all of this, but first, I need to sleep.

To get the sleep I need to do it all, I needed to find a compelling reason

I had been having a hard time finding a compelling reason to sleep – not because I didn’t understand the benefits in general, and not because I didn’t love myself or my health or my family. These are common reasons we use to drive ourselves into action, but isn’t it interesting when they don’t always work?

The reason it was hard was because part of my human brain believed what it chose to believe. For a long time I had strengthened the compelling reasons to follow old habits (by choosing to believe them.) For example, “Well, if I stay up a little longer, I can do more and I can learn more. I can be more.” I found all the ways in which this was true — missing the ways in which I was simultaneously creating the exact opposite reality as well.

I needed to question that thought and find strong evidence to support an alternative perspective.

This happened when I started reading the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, PhD. (I highly recommend it if you have sleep issues yourself.)

After having had many failed attempts, I found my compelling reason in the refresher about NREM and REM sleep. NREM sleep, predominating earlier in the night, refines neural connections; REM sleep increasing in duration over the course of the night, strengthens neural connections.  

By staying up later and having lost a couple hour of sleep, we lose more of our REM sleep, “60-90 percent of all your REM sleep,” Walker states. 

No way. Not after all that I have invested in myself. I have invested so much of my life into learning for my profession, so much of my money into coaching to enhance my mental health, so much of my time to create a beautiful family life, and more. What a shame if I was to just lose the benefits of all my investments — including the ability to be awake and present in my life, and the ability to maximize my creativity and critical thinking– due to a few hours of lost sleep each night. 

No way. 

So I keep reading the book, and practicing the thought, to strengthen my compelling reason. “By going to bed now, I’m going to live my best life.”

Find your compelling reason. Then decide how you’re going to invest in yourself.

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