Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Putting the Elephant to Sleep

They say everyone has a limit, a point where they sink so low that they can't go on denying they have a problem. I hit bottom last week when (you'd better sit down for this) I was too tired to go salsa dancing two Fridays in a row. My problem is that I always go to bed too late, and have to get up at 6:40 to go to work. Previously, going out on Sunday nights, I could catch up on sleep over the weekend, feel fine Monday morning, and tell myself I could get by on six hours' sleep. But having to cancel plans made me face up to reality.

The usual suggestions for getting enough sleep don't work for me. Reading? Part of job is proofreading financial statements and valuation report: if reading those doesn't put you to sleep, nothing will. Going to bed the same time every night? That's fine if you want to party with senior citizens; for the rest of us, things are just getting going and everyone's loose and in the flow at 10:00. Carbs to make me sleepy? That'll just lead to a whole new set of problems. Dimming the lights or wearing sunglasses? I'll trip over the dog. As for changing the bedroom (getting rid of the TV, covering the LED digital clock, getting black-out shades, etc.) I don't have a TV in my room, and the clock and city light that seeps through the blinds don't bother me. I can sleep like a corpse on a crowded city bus. My problem is getting to bed, not sleeping in it.

Thinking of this reminded me of something that Dr. Michael Eades said:

Listening to your body is giving the elephant free rein.(1)

The elephant?

Dr. [Jonathan] Haidt describes our minds and bodies (and by bodies he means not just our corporeal bodies but the working mechanisms of our bodies) as being akin to a rider on the back of an elephant.  Our conscious, thinking minds he casts in the role of the rider, and the rest of us as the elephant.  The rider can control the elephant as long as the elephant wants to be controlled.  And if the elephant is okay with being steered and directed, then to all appearances, the rider is in control.  But, if the elephant has other ideas, the rider basically just goes along for the ride.(2)

Dr. Eades is referring to the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Dr. Jonathan Haidt. I happened to have a book checked out that referred to the same idea called Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. Their metaphor for change is directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and shaping the path.

One trick for directing the rider is "finding the bright spots: investigate what's working and clone it."(3) Well, I got to bed early on vacation in San Diego. There was no TV or computer in my room. Being winter, it was cold outside and sunset came early, so I didn't want to be out late. I walked a lot during the day. Despite all the noise, bright light from the street, waking up around 5:30 AM and even leaving the building during a fire alarm one night, I never woke up tired.

Motivating the elephant? Easy: dancing on Fridays. Hard: the payoff is up to a week away. But like people whose vanity keeps their love of carbs in check, maybe my vanity (tied to dancing) could keep my bedtime in check. Strangely, the chapter on vanity in the book The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell just made me want to be more vain than I already am. (I wonder what the authors would think of the song "I Wanna do your Makeup," about someone who generously wants to help a friend indulge her vanity.) So did the documentary The Great Happiness Space, even though nobody looked very happy. (Note: the documentary is not for kids.)

Shaping the path: one trick is to build a habit."When a behavior is habitual, it's 'free', it doesn't tax the Rider." The habit I've chosen is to start getting ready for bed by 9:00, the aim being to be in bed by 10:30 (10:00 if I got to bed late the night before). If I'm ready before bedtime, I can stay up and do housework or read. No computer games or internet.

I've been at it for a few days, and so far, it's working.

1. Tips & tricks for starting (or restarting) low-carb Pt I by Michael Eades. May 30, 2011.
2. Why low-carb is harder the second time around, part II by Michael Eades. January 22, 2009.
3. Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. p. 259. 2010, Broadway Books, New York.
4. Ibid.

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