Can You Beat Sleep? How to Sleep Better in 8 Simple Ways

I love to sleep as much as the next person but I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in longer than I can remember and I’ve developed all sorts of sleeping problems. Sleeping is like a curse for me: Insomnia, early waking, sleep anxiety, nightmares. On average I sleep just 5 hours of the recommended 8, and that’s if I’m lucky – it can be just 1 or 2 some nights. It’s as if the universe doesn’t want me to sleep!

Unfortunately the human body needs rest to function properly, otherwise I’d probably just forgo sleep altogether and keep working 24 hours a day. I’m not alone either: Sleep problems affect a massive number of people and reports suggest that over 30% of adults in the UK are severely sleep deprived and an estimated 50-70 million Americans have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

So what happens if you don’t sleep enough? Unfortunately it’s bad news:

  • Lack of alertness: Research suggests missing even as little as 1.5 hours of your recommended can have a serious impact on your concentration and cognition. You’ll be walking around in a daze, unable to offer your full attention to conversations, work, your hobbies or even driving.
  • Unwillingness to exercise (or do anything): Exhaustion makes you sluggish, and in turn that means you’ll experience a lack of motivation and energy, feeling like you want to sit down all day when you should be making the most of the daylight hours.
  • Relationship stress: As well losing motivation for socialising with friends, you get moody when you’re tired. You might get snappy (like I do) or perhaps just blow others off, and you’ll probably get lazy with romance; It’s hard to explain to people that you’re ‘just tired’ when it happens, because that makes you sound like an ass.
  • Memory loss: One of the primary reasons for sleep is memory processing. When we sleep at night, our brains sort through the days events and knowledge and convert short term memories into long term ones. That’s the real reason babies need to sleep so much; they’re learning constantly and they need time to process and store it all. You’ll find you have a harder time remembering anything and your ability to think is severely impaired when you’re exhausted.

There’s endless debate over whether 8 hours is right for everyone, whether more than that is bad for you and whether some people need significantly less sleep but even without the research to back it up, we all know sleep deprivation is a bad thing. We can feel it in our bodies.

Luckily, the internet is overspilling with advice on how to sleep better. Great news! If they work, we should all be sleeping better within a week. Unfortunately loads of the things that I’ve read, I’ve already tried. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I’m already doing, that you should be too:

Sleep environment – temperature, light, noise

Research shows that we are still responsive to external stimuli during sleep. The best, most peaceful environment for sleep is:

  • Pitch black
  • Cool temperatures
  • Weight on your body (from blankets)
  • Silence or white noise (for those of us with negative associations with silence)

I sleep with all lights off including any blue lights – aka TV, phones, computers – and I have no streetlights outside my window. I keep the window open for air, a fan going for white noise and temperature regulation, and a heavy quilt.

Comfort – the right mattress and pillow

It’s not surprising if you sleep better in nice hotels; your mattress and pillow have a big impact on comfort. Everyone’s needs are unique: My other half sleeps with one firm pillow and I sleep with two soft ones, and we have a hard mattress with a soft topper to compromise because we both have back problems. You’ve got to work out what’s most comfortable for you and if needs be, speak to an osteopath about what bedding you should be using.

Sleep routine – sleeping and waking at regular times

This breaks down to no daytime naps (10 minutes if you’re desperate, but never longer), waking at the same time on your days off as you do on work days, and sleeping around the same time each night. When you’ve got insomnia, trying to keep a routine like this blows. However I’m always awake by 7.30am even on the days I manage to sleep past 4, and I try to be in bed by 11.30pm every night (with no promise of sleep before 3, haha.)

Don’t drink alcohol

Alcohol consumption has all kinds of nasty effects on the body, not just on sleep. It disrupts melatonin production, growth hormones and symptoms of sleep apnea. As a teenager, I used to drink heavily but not anymore – I do from time to time drink alcohol, but since I had major surgery last year, it’s very rarely. I find wine the most disruptive drink – it can have me reeling for hours. Whiskey or cider tends to go down a little better if I do want to have a drink but most of the time I just avoid it.

 

If you’re not working those four things into your sleep routine yet, give them a go for sure because I hate to think how poorly I’d sleep if I didn’t. But obviously those tricks alone aren’t working for me so here’s 8 of the best and most common tips I’ve found around the web – I’m going to be trying them all out to see if they can do anything for me in the next two weeks, and hopefully in turn, you:

1. Reserve the bed solely for sleep and sex

Reading in bed is relaxing right? Not if you’re suffering sleep deprivation five ways from Sunday. I work from home and when I’m tired it’s very easy to drag my laptop into my lap and spend the day working in bed rather than in my office, but all work should be banished from the bedroom for the sake of all our sanities. The same goes for watching movies and TV, playing video games, writing essays, or anything else that mentally stimulates you and blurs the definition of your bed being the place where you rest.

2. Turn off all tech at least an hour before sleep

I am a serial culprit of using my phone in bed or using my laptop when I can’t sleep. Bright and blue light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains to be awake and alert, so it takes some time for our bodies to ‘power down’ after we’ve powered down the tech. Not using your laptop, tablet, computer or TV for 1 to 2 hours before bed should be long enough to switch off before you sleep.

3. Create a bedtime ritual

Setting yourself a ritual of tasks to complete before bed helps suggest to your body it’s time to sleep. This can include skincare rituals, yoga, meditation, reading, deep breathing, taking a warm bath or shower, listening to soothing music, progressive muscle relaxation or anything you want.

4. Exercise in the morning (but not at night)

Exercise improves every area of your health – but exercising before bed has a negative impact on your sleep pattern because it increases alertness and hormones like epinephrine and adrenaline, which will keep you awake. Sleep deprivation can drop your motivation to exercise to zero but try starting with 10-15 minutes in the morning to boost your energy levels through the day and increasing it from there.

5. Limit caffeine consumption – none after 2pm

It’s hard to keep track of whether people say caffeine is good or bad for you these days, but I like to lean on the evidence that says it’s got huge health benefits because I don’t think I could survive a day without drinking coffee. However, that caffeine jolt from an afternoon coffee stays with you longer than you’d expect, so it’s best to cut off drinking it 7 or 8 hours before you sleep for the best chances at rest. Be wary of caffeine in other foods and drinks too, including tea.

6. Eat light and early in the evening

Western society has become infatuated with the idea that breakfast should be a light meal and dinner should be a heavy one when it should be the other way around. My father was forever phrasing it as:

Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and sup like a pauper.

Eating your big meal in the morning gives your body time to work off that energy during the day whereas eating it at night means you’re digesting it whilst you sleep. Eat light at night and take your supper as early as you can so you’re not sleeping on a full stomach.

Don’t go to bed hungry though. If your stomach is rumbling after supper, try a Snooze Food – foods that reduce alertness and boost seratonin and melatonin levels, such as bananas, honey, turkey, warm milk, marmite, almonds, oatcakes and camomile tea.

7. Keep a Thought Journal

If you find yourself lying awake at night, your mind racing with stress, anxieties or even creativity, keeping a thought journal to write it all down in is key. I am an advocate of journaling for mental health because writing it all out on paper gets it out of your head and alleviates the pressure on your mind that comes hand in hand with stress. There are arguments for and against keeping this journal at your bedside but it’s probably better to have easy access to it when you’re tossing in the sheets at night. If you’re not sure what to write, writing to-do lists for the next day is a great starting point.

8. Let go of the rope

Sleeplessness is a tug-of-war and can cause unwanted stress. Relying too heavily on rules and routine can make your obsessive and dependent, which in turn can make it harder to sleep – especially when you’re out of your usual environment. Concentrate on relaxing rather than sleeping. Living a mindful life and focusing on calming your non-sleep related stresses can bring you to peace and in turn, naturally-induced sleep.

 

That’s it – those are the top 8 tips that I’ve found. When I put this list together I was mildly disappointed to find it all sounded so easy – could I really have been sleeping better this whole time? Let the investigation commence – I’m going to spend a couple of weeks working these tricks into my sleep routine. If I can sleep better after a lifetime of struggling with it then so can you. Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss the results!

Do you have any tricks for sleeping I may have missed off the list? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your social channels – you can tag me on Twitter @paperstorms 🙂

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10 Tips & Tricks To Beat Writer’s Block

WRITING IS AT THE HEART OF EVERYTHING I DO. I am a writer, pure and simple. I’ve got three years of hard grinding, a piece of paper and a photograph of myself in a graduation cap to attest to that, not to mention a few years experience dipping my fingers in various ink pots. Now, if I’d listened to my university tutor and his ‘holier-than-thou’ spiel on how you can’t call yourself a writer until you’ve got a novel published (in hindsight this was probably an echo of regret that he’d never personally succeeded as a writer – after all, those who can’t, teach) then I wouldn’t be calling myself one at all, nor would I be here offering my best advice… But as it is, I know in my heart that I’m a writer and I’m not ashamed to say it.

(If you’ve got these quirks, you probably are too.)

For me it’s an urge, as natural as eating, sleeping and breathing. I’ve been writing since I was seven years old: stories, scripts, articles, poetry. More recently I’ve been working professionally in the world of non-fiction writing and marketing; that’s nearly 20 years of writing under my belt. Whilst I may still be working on my first novel, I’d call that enough experience to have learned a few things along the way. You guys have asked me to write about writing, so here’s the most important thing I’ve picked up in the last few years:

Writer’s Block isn’t real.

And if it isn’t real, you can beat it. Writer’s Block is history.

How can I say it isn’t real when writers face Writer’s Block every day? Simple, really. It’s not called Writer’s Block. It’s not even called Creator’s Block, because it isn’t something unique to creative people at all – everyone in the whole world experiences productivity blocks from time to time, whether they’ve got an important sales pitch to make, a mile of wooden floors to buff or 10,000 words to write. By sticking a label on it and pretending writer’s block is something unique to writers, we’re making it special. We’re making it an excuse that we can use as writers to avoid being put on the spot for not getting our work done.

Just like everyone else, I experience heavy periods of productivity block whether it’s for my writing, filmmaking or even just picking up after myself at home. There is nothing I hate more than staring at a blank page with good intentions; the way inspiration always comes at times when I can’t write and as soon as I sit down to do so, it’s gone. There’s nothing worse than feeling sapped of creativity, unable to get a word down even when you’ve got a great idea or worse still, when you need to write for work, your blog or anything else; it can make you feel flaky, like you’re a fraud for calling yourself a writer at all. The good news is, you’re not.

Like with any other hobby or profession, writing is a skill and it takes practice. You’ve just got to put your back into it. And with a strategy and this arsenal of tricks, you’ll find yourself tapping away at the keys in no time. All of these tips are about prose writing, but they are easily applied to poetry, essays, blogs – you name it.

1. Start in the middle. If you find yourself sat down at a blank page with an idea but no idea how to begin, then don’t begin at all.

Start mid-conversation or halfway through the plot; whatever is in your head right now. You may even find this a more interesting opening anyway and you can always move back to ‘what happened earlier’ for your next chapter. This helps you to understand the story you’re writing and the voice of the characters you’re controlling so you can better introduce them to your audience. Anyone would be hard-pressed to describe the reactions and attitude of a stranger they’d never spoken to, so take them for a test run and get to know them first. Which takes me to my second tactic.

2. Develop your story. If you can’t write prose or paragraphs right now then it’s better to make extensive notes rather than write nothing at all.

Expand the world your story takes place in, come up with new characters all together or just make bullet points for your plot – once you’ve put a few ideas down, you should find inspiration taking you. If you’ve got no ideas but you’re desperate to write, pick a vague concept and get note-taking on all the ways you could expand on it to make it into different stories. And if you really can’t think, google a prompt then try to brainstorm a protagonist for it. You might not like your idea off the bat, but I promise you there are no bad ideas. Which takes us to the third battle manoeuvre!

3. Force yourself to write terribly. If you can’t seem to get anything good down on paper, stop trying to be good. 

Whilst this one might seem more counter-productive than productive, in my personal experience it is very helpful. Jotting down a couple of hundred words you’re not proud of gets rid of that blank page problem and it’s a starting point you can build on. Remember, no one gets to see your writing unless you permit them and I’m pretty sure everything anyone writes is always at least twice as good as they think it is. It’s a plague creative people all share in suffering – not feeling talented. And if it really is terrible, you’ve at least written more than you would have if you hadn’t written anything at all.

4 .Create your perfect writing space. If you’ve got a whole room, use a whole room. If you’ve just got a desk or a corner that’ll do too.

Procrastination and distraction are the death of creativity and writing requires a whole deal of concentration to get into. Make a dedicated space where you can get into the groove of it, somewhere peaceful, filled with books and decorated with things that inspire you. Some writers say it’s better to have a blank canvas around you, but I always feel comfortable writing in a space that naturally incites creativity. I find the look and feel of my writing space influences my thoughts and in turn, my writing and I’ve often changed it up based on what I need to be writing at that time. Anything that gets your mind racing is a huge positive when it comes to getting over a period of creative stubbornness.

5. Collect visual depictions of your ideas. If you find you really can’t put anything down, not even notes, try moodboards.

In the same way your environment helps inspire you, so can visual cues for your story. Sometimes one image is all it takes to conjure up a whole new story idea or plot point and if you can’t put a sequence into words, it can help to lay it out in images. Where does the scene take place? What does the character look like? What are they wearing? Add anything that stimulates you – landscapes, objects, characters, abstract art, quotes, lyrics. Personally I use Pinterest. Some of my story moodboards have hundreds of images on them, like this one for the novel I’m working on and I can find inspiration just by glancing over them.

6. Read, learn, expand your horizons. Stephen King famously wrote: 

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 10.38.28

Which is the honest truth. How can you know what constitutes good writing if you’re not reading? Similarly, writing what you know about (always a good place to start) is going to be a little dull if all you know about is yourself and your life. Reading fiction – both good books and bad books to learn the difference – is vital to knowing how to write fiction, but reading educational material and real life experience pieces can generate ideas out of thin air. Try travel writing, history books, investigative books (like those by comedian Jon Ronson) and news articles to find inspiration.

By that same merit, get out there and see the world. If you can’t travel to far off lands, try hitting your hometown; inspiration can be found anywhere. Maybe it’s watching a young couple picking out dinner at the supermarket, maybe it’s a conversation overheard in line at the gas station… Sometimes it’s just the way light plays through the trees in the morning haze. As a writer you must think of everything that happens to you and around you as a resource so get away from your desk, get out into the world, and find something new to write about. Sit in a coffee shop (like a real writer) and study your surroundings. Oh, and if that’s not working…

7. Steal other people’s ideas. Writers steal existing ideas all the time.

Look at how many times the Cinderella story has been retold, for example. Or how many people have used the character of Dracula in their own work. I’m not saying I plagiarise (I definitely don’t encourage plagiarism) but sometimes, taking a little inspiration from stories that you love and stories that are successful is no bad thing. Without a little idea replication, we wouldn’t even have Harry Potter. Loads has been written on the similarities between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and it’s easy to see why J. K. Rowling might have pulled inspiration from such an epic tale. Bask in the creativity of other writers, pick and choose themes and situations that appeal to you and completely rewrite them until they are non-comparable to the original source of inspiration. Sometimes you just need to lean on someone else’s genius for once.

8. Reorder your plot with this stupidly simple technique. 

I came up with this one myself whilst I was at university; it helped me write the 27,500 word creative dissertation that earned me a 1st class degree and I’ve never looked back. You’re going to need post-it notes or a stack of scraps of paper – this one needs to be done without the help of technology. If you’ve got plot holes you can’t fill or you’ve just got no idea how a story is going to pan out, this one’s a real killer.

Start by writing down all your plot points and planned scenes, one per post-it note. Once every idea you’ve got is written down, begin laying them out as a timeline of events on the wall, desk, floor – whatever works. The ones you know where to place on your timeline should be placed first, followed by the ones you’re not sure about. Play around with the order of each scene until you’re happy with it and leave gaps where you’ve got nothing. You might find you drum up new ideas quickly to fill those gaps, but more likely you’ll find there aren’t gaps at all – you just didn’t realise it before. Congratulations, you’ve already got your whole story! If nothing else, this exercise is bound to give a new perspective on your work.

9. Overstimulation is a killer. Do something boring! 

Thinking creatively for more than a few hours at a time can overload your brain and you’ll find you’re so mentally exhausted that you completely run out of steam. Do you ever find you have your best ideas whilst driving or in the shower? Doing something that doesn’t demand much mental effort or imagination, something that relaxes or de-stresses your mind you whilst still occupying your body is ideal for recharging your creativity.

If you’re stuck for words, take a break and rearrange your bookshelves. If you’re stuck for ideas, try doing all the washing up. Note, this doesn’t work if you ‘take a break’ by watching television. It has got to be something that isn’t stimulating for the brain. Take a shower. Do all the laundry or my personal favourite – declutter your house. Free yourself from your surroundings and you’ll free up some headspace too. You also might have writer’s block because you’ve been writing too hard and not taking care of yourself – remember to go and eat, drink a lot of water, or have a big old cup of coffee (I’ll take the coffee, black, no sugar.)

10. When you finish writing, finish in the middle of a sentence.

Does that sound hard? This is probably the easiest of all the techniques on here and it’s easily one of the best, too. With most creative block you’ll probably find that some days you can write for hours without stopping and other days you can’t even start. For those days, this is an indispensable trick. When your creative juices are really flowing try to finish before you’re finished by stopping writing in the middle of a sentence you already know how to end. Put down your pen or save your file and step back from your work. If you only ever finish when you’re out of ideas then you’re already creating a problem for yourself next time you try to write. Stepping away from your work whilst you’re on a roll means you can come back to it and finish that sentence, then that paragraph, then that chapter you’ve already made notes on. You’re skipping the part of writing where you sit and contemplate how you’re going to start altogether and getting back into the flow of it without giving yourself time to worry about not knowing how to continue.

Just like that, your writer’s block is history! Of course, I’ve got experience but I am by no means an expert in writing. This isn’t gospel. But the ten techniques above have really helped me when I’ve been stuck, especially when I’ve had deadlines to meet and the stress has almost killed me. Hopefully they can help someone else overcome their creative slump too.

Oh, and a bonus tip! Some people say it’s good to write in silence (others say to play music so loud you can’t think – Stephen King writes to heavy metal) but if you want sound without distraction, try white noise. I love the rain. Really love it. I frequently listen to rain simulators like Rainy Mood when I write. White noise is supposed to be good for your brain, concentration levels, and I really like the melancholy it inspires. Really sets the tone for my stories.

Good luck with your writing and if you have any tricks of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Perhaps you can teach me a thing or two as well? If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on your social channels – you can tag me @paperstorms on Twitter.

The Metamorphosis of a Pariah

When I was a child, I had a dream of writing. I put my pen to paper and the words just flow out of my body like water rushing over stone, as though there is nothing more natural in the universe than the coming together of ink and paper and the endless stretch of my imagination.

I’m older now than I ever thought I’d be when I wrote my first novel. At eight years old, when I wrote the words ‘chapter one’ for the very first time on a word document on my father’s brand new Dell PC, I didn’t care much about the how or the when of writing my book. All that mattered to that version of me was that I strip the story out of my head and get it down and that people be proud of me for doing so. That story was about an infant who was lost in the woods following a car crash, only to be found a decade later, raised in the company of bears. I used excessive clip art to drive my point home. Actually, I’m pretty proud of it as a concept even now.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that writing my book seemed to have a sell-by date. As a fifteen year old girl suffering from severe manic depression, my only coping mechanism through fantasy and horror stories, it suddenly seemed very important to write my first novel and publish it by the time I was eighteen. I wanted to be one of the youngest successful authors ever, because something in my mind was telling me that was the only way to be happy.

Unfortunately, writers have to write. It didn’t help much that I barely wrote a single creative word between the age of fifteen and twenty (I wrote fanfiction and a poor movie script that sort of resembled Skins, but that was the height of my creativity back then.)

Every year since then the ticking clock has felt more like a time bomb; not least because it feels like someone else is going to write my novel before me, but also because I’m creeping up on thirty now. I’m dreading the turn from twenties to thirties because I fear there’s still so much my heart is set on that I haven’t yet accomplished, that I promised myself I’d do, that I’m starting to feel the pull of settling down into a nice, adult life that would mean throwing half my plans right out the window forever.

(I’m kind of jealous of those people who can live as nomads in a digital age, work and earn on the go and see the world forever and ever. I’ve got the perfect skillset for doing so but as much of an explorer as I am, I forever feel the draw of permanent safe harbour.)

I’ve got to realise that I still have time. I can write a little each day and chip away at that dream until it’s no longer so far away it seems impossible. It only seems impossible because I’ve not managed it in the past but you don’t fail until you quit, and I’m not ready to quit. I still have a few years left to pack in what’s important and figure out what isn’t, too.

This blog is the first step towards self-realisation, I guess. I need a little space where I can dump my thoughts and collect all the little parts of myself I don’t know what to do with. I used to be broken and scattered, but nowadays I’m just holding all the pieces wondering what shape they’ll take when I finally finish piecing them together. More than a decade has passed since I first fell apart and it has taken all this time to begin to understand who I am, but I’m proud of every step I take.

I know one thing for sure. I’m still a writer. And so I’ll write fierce and true about what I feel and perhaps it’ll help me lay a foundation for who I’ll be when I finally do hit thirty, perhaps it won’t be as scary as it seems.