How to turn off your brain when you can’t sleep


This weekend a friend told me he thought he was becoming an insomniac. He would lay there for hours thinking about work and projects, unable to fall asleep even if he was exhausted.

My immediate reaction: You need to keep a notebook on your nightstand!

I’m a self-diagnosed narcoleptic, and have a history of falling asleep at weddings and bars. I could fall asleep facedown on a sidewalk in an unfamiliar park if I had to.

I’ve never had a problem sleeping. Staying awake—that’s my issue. At least, until very recently.

My demise is wanting to take on everything. Even when I’m left thinking “I have no bandwidth left,” if I hear about a new project, I want in.

A few months ago, I woke up at three in the morning and honestly thought I was having a panic attack. I could not get my brain to relax. I sat straight up in bed like they do in the movies as all the things I had left undone ran through my head.

That is not me. I’m the girl who doesn’t even want to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I just close my eyes and think, “If I just lay here, it will go away, right?” Wrong.

I probably sat there for…almost an hour. I tried everything, until I finally threw in the towel and turned on the lamp. From there, I grabbed my notebook and starting writing:

  1. I wrote down the most exhaustive to-do list I have ever written. I think I hit #56 before I laid back down.
  2. I wrote down every thought that wasn’t necessarily a to-do, but was still running through my brain (i.e. “Find out where you parked your car.”)
  3. I went through my list and numbered 1-10 what I thought I could reasonably accomplish the next day.


By 4 a.m., I had written three pages of thoughts and to-dos. I felt like I could breathe for the first time and my brain finally let myself sleep. It felt as though I had physically taken every single thing that was running through my brain and placed it in that notebook for safekeeping.

Since my mild freak-out, I bought two notebooks—one to keep on my nightstand, and one to keep in my desk at work. If I suddenly think, “Crap! I forgot to do x-y-z,” I immediately write it down.

I have no idea why we do this, but it honestly seems as though the moment we allow ourselves to relax, our brain over-compensates. So, it chooses the times when our brain is empty—i.e. when we’re at the gym or trying to fall asleep—to spit out everything we didn’t have bandwidth to think of during the workday. If I write all those inconvenient thoughts down, I can return to them when it’s convenient for me.

Most likely, not 3 a.m.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

For All the F Words
You have flaws. You f-up on a daily basis. And that should be ok.