First Sleep / Second Thoughts

SUMMARY: Experimenting today with the idea of a short “first sleep” followed by a period of writing and then “second sleep”. I write about what has been bothering me creatively and productively recently, and come to the conclusion that to be true to myself I must serve the benevolent unicorn overlords that give my life some sparkle.

Apparently, Europeans in the pre-industrial world used to sleep in two parts instead of as a solid 8-hour chunk. At the time I read about this, I was highly intrigued, because waking up in the middle of the night happens to me quite frequently. Since I thought that was somehow “wrong”, my aspirational behavioral goals was to be SO TIRED by the time I was ready to go to bed that I could sleep in a nice big chunk. The problem with that, for me anyway, is that it’s rare I get that sleepy. So, I would pop awake after a few hours, then toss and turn miserably trying to fall back asleep. It feels like a huge waste of time.

It’s interesting to think, after all these years, that going back to a pre-industrial sleeping pattern might free me from the tyranny of restfulness! If I’m reading this right, before electricity made the night a time of extended activity there was not much to do except go to sleep for a bit. This was called “first sleep”. Taking advantage of the mental clarity and calm upon awakening, some would use the time to study or write, or even go visit their neighbors to socialize for a while. Then, one would go back to bed for “second sleep” until the morning.

Previously, I’ve tried bi-phasic sleep as two chunks of 4-hour sleeping blocks roughly 8 hours apart, which worked during a project requiring both manager and creative responsibilities. I’ve also tried “staying up for however long I can”, which tends to extend my days beyond 24 hours. Both approaches, ultimately, exacted too-high a price in terms of social synchronization; I was never up at the same time as other people, and missed the interaction that comes with it. The important takeaway, though, was that I could use sleep to refresh my ability to concentrate at any time. The challenge is to ALSO stay connected with the rest of the world; this “first sleep / second sleep” approach might work out during the long New England winter.

So, here I am writing this blog post, having arisen from my first official “first sleep”. I am starting to feel a little bit sleepy again, having been up for 90 minutes at this point in my writing. I’ve been wanting to get back to writing on the blog for a while, but have been in a state of mind where I haven’t wanted to write at all. This is pretty strange for me, and upon reflection my conclusion is that I haven’t been in a mood to think. Perhaps it is just seasonal affective disorder, but I think this desire for NoThink has been with me before it got colder and darker.

I’ve been of two minds about my work lately:

  • First, I’ve been very aware of just how much work I have to do on just a few projects at a time. To be productive, I have to limit the scope of my efforts to just those projects (or so I believe). This form of mental discipline, which I think is necessary, suppresses my desire to explore exciting new distractions in favor of productive focus. I really dislike this tradeoff, come to think of it.

  • Second, I’ve been very aware of how little I am actually accomplishing, or at least it seems that way. And if I look a bit deeper into that feeling, it’s because I haven’t been doing anything share-worthy that is super cool.

Having given shape to my feelings about work, I can see now that there are two forms of thinking I am engaging in: explorative pondering and productive problem solving. I’ve put the kibosh on the explorative style because it feels like a distracting luxury, because I “should” be doing more productive work on my projects both personal and paid. This attitude has affecting my blogging because I feel it should also be “productive problem solving” to be useful to people. But you know what? I find sticking to it very boring. And in hindsight, the sharp increase of binge game playing, web surfing, and television watching is a sign of passive-aggressive mental rebellion by the excitement-deprived axions dwelling in my brain. The result is that I feel stimulated but I am not being creative OR productive, and this slowly builds to a feeling of depression at not having gotten anything done.

So perhaps there is a balance I have to attain between “explorative pondering” and “productive problem solving” states, because I’m essentially a silly person who derives great pleasure from fantastical thoughts. To be sure, I’m also capable of great feats of analysis and problem solving (largely because I have wished this, I suspect), but it is not driven by dry logic and rational judgement. It is driven by a desire to see magical things happen. My high school classmate Angele posted this right-brained Buzzfeed list the other day, and I was surprised to see how deeply I was able to identify with this. I don’t think myself as being right-brained, but maybe I am “right-minded” :-) Perhaps in my effort to be responsibly more productive, I am throttling my own source of power.

It is somewhat distasteful to me to think I am a dreams-driven person at heart, because I associate this image with people who don’t roll-up their sleeves and train to fight for what they love. The idea that my will to produce is so easily sucked into a vortex of media bingeing fills me with self-loathing. I see that so many people have fallen victim to consumerism instead of earnest creativity, and I don’t want to be counted among their numbers. But you know what? I have to admit I’m one of them, a dreamer at heart, and my proof of membership is the blank space labeled “major creative accomplishment” on my resume of dreams. Perhaps I’ve fooled myself by holding engineering degrees and knowing something about organization and management, but I think I have to admit that this is not who I am fundamentally. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and I have to take that into account as I continue to pursue my creative / productive endeavors.

So what does that mean? I’m not sure, so I’ll just talk out a chain of reasoning to see where it goes:

  • Yeah, I must admit like dreams and kittens and heart-shaped awesomeness that smacks of cinnamon and cuteness. Unicorns! Otters! Fancy cakes! Ideals! I just don’t like saying so out-loud because I worry people will assume that I’m an incompetent idiot.
  • But that’s not true, and I shouldn’t let fears of what people think I am affect my thinking. I am TOTALLY capable of productive reasoning and problem solving. However, my motivation for engaging in reasoning and problem solving is dictated by my council of benevolent unicorn overlords having a party.
  • The kind of party I like is one where creative, positive-minded people talk and share their knowledge with each other.
  • That party should always be happening and accessible. And it starts with me.

And what are the ramifications for HOW I maintain that balance between unicorn parties and getting stuff done?

  • It really comes down to my attitude. A good attitude!
  • My metric for my own personal productivity should draw less on left-brained ideals of plodding efficiency, and more on bursts of activity.
  • I tend to get weighed down by thinking of the entirety of a system and blueprinting it, which makes tasks much more ponderous and daunting. Instead, be more comfortable letting the structure emerge, and trust that I will organize it on-the-fly…because really, I can’t help it. Splitting project work into five phases separated by ample time might help: gather, noodle, prototype, polish, and packaging. Thinking of all of it at once is just too much.
  • Stick with my “three things a day” pacing. It works for me.
  • Make sure one of those three things is a Big Fat Juicy Goal, along the lines of “desired major creative accomplishment”.
  • Share everything. Talk about everything. That’s the party, and it creates that necessary connection I need to have with people.
  • Measure and track when appropriate. I have systems in place already that work well-enough (Trello, Google Calendar) for knowing what to do. Logging what got done is probably the most essential tracking I need to do.

It’s 314AM now, and I’ve been up for 3 hours. Not a bad use of the time, I think.