I have always been shit at falling asleep. Ideally I would fall asleep at 11 p.m. every night. Instead, this is typically when I sit back down at my computer to read all the open tabs and unread emails that have accumulated throughout the day. The I check Twitter one last time. I glance at my to-do list and calendar for the next day. I check my email one last time. I don’t fall asleep until 1:30 a.m. after at least thirty minutes of rolling around, my brain like a pinball machine.
I spent most of my 20s this way without major issues. I would still wake up in the morning full of energy and inspired to work. Friends and colleagues asked how I had so much energy. I just shrugged. I suppose I was blessed.
From 2005 – 2010, I was in a new country at least every two months — often every two weeks. At least once a month I gave a presentation at some conference or workshop. There was always pressure to “sound authoritative,” to have answers for all questions — even if half the time they were bullshit. Frequently I would arrive to some new country without having slept on the flight only to down three double espressos, put together a presentation, and then deliver it later in the afternoon. Later I would crash hard, but by the next morning I was always back to normal.
Then I turned 30. At first I didn’t want to admit to myself what was happening. All of a sudden I needed more than six hours of sleep. At least eight, sometimes even nine. I became more dependent on caffeine. To keep at my normal levels of productivity I now had to drink six, sometimes eight, on occasion even 10 shots of espresso. My stomach suffered. I was constantly dehydrated. Even after nine hours of (usually restless) sleep, I woke up tired with deep dark circles under my eyes. All my life people assumed I was younger than my age; now they are surprised that I’m not older.
The strange thing is that no one asked me to work ten hours a day. It’s not like I was working so hard because I was concerned that I would lose my job. All of my stress was self-induced; a bizarre internal conflict that justified sacrificing my own health in the name of “getting things done.”
Last week I ran into an old friend from the “conference circuit.” We first met years ago in California, but then continued to cross paths in Europe, South America, New York, and now Mexico City. We reminisced about the good old days, when we’d happily stay up late into the night tweaking some WordPress installation or learning the latest design tricks with CSS. Now we were left wondering where all that motivation had gone.
He sent me a link to a blog post about stress, which lists common symptoms:
- Decreased immunity
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
- Mood swings
- Sugar and caffeine cravings
- Irritability or lightheadedness between meals
- Eating to relieve fatigue
- Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
- Digestive distress
I was ten for ten. Finally it home: I need to change my routine, I can’t keep living like this.
When I am the most stressed, when I am near my breaking point, I fantasize about leaving modernity behind. In my daydreams I hop in my car and drive to some rural farm in Oaxaca where I offer to work in exchange for room and board.
Of course I never actually do this, which would come as no surprise to Todd Buchholz, author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race. I listened to Buchholz explain to EconTalk host Russ Robert why our actions speak louder than words. We romanticize a simpler, less modern lifestyle, but in fact we are most content working hard to achieve our goals and better our lives. As he puts it:
We are human beings and we’ve evolved in certain ways. Two of the important ways from a biological point of view and a neuroscience point of view: number one, we have this large frontal cortex that literally sits in the front of our brains. It is our window to the future. It is the part of the brain that allows us to imagine the future, to think forward. It’s like our windshield as we go forward. It rewards us for planning … Number two, we’ve got these neurotransmitters. Most people have heard of dopamine, for instance; dopamine is that neurotransmitter that gives us a rush, a surge of good feelings when we take a risk, when we try something new. So, my argument in Rush is that our brains have evolved in such a way that we are more likely to get good feelings when we move forward as opposed to just staying in place–that’s the frontal cortex. And it’s the dopamine. Dopamine is not the good feeling you get from winning the race. It is the good feeling you get from being involved in something, from being engaged.
Or as Gustave Flaubert put it:
Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.
Fine, I probably won’t be moving to a rural farm in Oaxaca any time soon. It is also true that I am often happier working than sitting around listening to people gossip about one another, or watching bad television. The solution, I suppose, is to find a happy, productive balance between my pre-modern fantasies and my cyclical addiction to stress.
It sounds like hippie shit, but I am going to start practicing meditation to see if I can calm my mind. I am going to finally start stretching before and after I run each morning. And I’m going to limit myself to a single cup of coffee in the afternoon. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will stop comparing my own achievements to those who are willing to live much more stressfully than I.
Today’s accompanying song: Helplessness Blues by the Fleet Foxes.