I couldn’t sleep last Sunday night. I had no caffeine during the day, and generally everything felt fine when I went to bed at 11PM, the remnants of a thunderstorm rumbling further in the distance as the cool air streamed through my bedroom windows. Post-thunderstorm cool nights are my favorite sleeping weather, and I drifted off to sleep comfortably.
But I woke up at 3AM, feeling hot and stuffy and distinctly uncomfortable. The air wasn’t moving at all anymore, so I put on the fan and went back to sleep. Only…I couldn’t fall back asleep. I had no idea why. My mind wasn’t racing. I felt relaxed. And yet I could not get back to sleep. After while, I got up, puttered around a little like they say for you to do, went back to bed…but still no sleep.
I started to feel stupid-anxious, like Oh my god I NEED to get to sleep, why can’t I sleep, this is so horrible. I could hear the birds chirping now, like they do before dawn. I could feel my body and mind worn out, but I had that weird raw feeling, like all your nerves in your skin are too alive and too sensitive, and even the bed feels wrong beneath you. I could feel myself beginning to agonize and panic, because I had a lot to do on Monday and I didn’t want to do it on so little sleep. Panic, pressure, a buzzing mind: not really the best way I want to start a week.
Finally, I just took a deep breath. I just accepted that fact that I was awake, instead of fighting it so hard. I told myself that in order to make it through the day, I was just going to have to check in with myself often and do what I was capable of, and take things slow. It would be a moment-by-moment thing. Fine, I said to whatever odd spirit has the privilege of overlooking sleepless nights. I’m awake. It’s nearly 5AM. What should I do? I had about three hours before I started my normal day. That free time would normally be a gift, so I decided in my sleepy, hazy way to treat it like one. I actually got it in my head to get a pedicure, but there aren’t any salons open at that hour in my town. (Note to self: 24-hour nail salon here would be a hit.) So, I thought to myself, I’ll go the gym. My gym’s open 24 hours; it’ll be a new experience.
I got dressed, got in my car and headed on my way. I tried playing music, but everything seemed too harsh and loud to me. So I drove in silence, noticing how quiet the streets are at 5AM, how pretty the sky is right after dawn. At the gym, I realized there was no way I could do a long run on the treadmill, so I rowed and biked instead. I people-watched, noting how different the early workout crowd was from the late afternoon, when I usually go. After the gym, I got home, took a shower and revised a short story. I tried writing a new one, but that felt beyond my powers. But revising felt fine, and so did sketching out a few blog posts. Every so often, I asked myself: What can I do now? This is what I can do. And I would do it as slowly as I could, because otherwise I would end up doing it wrong.
The day wore on, and I oscillated between feeling like crap and feeling fine. Every moment, every transition, I checked in with myself often. How was I feeling? What did I feel capable of? And if that fell short of my expectations and desires, I didn’t harangue myself about it. I just accepted the fact that I was incredibly sleepy and tired, and went on with it.
But I noticed something interesting (besides the fact that I craved way more sugar and carbs than I do normally.) I was tired and felt like I was going slow and easy, but I was actually incredibly productive. I wrote. I revised. I got errands done. I filed. I paid bills. I set up accounts. I made plans. I organized my summer wardrobe. I took and edited photos. I returned my library books. I even experimented with a new hairstyle. (I call it “I Wish I Were a Khaleesi.”) Part of it was the extra three hours of the day, no doubt. But I noticed the constant checking-in with myself — and the willingness to cut myself some slack for the realities of real-live actual lifeness — created a sense of ease and gentleness in the day. And we all know what happens when we remove tension and friction from things: they actually work better.
Then I remembered something from my childhood. When I was little, my dad was fond of saying “Be easy with yourself” when my sisters and I were doing things that frustrated us. I remember bashing the shit out of some toy I was trying to assemble when I was a kid, getting more and more enraged in the way that six-year-olds can get. “Be easy with yourself,” my dad said as he watched me, which only got me more enraged. “It’s not easy!” I fume, thinking my dad was talking about putting together the toy. But that’s not what he meant. “I know it’s not easy, but you’re being too hard on yourself. Be easy,” he insisted. Furious, I told my dad to stop Yoda-talking me. (Yoda-talking is what I called it when my dad was trying to offer advice and I was just too young and headstrong to accept it.)
What I didn’t understand then — but I do now — is that the anger and frustration he observed were not just about the toy I was putting together, but my own frustration and even shame at my inability to accomplish this supposedly simple thing — and that inner experience was only making my outer one even more difficult. There is the doing of a task or action — and the way of being you bring to it, which ineffably affects the experience as a whole.
So often “productivity” and productivity routines and systems are designed to automate, to free up your attention from boring, annoying tasks so you can focus on the “important things.” But after my sleepless night, I found being aware of my present moment, practicing a radical acceptance of where I was at and doing things in as gentle of a manner as possible actually helped me do more, and do it more satisfyingly. Even though I was tired, I felt as if I had lived every hour of the day with a certain fullness that my day-to-day life sometimes lacks, as I race from task to task, activity to activity, occasion to occasion. I didn’t “automate” anything; I didn’t “focus.” I was forced to exist mindfully and treat myself kindly, and that made all the difference.
I went to bed that night at the previously unheard-of time of 10PM, finally just too exhausted and fatigued to go on. But I did think about how good the day ended up being despite it all, about how much our own judgments about ourselves and who we should be cloud our experiences and keep them from being as full and good as we’d like them to be — and about how acceptance and ease creates a kind of space in your life for everything to flow throughout the day. And then I kind of laughed at myself. That’s so Yoda-talky, I thought, and finally fell asleep.
I’m gearing up to send out my next newsletter in a few days! It’s about love, anxiety, relationships and being brave despite it all. If you’re interested, sign up here. I don’t often send my newsletter, maybe once every month and a half, but I consider it my best, most searching, most intimate writing. Also: you get access to an excerpt from my novel, as well as a sample of new writing from my upcoming book.