How much sleep do writers really need?

how much sleep do writers need

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How does your writing life intersect with your sleeping one? In fact, how much sleep do writers need, anyway?

How often do you hear that it’s just about mandatory to start writing earlier in the day? About 30 seconds of research showed me that a great many people offer this advice quite blithely.

While I believe that it’s generally better for most people to write in the morning (for these reasons) I’ve studiously avoided telling people that they need to get up at 5 am. Or even 6.

In fact, I’m pretty vehement about protecting my sleep. This stems from a lifelong series of sleep problems, starting when I was doing my post-secondary degree. In those days, I worked at my family’s weekly newspaper business one night a week. I mean that bit about “night” literally — I went to work at 7 pm, right after dinner, and worked until breakfast at 7 am. I did that every week for nine years. I was young and felt indomitable.

When I left the family business, I started working at a then-large metropolitan daily (like all newspapers, now a shadow of its former self). There, I had to start at 6 am. This nearly killed me. A lifelong night owl, I would have been happier staying up all night. But I couldn’t very well do that five days a week, so, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 am every weekday. It was excruciating.

Then, I left newspapers when I became pregnant with triplets. And guess what? The sleep challenges continued. My kids were tiny and premature and didn’t start sleeping through the night until they were two. Worse, it took them another full year to settle into any sort of through-the-night pattern. I went from 1 am to 6 am feeding them and my husband took over. (This was my choice — I was the comfortable night owl; he was the morning lark.)

But by the time I was in my mid-40s, my world fell apart. I started waking up half a dozen times a night and had great difficulty falling back asleep. I always woke for the day at 5 am, if not earlier. Alarmed, I had myself referred to a sleep lab and met with a very kind doctor who told me the issue was probably hormonal. He also said my crazy sleep patterns of earlier years had likely contributed to the problem and gave me a lecture about sleep hygiene. Yes, it’s a real thing!

I spent 10 happy years as a well-adjusted early morning person — it’s much easier to thrive in this world as a morning lark — but now my life is starting to change again. I’m having a tough time falling asleep at 11 pm — despite feeling exhausted. And I’m finding it difficult to arise at 6 am, even in summer when it’s nice and bright outside.

Could my night-owl self be re-emerging after a long time of dormancy? Perhaps. But whatever is happening, I know better than to shortchange my sleep. New research shows that sleep is far more valuable than we’d previously understood. It not only helps repair heart and blood vessels, it also reduces the risk of kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. But here’s the really interesting part. Sleep is also essential for creativity —exactly the kind of behaviour you want to exhibit when you’re writing.

In reading a recent New York Times piece about business professor and bestselling author Jim Collins,  I learned that he protects his sleep even more vigorously than I do. He charts it on an Excel spreadsheet and ensures he gets 70 to 75 hours every 10 days. “If I start falling below that,” he says, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”

I don’t know how long it will take me to sort out my current sleep conundrum, but I do know I don’t want to be part of the dreaded US statistic: some 40% of Americans get fewer than seven hours sleep per night.

If you’re part of the 40%, don’t even think about getting up 15 minutes earlier to write. Most adults — including writers — need 7 to 9 hours per night. Getting more sleep may be the best favour you can do for your writing.

How do you manage your sleep? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment below by July 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the very useful book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Posted July 22nd, 2014 in Power Writing

  • yehudit

    As someone who has done research on sleep, and written about it, I can endorse your recommendation of good sleep habits. If you can’t get enough sleep in one shot at night, do yourself a favor and take a short (15 to 30 minutes) nap at some point–it will perk you up better than a shot of triple espresso.

    • I wish I could nap, Yehudit. I’ve never been able to do it — even when I was a thoroughly sleep-deprived mom of three babies.

      • Jacquie

        I also battle to nap! I find I fall into a deep sleep and then wake up in a black depression if I try to nap. Horrible.

        • Napping must be one of those other “it-depends-on-the-individual” things. As I said before, it doesn’t work for me either, but I know many people swear by it.

  • Anna

    Hear, hear! The “get up early” advice has been rolling around for quite some time. I sometimes wonder whether everyone who hands it along actually abides by it or takes it seriously. Certainly it doesn’t, and can’t, fit all.

    In my own life and writing life, my sleep patterns have changed over time, and I often crash early in the evening, sleep a few hours, spend a few more hours in wakefulness, and then sleep again. This pattern, I have discovered, has a real name: It is pre-industrial sleep, a holdover from earlier centuries and cultures when the sun, not artificial lighting, determined the length of the day. Our ancestors often used that night-time period of wakefulness to read, think, pray, or get things done. I’ve found that I am often alert enough at 2 am to make notes, draft, revise, or plan a new piece.

    In any case, I’ve come to avoid a strict adherence to conventional sleeping habits. Instead, I sleep when tired, get up and do things when wakeful no matter what the clock says, and enjoy the resulting productivity and peace of mind.

    • Yes! I remember hearing about “segmented sleep” several years ago. It’s fascinating that this widely held habit has never made it into our literature because our ancestors most certainly slept this way. Here is more info for anyone who’s interested: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16964783

      • Gizem Karaali

        I had never heard of segmented sleep before. All this conversation makes me feel much better though, because that is exactly the rhythm I am finding myself at this stage of my life. I actually find the wee hours between the two sleeps to be a wonderful time to think and create. And now, the anxiety of not being able to sleep does not need to be there to spoil the fun 🙂 Thanks!

        • Glad to help, Gizem. You are simply carrying on a time-honoured tradition!

    • Ashley

      So true! I’m a Medieval Studies student and have debated this a lot. Lots of people seem to think that anything other than seven or eight hours of solid sleep a night isn’t normal despite records of biphasic sleep pattern being the previous (and in some places, current) normal. Doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone, but it would probably help some people to know that taking a nap doesn’t make them lazy or waking up for a bit each night doesn’t mean they have a problem if it doesn’t harm them.

      In my opinion to say any one sleeping pattern is best is poppycock because everyone’s needs are different. I know I prefer waking late morning, having a nap midday and going to sleep in the wee hours. Can I function waking at 7 or 7:30am after having a solid sleep? Yes , but I hate it because I don’t feel as good and almost all my creativity just evaporates. I have friends who wake up not long after I like going to sleep.

  • Bethany

    Yes! Sleep! It’s good for you! And your kids. And your employees. And so on. I need 8 hours, almost to the minute. If I go to bed at 11, I’m ready to get up at 7. 10:30? 6:30. 12:00? 8:00. My internal clock hasn’t always been this precise, but my need for this much sleep has been the same for a long time. I can go with short hours of course, but make them up if I can. I’m simply more alert, more cheerful, more productive, and more creative with good rest.

    And I let my kids follow their clocks too. As aggravating as a “constantly” sleeping teen can be, I liken their need for rest to what I felt when I was pregnant with them. And they get over it after a while. My 25 and 19 year olds will sleep in occasionally, but both are generally up at a reasonable hour, and their days of late afternoon crashes are (mostly) behind them.

    • Good for you for letting your kids follow their clocks. Most parents aren’t prepared to do this but I think the lack of sleep facing most teenagers (particularly teenagers in school) is profoundly troubling.

  • I can function without enough sleep, but like Jim Collins I can’t create.

    Recently I’ve started an 8-minute guided meditation that I listen to on my phone before I go to sleep. It clears my mind from it’s constant churning and helps me relax and sleep better

  • Barbara Rae Robinson

    After years and years of sleep problems, I went on the Paleo diet two years ago and I’m enjoying the best sleep I’ve had in many years. I used to wake up in the wee hours and stay away for several hours, or I’d get into bed and stay awake for hours. I went Paleo on July 5, 2012. My day of liberation from all kinds of health problems. I now sleep between 8-9 hours a night and wake up refreshed.

    Barb

    • Haven’t tried the Paleo diet but I don’t eat sugar (or pasta) now and I find that helps a little.

  • Chris

    I’ve been waking up at 3:30 am pretty regularly although my clock is set for 5:30. I think I have inherited this from my mother, who has complained about it for years. Taking 10 mg of melatonin before going to sleep seems to help me get through that earlier wake up call. I don’t do this routinely but just when I know I need it.

    • I take melatonin every night. It used to help me a lot. Now, not so much. But at least I don’t wake at 3:30 am. Yuck! That must really suck!

  • Carole

    Yeah, before motherhood I was also a night owl. I think I wrote the best when the day was done, the house was quite and my mind was clear. Over the years I learned if I get enough exercise, eliminate caffeine after lunch and try not to take a nap, I can usually sleep like a log.

    • That used to work for me, too. Now it’s no guarantee. I think I’m quite “delicate” in the sleep department. About 7 hours is what I need. If I get any more than that I pay the price the next evening…

  • Wendy Wood

    There are three things that have drastically improved my sleeping:
    1) ear plugs to block out noise
    2) a comfortable sleep mask to block out light
    3) meditation during the day (I use headspace.com)

    The meditation techniques I am learning help me quiet my thinking mind, remember what is important in that precise moment (sleep) and to focus on my breathing.

  • Kieran

    Regular going to bed and waking up times are key to good sleep habits and proper sleep. The other thing I have found that is helpful is regular exercise. It releases all good endorphins which help you sleep better.

    • You make a very good point about exercise, Kieran. I wear a pedometer and know that if I don’t get at least 10,000 steps each day I will have a bad sleep that night!

      • Kieran

        Thanks Daphne, I try to do some form of exercise (biking, classes, yoga) at least three times a week. It really helps!

  • Monika Kretschmar

    I was relieved to read an article stating that it doesn’t matter to have an uninterrupted 8 hr sleep. If you can get split-sleep time through naps during the day and a few hours at night, you/we should be fine. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/opinion/sunday/rethinking-sleep.html?pagewanted=all&_moc.semityn.www&_r=0

    I personally prefer a good night sleep instead of day naps, but wasn’t able to do that for the last half year, waking up at 12:30 am sharp and then – completely awake – walking for hours in circles around my apartment without feeling tired. By 4am I would finally fall asleep again until 6:30am. Now I am taking Melatonin (like Chris), 6mg in the evening and, if necessary, another 3mg in the middle of the night. It works like a charm, is a natural product and is even a cancer fighting agent. Creativity just comes rushing back at you after a good sleep 🙂

    • For anyone else who wants to try melatonin, please be aware that not all manufacturers guarantee the dosage. My sleep doctor advised me to buy ONLY the London Drugs’ brand in BC, where I live, because it was the only one that had adequately tested the dosage. I’m not sure what to recommend in other jurisdictions but it might be worth double-checking with a pharmacist or someone like that in your own town.

  • Kiloupa

    What I find amazing about sleep discussions is some of the absolute laws that are laid down. I believe that sleep patterns are personal, and different people have different needs and methods of fulfilling those needs. It frustrates me when advice-givers, however well-meaning they may be, insist that their way is the only way. Suggestions and options are welcomed, but need to be given in that manner, not as edicts that make the receiver feel that they’re just doing it wrong and are stupid for doing so. Sleeps requires calm acceptance of ourselves, our bodies, and the moment – stressing about the fact that you don’t get up promptly at 7 am every morning won’t really help!

    • You make a really good point, Kiloupa, although I believe there is some science behind some of the recommendations. That said, you are quite right in observing there is no one-size-fits-all edict about sleep! Everyone is different.

  • Bill C

    Another huge advantage to getting a good night’s sleep is resting our eyes from so much digital exposure.

  • Jacquie

    Thanks for your wisdom, Daphne. I always read your tips from start to end, and although I am one of those people who spends more time thinking about writing than actually doing so, I love your take on things. I particularly enjoyed this one. Having spent most of my adult
    life (thus far…but no more!) sleep-deprived due to overwork, I have recently been getting more rest. It feels wonderful. It also sometimes feels a bit weird – like I’ve morphed into some big couch potato who is going to ‘come short’ as punishment for ‘being lazy’. Old mindsets die hard…
    So, thanks. And keep well. And I hope you get into a good sleep pattern soon. (Jacquie, South Africa)

    • Isn’t it ironic how so many of us attach the label “lazy” to the amount of sleep the human body needs?!

  • David Geer

    Very interesting, Daphne. According to this blog post
    referencing a doctor, we get our deepest and best sleep in the first third of
    the night http://www.sleepio.com/blog/2014/04/22/sleep-fact-or-sleep-fiction/.
    This seems to lend to the idea that we get our best sleep before midnight, so if
    we go to bed early, maybe we can start writing early and our work may even
    improve.

    • I’d never heard this before, David. Thanks so much for sharing this fascinating info re: sleep.

  • Karen

    After a long bout of 3:30 or 4am wakefulness, my doctor suggested 3mg melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime, a well as shutting off all screen-viewing one hour before bedtime (yes, that means phone, tablet, computer and TV screens). That combination, as well as adding some moderate exercise a few days a week, has thankfully re-set my internal sleep-clock.

    • The one exception to the no-screen time rule is a kindle. It’s not back-lit so it won’t affect you the way phones, computers and tablets will. (Good thing: I love reading my kindle before sleep!)

  • callenwo

    Thanks so much for this post. I am NOT a morning person, so the do-it-early-in-the-am advice is disheartening. I actually find that I am very productive from about 8pm until midnight. The only problem is that I don’t end up going to bed until at least 1am. As a professor with no kids, this is not an impossible schedule, but still, the world doesn’t always cooperate with those on late schedules. I am looking forward to reading the other comments here.

    • Yes, I can relate to your description; I used to be that way, too. You are quite right that the world is not very sympathetic to this style of living/working.

  • Dawn Balistreri

    Daphne, have you been spying on me?

    After reading your piece about sleep, I knew I’d found a kindred
    spirit. My sleep “patterns” vary wildly, and the amount of sleep I average is erratic. Thank you for reminding me that it’s possible to change my ways. Always enjoy reading your thoughts!

    Dawn

  • Boo’s House

    The way I eat tremendously affects the amount of sleep I need. If I eat lots of fruit and veggies without a lot of highly processed foods, I can’t sleep more than six hours and wake up refreshed. If I eat heavy, highly processed foods I can’t seem to get enough sleep and drag through the day. I love junk food, but not more than the ability to think creatively whenever I need to and that’s the biggest benefit of all!

    • Yes, diet can play a big influence on sleep. A good friend of mine swears that when she eats sugar it destroys her sleep. (I try to avoid sugar so I can’t report whether the same thing happens to me.)