Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Dealing With Insomnia

A couple of months ago I received a present, a small book titled ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew walker. It is an interesting book that takes you through the physiological and psychological effects of sleeping and the damage done by lack of sleep. I don’t necessarily subscribe to each and every bit in the book, there are certain passages that ring as though the data does not support them but all in all it did open my eyes to how much damage I’ve been doing to my body over the years. It also convinced me that this needs to stop.

Ever since I started programming properly at the ripe old age of 15 it has been like that. My usual daily rhythm would be to sleep late, get up, slowly get started and by 8 pm or so I’d be moving fast and this would last until daybreak. Sometimes I’d go without sleep for a day, sometimes for two. Once messed up like that because of a single night it would take weeks, or even months to get back to ‘normal’. Because of the health effects and the fact that this makes it much harder to interact with the rest of the world (I do have a family and also a business to run) the time has come to put a stop to this. But it’s not that easy. Insomnia is defined as “having trouble sleeping or staying asleep”. It’s a symptom rather than a cause, and having trouble sleeping and staying asleep can have many causes. In my case: being a very light sleeper, worrying a lot before falling asleep over whatever I was doing just prior, being stressed about the (near) future such as some business issue or family crisis. Nothing better to stop me from falling asleep is knowing that I’ll have to be up and about at a certain time in the morning. It’s pretty much a guarantee for a sleepless night.

A contributing factor is that there is another small problem: I actually love the night.

What I love about the night is this one thing that I can’t seem to get during the day: it is dead quiet. Finally, the world is asleep and even a person who has trouble focusing in the face of distraction has a chance of getting something done. No more phone calls, screaming kids, traffic, airplanes and a hundred and one other sources of noise pollution. The only sound at night would be the clicking of my keyboard. I’ve had single nights that were more productive than the weeks preceding them and I never made the link with the sound levels before. So, noise pollution may well be the root cause of my lack of daylight productivity rather than that “I’m a night person” as I used to tell myself. But that night person typically did not get enough sleep because falling asleep was super hard for me regardless of when I tried it due to a lack of sleep-pressure (as the book calls it) when I needed it most. And just an hour or so of napping and I would be unable to sleep for yet another full day, and even the slightest disturbance when I was about to fall asleep would reset the counter and I could start all over again. Just falling asleep could easily take five hours, bonus stress points awarded if there was an important thing that needed doing the next morning, say a meeting or an external appointment.

I don’t need to explain to you how disruptive this can be to your family life or you interaction with other businesses, if you are simply not alive during the day then the world will pass you by when they are awake, so in the end you may end up being awake both at night and during the day. The number of days that I’ve gotten by on three hours of sleep (sometimes less…) must number in the thousands by now. This sort of sleep depriviation is very hard to deal with, at some point the only way that you can fall asleep is because you are so exhausted it doesn’t even matter anymore what the noise levels around you are. Contributing factor to all this was that I also have a serious jet-lag issue and that for many years I would travel back-and-forth between our offices in Toronto, Canada and IJmuiden, The Netherlands, a 6 hour time difference.

Countless are the nights that I’ve lain awake waiting for sleep to come, only to be greeted by the sunrise and birds chirping while still wide awake. It seemed impossible to break that cycle and still get something useful (writing, programming, practicing piano) done during the day and so I’d give in again and live at night. The alternative would be to live in some kind of weird zombie state, awake, but absolutely unable to concentrate on anything and feeling completely miserable and irritable.

This year, after reading the book I decided to finally make a break with this and it’s been pretty hard, especially in the beginning. Here are the things I’ve done to get my insomnia and out-of-phase life under control, and even though it is too early to declare a complete victory I do believe that the progress is substantial and I also believe that it is sustainable:

  • Get up at 7:30, take one of my children to school. One of my children goes to school in a neighboring town and every day he cycles there. That’s a pretty good distance with a couple of dangerous roads to cross so I ride with him which forces me to wake up at a regular time and to immediately do some exercise. After that I immediately go to work. On weekend days (when there is no school) I still get up at the right time as much as possible.

  • Absolutely no intra-day napping. When I violate this rule (as I still sometimes do) I usually have a bad night.

  • Moved my work spot to a different room in the house where it is more quiet during the day. It’s not a ‘nice’ spot by any means, it is sort of a lost space without windows or facilities but it has two advantages compared to where I sat before: it isn’t in the regular path of moving around the house but a ‘leaf node’, if you don’t need to be in this room you likely will not pass by or through (it is at the top of the building in the attic), the other advantage is that it is heavily insulated for heat which has the additional benefit of being insulated against traffic noise. Some still gets through though and when working on a hard problem or writing a hard text it is still far from perfect.

  • Enforce a rhythm, divide the day into regular blocks that get repeated every day as much as possible. The start - as mentioned above - at around the same time every day helps but the end is just as important. The evenings I keep as boring as possible, no interesting projects, just practice music and read a book just before going to sleep, and go to sleep before 12 pm if at all possible (due to the nature of my work there are sometimes deadlines to be met and then I do have to work in the evening to be able to deliver on time).

  • For a while I used an online noise generator to mask sounds, my favorite was to use rain and distant thunder. Quite effective but in a way it makes the situation worse, now there is even more noise. So then I got some noise cancelling headphones. After reading many reviews I kept on coming back to the same brand which I had sworn to never buy another item of due to their disrespect of users’ systems integrity, aka the ‘rootkit debacle’. But never is a very long time and even though the signal fuction of a boycott only shows up at the moment of change the cumulative effect of not buying this particular manufacturers stuff over that long a period of time meant that that money flowed to their competitors and if enough people do that then it should have a very distinct effect. Vote with your money, I guess. So much for principles I gues, I went and bought their product and I have to admit that their tech chops are undiminished after all these years, the product is excellent and works quite well. I’m seriously impressed with how with the headphones on and noise cancelling enabled I can get work done during the day, even the sort of stuff that I would normally reserve for the night. Even a neighbor mowing their lawn or running a chainsaw does not disturb me and the biggest shock I get is when taking the headphones off to take a break from work and I realize just how noisy it is around me. The only major downside I’ve discovered is that it is now very easy to creep up on me and to scare me in a terrible way (didn’t take long for my kids to figure that one out ;) ), I’m going to have to create some kind of early warning system for approaching people to solve that one.

So, it all started with a book, and now, three months later my life is more regular than it has ever been in the last 40 years, I wake up well rested and fall asleep (relatively) easily, usually within 30 minutes of wanting to sleep instead of many hours later. The noise cancelling tech is a key element in this story, and I sincerely hope that society will start to recognize the damaging effects of noise on people. Houses built right next to highways, motorcycles with ridiculously loud exhausts (or no exhausts at all…), increasing local traffic, airplanes flying low over inhabited areas, industrial noise, apartments with walls so thin that you can hear the neighbors speak it all adds up and for some people it adds up to a life of misery severly impacting their ability to function normally. If you’re studying for an exam, writing something hard or trying to solve a math or programming problem or anything else that requires your 100% concentration noise can really throw you off balance and may stop you from achieving your potential.

For me it looks as though the problem is now mostly solved. The next step in technology, which I assume is very hard to solve for a whole pile of technical reasons would be to have a room that still has daylight and fresh air and yet is quiet. This can be achieved in part by using sound deadening materials and in part by using technology such as room sized noise cancelling devices. But in spite of a lot of interesting research projects my favorite noise black hole (‘sound sucker’) does not exist yet, and maybe it never will.

The present day solution is good enough to give me the daylight part of my life back though and for that I’m very gratefull, both to Matthew Walker and the giver of the book to show me how serious the problem is and to the researchers and producers of noise cancelling technology, without whom I’d still be awake most nights and feeling like a zombie during the day. Forty years of lost sleep is not something I’ll ever be able to make up for, but at least I’ll be getting my regular sleep and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid further damage.