My weird trick for getting to sleep

Do you lie awake at night with your mind racing? Tiredness suppresses creativity and makes writing almost impossible – but here’s a neat little trick for getting to sleep

Man asleep in car to illustrate piece about a trick for getting to sleep

Photograph by Lechon Kirb

A couple of days ago I sat down at my desk and… Could. Not. Write. Not a thing. This wasn’t writer’s block, however – my heavy eyelids and woolly thoughts made it pretty clear that the problem was good old-fashioned tiredness. Like many other people I know with jobs, families and some semblance of a social life, I often go to bed at a ridiculously late hour – because there just aren’t enough of them in the day. And, when you’ve got a lot on your mind, anxiety can creep in, negative thoughts loom large and sleep – however much you know you need it – remains elusive.

Now, I might not have to operate heavy machinery very often but I do try to write every day, and it’s nigh on impossible when I can barely string a sentence together let alone a page of sparkling copy. But while I haven’t yet worked out how to find an extra couple of hours in the day, I have found a nifty little trick for getting to sleep – and I’d love to share it with you.

A little trick for getting to sleep that works for me every time
Think of a favourite book, film or TV show with a really complicated plot – it has to be one that you enjoyed and know well. Now try to explain that plot to an imaginary audience. The stranger and more complex the better – one with an unusual narrative structure and a tortuous storyline would be perfect. I use the TV show Lost – I LOVED that programme but very few people understood what had happened – or why or how – and its narrative was hard to follow, making it perfect for my sleep-inducing strategy. I would imagine that any book that jumps back and forth through time, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; or a long book with a host of characters and sub-plots, like Dickens’ Bleak House or David Copperfield; or a series of books with a long story arc, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, would also work well. Really, the longer the better – TV or film series are great for this reason. Heck, the Star Wars films would be perfect!

This may not make you feel sleepy right now, but try it next time you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night. It sounds counterintuitive – racking your brains to untangle complex plots and narratives hardly seems likely to induce a state of calm – but there is something about focusing your mind on a fictional world that quietens your scrabbling thoughts and anxieties. When you can’t sleep, the usual culprits are dark fears that pop out of your subconscious and jolt you wide awake, persistent internal chatter, or an adrenalin/caffeine-induced racing of the mind. Whichever one I’m struggling with, the complex story trick still seems to work. I think it’s because it gives my brain a difficult but stress-free task, which pushes away other thoughts and worries and is rather fun to do. This in turn makes me relax and… the next thing I know, it’s morning. In fact, I find it so effective that I barely get through more than a few sentences before I’m asleep.

I would love to know if this works for other people. Try it, and let me know!

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