Misadventures in sleeping

My enemy, nighttime

Starting from a really early age, I had difficulties sleeping. Let's call these difficulties insomnia on steroids. I couldn't fall asleep, and when I did, there was no way I could stay asleep. It impaired my life so much, that I would frequently fall asleep at various points during the day out of sheer exhaustion.

Words like narcolepsy were thrown around. Those sleeping pills that are supposed to be a temporary fix looked like they might become a permanent fixture.

So, my parents did the reasonable thing, and took me for a sleep study. I got all wired up and was told to go about my normal routine. As if there's anything normal about tripping on wires connected to every square inch of you. I don't remember much about the actual study, except that thoughts like this is stupid kept drifting through my mind.

REM sleep, absent visitor

The results came in. I didn't have narcolepsy or really any sort of definable sleep disorder. What I did have was an extraordinarily low occurrence of REM sleep. This explained quite a bit -- including why my involuntary naps during the day were plagued by vivid dreams.

There wasn't much they could do about it, though.

I went about my life, trying different techniques to cope with my strange sleeping patterns. I tried meditation, implementing routines, deep breathing, sleeping on my left side, creating pitch black rooms, and various pharmaceutical assists. Nothing really worked, but at least I was able to stay awake during the day and become a productive member of society.

The lesson, 20 years coming

At some point, I gave up on this ridiculous notion that everyone needs eight hours of sleep. The NYTimes ran an article that helped me come to terms with the idea that I wasn't a failure if I got six hours. I even found out that my migraines were even tied to getting too much sleep!

My life improved. I regularly get around 4-7 hours of sleep a night. I go to bed whenever I want, usually around 1am, never before 10pm. My goal is to get up at 6:30am. I stopped tying my self worth to how much sleep I managed to get (when did that even happen, anyway?).

Courtesy of fitbit, insights

Over the holidays, I purchased a fitbit. Like a true geek, I wanted data on my typical activity levels before attempting to improve them. So far, it's worked well -- and I do enjoy the gamification of my health.

I didn't anticipate the data that fitbit gave me on my sleeping habits. On a whim, I decided to try collecting data for a week, before trying to examine it. I'm not sure how it calculates the sleep efficiency score, so I generally disregard it. I don't take what the reports say as gospel, but as an estimation.

What I found surprised me. I always thought that it took me at least 45 minutes to fall asleep, but fitbit reported that my average time to fall asleep was 15 minutes. Yes, I had periods of restlessness during the night, but they were nowhere nearly as frequent as I had thought (~9 times). The only thing that didn't surprise me was how much time I spent asleep -- it falls squarely in that 4-7 hours per night range.

I'm tempted to have another sleep study done, to see if I've managed to correct my REM sleep deficit in the last 20 years.

By way of technology, comfort

I had achieved an uneasy peace with my sleeping habits before fitbit, but I have to admit, I worry far less about them now. The data that I routinely have on my sleep helps me set my own expectations for my day and take control of my sleep. Nothing about my actual sleep has changed, but how I react to it has changed dramatically.

Technology is not the answer to every problem, but I believe that it has the great capability to empower people through information and data. People who have smartphones no longer have to worry about getting lost all the time, and I don't have to worry about my sleep patterns controlling my life.

So thanks, fitbit!


  1. You lost me at "Technology is not the answer to every problem"...

    1. For example: "I spilled red wine on my mother's favorite carpet, oh no!"

      Wait, actually, Google will help you find:

      a) a way to fix it
      b) a new carpet to replace it
      c) a new place to live

      I take it back. Technology is the answer to every problem!

  2. Although you worry far less, is there still a problem or something to improve?

    Seems like we are so close to really using your data, like your sleeping habits, to connect with others to discover solutions. Moving from the "There wasn't much they could do about it" to discovering what really made the difference for each individual.

    i.e. First I had heard about too mush sleep leading to migraines.

    Technology as a communication tool to solve every problem...

    1. Oh, there's still a problem (for me, anyway). However, I'm more in control of it than it is of me. I can more easily be proactive with my days. We're a more informed society with data!

  3. That was a very interesting post. Thanks.


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