I’m not a good sleeper these days. I can usually nod off after a while, but then I find myself awake between 3.00 am and 5.00 am. This isn’t good news if I have to be up at 6.30 am. Feeling tired, spaced out and sluggish isn’t a recipe for success because it makes it much more of a challenge to create the impact I want to make. Being upbeat, energetic and engaging is hard with a head full of cotton wool.
The interesting thing is that sometimes I do find myself able to sink back into sleep; other nights, a wave of almost electrical energy courses through me, unpleasantly jolting me awake to such an extent that any hope of sleep is gone.
Now, I’ve read all the advice about not using a screen before bed, having a cold room, getting up until you feel sleepy and so on – I’m working on these. But, yesterday I read about something which I think may make a huge difference to me, and sheds some light on why my sleep patterns vary so much.
I am convinced that part of my sleep deprivation comes from my own bad habit of leaving things undone. The result of this is a low level of background anxiety festering away in my subconscious 24/7. This may be explained by something called the Zeigarnik effect.
In the 1920s, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian Psychologist noticed that the waiters in a cafe in which she was eating, were able to remember the details of the open orders far more clearly than those of the completed and paid for bills. Those details were forgotten. She carried out a series of laboratory experiments to test her ideas and found in one that the subjects were able to recall 90% of unfinished tasks better than completed ones.
Basically, we remember things better if they are interrupted or unfinished. As a story cliffhanger, it’s a great device…but not so much in the quest of a good nights sleep.
I have an irritating habit of leaving things unfinished. I think those nocturnal intrusions are the result of my brain going into overtime and harnessing the Zeigarnik effect. We shall see over the next few weeks, as I begin to pay more attention to my work patterns and think about how helpful they are.
Do you recognise yourself in some my self-sabotaging habits I wonder?
For example, my tendency to check my emails, see things that need a reply but then tell myself I’ll do it later, or worse still, tomorrow?
Or how about signalling to myself that something needs doing, maybe even doing some preliminary work but then leaving it until the last minute to finish?
Or handling paperwork and correspondence, putting it to one side and then…well, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.
My procrastination habit fuels low level anxiety in me – which while not earth-shattering, is enough to cause me sleepless nights and diminish my ability to be on top form and create the impact I want to make as a leader in my field. My brain is causing me to remember all those tasks I’m not dealing with in a timely manner; it’s not letting me forget them, which on one hand is useful – but not in the middle of the night!
Understanding how the Zeigarnik effect works means I can do something about it. How do your habits hold up? Are they helping you or hindering you?
For the next few weeks I’m going to pay more attention to my work patterns. I’m going to deal with things once; this means that I may well limit my email checking to ensure I read a message and then take action on it. At the moment, I read them on the hop because I flit from one thing to another, and then have to go back to them.
Now there may well be other causes of my sleepless nights. I’m not sure this is a magic cure-all, but I feel sure that by minimizing the pull of the unfinished, I think I’m going to stand a better chance of being able to relax, and not have my brain fire up that electrical zing of my to-do list in the middle of the night.
Deal with emails promptly.
Break tasks into smaller chunks, making sure each chunk can be finished as a discrete stage of its own.
Handle paperwork once.
Be prompt and timely in your working habits.
Build in an end of day ritual, whereby you close down the day and prepare for the next, and allow enough time to do this.
Do the same at the end of the week – close it down.
You are going to make much more of an impact if you’re alert, energized and fully present, which is difficult to do if you’re trying to operate through brain fog, and your brain is pulling you several directions at once.
Over to you – what do you need to do to close down your day and help your brain minimize the ‘helpful’ Zeigarnik effect?
I’m Susan Ritchie, an executive and leadership coach, writer and mindfulness teacher, helping professionals to develop their presence and personal impact. I work across all sectors, providing coaching to senior leaders and execs, and emerging leader programmes in organisations. Email email@example.com to find out more