how to sleep early for artists

the view from my window in queens. this means it’s bedtime.

the view from my window in queens. this means it’s bedtime.

Two years ago, when I first moved to Williamsburg, I had a large piece of paper affixed to my heater on which I wrote the command SLEEP AT 10:30 in big letters. At that time, I had neither an office job I needed to show up to at 10am, nor a partner who left for work at 9am. I worked for myself, from home. I lived with one roommate. I danced tango two or three times a week. There was no motivation for me to sleep early except by force of my own sheer will and discipline.

But I wanted to sleep early the way I wanted to exercise more, or meditate more. I wanted to sleep early mainly because I wanted to wake up early, and do my writing right after the sun rose (like Hemingway describes here), and feel refreshed and abundant in the luxury of the morning. But instead, for years I’d stay up until one, two, or three and wake up grumpy, stumbling through the day with a pounding headache.

2019 has renewed my vigor for this particular project. Over the past few years, I learned quite a bit about how one can sleep early despite being at the mercy of a self-imposed, flexible schedule, the creative muses, the tango gods, and a nocturnally inclined, musician boyfriend. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

1) know your deep reason why

Why do you want to sleep early? It can’t be for a vague reason, or for general claims of health and productivity. It needs to be backed by the conviction of personal experience, and by thousands of failed attempts. So, practice asking yourself “why” until you get to the root reason. Here’s mine (and note that it’s largely psychological):

  • I want to sleep early because I want to wake up early and feel well rested.

  • I want to wake up early because I want to have enough time and energy to do my morning routine and to write.

  • I want to do my morning routine and write early in the morning because I want to feel like I’m getting an early start.

  • I want to feel like I’m getting an early start because it puts me in an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset.

  • I want to be in an abundance mindset because I’m calmer and more confident about the work that I do, and will do my best work.

You can go even further than this, but this re-articulated reason is so much more powerful than the statement, I want to sleep early. For me, it’s I want to sleep early because I want to do my best work.

2) know the cost of staying up late

There will be plenty of opportunities to remind yourself the cost of not sleeping early. When your reason why is clear and your cost is clear, sleeping early becomes more of an urgent priority rather than “nice to have.” Here’s my list:

When I sleep late (after 1 am)

  • I have a headache the next day and can’t do much work, or engage in productive conversations.

  • I am forfeiting most of the usable morning, which is my favorite and most productive time of the day.

  • I will need to work harder to avoid the anxiety of a scarcity mindset - not having enough time to make the most of the day.

3) commit to a bedtime window, not a specific time

This is a trick that works quite well for me. When you commit to a specific bedtime, there’s a sense of pressure and urgency. It feels a bit restrictive. The failure to meet that bedtime is subtly discouraging, and being even five minutes behind taints the satisfaction of sleeping early. Instead, I like to give myself an appropriate half hour window based on when I’d like to wake up.

4) designate early bedtime days

I don’t sleep early everyday, or there would be no way to dance tango. My early sleeping days are bedtime at 10:30-11:00 and waking up between 6:30-7:00. Being more strategic about when I sleep early — and allowing myself the leisure of one nocturnal night a week — helps to make it feel less constraining. The more consecutive days I can sleep early, the better. Here’s my intended bedtimes.

Monday* 10:30-11:00
Tuesday* 10:30-11:00
Wednesday* 10:30-11:00
Thursday 1:00-1:30
Friday* 10:30-11:30
Saturday — whenever
Sunday 12:00-12:30

4) isolate your main distractions & set clear boundaries

Phone. Computer. Hunger. People. Those are my main four distractions. Do you have an urge to binge on Netflix before bed? Watch tango videos on Youtube? Play guitar for an hour trying to evoke the muse? Get lost on Instagram feeds, or the Amazonian forest of late night e-commerce? Think about going to sleep as a form of travel. Sometimes we have transition anxiety and a lot of inertia. When you isolate and write down the things that frequently interrupt a smooth transition, you can set boundaries around those things. For me, it’s making sure I’m not hungry, putting my devices in the other room, and convincing my nocturnal partner (through two years of trial and error) of everything in this post. I like to take it a step further and put my phone on airplane mode. I use a Fitbit as my alarm, so it feels like a deliberate unplugging. I’m also trying to enact a “no phones in bed” practice — though this one’s still in progress.

5) create a leisurely bedtime routine you look forward to

I used to light a candle and play Max Richter’s Sleep album at the beginning of my bedtime routine, and it would always soothe me into a liminal state. After that, I would prepare what I needed for my morning routine, change into my pajamas and brush my teeth / wash my face / do skincare. If I’m giving myself a ton of time, I’d make tea and read in bed. What really helps is when you can think of bedtime as a transitional phase that you really look forward to. Reading a book, journaling, or listening to calming music can make it feel like a slow slide into sleep, whereas watching TV or using your phone feels like an abrupt jump into a pool (so that’s why you don’t feel like putting it down).

6) turn down the lights and change into pajamas ASAP

Have you ever stayed in a hotel where there was turndown service? They close the curtains and remove the billions of pillows and put out the bathrobes and slippers, and maybe leave something sweet on your bed. There’s something very nurturing about having your room prepared for bedtime. You can experience that too. You can be your own butler, and get the room ready for “night mode” as early as possible. You can get yourself in night mode by changing into pajamas before you think you’re ready. Sometimes I’ll have dinner at 8pm, then change into pajamas at 9pm so that I think I trick myself into being early for bed — which really means I end up being on time.

7) gamify your early bedtime project

Recently I’ve been tracking my bedtimes on a sticky note on the fridge. I write down when I sleep, and what time I get out of bed. It makes me motivated and keeps me on track. I log my sleep cycles with a Fitbit, and note how I feel when I wake up in the morning. I’m thinking about different rewards I can give to myself / ourselves for sleeping early.

8) use the power of sleep / subconscious for creativity

This is something I’m looking to explore more in depth. I’ve read here and there how right before sleep is the best time to set an intention, make a creative prayer, or turn over a question for your subconscious / the universe to answer and manifest. Sometimes I would write ideas in my notebook right before bed, or do a long meditation, and I would always wake up brimming with new ideas, or feeling a deep sense of peace. It was magical, actually.

As artists, it’s important to approach any personal resolution as an act of nourishment and commitment to wellbeing and to art — rather than as some stern rule set up by external forces. To follow any plan of growth, I have to know why I’m doing it, experience the consequences of not doing it, and come up with my own path to achieve the goal. That being said, I don’t think everyone needs to sleep early. If I felt happier and healthier sticking to a nocturnal sleep schedule, I would be writing a post about how to stay up late.

But here we are. I hope my strategies provide some inspiration to your early bedtime journey. May we all sleep well tonight.

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Thanks for reading! For more writing on building habits for creative focus and discipline, check out my project Camp Kening. I’m currently working on building a 7 day morning routine course, which I’ll be officially launching in March. Sign up for my newsletter below for monthly updates.

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