Review Your Way to Sleep

I want to go to sleep, but my mind wants to jabber to-do lists. Instead, why not muse on what I’ve learned today?

For the last few nights, I’ve tried an experiment. I have two apparently unrelated problems, and they just might solve each other.

Problem 1: To-Do Insomnia

As soon as my head hits the pillow, my Internal Secretary pounces. “You’re a hard man to get a hold of, sir – if we could just go over a few things …”

I politely decline. I tell him to shut up. I scream that I need to sleep. He only natters louder.

Everything I should have gotten today. Everything I should have gotten done by New Year’s Day, 2005. I have to do it all tomorrow, of course … unless I’m overtired …

Problem 2: No Time for Musing (Leisurely Review Thinking)

Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to make time to think about the new things I learn, rather than focus on flashcards.

By the end of the day, I haven’t gotten around to this either. (My Secretary reminds me.)

Solution: Lay Down and Muse

Clearly, I’ve hit the low end of my time management/project planning/how-did-I-get-so-behind cycle. My Secretary only clamors for attention because I’ve been neglecting him.

I don’t propose to solve the problem of getting organized in this article. I do want to solve two of the tasks near the top of my improperly managed to-do list: “muse on what I learn” and “get to sleep at night”.

Solution: When I lay down, I think about what I’ve learned today.

Yes, the Secretary still rushes in with dire tasks and deadlines. But I ignore him far more easily. I have far more pleasant topics to attend to.

Musing Quiets the Secretary

I’ve only tried this a few times, but the technique already excites me.

First, and most urgently, thinking about what I’ve learned really does seem to quiet the Secretary. Not all at once, but the interruptions grow faint very quickly.

In the past, I’ve tried to displace the planning compulsion with visualizations of peace, like floating in a pond, or lying in a meadow. Sometimes, this works. I drift gently into calm delight.

But the Secretary often barges in. It seems like all that pent-up energy can’t be calmed – smothering it takes even more energy. The energy has to discharge somehow.

Musing seems to attract that energy. The Secretary obviously wants to scuttle back and forth through the day’s experiences. Instead of gathering endless to-dos, he can gather interesting memories.

I discovered a similar situation during a short burst of jogging. I wanted to jog to the top of a slope, but as soon as I started, an internal voice began to jabber defeat. I tried to focus on the gorgeous weather, the splendid view. No luck.

Then I tried to do a complicated math problem. Bingo. Apparently, I can’t fret about a slope and (try to) work out a math problem at the same time. I got to the top before I knew it.

Instead of fighting the internal hyperactive nagger, it seems much easier to give it something better to do. Like kids. You can tell them to sit down and shut up, or you can teach them to Irish dance.

Musing Into Sleep

But musing into sleep offers other great features besides defeating insomnia:

  • When you learn something new, your brain rapidly loses recall after about an hour. Even though much more than an hour has usually passed by bedtime, I still have a built-in chance to look at things again before they vanish forever.

  • In fact, I remember much more than I expected, with no mnemonics. I even get visual flashes of bits of the pages I read.

Of course, I’ll still need to review this information with spaced repetition if I want to hold onto it long-term. But even thinking about something a second time, on the same day you learn it, makes a big difference.

  • Musing on my way to sleep feels utterly different than grinding through flashcards. I can’t fail. I have no awareness, or very little, of what I can’t remember. I also have no expectations or goals. I’m not thinking, “I have to remember everything.” I have no desire to make my last waking moments into one more stressful exercise.

Instead, I only want to remember whatever I can. Every memory I do get makes me feel good.

  • Musing should be relaxing, open-ended, with no goals. No wonder it gets crowded out so easily by goal-oriented tasks. I probably need to plan “thinking time.” Meanwhile, right now, going to sleep is the only part of my day that is as unstructured as musing. Perfect match.

  • Finally, this kind of thinking, drifting from connection to connection, seems to resemble day dreaming. Day dreaming can slip into night dreaming.

Many people, including medieval memory writers, have considered reclining the optimal position for imagination and reflection. There must be some truth to this. After all, no matter how poorly we visualize in the daytime, we all lay down and spin amazing dreams.

Can bedtime musing replace spaced repetition? Hardly. It won’t even replace daytime musing. But for kickstarting the habit (and getting to sleep), try reviewing your way to sleep. Let me know how it goes.