Re-railing a derailed day (or not)

photo-251In a comment on yesterday’s post, reader Lindsy asked this:

“What I’m wondering is, what do you do on those days when lack of sleep has derailed your plan for the day? Do you look for low-energy tasks to do instead or just try to power through? Or do you have back-up plans for bad days when you can’t focus? I would love to hear your strategies.”

This is a great question. I can’t say I do a brilliant job at this, and I am writing this post in part to hear other people’s ideas.

I have been tracking my time for several months now, so I have some sleep-deprived days to look back on. In particular, Monday of this week was problematic. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to do a 5 a.m. interview with BBC 4 in the UK. I don’t set alarms very frequently in my life (four young kids and self-employment will do that), so anytime I do I sleep much lighter, as if I’m worried it won’t go off. The ironic part about it is that I didn’t need to set an alarm, because the baby woke up at 4 a.m. to feed. So I really had only slept about 5 fitful hours. I made some coffee, sat at my desk and did the interview. Then, with the caffeine in me, I did about 90 minutes of focused work before the kids got up. I tried to go back to work at 8 a.m., but by then I was crashing.

So at 8:30 I tried to take a nap (an upside of working from home!) Unfortunately, I had enough caffeine in me that it was a very strange nap. I’m pretty sure I did sleep because my body felt quite heavy and yet I was lucid and aware. I got myself up at 9:30 and then tried to get back to work, but not terribly effectively. At that point, I elected to go to the grocery store and slowly push the cart around the aisles in a daze. By the time I’d gotten close to $300 worth of not-entirely-virtuous groceries, gotten them home and unloaded the car, I was slightly more lucid. I was able to do about a half hour’s worth of stuff before breaking for lunch. It was a long lunch. After, I had several phone calls, so I was able to power through those. I took the kids in the pool, which was also fairly energizing. It was my evening “off” to work, so I did, and got some stuff done then too.

On the whole, it wasn’t a great day. It wasn’t awful, but I don’t feel like I did much during the 9 hours I “worked.” Of course, one has to keep this in perspective. Part of the reason it felt so blah is that I didn’t have much scheduled. In general, I like to preserve open space for writing and coming up with ideas, but I can’t write or think when sleep deprived. If my day were packed with meetings and calls I would have felt more “productive” but there wouldn’t have been a point. There is no virtue in being productive toward ends that don’t matter. I consciously structure my schedule to be open, with the understanding that then there is nothing between me and feeling like I am truly doing nothing on the days when I am kind of doing nothing.

I have a few insights. One is to limit caffeine. I think a nap would have been helpful if it had been a real nap. If a nap can’t happen, a brisk walk can help.

Second is to seize what productive moments exist in even the worst days. If you feel like doing something for 5 minutes that’s great. My 90 productive minutes post BBC interview felt pretty good, and I got some stuff written during that time. I could tell myself I’m so efficient as a writer that this is what a normal person could do in a day! (It wouldn’t be true, but I could tell myself that!)

Third, recognize when nothing is getting done and give yourself permission to do something else. I played the piano for about 20 minutes during a particularly slow stretch. I sat on the porch and did some reading. If you’re awake enough to drive a change of scenery might be nice. I spent a lot of time journaling. A lot of it was whiny about how exhausted I was, but I had some good ideas in there too.

If there’s low-energy stuff you want to do, you can do that too. I ordered the kids new sneakers and water shoes at Zappos, sent presents I needed to send, and sent some follow up emails. I bought an ebook version of Fanny Crosby’s autobiography.

What do you do when your day is derailed by sleep deprivation?

One thought on “Re-railing a derailed day (or not)

  1. This is a great topic. I too find it difficult to write and be creative when I’m sleep deprived. Before I change focus for the day, I look at my weekly calendar. If I’m facing deadlines I just may caffeine up and power through. If I have some flexibility, I rearrange my calendar so I don’t feel like I’m losing this time. Often I’ll do admin tasks like invoicing, schedule interviews or emails. If I can’t nap, I’ll take a really hot bath. I expect it’ll make me drowsy, but often the opposite is true. I usually emerge with some good ideas – enough to take another stab at it.

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