Not Eating Cookies is Harder When You're Tired

If you read the site yesterday, you know all about my awesome Saturday. What you probably don't know is that when I got home at almost three in the morning, I enjoyed a package of Chewy Chips Ahoy! and some Phish Food courtesy of Messrs. Ben & Jerry.

Which is ridiculous, given the amount of food I consumed throughout the day.

But as I sat there on the couch — possibly making little ice cream cookie sandwiches — I realized that the reason I couldn't help myself was because I was so incredibly exhausted.

I have very little willpower when I'm exhausted.

I could have fallen asleep immediately had I just gone upstairs. But my sleep-deprived brain decided that cookies and ice cream sounded like a much better plan, and I was powerless to argue. I knew it was a terrible idea, but I literally didn't have the strength to say no to myself.

Of course, this speaks to the importance of sleep, but there's also a bit more to it.

Here's an article by Tony Schwartz called "The Only Way to Get Important Things Done":

It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you'll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.

"Acts of choice," the brilliant researcher Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have concluded, "draw on the same limited resource used for self-control." That's especially so in a world filled more than ever with potential temptations, distractions and sources of immediate gratification.

Via Shawn Blanc

So not only are we less equipped to make good decisions when we're tired, we're less equipped to make good decisions after we've already made a bunch of decisions. And because those two variables tend to coincide at the end of the day, it's no wonder the glow of the refrigerator always seems most tempting after midnight.

The solution?

Get your sleep, and automate as many decisions as possible so you don't have to think about them anymore.

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Favorite Apps: F.lux

Speaking of night owls, I’ve been meaning to write about a fantastic utility that helps you see better in the dark.

F.lux is a free app for Mac OS X that adjusts your screen’s brightness depending on what time of day it is. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s actually hugely important.

The light emitted by computer, smartphone, and tablet screens is the same type of light given off by the sun. Our bodies are programmed to wake up when exposed to this light, which is why people often recommend letting sunlight in to wake you up in the morning.

What you don’t want, however, is to be blasting yourself with “wake up” rays right before bedtime. That’s where F.lux comes in.

F.lux uses your location to determine what time of day it is, including when the sun sets. During the day, your screen will look like sunlight, and at night, F.lux will adjust your screen’s brightness to a warm, soothing glow. You can even tell F.lux what type of overhead lighting you have, and it will adjust accordingly. Once you set your preferences, F.lux will do everything automatically, so you don’t have to worry about it.

This is the kind of app you don’t think you need until you try it, and then you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. F.lux makes your screen “healthier” because it will prevent your computer from blasting you with wake up light when you’re up late, so you’ll sleep better. Your screen will also be less offensive to your retinas no matter what time of day it is. It does take a little while to get used to, because your screen looks quite different without its brightness maxed out 24/7, but you’ll love it in no time.

I’ve been using F.lux for months, and it will be one of the first apps I install on all of my future Macs.

Give F.lux a try. It’s free, and your eyes will thank you.

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Night Owls Are Not Lazy

Yesterday, as I struggled to wrench myself out of bed to make my 9am yoga class, I was reminded of the debate between early risers and night owls.

I’ve written about the power of night before, but I still let myself feel guilty from time to time for staying up late and sleeping in. I willingly admit that the early morning is an amazing time of day, if you can get to it. I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming an early riser, possibly by making it part of the Year of the Habit.

But I’ve decided that’s a dumb idea.

I love staying up late and sleeping in. Nighttime appeals to my introverted nature: the quiet, the calm, the solitude — it comforts me. In a weird way, the night energizes me. Even if I only slept for a few hours the night before, if I make it to sundown, I’ll usually stay up far past midnight.

I suppose my relationship to nighttime is akin to a morning person’s relationship with the early hours of the day. I imagine the process of waking up energizes these people. They love having a brand new day ahead of them. (I, for one, wish they would lower their voices.)

There’s a parallel between night and day, and introversion and extroversion, which I attribute to the presence of human beings and the resulting effects on the individual.

According to a definition I agree with, extroverts get energized by being around people. It’s easiest to be surrounded by people in the middle of the day, when everyone’s rushing around trying to get things done.

Conversely, introverts find other people exhausting. I completely relate to this. If I’m in a social setting with a bunch of people with whom I’m not familiar, I can only be friendly and outgoing (or my version thereof) for so long. It’s very mentally taxing to pretend to be someone you’re not. Eventually, I’m going to need to not be there anymore. Not in a rude way, but in an “OK, that’s enough” way.

Solitude energizes the introvert, and what better time to find solitude than when the world is asleep?

Mike Vardy has a terrific article about why it doesn’t matter whether you’re an early riser or a night owl:

There is no advantage to being an early riser over being a night owl when it comes to increasing your productivity. It’s all in how you handle what comes at you – day and night – and making sure that you handle in it in a way that suits you and your lifestyle [sic]. If you find that you like getting up early, go for it. If you don’t, then don’t change that. Instead, put your efforts into making sure that your are being productive rather than when you are being more productive [sic].

So simple, yet so profound. As Mike says, “The notion that early risers are more productive than night owls is a myth.”

Exactly. It’s a myth perpetuated by social convention — the same conventions that say you need to work from 9am to 5pm to be successful, or that you need to buy a big house to be happy, or that you need 6 – 11 servings of grains a day to be healthy.

I lovingly reject all of that conventional wisdom, so why would I try and force myself to conform to the “rule” that says I need to wake up at the crack of dawn when it defies the nature of who I am?

You should read Mike’s article, because it’s spot-on. A night owl gets as much done as an early riser; he just does it at a different time of day. Neither lifestyle is right or wrong. What’s wrong is trying to force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do. You don’t force yourself into a yoga pose if your body is screaming, “NO!” That’s how injuries happen.

As long as it’s not negatively impacting other aspects of your life, I say keep whatever hours you like. Doing great stuff is more important than trying to do it when other people say you should.

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Night Driving

Yesterday, I wrote about how we experience a heightened sense of emotion at night. Today, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite nighttime activities. Wink wink.

On Sunday nights, usually in an effort to stave off the blues, I like to go for a long drive and listen to music. I’ve been doing it ever since I got my license, and it remains one of my favorite things.

I figured out early on in my driving career, cruising around in my green 1995 Buick LeSabre, that being lost is largely a state of mind. I’d take a left even though I’d never taken that particular left before, and while it was a little unnerving, more often than not it led back to somewhere familiar. Since then, I’ve always reminded myself that as long as you keep driving, eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

Still, I have a hard time articulating the value of night driving. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. Ultimately, it’s a source of catharsis, which grows out of the combination of factors I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I’ve always loved to drive, but driving at night is even better. There’s no traffic. You’re not rushing to get anywhere. Everything looks different in the dark. Your neighborhood becomes an entirely different world.

I have a particular route I use when I go driving at night, and it’s comprised mostly of places I don’t otherwise visit anymore. Past my high school, old friends’ houses, the local reservoir, roads I remember from when I was a little kid in the backseat looking out the window. It’s like I’m driving past a series of memories, little vignettes from earlier years.

Usually, this nostalgia actually causes me to reflect on the present. I think about people I don’t talk to anymore, which makes me think about and appreciate the people who do have a place in my life now. It’s very soothing and rarely fails to fill me with joy.

Travel and motion has long been associated with a calming, restorative energy. That’s why parents often take a crying infant for a ride in the car. When Neil Peart’s daughter and wife died, he got on his motorcycle and travelled 55,000 miles from Quebec to Alaska, then south through the United States to Belize. Because of this four-year journey, he was able to come back from the brink of moral collapse.

When you combine the night’s heightened state of emotion with the soothing qualities of driving, you get an incredibly cathartic activity. There’s a feeling of freedom and excitement for life. Everything’s beautiful. With an empty road, the right album, and nowhere particular to go, you can find great comfort.

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The Power of Night

When I was little, I used to freak out if I was the only one awake in my house. Being alone in the dark is scary for a kid. These days, though, I’ve come to appreciate it.

If left to my own devices, I could probably become completely nocturnal in about two days. I love staying up late, and I could sleep until noon every day if my schedule allowed. I’ve never been a morning person and find the moment my alarm goes off to be excruciating. Those of you who blink twice and spring out of bed with a cheerful, “Good morning!”, please keep your voice down while I remove the welding from my eyes.

I do, however, have a certain affinity for the dawn. Getting up for it is hellish, but five o’clock in the morning is an incredible time of day. You just have to get to it. For me, that usually means staying up all night — and then sleeping in, of course.

People always allow themselves to feel guilty about sleeping late. “I feel like I wasted my whole day!” Or, if they’re tough, they’ll say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” I never understood that line of thinking. For one, you’ll die a lot sooner if you don’t get your sleep, and two, all you have to do is stay up later. Boom. Hours regained.

I appreciate vitamin D as much as the next person, but I’ve always found nighttime to be preferable to daytime. There’s no traffic. It’s quiet. In the summer, it’s much cooler. You’re probably not rushing to get anywhere, so it’s more relaxing. You see things differently in the dark. It’s a different world. It’s a world at rest.

There’s also a special benefit. All of these qualities contribute to a sense of heightened emotion.

Have you ever noticed how emotions are way more intense at night? Whatever you’re feeling seems to increase tenfold. That’s because we are more likely to find ourselves alone with our thoughts at night. During the day, we’re all running around, doing our jobs, talking to each other, trying to get things done. It’s easy to suppress our emotions when we’re busy and have life to distract us. But at night, when the world slows down, and everyone is asleep but you, the only company you have is your mind. Your emotions become much bigger and more powerful because they’re being amplified by solitude. It’s hard to ignore them when everything else is so quiet.

Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but I value this time. It’s a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can wrestle with feelings, contemplate the unknown, or appreciate something or someone in your life. With no one around, you can give something your full attention. You can focus all your energy into a single thought or project. I’m writing this article at two in the morning, for example. It’s hard to find such opportunity during the day.

It works both ways, of course. Being alone in the dark when you’re happy can be liberating, but when you’re sad, it can be miserable. In either case, though, we should remember to take advantage of the heightened awareness the night provides. It’s a wonderfully cathartic environment. It’s the perfect time to get to know yourself a little better. To sit still, be quiet, and just think. Your mind might teach you things you missed while running around in the sun.

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Beating the Sunday Night Blues

There’s this thing called the Sunday Night Blues, which is loosely defined as “a bad mood caused by Monday’s imminence”. The weekend magic is over, and a new workweek is only a few hours’ sleep away. Back to reality. Back to the grind. Case of the Mondays. Clichés abound.

It’s a total drag, but lately my Sunday Night Blues has been replaced with a profound sense of inner peace. A feeling of contentment, and maybe even excitement. This hasn’t exactly been a conscious decision, so I took the long way home to try and figure out what causes my Sunday night mood to vary so drastically.

On this particular Sunday, the answer was confidence.

A lack of confidence often causes Imperfect peace. When we don’t feel confident about something, we fear it. Public speaking. Math tests. Competition. When we do feel confident, much of that fear subsides.

Confidence begets inner peace.

It seems to me that there are three areas in which we must feel confident if we are to avoid the Sunday Night Blues:

  1. Confidence about the past, which means not having regrets or second-guessing the decisions that have led to this moment.
  2. Confidence about the future, which is tricky because the future is largely unknown. Even if we have plans for the future, life can alter them without warning, and that could result in tremendous disappointment. The confidence here comes less from correctly predicting the future and more from being in a state of mind capable of handing whatever the future holds.
  3. Confidence about yourself, here in the present moment. To me, self-confidence refers to a complete love of who you are. Not just a celebration of your strengths, but also an acknowledgement of your flaws and an optimism about their improvement. Pride for the current version of yourself, but also excitement for the iterations of tomorrow and beyond.

The crux of all this, of course, is that the only difference between having or avoiding the Sunday Night Blues is our perspective. The past, future, and present are the same either way. They cannot be altered. What can be altered is the mind: how you think of and perceive your past, future, and present self.

Invariably, this peace is fleeting. I often go to bed feeling content only to wake up miserable at the sound of my alarm clock. But the pursuit of inner peace is a constant, never ending process. The slightest interruption threatens to take it away from us, and so we must work to maintain it.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about what inner peace is, why it’s so hard to attain, and how we can experience it more often.