Sleeping on the Job

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Back when I was living in DC and working for Island Press, I started doing some freelance copywriting for a former colleague who had left to work for Newbridge Book Clubs. One of the books I had to write copy for was called Power Sleep, by Cornell University sleep researcher James B. Maas.

The book is written like a self-help book and sounds like it will tell you how to get more sleep in less time, but it doesn’t actually do that, it just tells you to sleep more. However given that we live in a society that considers sleep expendable — something that babies might need but people should learn to live without if they want to get ahead — that actually seems important enough on its own.

The main message of the book is that your brain will function so much better when it is fully rested that the time you spend sleeping will be more than made up for by increased efficiency during your waking hours.

I was reading it right before leaving DC to start telecommuting to my job from North Carolina, so I decided to actually follow his advice and see if I could get caught up and fully rested. I started going to bed earlier and just generally valuing sleep more; if I had a few days or weeks with significantly reduced sleep, I would try to make it up as soon as I could by napping or going to bed earlier.

I noticed a huge difference within a very short period of time and became an evangelist for sleep. All of my friends got really sick of me, really quickly. They were like okay, this is fine for you, you work from home and live by yourself, for normal people this is not workable. Enough with the sleep.

I think I was much less convincing than the book; I’m not sure that anyone actually believed me. My friend from the book club sent me a case of the book so I could give copies away but I’m not sure if that did much good either. It was like the Jehovah’s Witnesses giving you The Watchtower at the door. Thanks, I’ll be sure to look at it.

Up until that point I had never gotten enough sleep and I nearly always felt like I could lay down and fall asleep at any moment. I thought that was normal. James Maas says that if you’re fully rested, you will not be tired during the day, and you will not be tempted to sleep, no matter how boring the meeting or how hot the room or how big your lunch was. You will be bored or hot or full, but you will not be sleepy.

I sleep much more now, and when I’m awake I’m actually awake. I have no problems sleeping for nine or ten hours a day, or taking a three-hour nap if I have days where I didn’t get enough sleep at night. I don’t feel lazy or like it’s a waste of time or like I should be doing something else.

After reading Power Sleep, I also read some other books on sleep, including The Promise of Sleep by sleep researcher William C. Dement, which is much more detailed than Power Sleep, and which doesn’t present itself as a self-help book, which I think is probably better.

Among other things, both of the books talk about shift work and the problems with it and how to make it better for the people who have to do it. I’ve been thinking about that lately with all the news reports about air traffic controllers sleeping on the job.

Dr. Dement writes in The Promise of Sleep about some of the problems with shift work.

Theoretically, it should be possible for people to adapt to working at night and sleeping during the day, just as we can adapt to a new time zone after a few days. But workers don’t ever completely adapt; night workers revert to a daytime schedule on weekends and vacations when, let’s face it, people want to see their kids, spend time with their spouses, pursue outdoor activities, have a life. The only way they can do this is to break their nocturnal cycle, usually just when they are getting used to it.

He also explains the problems with the way shift work is usually implemented, with workers rotating through day/evening/night shifts. “Due to shift rotation, workers never become fully adjusted to any single schedule. The brain is often fighting to go to sleep when work demands are being made and resisting sleep when bedtime arrives.”

He says that the most common shift rotation in the United Sates is one week per shift, followed by a “counterclockwise” change to the previous period (night shift to evening shift, evening to day, or day to night). “This is the worst possible combination; a week is just long enough to become acclimated to a schedule, and it is more difficult to make a counterclockwise change than a clockwise one.”

He argues that a better plan would be to use a “three-week clockwise rotation (day to evening, evening to night, and night to day)” and talks about a company in Utah that changed to that approach.

The three-week periods gave workers a week to make the adjustment to the new schedule and two weeks to maintain it. When it came time to rotate, it was to the later shift, which is easier to adapt to. More than 70 percent of the workers preferred the new schedule, and there were fewer complaints of sleep and various other health problems. The company reported a 20 to 30 percent increase in productivity and lower absentee rates.

I have no idea what the FAA does, but it seems like it would make sense for them to look at the latest sleep research and talk to experts about how best to implement schedules (and whether to allow napping — there is compelling evidence that short naps can significantly improve alertness), rather than just telling air traffic controllers they need to stay awake all night, period.

So there’s my treatise on sleep, which is not really related to anything else here, but it is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so I wanted to address it.

And I will leave you with a short excerpt from The Promise of Sleep, which ends with my favorite quote about sleep from Charles Lindbergh, which I often think of  when I’m extremely tired.

When you are extremely sleep deprived, sleep is so beguiling that little else seems to matter. One group of sleep researchers recently studied six female college students deprived of 24 hours of sleep who were given a series of psychomotor finger-tapping tests and asked questions designed to assess their level of motivation to perform the tests. The results suggested that the subjects’ motivation to respond, more than their capacity to do so, was the primary factor in the deterioration of their cognitive and motor performance during sleep deprivation

Time after time, records of various transportation disasters show that people who are sleep deprived react to dangerous situations with indifference. Before a plane crashed on approach to the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba — the first major airplane crash to be officially attributed by the National Transportation Safety Board to crew fatigue — the sleep-deprived crew inexplicably pursued a difficult approach instead of an easier one. Before the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down — in the wee hours of the morning, when clock-dependent alerting is at its lowest point — the engineers clearly noticed but bizarrely did not respond to critical warnings that should have caused panic. Charles Lindbergh, in his book about the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, describes this state eloquently. Lindbergh started on the 33 ½-hour flight after having been up for more than a day and a half already — which meant by the time he completed the flight, he had been awake for almost 70 hours. Describing the flight, he wrote, “My mind clicks on and off … My whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing life can attain, is quite so desirable as sleep.”

Housekeeping Thoughts, Part II

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Here’s a follow up to my last post about housekeeping.

The other part of Cheryl Mendelson’s book I’ve been thinking about is where she talks about setting up routines and systems for maintaining a household. This is something I’ve managed to do over the past few years, and I have to say that it’s made a huge difference.

Because I do the same things on a regular basis, I don’t have to think about them, and even when my schedule is disrupted, I’m usually able to get back to them fairly quickly. So my house still gets messy and things end up all over the place, but it’s not stressful because I know I’ll be able to get to it when I’m through whatever it is that’s taking priority. And once I get back to it, it doesn’t take that much energy to put it all back together.

My routine is very general; it’s not rigid. Basically I’ve figured out what I care about and as long as that’s all good, I don’t worry about anything else. And because those things are all taken care of on a regular basis, when I have time to actually “clean,” I can do more extensive things that make an even bigger difference — like for instance washing windows, which (if you do the outsides too), makes you feel like you bought a new house.

I used to get so overwhelmed that I would let everything go to hell, and just getting the basics done took so much energy that the basics were all I could manage. Now the basics get done without much work, and even when my life is a complete disaster, I have clean sheets on the bed and my kitchen looks good at least once a week.

This is the part of Home Comforts that helped inspire me to do that.

An increasing number of households do housework without any system, schedule, or routine, more or less reacting to each situation as it arises. This makes things harder, not easier. With systematic housekeeping, most of the time you live comfortably: supplies are not exhausted; dirt and laundry to not overaccumulate; plans and resources for at-home occupations and entertainments are in place. In nonsystematic housekeeping, chores are tended to only when the resources of one of the household’s systems are exhausted: when there are no clean clothes or linens and there is school in the morning and stale beds tonight; when it is the dinner hour and the cabinet is bare; when dirt and disorder are beyond tolerating. When you keep house like this, domestic frustrations and discomfort begin to be felt long before you reach the point where you decide to do something about them. But when this point is reached, often the troubles cannot immediately be remedied because, without rational schedules, nothing ensures that time or resources will then be available to tend to the house. Moreover, the amount of work is more than it would have been had there been daily tending to chores; everything has become worse than it would have been. And worst of all, the only time you get to experience anything like a well-kept house is immediately after the emergency response measures are taken. The rest of the time — most of the time — you live badly.

A housekeeping routine not only prevents your home from growing seedy and sour between cleanings but also helps assure that you are willing to do the work, for, as experienced people all know, housework motivation can be a psychologically delicate matter. Cleaning, laundry, and other chores are far harder after you have let them go for two weeks; the energy you must summon to tackle them becomes greater the longer you have procrastinated. Not doing some housework leads to not doing even more housework.

If you have no system, you have to reinvent your housekeeping or debate what to do first every time you do it, and the required mental effort is a major obstacle, especially when you are tired. But a tired working person is often able to do things that are routine and habitual. No thinking is required; minimal inertia must be overcome. A chore that fits into a reassuring overall plan of housekeeping feels effective and worthwhile. But if you feel you are just tackling the worst problem in a home that is starting to go to pieces, it may hardly seem worth the effort.

Housekeeping Thoughts, Part I

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I had a few things go off the rails the this week, was hoping to get back to posting more frequently but doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for a little bit. But I’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about revising the document I use for my natural cleaners class (coming up on Wednesday, April 27 at The Scrap Exchange, $18 per household, for any local folks who are interested in participating) and am considering whether I want to create an expanded version of the document that discusses housekeeping strategies along with the recipes and other information it currently contains.

Not sure if I’m up for that or will be able to find the time, but thinking about it made me review some of the things I have on hand with housekeeping and/or homemaking information.

One of the books I have that I like a lot is Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. At 880+ pages, it is, to put it mildly, comprehensive, and I use it mostly to look things up, but after relying on it as a reference for a number of years, I revisited the introductory material and found it really great. I feel like a lot of what she says is so dead-on that I couldn’t say it better myself.

So instead of trying to, I’m just going to give you some excerpts of things that I think are especially useful or that touch on things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Here’s the first.

People used to be fond of the old saying that a housewife’s work is never done, but you do not hear it much anymore, perhaps because today, so often, the housewife’s work is never started. In any event, this maxim, like most, is only half true. Yes, you can always think of something else that could be done, and yes, you will do more tomorrow, but in fact there really is an end to what your routine calls for this day or week or year. You, however, are the one who sets limits. Beginners should recognize the importance of setting plausible and explicit goals in housekeeping so that they know when they are done. In my experience, the most common cause of dislike of housework is the feeling that the work is never done, that it never gives a sense of satisfaction, completion, and repose.

To avoid this, you have to decide what ordinary, daily level of functioning you want in your home. There ought to be a word for this level, but there isn’t. When I was a girl, my mother used to say, when everything was on schedule and as she wanted it, “The house is done.” Whatever words you use, you need to create end points that will let you, too, say to yourself, “Finished.” Otherwise you will feel trapped and resentful, in danger of becoming one of the many unfortunates who hate taking care of their own homes.

Another trap to avoid is that of inflexible standards and unrealistic expectations. You need different goals for ordinary times and times of illness, stress, company, new babies, long working hours, or other interruptions of your home routine. People with large houses, many children or guests, active households, or invalid parents will have to spread themselves more thinly and should not expect to be able to keep house like the Joneses. Also the fewer your resources of all kinds — money, help, appliances, skills, time — the more modest will be the level of housekeeping you can realistically hope for.

When you cannot have everything, establish priorities. Health, safety, and comfort matter more than appearances, clutter, organization, and entertainment. A jumbled closet may distract you, but it is much less urgent than clean sheets, laundry, or meals. Excessive dustiness can be unhealthy as well as uncomfortable; smeary mirrors (usually) aren’t. Clean the rooms you spend the most time in and those where cleanliness is urgent (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom); let everything else go. Polishing gems and organizing your photographs can be put off indefinitely.

When you fall below your ordinary standards of housekeeping, a backup plan can help prevent the fall from turning into a free fall. Planning how much you will engage in a housekeeping retraction at such times and return to ordinary standards when the crisis is past keeps you in control. The goal during these hard times is to adhere, more or less, to some workable minimal routine. If you can still cook simple meals and food preparation areas are safe and sanitary, if everyone has clean clothes, if the bedrooms are dusted, vacuumed, and aired, and the bedding is fresh, you are doing well.