How to Fall Asleep Amazingly Fast By Worrying on Purpose

A Brief Guide to the Art of Deliberate Worry

Nick Wignall
Feb 12, 2018 · 10 min read
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Photo Credit: Dannyworking, Pixabay

“Every night I get into bed exhausted, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, my mind starts racing with worries and problems. I wish I could just shut my brain off…”

The 2 Reasons You Can’t Shut Your Mind Off in Bed

The reason none of these strategies work very well in the long-term is that they don’t address the actual causes of an overactive mind at bedtime, which typically boils down to two things:

REASON 1: Classical Conditioning

Just like Pavlov’s dogs, our minds have been conditioned to think and worry when we get into bed. Unfortunately, we’re the ones who have done the conditioning, and the de-conditioning process is counterintuitive.

REASON 2: Trust Issues

The second reason our minds worry in bed is because they don’t trust us to remember and take care of important things. Like rehearsing a phone number over and over again to yourself because there’s no where to jot it down, the mind resorts to a very primitive (but powerful) memory strategy for helping us remember important things when we don’t have a better strategy.

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

If we want to stop using our brains as a system of reminders and alarms, we need to create another external system that our minds will trust. Only then will our brains be able to relax in bed and quickly shut down for sleep.

Deliberate Worry: How to Train Your Brain to Shut Down at Night

Over the last several decades, behavioral scientists and psychologists have developed a small collection of powerful techniques for training the brain to calm down at night and fall asleep easily, collectively known as stimulus control. The idea is that if we can control or limit the quality and quantity of stimuli our brains are exposed to at night, it will be much easier for them to remain relaxed and able to fall asleep.

Deliberate Worry is the practice of consistently making time each day to acknowledge your worries externally, and if necessary, make specific plans for addressing genuine problems.

By choosing a specific time and place each day to deliberately worry about difficult things, you’re telling you’re brain: Look little buddy, we’ve got this. There’s a reliable, consistent plan for keeping track of and dealing with all these concerning things. And it happens every day at 4:50pm. So you don’t need to keep reminding me of this stuff every night when I get into bed. With enough training, our brains will learn.

🗓 STEP 1 : Schedule a Dedicated Time for Deliberate Worry.

Pick a time slot that you can be consistent with each day of the week (or at least each weekday). It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of time — usually somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes is sufficient. Although the first few times you do it may take a bit longer.

🤢 STEP 2: Embrace the Brain Barf.

Traditionally known as Scheduled Worry, the first part of Deliberate Worry is what a client of mine affectionately named The Brain Barf. It goes like this: Simply list everything you can think of that is concerning or worrisome. Nothing is too big or too small, from your grocery list to nuclear holocasust.

🖍 STEP 3: Highlight Actionable Problems.

Once you’ve completed The Brain Barf, look over your list and highlight, circle, or somehow mark the ones that are actionable problems as opposed to hypothetical worries.

  • Did I come across as stupid in my conversation with Ted at happy hour last Friday? What if he thinks I’m not up for the job?
  • What if I only get 6 hours of sleep again tonight? Will I be able to function tomorrow?
  • Getting my tax packet back to my accountant.
  • Signing up Sophia for soccer practice because tomorrow’s the last day.

✅ STEP 4: Write Down a Next Smallest Action for Each Actionable Problem.

For each of your Actionable Problems that you singled out from your Brain Barf, write down the next smallest action you could take in order to complete or otherwise work on the problem.

  • Getting my tax packet back to my accountant. Next Smallest Action: Get the tax packet from the den and put it in my work bag before I leave the house tomorrow morning.
  • Signing up Sophia for soccer practice because tomorrow’s the last day. Next Smallest Action: Look up number for city soccer league on city website (https://hunstville.ca) during my lunch break tomorrow.

⏰ STEP 5: Set a Reminder for Each Next Smallest Action.

The final step in Deliberate Worry is to hook your Next Smallest Actions into your task manager/reminder system of choice. If you use a full-featured task management app like OmniFocus or Things, great — just plug it in. More of an old-school, analog Getting Things Done kind of person? No problem, just enter them into your in-box of choice. No idea what I’m talking about with all this stuff? Just ask Siri to remind you to do it at a specific time.

💆‍♀️ STEP 5.1: Relax.

At this point, the process of Deliberate Worry may seem like a lot and you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. That’s normal.

Summary and Key Takeaways

Many of us struggle to calm our racing minds before bed, often laying in bed for what seems like an eternity worrying and not falling asleep. There are two root cause of excessive worry in bed: 1) Classical Conditioning, in which we train our minds to associate our beds with worry, and 2) Trust Issues, meaning our minds don’t trust us to remember important things so they keep throwing worries at us as a primitive way of helping us remember.

  1. Embrace “The Brain Barf,” i.e. listing all your worries.
  2. Highlight Actionable Problems
  3. Create a Next Smallest Action for each Actionable Problem
  4. Set a reminder for each Next Smallest Action
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The Startup

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Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth: https://nickwignall.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +717K people. Follow to join our community.

Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth: https://nickwignall.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +717K people. Follow to join our community.

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