Who Has Time to Sleep?

The majority of ADD-ers struggle with sleep. The fact of the matter is, sleep deprivation can intensify ADHD symptoms, making them more difficult to manage.Furthermore, sleep or good sleep hygiene requires organization, which historically is problematic for ADD-ers.

To begin, ADD-ers crave brain stimulation. If the brain is not stimulated, it will find something more stimulating. Based on this premise, I’ve found it more practical to help ADD-ers by helping them to manage their interest.

In general, there are four issues in the context of interest and sleep I focus on when coaching ADD-ers on sleep:

  • Physically getting yourself to bed
  • Struggling to nod off at the designated hour
  • Staying asleep once you fall asleep
  • Waking from a dead sleep even after a reasonable amount of sleep

Here is how interest impacts each of the issues:

Finding it difficult to go to bed. Who wants to go to bed when there is something more exciting going on? A party, a good book, a movie, the Internet, and a computer game are all more exciting than sleep. If you have difficulty getting to bed, what would it be like if you created a boring environment free from brain stimulation before bedtime? After all, if sleep is the most interesting thing to do, it might be easier to actually choose to go to bed.

Struggling to fall asleep and sleeping peacefully. If your brain is ruminating on anything negative, if you go to bed worrying, if you go to bed with the thought of a problem you need to solve, or if you are on cloud nine from the day’s events, it is going to be difficult to fall asleep. The key here is to unplug or de-stimulate your mind. I realize that when your mind is jacked up, unplugging is easier said than done, but here are some techniques that can help.

  • Do mindless activities before bed, like rearranging your sock drawer, vacuuming, washing dishes, reading something dull. The idea is to give your brain something non-stimulating to think about before going to bed. Your brain can only think one thought at a time. By rearranging your sock drawer, the goal is to crowd out the other thoughts so you can fall asleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques before bed; slow stretches and deep breathing can reduce anxiety and muscle tension.
  • Leave your worries at the door. Some people write down their worries from the day as a means of easing their minds.
  • Meditate or do yoga before bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly, but not right before bed. Regular exercise can divert your attention if you are worried or stressed and help deepen sleep, but strenuous exercise within two hours before bedtime can inhibit falling asleep.

Waking from a dead sleep. Some can get to bed, fall asleep, and do so peacefully but still struggle to get out of bed. I can relate. I have this problem anytime I don’t have anything to look forward to. I mean, if the day in front of you is boring, why get up? In such cases, sleep is more interesting than the alternative. Conversely, I can leap out of bed from a dead sleep to catch a flight for an anticipated high-adventure vacation. The point here is this, you can use any of the obvious ADHD wake-up solutions like having two alarm clocks (one that goes off next to your bed and another across the room that goes off ten minutes later, requiring you to get out of bed to shut it off), but if you are dreading the day in front of you, it is likely you can easily return to deep sleep quickly after turning the second alarm off. The key is to have something to look forward to.

Here is where most individuals play the victim. Here is where the world is against them and they have no choice in the matter. Life has just dealt them a bad hand. Most find themselves in this position because they don’t pay attention to what they are paying attention to. Simple coaching drills, such as listing what you are paying attention to when you wake up, often reveal a bunch of nonsense that you pay attention to because of a belief that was inherited or made up.

Ask yourself, “How does it serve me to pay attention to (fill in the blank).” Questioning what you are paying attention to and analyzing how it serves you will empower you to pay attention to what does serve you. Waking with a sense of purpose helps you spring to your feet and get out the door.

There is one last theory I want to share with you that I’ve developed through coaching ADD-ers around sleep. I don’t find that ADD-ers have an attention problem. All those I have coached have the consistent ability to pay attention to what interests them. Just because they don’t pay attention to what someone else wants them to pay attention to has nothing to do with a deficit.

What I also find is that they look at the world differently from the way society does as a whole. As a result, they find themselves stuck, not knowing exactly what to pay attention to. When this happens, they struggle getting to bed, falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting up. When they know what to pay attention to, then sleep is no longer a problem.

Let me illustrate with an example. Let’s say Mary has ADHD and isn’t clear on how to solve a political problem at work. Further assume Mary is not clear on how she naturally goes about finding solutions for such problems. In this instance, Mary is unlikely to get a good night’s sleep as she tosses and turns, worrying for a solution to appear and bring clarity.

The issue I just described is common. What helps is for Mary to become conscious of how she naturally solves such problems. Here is an example of how I’ve seen such situations play out.

Let’s assume Mary is a very social, verbal learner, meaning that solutions come to her when she talks out loud with others around. For Mary to pay attention and become conscious of solving a problem, it would help for her to identify a person she can verbalize things with the next morning. She might not have the solution, but by paying attention to how to find the solution, a burden is relieved and she can sleep.

In summary, if you have ADHD and good sleep hygiene, but still struggle with sleep, a coach can help you manage what stimulates your brain, help you pay attention to what serves you, and help you gain clarity by removing obstacles and making it easier for your body to achieve what it naturally craves!

4 thoughts on “Who Has Time to Sleep?

  1. Hi Jeff. Thank you for that reminder. It’s been several years since I did coaching with you and that core concept has been diluted over time. I think it is more that this does not work for everyone else, or they at least think it is something I should change because it is not their normal schedule. It does seem to be working for me. I look forward to reading your next article.

    1. There are small differences in people, but those small differences make a big difference! I’m thrilled you are owning and advocating for what works for you! Booyah!

  2. Hi Jeff. What about ADD-ers that end up working overnight because they just fall into it and their work does not dictate specific hours? I’ve been a freelance editor for more than 1 year with companies in Asia, and I could work anytime, but I end up working at night (and sleeping during the day, on a constantly changing schedule) because I have deadlines to keep my attention at night. I do have some verbal anecdotes to suggest this flipped sleep pattern is hereditary in my family, and I have read about it in some ADD forums as well.
    Would you call that an adaptive strategy, or an issue that should be addressed? Or is that something that is more context-dependent?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I might be misinterpreting it, but it sounds like your sleep schedule is working for you. If it is, no need to let other people’s judgement impact you. but if it is a problem, disrupting your life, then I’d do the basics: maintain good sleep hygiene, see a sleep specialist, and manage what you attend to hours before you go to sleep. Again, if it is working for you, then it is working for you.

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