I didn’t always have trouble sleeping.
Five or six years ago, I fell asleep on an airport runway in New York, woke up in Florida, and was confused as to why the plane hadn’t taken off yet. In college, I could pass out at 10 pm while my roommates threw a party downstairs.
I couldn’t comprehend the concept of insomnia. If someone was tired, why wouldn’t they just… sleep?
I’m not sure what changed, but starting a couple of years ago, my sleep began to worsen. I was the proverbial boiling frog, not noticing how bad my sleep was suffering until it was too late. It was as if one night I was sleeping like a rock, and the next I was wishing someone would knock me out with one.
No screens after 9 pm. Eat an earlier dinner. Take a cold shower. Buy a new pillow. Meditation. Melatonin. Marijuana. I tried all the tricks to get a better night’s sleep, but none of it seemed to work.
I’d experience a temporary improvement in my sleep quality after testing out a new hack, but it would only last for a few days until my body and mind adjusted to the new rhythm. Before I knew it, I’d be waking up in the middle of the night as the same old stressed out, mind-racing, “When the hell am I going to fall asleep?” — me.
At times I would loathe what had truly become a process of trying to fall asleep. I became so obsessed with following a perfect nighttime routine that if I laid down five minutes later than I had planned, or if I mindlessly picked up my phone to check my email before getting in bed, I’d feel as if I blew my chances at sleeping well.
And if by some inexplicable combination of unknown forces I managed to string together a couple of nights of good sleep, I’d find myself in a state of anxiety awaiting the return of my sleep troubles rather than being able to enjoy feeling well-rested.
I don’t take pills of any sort unless I absolutely have to, but I eventually found myself Googling stuff like “Is Ambien really that bad?” I was out of options. I needed something that worked.
Then I found it.
About six months ago, I listened to author A.J. Jacobs talking about gratitude on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. How amongst other things, he uses gratitude’s powers to calm the mind in order to fall asleep happy and fast. He talked about what a wondrous improvement this little trick had made for his sleep, but to me, the method he described didn’t sound all that different from simply counting sheep. His enthusiasm got my attention, but I was skeptical.
Nevertheless, by that point, my skepticism was well-matched by my desperation, and so I decided to give it a try.
Lo and behold… A.J.’s method was an absolute miracle.
I was wary of the effects of the new trick not lasting like all the other things I tried in the past, but months later, this method still consistently outshines anything else that I’ve tried for getting better sleep.
Here’s what you do:
- Lay in bed as you would to fall asleep and think about something you’re grateful for that starts with each letter of the alphabet, A to Z. You can choose anything you want, it doesn’t matter if it’s an object, person, memory, feeling, or something else. Pick whatever comes to mind first.
- Go slowly. I’ve found that it’s important to not only acknowledge what comes up first but to really think about why you’re grateful for that thing. For example, if I’m on “A” and think “Apples”, I’ll take the time to think about the taste of an apple, its crunch, color, maybe a couple of my favorite recipes that have apples in them, or even a specific memory of a time when I was enjoying one. Don’t just think about why you’re grateful for the thing, really feel it. Only after that should you move on to the next letter.
- Roughly ten times out of ten, you’ll get off track at some point. That’s okay. In fact, it shows the method is working. Being in a state of gratitude puts your mind at ease. It helps you become more present. When you go from thinking about apples, to your grandma’s apple pie, to ice cream, to the summer, to a hazy memory you have of building a sandcastle on the beach — your brain is basically already in a dream state. But you caught yourself, so now just gently get back on track. “B”…
That’s it. There isn’t anything else to it. Equal parts simple and effective.
On most nights, I probably don’t make it to “J”, and I don’t think I’ve ever made it to “Z”. I’m out like a light before I know it, feeling calm, relaxed, and wearing a slight smile on my face.
I know it might sound too good to be true. Too easy. Perhaps too hippy-dippy, “Just be grateful and trust in the present, maaaaaan.” But before you write it off, give it a try. I mean seriously, I went from weighing the risk of potential Ambien-fueled sleepwalks to routinely experiencing some of the best sleep of my life. If it works for me, I truly believe it can work for you.
I’ve told everyone I know about this trick, and then still felt the need to write an article about it.
It’s that good.
After years of struggling to find something that would help me sleep, I’d love to hear from you. Bookmark this page, fall asleep tonight using the gratitude method, and then come back to tell me about your experience in the comments. Lastly, if anyone knows A.J. or Tim, please thank them for me. I’m so grateful to finally be getting good sleep.