Years ago while at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, I learned a principle that I have found pretty darned useful: if something isn’t working, do something completely different.

At MRI they explained that in the early days of strategic therapy, when a family problem became obstinate, the therapy team would look at the attempted solutions the family had tried, and then advise them to  “do a 180° turn”.

Not to be taken too literally (you don’t necessarily have to do the exact opposite of what’s been tried), this is a handy reminder that we can get set in our ways when trying to fix something; even though our attempts fail, we still continue to apply them, and of course fail again. This leads to a second dictum: “the attempted solution becomes part of the problem”.

So, for example, if you have trouble sleeping, a standard attempt at a solution is to compensate by getting more sleep. Though this seems like common sense, focusing on the problem in this way can aggravate it, because as you worry about the lost sleep, the stress and tension make it less likely that you’ll get back to sleep, and the worry about being tired follows you through the day.

I recently read an article by Oliver Burkeman in which he applied the MRI idea to sleeplessness. He decided on dealing with insomnia by deliberately getting even less sleep.

He recommends choosing a fixed time to get up each morning and sticking rigidly to it. Then, over a couple of weeks, observe how many hours of sleep you actually get per night. So, for example, if all you are really getting is five hours you don’t go to bed until five hours before your fixed getting up time (so, you’d retire at 2.00 a.m. in this case). “If five hours is all the sleep you get, five hours is all you’ll have”, he says.

I think this is likely to work as I’ve been doing a version of it for years. I never lie in no matter how tired I am in the morning (this is due to upbringing, not common sense), and if I wake in the night – which happens often – I never worry about it, I simply do what I’m doing now, I write!

See also

Oliver Burkeman: Can’t sleep? Tell Yourself It’s Not a Big Deal.

My post: Sleep is Sacred.