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iPods Defeating Insomnia

Like many people, Tonya and I sometimes have trouble falling asleep at night. We do interesting work, and we have oodles of ideas for the future, so it’s all too easy to let those thoughts start cycling through our brains when we should be going to sleep. Annoyingly, the problem is exacerbated by working long hours; the later in the evening we work, the closer to the surface all the work thoughts are, and the harder it is to catch some shuteye. And, of course, if we lose sleep because of work-induced insomnia, our efforts the next day suffer.

But we’ve stumbled across a tremendously effective solution to this problem, all thanks to the iPod, which until now we’ve used primarily in the car and as an alarm clock (in conjunction with a Tivoli Audio Model 3 with a satellite speaker).

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Books in the Car — At Thanksgiving, we were driving to New York City to spend the holiday with relatives, and since it’s a 4-hour drive, I wanted to have some audio books to listen on the way. A friend had given me a referral code to that provided me with two free books, so I downloaded an unabridged version of "A Short History of Nearly Everything," by Bill Bryson, whose travelogue about Australia, "In a Sunburned Country," I’d enjoyed hugely. "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a popularization of numerous fields of science, ranging from cosmology to geology to biology, and I highly recommend both it and Bryson’s mellifluous writing in general (the first two links point to the iTunes Music Store; the second two to paper copies of the books on Amazon).

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Books in Bed — We didn’t end up with much time to listen to the audio book in the car over Thanksgiving, so it was still on the iPod when we returned home. Then came a 2-week period in which we released three Take Control ebooks and worked late almost every night. After a few days of this, Tonya came downstairs around 10:30 PM and moaned that she needed to relax so she could sleep, but she didn’t want to watch television because most of the shows we enjoy tend to induce stress on their own, nor did she want to read a book after a long day of staring at the computer screen. Without even appreciating what I was saying, just scratching the itch of an unfinished book, I suggested we could listen to the Bill Bryson audio book. Tonya was dismissive at once: "But it would put me to sleep instantly!" And then I realized. "Isn’t that the goal?"

So we got ready for bed, set the iPod for a 15-minute sleep timer (which causes the iPod to shut off automatically, remembering its position in the current track), and started the audio book where we last remembered listening. I think Tonya was awake for approximately 45 seconds, and while I lasted a bit longer (I’m one of those people who never falls asleep reading or watching TV), I was surprised the next night at just how far I had to rewind to return to where I remembered the story.

Since then, we’ve listened to the audio book nearly every night, and Tonya refused to let me take the iPod to Macworld Expo, since she has even more trouble falling asleep when I’m traveling. She fully admits that she’s retaining almost nothing, since she falls asleep so quickly, and although I’m keeping more of it in my head, my recall is highly spotty. Despite childhood dreams of learning in one’s sleep, it’s just not happening. Tonya claims she sees no reason to listen to any other audio books, since she remembers almost none of this one, so she would be perfectly happy to pick up other several-minute chunks of it on subsequent listenings.

As to why listening to this audio book works so well for helping us fall asleep, I can only speculate. The act of listening seems to quiet the voices in our heads, the ones that are busy cycling through what’s on the schedule for the next day, who we should send email to about what, and how we might accomplish certain tasks. Once those voices have been silenced, it’s easier to let go of the day and drift into sleep. Tonya thinks she’s falling into a deep sleep sooner too, which has the added benefit of enabling her to wake up earlier than before.

It’s entirely possible that our experience was a stroke of luck, since I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular audio book was just about perfect for helping us drop off at night. It’s non-fiction, and although Bryson tells stories, they tend to be short and self-contained, so you aren’t trying to stay awake to find out what happens next. A pot-boiler might not work. At the same time, we both have scientific backgrounds and sufficient interest that we want to listen; a dull book might simply become droning background noise. Also, the reader (not Bryson himself) is an Englishman, with a pleasant accent; although I’ve never listened to an audio book with a terrible reader, I understand they exist. Someone with a grating voice would undoubtedly be problematic.

In the end, I’m mainly surprised that such a prosaic combination should prove so life-changing. We’ve had the iPod for almost a year, and although this was the first audio book we downloaded from, I had certainly planned on doing so for car trips. And while we’ve used the iPod to play music in the bedroom through the Tivoli Audio Model 3, using the sleep timer to listen to music wasn’t sufficiently engaging to clamp down on those voices in our heads. The combination we hit upon may not involve glamorous new technology (and would likely work with plain old cassette tapes as well), but it is highly effective. So all I can say is that sometimes great solutions to tough problems are in plain sight all along. If you too have trouble nodding off, give the iPod and audio book combination a try.

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