Stressed Sleep: How to Stop Stressing About Work at Night

One of the most common reasons that Americans give when asked why they can’t sleep is that they are stressing about work. We lay awake all night thinking about deadlines, important meetings and pay checks. And when this post on waking up fresh became popular I realized that a lot of people were having trouble with their sleep.

In this post I want to look at some basic strategies you can use to stop stressing about work when you are trying to sleep.

How to stop laying awake at night stressing

About a year ago something happened with my online business that kept me up for a few nights because I was running over everything in my head. This post is a product of that time; these are strategies I used to help me get to sleep.

1. Tie up loose ends at work
One of the simplest things you can do to ensure you get to sleep is make sure you have tied up as many loose ends as possible at work. Sometimes this might involve staying back at work for an extra hour but it will be worth it if that hour allows us to get to sleep on time.

The loose ends could be an unfinished report, paperwork or even just sorting out your upcoming deadlines. Try to get as much done as you can.

2. Look at the stressed thoughts
One of the most powerful techniques you can use to stop stressing about work is to look at the nature of the thoughts themselves. This is an ancient Buddhist meditation.

As you are laying in your bed you will notice that thoughts come up in an endless torrent. You worry about this, stress about that and it never ends. Gently shift your focus away from the subject of the thought and look at the actual thought itself. Every time a thought comes up take a look at it. Where is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go?

After a few minutes you will see that thoughts really aren’t that powerful. This technique will also help you slow down the torrent.

3. Use logical arguments
My father is a very logical man. When I was 16 I was playing in a soccer team that had won every game of the season. To win the championship cup we had to win the grand final and the night before the game I was a mess. I was thinking about my position and whether I was ready and i just couldn’t get to sleep! It drove me mad.

At about 1am I trounced out into the kitchen stressed that I was going to be tired the next day for the game. My father was in there finishing off some work and he asked me what I was doing up. I complained that I couldn’t sleep because I was stressing about the game and this is what he told me:

“There’s no point in worrying about the game now. You can’t do any more preparation than you’ve already done. Whether you win or lose will depend on how hard you play on the day. Worrying will impact on that so you need to relax.”

He was right. Worrying was not going to help me prepare anymore.

The same goes for work.

Laying in bed thinking about your job is not going to get anything done. It will not help you solve any problem. Thinking about things over and over only raises more questions, it never helps you find the solution.

Another logical argument that has brought me a lot of deep sleep:

“If the problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will be of no use.” – Shantideva

Sometimes we need to tell ourselves that worrying will not solve anything – now is the time for sleep.

4. Look at the space between the stress
Another meditation technique that can help you get to sleep is to look at the space between each stressful thought.

Thoughts are a lot like waves on the ocean. One will arise and then dissolve and before the next one can come up there has to be some space or calm. Try to gently look for it. To do this you need to become like an impartial observer or a spy. Quietly shift your attention to the thought and look for the space between the death of one thought and the birth of the next. This can bring a deep calm.

5. Learn to focus on your breath

Creative Commons License photo credit: kiwanee2001

Breathing meditation is the oldest and the most simple way to relax. It is taught by meditation masters, relaxation therapists and doctors around the world as a way to get your mind to slow down.

Lay down in your bed and get comfy. Close your eyes and breathe through your nose. Start to become aware of the feeling of the air entering your nose and flowing down into your lungs. The task is now to stay focussed on the breath for ten cycles. A cycle is one inhale and one exhale. If your mind wanders off to stressful thoughts simply start again from one.

Every time I do this I fall asleep within about 30 breaths. It is a good practice to get in to because the breathing also helps you enter a much deeper state of sleep and you will wake up feeling refreshed and amazing.

6. Learn the habit of leaving work at work
I once knew a psychiatrist who worked with extremely violent patients at an inner city hospital. He used to tell us of some pretty horrible stories of things that he had seen and heard. I asked him how he dealt with it all and stopped himself from getting upset or depressed and he told me that he learned the habit of leaving work at work.

This is an important thing to recognize – leaving work at work is a habit. It is something that you need to develop. You are not going to be able to stop thinking about work straight away; you will need some practice.

Start by thinking about your job as a whole. What do you do? Then think about a part of that job that you do everyday. For example, a police officer might select “filling out crime reports”. The task then is to not think about that part of your job from the moment you step out of the office. Every time your mind wanders back to that topic you should remind yourself that you are not thinking about that at all.

Over time you can increase this to your whole job. It will take some practice but you can do it.

7. Quit your job
In all seriousness, if your job is causing you to lose sleep on a regular basis and thereby affecting your health it is not worth sticking to. Start looking for new work tomorrow. When you find that new work it is time to quit that stressful job.

Any other tips?

I would love to hear any other tips you all have about forgetting about work and getting to sleep. Does anyone else have trouble sleeping because they are thinking too much?

top image:Creative Commons License photo credit: desi.italy

14 thoughts on “Stressed Sleep: How to Stop Stressing About Work at Night

  1. Your right JB, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read – – this is something i have a lot of problems with myself.


  2. I have to say thank you for a very informative post. I didn’t much like the buddhist post because I think it portrayed tibetans in an overly holy light. This post, however, was much more worthwhile.

    Ive added your feed. Please keep up the good work.

  3. Wow!

    What a site!

    I have been looking for something like this for a long time. I found Zen Habits and others but this is great because it relates to my work.

    Thanks for the long articles too – getting sick of lazy bloggers.

    Leon from NJ

  4. By the way – I should have mentioned that I really have trouble turning off after a day of work. Hopefully this post helps – I’m gonna try the breathing first I think.


  5. I can vouch for the fact that meditating before bed helps you switch off.

    I was an accountant in a large energy firm for many years and I just could not go to sleep at night because I was thinking about everything. It wasn’t until I started focusing on my breath for about 20 minutes before bed did I start to sleep. My best friend actually took me to a local meditation class and I have never looked back!

  6. Dear Author – thanks for coming back! Always a pleasure to read your comments!

    Leon – I am sure it will help you mate. Good luck!

    BREAZER – Sounds like you have found the technique that works for you. Lucky you found it before it seriously affected your health.

    Thanks guys.


  7. What helps me the most is keeping a pen and paper next to my bed. When I wake up in the middle of the night with the “oh, no, I forgot to do that!” or it’s clear that I’m obsessing about something that I can’t possibly remedy at 3 am, or occasionally a good idea comes to me overnight, instead of reminding myself over and over again not to forget, which of course keeps me up, I write it down on the pad. I don’t even turn on the light. There is something about the act of moving a thought from one’s head to a piece of paper that makes it possible to let it go and go back to sleep. Well worth a try.

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