Putting down my phone and picking up a book has saved my sleep

You might not consider sleep a skill, but I can confirm that it is because I am bad at it. The happiest fortnight of my life was when a GP prescribed me sleeping pills. For two blissful weeks I took my tablet and wilted. When I awoke, I was spared the insomniac’s dread. Is it the middle of the night? Have I once again failed at a basic human function?

For most of my adult life I have found waking up to be a high-risk enterprise. I have to guess whether it’s morning, while knowing that all methods of inquiry will make it harder to resume sleep if I’m wrong. Once I’ve established that it is in fact an ungodly hour, the bargaining commences. Maybe I should get up. I’m not an insomniac, I’m just ahead of the sloths. Didn’t some US president only sleep three hours a night?

I have two options at that point: rise, make tea and start my work day, for these early work bursts have a witchy, frenetic energy. (By noon, though, I have a clanging headache and am spelling my own name as “Noise”.) Or, I can stay in bed. Count down from 500. Don’t fidget. Do everything the softly spoken meditation apps say: let thoughts pass you by like cars, pretend your body is an egg, convene with Saint Dymphna. (Or was that one your first communion teacher?) Then give up and look at phone. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Wait for sun.

For a long time, I have known that phones interfere with sleep. Phones release shots of pleasure. As a person with ADHD, I am especially short on dopamine, and if I train my body to expect a spoonful then I’ll stay alert to receive it. When that happens in bed, I’ll get less sleep. Until recently, I chose to ignore this theory because I feared it would be proven correct and I’d wish I’d done something sooner. The longer I put off trying a no-phone regime, the more regret I would feel, which meant I procrastinated further – and so on. Such is the miracle of cognitive loops. Whoever gifted me with rationality should have enclosed a receipt, because I would happily exchange it for the ability to fly.

But this year my insomnia got so bad that I snapped. I marshalled bedside resources: alarm clock, sudoku, pens, notebooks, British Vogue, Penguin Classics too antiquated for me to feel any compulsion to text the group chat. (“Unbelievable scenes in Rochester’s attic!”) And I made one simple rule: phone goes into a kitchen drawer before bed, and does not come out until morning.

My pile of potential solutions is not strictly compliant with sleep hygiene, which says you should do no “awake” activity in bed. But I read every night as a child, before my insomnia developed in my teens. As a kid, I didn’t fight for sleep, but fought it. When I was about seven, and struggling to stay awake, I propped a Goosebumps on my lampshade “just to rest” – then woke to find a brown crisp circle burnt from the middle of the spine. My mother paid the library fine and confiscated the lamp, so I started using a torch. Back then I imagined adulthood as a time when nobody would come between me and reading. Now I can’t concentrate on a book with a screen beside me.

When I put my phone in the drawer, I didn’t really want to cure my insomnia; I wanted confirmation that it was inevitable and that I was suffering bravely, not wilfully ruining my own life. So imagine my annoyance when I slept for six hours straight. That might not be a staggering record to the slumber aficionados among you, but for me it’s a wild amount of sleep.

I’ve tried a little of everything on the bedside table, but most often I read a book. Right now it is Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. I know the plot inside out and can hum along on autopilot. Dickens wrote to be performed aloud, and the voices are clearer in my head now. I’m laughing aloud more often, and feel less tense, less analytical; I am now reading for fun in a way I’ve rarely done since secondary school. I’ve even brought the novel with me on the tube since lockdown lifted. Reading before sleep is the latest in a long line of my “life hacks” that are, in reality, painfully common. Have you heard about rug tape? Have you heard about decaf? Have you heard about the paperback format and the author Charles Dickens?

The nighttime ban has also helped me reduce phone time in general. My average screen time is now two hours a day, and I won’t tell you what that’s down from because you’d have me arrested for crimes against my own person. It is perhaps an indictment on me that two hours a day represents a dramatic reduction – but let’s take our wins where we can.

Phone dependence is something I’ll always have to manage. I have too many professional obligations and far-away loved ones to go cold turkey, and tech engineers deliberately sabotage moderation. Even assuming I’m as clever as the people who design smartphones to be addictive (and I am someone who thought “directly above a lightbulb” was a good place for a library book), the techies work full-time to make me addicted and I cannot dedicate the same effort to outfoxing them.

As if that weren’t enough, inside me will always dwell a dopamine-starved lizard that shuns slow-release sources if an instant hit is available. The best ideas, smartest risks and swiftest recoveries of my life have come from having ADHD. So has a lot of disaster and frustration. It is what it is, and I manage it as best I can. But there’s no reasoning with cravings, so it’s best to take willpower out of it. The lizard can rage all it wants about missing its screen. I let it, and reach for my book.