Write It Down

I woke up at 3am last night and tossed and turned for an hour. That has been a thing for me since my work life started getting interesting (and stressful) in my early 30s.

After about an hour of tossing and turning, I walked into my home office and wrote down the four things that I was tossing and turning over.

Then I went back to bed and quickly went back to sleep and slept for another two hours.

It’s an obvious move. Trying to keep things front and center in my head is just a recipe for being awake. Putting them down on paper allows me to let them go and get back to sleep.

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about work and not able to go back to sleep, I highly recommend the writing it down trick. It works well for me and I suspect it may work well for you too.

#life lessons

Comments (Archived):

  1. David Semeria

    What works for me is thinking about being stranded on top of a mountain and building an igloo with a fire in it to keep me warm. I invariably nod off whilst thinking about the technical challenges of keeping the fire from melting the ice.

    1. fredwilson

      that’s great. but what happens when you solve that problem? 🙂

      1. David Semeria

        I’m one step ahead of you Fred 🙂 The next problem is how to stop the smoke from killing you….

      2. LE

        The basic concept is in line with a few of what I suggested.That is you need to find a way to distract yourself from what you are thinking about. As such almost anything will do. It’s the anxiety that is keeping you up basically. So if you remove the anxiety you can then sleep. At least one of the reasons that Xanax works in situations where you are stressed to even a larger extent than just day to day things (that you are talking about).I’ve given a great deal of thought to the underpinnings of why this happens, having this problem for years and years.

        1. PhilipSugar

          I have helped so many flight attendants help put somebody back down after Xanax and Alcohol or worse.

          1. LE

            Alcohol I can see but Xanax there would have to be some other co-morbidity or interaction.That said interesting the things you run into as a result of flying as much as you do.

          2. PhilipSugar

            Ambian is worse. You mix sleep medicine free alcohol on a overnight flight where the person wakes up and doesn’t know where they are equals mess.

      3. PhilipSugar

        See my comment.

    2. William Mougayar

      I just called the Igloo support line in Canada, and that’s what they said:”What happens is that the inside layer does melt, but turns to ice because of the contact with the snow next to it — so you get good insulation both inside and out. Of course, eventually the igloo would melt, but igloos are typically temporary shelters anyhow, used only for a few days or, at most, weeks.”

      1. David Semeria

        Gee thanks William, now all I’ve got left is the smoke!

        1. PhilipSugar

          No that is the key. People say how do I sleep when I fly 500hrs a year. Put yourself in your happy place.

      2. Techman

        I just called the Igloo support line in Canada, and that’s what they said:Did you really do this?

        1. William Mougayar

          Shhhh … I can’t say 😉

          1. Techman

            Yep, you have to be joking. If you’re not, then I totally want that phone number.

    3. Vasudev Ram

      What happened to counting sheep? There may be an app for that by now.Edit: @LE has mentioned it below.

    4. PhilipSugar

      Holy shit.I do something so similar.I do keep a book where I can write something down.I NEVER check a screen.But I think about when I used to climb in the Alps. I think about how warm dry, and quiet I am: never the case when climbing and sleeping in a bivouac sack, a tent full of guys, or a Swiss Alpine Hut: http://www.sac-cas.ch/en/hu…I really learned to climb in Meiringen, Switzerland http://articles.latimes.com

      1. David Semeria

        That’s very cool, Phil.

      2. James Ferguson @kWIQly

        Meiringen about 20 miles along the valley. Nice.

  2. Jess Bachman

    This also works wonders when you are awake too!

    1. fredwilson

      funny enough, i am not a note taker. i keep things in my head during the day.

      1. William Mougayar

        I’m using the KeepNotes Google App, and it syncs in the cloud just like Google Docs, so you can collect them on your desktop too.

        1. Justin

          you think about cloud and desktop when you are in bed too ?? Man,,

    2. JimHirshfield

      So, when you have a lot on your mind, you get in bed and roll around for a while?

    3. ChrisS

      Studies of the brain show that the brain doesn’t distinguish between actually doing something or just thinking about doing something. Hence, when we have “I need to write mom a ‘thank you’ note” on our mind, the brain keeps revisiting that activity every so often as if we’re actually performing the task over and over again. Multiply this by 10 separate things and you see where this is headed. By writing those things/ideas down, we remove them from our overtaxed minds.

      1. Jess Bachman

        Yep I do this all the time. Read an email on my phone. Compose the message in my head. When I get back to a desktop, it’s like I already sent it. Then remember the next day I never actually wrote it. Doh!

  3. JimHirshfield

    Hmm…I think the medical term for this is actually nocturnal polyuria.

  4. markslater

    i am seeing a sleep psychologist for this very reason – i am going to try that tonight!i was told – make the bedroom very dark – absolutely NO devices allowed in….I’ll let you know how it goes!

    1. JimHirshfield

      I saw a sleeping psychologist once. Much more helpful when they’re awake, tho.

    2. pointsnfigures

      Agree on no devices allowed in. If you can, I’d put my legs up the wall, and do some relaxation breathing for 10 minutes. Clear your mind and then try to go to sleep. (In yoga they call that Shivasina)

      1. markslater

        my problem is compounded by one year olds foot on my face at 5.30am every day! good problem to have…

      2. Girish Mehta

        Shavasan. Shiv = Hindu god. Shav = Corpse.Shavasan is the corpse pose. The asan doesn’t incorporate legs up the wall (but maybe thats working for you).Often done at the end of a yoga practice and sometimes participants drop off to sleep ( I do).https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

        1. Jaikant Kumaran

          oops I just posted the same 😉

        2. Vasudev Ram

          Right. And I think @pointsnfigure mixed up Shavasana (the corpse pose), which is for total relaxation, and Sarvangasana (all-limbs pose, also called the queen of yoga poses):https://en.wikipedia.org/wi…Beginners to this post who cannot balance with body and legs vertical like that, use the support of a wall, which I why I thought @pointsnfigures may have mixed things up.Caution: Sasrvangasana (pose) can be dangerous if you have any one of a number of health problems.e.g. “The asana is contraindicated for high blood pressure, whiplash, menstruation, angina, and spinal weakness caused by conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis.The weight placed on the cervical spine may mean a risk of neck injury, particularly if the asana is not done properly.”Don’t try it alone and except under the guidance of a good yoga teacher, and even then, check with your doctor first.

      3. Jaikant Kumaran

        Shavasana – The name comes from the Sanskrit words Shava (शव, Śava) meaning “corpse”https://en.wikipedia.org/wi…

      4. Anne Libby

        +1 for legs up the wall pose

    3. Mark Lussier

      what works for one may not work for everyone. you should try opening the windows and look at the blue sky before falling asleep. Never tried before so..

  5. obarthelemy

    Making lists is the #1 stress management method. Worries exit your brain when they go to paper. Don’t forget to jot down a few already-completed things, there’s a nice satisfaction rush when checking those one off ^^

  6. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I’ve learned to head off the waking up part by writing a list right before stopping for the day.Nonetheless, my mind always races when I lay down to go to sleep. I’ve learned to count breathes for that (just like when meditating). Works like magic every time. Sometimes it takes longer, but it always works.

    1. LE

      Thanks for putting a name to one of the things that I do.

  7. William Mougayar

    Curious why didn’t you reach for your smartphone and jotted these thoughts down on it instead?Of course, the trip to the home office might include a stop at the fridge, and that in itself is another motivator 🙂

    1. Daniel Vogel

      Looking at my smartphone in the middle of the night seems to really mess up with my ability to sleep. I get fully awake very quickly. You don’t have the same problem?

      1. William Mougayar

        Not for me…Some of my best creative thoughts and blog posts have been written on my smartphone lying in bed.

    2. Susan Rubinsky

      I still work with paper and pencil for many of my projects. It is faster and easier than a screen. It’s also more satisfying to me.

    3. tnic99

      I stopped reaching for my phone in those situations after seeing these type studies: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov… Apparently the blue light from our devices suppresses melatonin contributing to wakefulness, alertness, etc. all good things at high-noon but not at 3am.

      1. William Mougayar

        Really. It has the reverse effect on me. It puts me to sleep .

    4. Rohan

      Smartphone open = email and all that other crazy stuff

  8. pointsnfigures

    yes, or do a blog post about it.

    1. JimHirshfield

      Ha, good one!

    2. jason wright

      a novel idea.

  9. Aaron Klein

    This is so true. One time it was so bad, it took three rounds of “downloading” from brain to paper to finally go to sleep. Tried and true approach…

  10. Mario Cantin

    Been doing it for years. It works, but at times I still can’t sleep. Sometimes is my sixth sense is tingling, telling me to take some issue seriously; and as soon as I resolve to confront it sooner rather than later, that allows me to go back to sleep.

    1. JimHirshfield

      with great power comes great responsibility

      1. Mario Cantin

        Do you know who came up with that line in the first place? Sounds to me like something that Churchill would have said.

        1. JimHirshfield

          Churchill, no. Close tho…”Benjamin “Ben” Parker, usually called Uncle Ben, is a supporting character in the Marvel Universe’s Spider-Man stories. He was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko.”

          1. Mario Cantin


          2. Girish Mehta

            A bit of trivia. When the line was first used in a Spiderman comic (1962)…it wasn’t Uncle Ben. It was a voice in the background narrative. Retroactively attributed to Uncle Ben in later years. Here is the comic book panel.

          3. JimHirshfield

            Brilliant research, thanks.

          4. Kirsten Lambertsen

            Proud to say I knew this 🙂

          5. Girish Mehta

            +1 Kirsten. Its in the class of famous lines that were not originally said in the form that they later became famous.”Play it Again, Sam” is another. The line is never spoken in Casablanca. (Ingrid Bergman’s character Ilsa Lund says “Play it once Sam, for old times’ sake”).Woody Allen later made a movie called “Play it Again, Sam”.

          6. Twain Twain

            Guess who’s going to meet Stan Lee this w/e … BEYOND EXCITED!!!Yes, when other little girls were playing with dolls I had my comic books, Star Wars paraphernalia, blackboard where I could practice being a Professor and handheld computer games.I’m so nerdy, I had a T-off with Morgan Spurlock the director. He agrees my Star Wars-font T shirt with its SpaceX Falcon 9 badge is super-cool :*).

          7. JimHirshfield

            WOW!! Lucky you. Enjoy!

          8. Kirsten Lambertsen


          9. Twain Twain

            :*) check it out … Morgan’s vs mine.We bonded once he and the http://www.clectaverse.com crew discovered I’m a bona fide nerd despite looking like Princess Diaries (haha).AND they gave me an R2D2 sweets dispenser!!!

          10. Kirsten Lambertsen

            That is great 🙂 Jealous right now! Have fun!

  11. Daniel Vogel

    Thanks Fred – I literally had this problem last night and struggled quite a bit. I was tossing and turning for 3 hours until I decided to simply get up. I’ll give this a try next time this happens.

    1. Mario Cantin

      I hope Donald Trump is not keeping any one of us up at night 🙂

  12. Robert Thuston

    And when that doesn’t work, and you stay up the rest of the night… Get some form of exercise going around 5am… And it can propel you through the day. Get that blood flowing.

    1. Sam

      Yes. This works for me, too. I’m amazed by how well my alertness and outlook responds to morning exercise immediately after a poor nights’ sleep. I’m a fan of the “Scientific 7-Minute Workout” (was written up in NYTimes) because it works at home and takes so little time. It often has the added benefit of setting you up to fall asleep deeply the following evening.

  13. Twain Twain

    I’ve had bouts of insomnia since my teens. When we’re intense about projects & to-do’s our brains keep signaling we’re awake when really our body simply needs the sleep.Particularly because I get the most bizarre and lucid dreams that SEEM to have premonitory elements in them, I keep a pen & paper on my bedside table.In one of his dreams, Kekulé saw a snake chasing its own tail and that’s how his brain worked out the structure of benzene, the basis of most of organic chemistry.So I write my dreams down because something in them may tell me how to solve some hard problems. I have been spooked a few times where things and people I’ve seen in my dreams but not in real life have then appeared in my real life.

    1. Vasudev Ram

      I thought that was Kekule.

        1. Twain Twain

          Cheers, Kekulé for benzene and Mendeelev for periodic table.Both of them were informed by their dreams.

  14. LIAD

    would be cool to understand the actual neuroscience behind it.it seems like a brain defence mechanism.”i know you want to remember this, if you fall asleep you’ll forget, i’m going to keep you awake until you write this down, then i’ll discharge it from your mind for you”Not the same, but maybe.you read stories about people on their death beds who miraculously manage to hold on for ages because they’re waiting for someone to arrive to say goodbye or something similar. The person arrives, they say goodbye, moments later they pass.Like the brain puts a code block on bodily processes until the certain event is satisfied.

    1. Vasudev Ram

      > you read stories about people onReminded me of this story I read a while ago:https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

    2. Joe Cardillo

      Can’t remember the exact studies, but there is something very clearly different about getting it out of your head. “Publishing” it in some form usually gives you definition that you can come back to.

    3. LE

      It’s anxiety and hyper sensitivity that causes it. Kind of like having to be alert to fend off an attack from an animal or predator.

    4. Rohan

      I think the neuroscience behind it is primarily called the Zeigarnik effect. http://www.psychwiki.com/wi…In short, our mind likes to resolve things. And writing it down gives the mind a sense of resolution.

      1. Vasudev Ram

        Wow, there seems to be a named effect or a law for many things. Like Murphy’s law, Dunning-Kruger effect, and many more. In fact, there’s even a Muphry’s law, for when people misquote laws …. 🙂 I kid not – seen it mentioned on HN.

    5. PhilipSugar

      This one hits too close to home for me. My mother waited until I saw her and died one minute later.

  15. Andu @ Widgetic.com

    Quite true. I’ve been keeping the Note app from SquareSpace open on my Phone since I installed it. I always get ideas (not just when waking up) and I quickly write them down and drag the screen down – which sends me an email / posts to evernote.So skip the going to the home-office part and install their app. Simple and effective. http://www.squarespace.com/

  16. drmarasmith

    In my work with athletes, this is a habit we encourage. Putting worry or concern into words is important and the process of moving it “out of their head” onto paper is both very helpful and effective.

  17. Tom Labus

    A friend uses stream of consciousness to clarify thoughts at night and get back to sleep.

  18. Richard

    New twist on the paleo lifestyle

  19. Sierra Choi

    This reminds me so much of what Brian Chesky said here https://www.youtube.com/wat…I think when things are keeping you awake at night, it’s always good to know that you have the best team- your other half, GothamGal to endure the vicissitudes of life with you. The journey is always the best part of life, not the destination.What kind of people would we be, if everything came easily for us?

  20. Susan Rubinsky

    I sometimes get up and just work on the project that’s bothering me. Then I take a nap later. I find that I am wildly productive when I work in the middle of the night. It is as if I am able to magically harness my dreams into reality.

    1. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Same! (But late night work sessions are pretty not possible for me just at the moment.)

  21. Nathan Gilliatt

    I ended up writing on the whiteboard for a couple of hours one night, as new ideas kept popping up (related to the initial topic), There was no way I was going to be able to sleep without getting through to the end of that creative process.In the process, I discovered a secret: I was using a red flashlight to avoid the blue light problem, and I happened to use a light green marker—which is dark grey under red light. Highly readable, but not disruptive to going back to sleep.

    1. JimHirshfield

      You have a whiteboard in your bedroom?

      1. LE

        You don’t sleep in your office, Jim?

        1. JimHirshfield

          Not on purpose, but yeah…

          1. LE

            I would imagine that all of this would be harder for someone that works from home. [1]I guess when you work from home (or when you need a home office because your regular office is far away) that changes everything and creates anxiety.[1] I find that I have the best of both worlds. My office is 4 minutes from where I live and as such I don’t need a home office (it’s become a kids play and project room). Of course I have a laptop but in general I work so many hours at the office there isn’t any time to work at the house.

      2. Nathan Gilliatt

        It’s a short walk to the home office. 🙂

  22. Semil Shah

    This is exactly what happened to me as I got into investing (early 30s). I use Wunderlist to write everything down and organize/rank it. If I didn’t, I’d never sleep!

  23. Devrin Carlson-Smith

    So funny you wrote this today – as I stare at a mostly intelligible notepad with 5 items from last night…

  24. martin joseph brej

    tellk siri to remind you about it–easier than walking to your office and writing it down…

  25. Tracey Jackson

    I do the same thing. I actually work out entire opening acts of scripts and say I will remember it all in the morning and write it down, then can’t remember a thing. Always write it down!

  26. Amy Duncan

    This is great advice as I finding myself dreaming about processes and workflows trying to lock them in.

  27. creative group

    Fred: (And me too contributors)You have appeared to present in your public life a very thoughtful and intelligent person. If this description you made of this habit of restless sleep is being attributed to brilliant ideas then see your medical professional to discount any unknown sleeping disorders or other undetected issues. Those who have the me too syndrome should also review with your medical professional this sleeping habit. (Can’t be a disorder until diagnosed)If this suggestion is even read to exclude any sleeping disorders or medical issues it would be surprising after the me too posts.http://www.webmd.com/sleep-

    1. LE

      Along those lines is why I mentioned GERD.

  28. LE

    Here is some of what works for me, in no particular order and depending on the situation:1) Count and keep counting 1,2….500 etc. The point of counting (formerly known as “counting sheep”) is simply to distract your mind from thinking about anything. If you are distracted it tends to lessen the anxiety or excitement that is keeping you up. It’s boring but that is the point.2) If you get up and can’t fall asleep within 10 minutes or so start reading. I happen to read on my iphone (and I know about the issues with light but for whatever reason it’s not a problem for me) for perhaps 30/40 minutes or so. That will put me in a different state and tire me out. That works nearly 100% of the time, at least for me. Best part is I tend to feel better in the morning than if I never work up at all. Probably because how solid I fall back to sleep.3) Deep breathing. Originally started as that nostril breathing, but I found that switching hands and all of that isn’t necessary. Just breath deeply. This is actually the first thing to try.4) No sugar at night and no eating late (obvious things for anyone who doesn’t already know this). No alcohol etc etc.5) Allow at least 3 hours after eating to go to sleep. (I allow more than that).6) Think to yourself “ok so you can’t sleep. Then why don’t you clean out the basement or clean up your closet?” What I find is that juxtaposing something boring vs. sleep makes sleep seem very attractive by contrast. So think of something that you should do, but hate to do. That actually works for me a fair amount of the time. Used to be my goto cure.7) Control the GERD. Gerd is a big factor in waking up at night I have found. In many cases you don’t even realize that you have it (even if you know what it is and suffer from it). Really important point. GERD will wake you up in subtle ways. What I have found best for this (in addition to prescription drugs) is taking 3 or 4 teaspoons of Gaviscon about 20 minutes after eating dinner and in some cases before going to bed. MAJOR FIX HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT.Most importantly I try to limit the times when I can’t sleep extra time in the AM if I need to. I find that this is extremely important for my sleep hygiene. Knowing that I have to get up at a particular set time is anxiety in itself, at least for me.Edit: For 7, also a wedge pillow (Medslant Wedge Pillow from Amazon).

  29. DJL

    I do this often. Mostly updating our Pitch Deck with a new perspective. It is better than Melatonin.

  30. LE

    Some other things I left out for sleep.1) I highly recommend custom molded ear plugs. You can get these from any ENT or Audiologist. They make a mold of your ear and cast them. Cost about $100. Major difference from the ones you buy in the store. Make sure to use the lubricating stuff, it makes for a seal that keeps more noise out. These are great.2) Eye shades (obvious). Bucky brand http://bucky.com/sleep-eye-…3) Background noise (even with ear plugs). Why? Having the noise allows you to make sure the ear plugs are tightly sealed in your ear. If they are you won’t be able to hear the noise and you will know that you plugged up correctly.

    1. Vasudev Ram

      You wear the ear plugs and eye shades daily, I mean, nightly?

      1. LE

        Yes. I don’t mess or alter what works for me!By the way another thing that I failed to mention (that might also be obvious) is that sleep time and quality correlates to eating and therefore your weight. Not enough or poor sleep, more hunger and chance of overeating. More hunger cravings during the day.

        1. Vasudev Ram

          No issues, I just asked because I think it might find it uncomfortable to wear things like that all night. E.g. I dislike using earphones to listen to mobile calls or music. Prefer light headphones because they don’t go into your ears.Quantity of food, sleep, exercise, are all related, of course. Though I can’t say I’ve noticed the correlation you mention. Will look out for it.

          1. LE

            If you don’t use the lubricant, they are uncomfortable.So you have to use lubricant and then you won’t notice them at all, after an adjustment period that might last a week or so (as your ears get used to them). After that (just like with contact lenses) they are not uncomfortable in any way and actually a bit comforting.(I don’t use the Apple earphones, I use over the ear headphones.)

    2. Twain Twain

      What about nose clips to regulate breathing?Maybe one of the reasons for restlessness is changes in breathing which also disrupt tranquility that sends us to sleep?

  31. JaredMermey

    I’ve always thought that if you can sleep every night well then you don’t care enough.

  32. Sebastian Gonzalez

    That’s the main lesson I learned from the book Getting Things Done. You have to first download all your tasks (or worries) into a list so they don’t keep hijacking your mind.

  33. Ayush Neupane

    Did exactly that a couple of weeks before and worked the same with me. I am 26 so still got decades to use the trick 😀

    1. Justin

      it is not with age. it might start happening tonight for you

      1. Ayush Neupane

        If I was not clear, I meant it already happened to me!

  34. Anne Libby

    I don’t know about anyone else — the change to/from DST always kicks my backside, too.

  35. Salt Shaker

    I split my time between NYC and Seattle. In Seattle, unless we’re going out, I pretty much fall asleep around 10:30 or so and sleep quite restfully. In NYC, I rarely get a good night’s sleep. I gen stay up much, much later and have a harder time relaxing and staying asleep. Just daily living in NYC is far more stressful, more so than I ever realized until I started doing the bicoastal thing.Wonder if Fred has the same experience in LA vs. NYC?

  36. jason wright

    a tech that sucks it out of your brain as you sleep. it’s the future!

  37. Blake Perdue

    But, what were the four things??? Don’t leave us hangin…

  38. Paul Sanwald

    wow, I’ve had this problem for many years. going to definitely take this advice.

  39. David Cannington

    Try swimming in cold water for this in the morning. It amazing how well you will sleep the next night…..and you’ll be able to handle all the things that are keeping you up so much better

  40. Mark Essel

    If I look at my phone I’m done for.

  41. Lawrence Brass

    I am an owl and the night is my friend. No amount of post it notes will make me go to bed early. The only rule is not to be awake at dawn.+ of course, I don’t write the rules at home.

  42. John

    I’ve used that trick before. Works really well.

  43. Allison Christilaw

    I put in my Top 5 on My Emerson Suite

  44. Techman

    I’ve never really thought of this before, but I will say that I’ve came closer to blogging when occupied than actually writing things down.

  45. sun-flower

    I really like your idea.

  46. Jake Chapman

    Such an elegant solution to an everyday vexing situation. Thanks Fred!