I usually read a page or two of something on my Kindle before I fall asleep at night. It keeps me from playing everyone’s favorite late-night game, Wheel of Anxiety. However, I only want to fall asleep when I want to fall asleep and I am also too often a victim of the 3 PM Saturday accidental couch nap, which is the kind of nap that leaves you feeling worse than you did when you fell asleep. It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m reading and it’s not an issue of disinterest—I could be reading the last 40 pages of a really engrossing thriller and suddenly realize that I’ve made up most of what I thought I read in the last two paragraphs because I was actually asleep. But, why do I fall asleep when I read?
There does not seem to be a lot of in-depth scientific research on the pressing physiological problem of falling asleep when you really want to be reading, so I can only postulate a few causes and propose some solutions I’ve tested myself. Why do we sometimes fall asleep while reading, even when we’re interested in the book? And how do we stop it?
Does this ring a bell?
Avoiding the obvious and no-fun answer of “you’re just tired and should sleep more,” which is clearly propaganda made up by the people who sell mattresses, much of what I have found seems to come down to the issue of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is defined as “a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired.” We’ve all read about Pavlov’s dogs who learned to associate the ringing of a bell with mealtimes and would eventually start salivating just by hearing the bell. Yes, in this equation I am the dog and the book is the bell. Woof.
I’ve had to accept that if I find myself in my bed with a book on a weeknight than it’s already game over. Eventually I’ll hear a little voice that tells me that I can should just relax and put my head on the pillow and try to read a few pages because that is exactly what I do to fall asleep at night. If you’re reading this you may be familiar with that inner voice. If I listen to it, well, I’ll see you in seven or eight hours.
This is sort of the inverse of all of those articles about blue light keeping you awake at night and why you should never work in bed. I can read in bed for hours in the morning at the expense of everything else I’m supposed to be doing, but those few hours after work when I think I have all the time in the world to read? I’m better off sitting at my kitchen table if I want to get any serious reading done.
Curated Reading Spot
That brings us to selecting a place to read that is conducive to sustained focus. For a long time, my favorite summer reading spot was an upright iron chair on my deck…because it was the only piece of outdoor furniture I owned and the ground has ants. It wasn’t really uncomfortable, but it wasn’t exactly cozy. I finally sprung for a pair of lounge chairs and discovered that they were much too comfortable for a sustained reading session.
The goal is to be comfortable but not too comfortable. I have discovered that I can sit on my couch but I cannot recline on my couch if I don’t want to be asleep within 20 minutes. An upright chair is even better.
You might also consider a change of scenery to break the connection in your brain between reading and sleep. Try reading in a park or a café if that appeals to you. It’s sometimes harder to doze off when there are things going on around you. (I say like someone who never fell asleep in the student center in grad school.)
Further Suggestions For Longer Reading Sessions
Aside from the obvious suggestion of increasing your caffeine intake, there are a few other things you might try. Take a walk around the room between chapters. Refill your drink. It’s probably not great for you to sit still for several hours anyway.
I also saw the suggestion of distracting your brain with some instrumental music in the background. Your mileage may vary—I find it distracts me from the words on the page even at low volumes. I have used things like AmbientMixer or the RainRain app to create a better reading atmosphere, but I’m not sure they’re especially helpful for staying awake.
You can find more suggestions on staying awake while reading here. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you on your way towards catching less zzz’s and making progress on your TBR!
Do you do something else to keep yourself awake while you’re reading? Tell us on Twitter or Facebook!