Are Your Sleep Habits Hurting Your Writing Career?

by John Soares on January 16, 2013

For you to be a truly productive writer, your body must feel good and your brain must be in top form. An important component for both is getting enough sleep at night.

How do you know if you are not getting enough sleep? Simple: how do you feel during the course of the day? If you feel sleepy, you are not getting enough sleep.

Another sign of lack of sleep is inefficiency in your daily tasks, including your freelance writing.

This freelance writer understands the importance of sleep.

This freelance writer understands the importance of sleep. Courtesy Orin Zebest.

How much sleep should you get? This varies by individual, but most people need 7-8 hours of quality sleep every night. Some folks feel great on only 6 hours, while others may need 9 hours.

Scientists have conducted extensive research on sleep, including the consequences of insufficient sleep and what we need to do to get enough high-quality sleep.

The 8 Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Your Life and Your Writing

Here’s a list of the 8 negative consequences of insufficient sleep:

  1. Decreased memory function
  2. Decreased quality of life
  3. Decreased happiness
  4. Depressed immune system and increased illness
  5. Increased irritability
  6. Increased probability of accidents, including auto accidents
  7. Increased probability of diabetes, obesity, depression
  8. Decreased life span

Of course, all of these will lead to less productivity in your writing, especially that last one.

How to Ensure You Get Enough Quality Sleep

The nature of your bedroom is very important. Here are 5 tips for creating an ideal sleep environment:

  1. A dark bedroom, with thick curtains blocking the windows so bright morning sun won’t wake you too early.
  2. A quiet bedroom. If you live in a noisy area, use white noise such as a fan or a machine that continuously plays the sound of a waterfall or rain or something else that sooths you.
  3. The bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex. No television, no computer, and no arguing.
  4. Your bed must be very comfortable and large enough to easily accommodate you and anyone else who sleeps with you.
  5. Unless you have the perfect dog or cat that conks out for the entire night, have your pet sleep elsewhere. A dog that shifts position several times during the night and wakes you up will significantly interfere with your sleep, as will a cat that decides to sleep on your chest—or your face. When I still had my golden retriever Molly (she passed away in 2010), she slept in the living room, and I put up a baby gate to keep her from coming down the hall to my bedroom.

And here are 6 more tips for quality sleep:

  1. Maintain regular sleep cycles. This means going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day, including weekends. Your body has its own natural circadian rhythms that regulate hormone levels and many other aspects of your health, so you want to keep these rhythms regular.
  2. Eat dinner at least 2 hours before you go to bed; 3 or more hours is better.
  3. No reading or television dealing with violence or themes that will stir up intense emotions for at least an hour before bed.
  4. Wake without an alarm clock whenever possible. This allows you to wake when your body wants to, when it’s fully rested. I set an alarm for the latest time I want to wake up, but I almost always wake up naturally before it goes off.
  5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening. Both prevent you from sleeping deeply through the night. If you are very sensitive to caffeine, you may need to end all intake after lunch.
  6. Exercise regularly; however, don’t do any strenuous exercise within 2 to 3 hours of going to bed.

I personally sleep about 7 hours a night. In summer I go to bed around 10:30 and wake up around 5:30. In winter I go to sleep around 9:30 and get up around 4:30. I do this so I can get several hours of work done by lunchtime; I then spend time outside in the daylight, which is important for my mental and physical health.

You May Need to Deal with More Serious Underlying Causes

Some people have physical or emotional issues that interfere with sleep. Here are some examples:

  • Heartburn
  • Sleep apnea
  • Frequent urination
  • Hot flashes
  • Arthritis pain
  • Leg cramps
  • A wide range of psychological issues

Consult a qualified and licensed professional to treat these.

John and Molly snoozing together. Note: this is NOT the best way to take a power nap!

John and Molly snoozing together. Note: this is NOT the best way to take a power nap!

The Power Nap, a Writer’s Savior

Several days a week I take a short nap after lunch. It’s a natural part of circadian rhythms to have a sleepy period in early afternoon. I honor this by setting an alarm for a 20-minute snooze. Most of the time I do drop into sleep, and even if I don’t, I still relax my body and brain.

Your Take

Do you get enough quality sleep every night? If not, why – and what will you do about it? Any other tips to share with us?

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    { 36 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Glori Surban January 16, 2013 at 4:31 AM

    Twitter: @glorisurban

    Many people have been telling me that it’s not a great idea to have your bedroom as your working area because it affects with sleep. I agree.

    You don’t get that restful sleep because your mind associates the room as a work area. But since I can’t do anything about my working situation at the moment, one good advice I heard is to stop working 3 hours before sleep time. Worked so far.

    Thanks for the tips!
    Glori Surban recently posted…Free Tools and Tips to Help You Write Faster

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    2 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 7:23 AM

    Glori, I always stop working at least 3 hours before going to bed, and I usually try to turn off the computer well before then.

    Many writers have to sleep in the same room in which they work. Some ideas for dealing with that:

    1. Stop working 2 or more hours before sleeping (like you said above).
    2. Turn your computer off or put in hibernation mode.
    3. Hide/turn off any lights from printers/computer/etc. that will light up your room and also remind you of your work.
    4. Try to separate the writing area from the rest of the room with a curtain or shoji screen.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    3 Tom Bentley January 16, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Twitter: @bentguy1

    John, through hook or by crook, I already employ many of the good strategies you suggest. And I am truly grateful that through working at home, I can usually take a 20-30 minute nap after lunch. It’s a great restorative, and something I look forward to.

    Have you heard of that research that suggests that the light from screens can cause an alertness trigger of some kind in your brain, suggesting that it’s best not to take the tablet or iPhone to bed at the end of the day, because it can promote restlessness? Thanks for a good post!
    Tom Bentley recently posted…Chocolate Kills (But What a Way to Go)

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    4 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Tom, I’m glad you’re also a fan of the power nap!

    I’ve also read that it’s important to not take tablets, laptops, smartphones or other such devices to bed with you. It’s nothing I’ve ever done.

    I try to read something interesting, yet calming right before I go to sleep, often something scientific.
    John Soares recently posted…The Freelance Writing Project Hiding in Your Spam Folder

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    5 J'aime Wells January 16, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    Twitter: @JaimeAWells

    Great post. We tend to underestimate how much impact good sleep has on quality of life and quality of work!
    Love that dog picture. Dogs are like the gurus of sleep.
    J’aime Wells recently posted…Why horse people should do yoga

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    6 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Thanks J’aime.

    Most dogs are very good at sleeping. In the pic you can see the gate I used to keep Molly in the kitchen/living room area.
    John Soares recently posted…When Is the Best Time for You to Write?

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    7 Mike Carlson January 16, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    Twitter: @michaelcarlson_

    Sleep patterns have always been my Achilles heal. If something comes up and throws me off, I have to work at getting back on track. I feel awesome when I can get to bed before say, 10 or 11 and be up the next morning before the sun (this time of year anyway). I can attest to the fact that it really makes life much better! My mind doesn’t like to play along unless I really force the habit though. Maybe it’s too many years when I worked at restaurants late and had horrible sleep patterns as a truck driver.

    Reply

    8 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    Mike, it really helps when you can get to bed at roughly the same time every night and get up at roughly the same time every morning. This allows your body to establish a stable circadian rhythm for going to sleep and waking up.

    I have a friend whose work schedule at a factory requires him to alternate between periods of working days, then swing shift, and then night shift. It’s not healthy.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Freelance Writing Locations

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    9 Linda M Au January 16, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    Twitter: @LindaMAu

    Love this! I now have the enviable lifestyle of a freelancer (thanks to hubby’s good job), and I do try to make sure I get enough sleep now. I don’t feel guilty about it anymore because I find that a good night’s sleep means I do not ever need a nap during the day. (I also found that lower the carb intake helps a lot with staying awake in the afternoon.)

    I can be wide awake and productive from as soon as I get up to when I have crawled into bed with the Kindle to read whatever novel I’m wading through. I’m also blessed to have a separate room for a home office so there are no computers in the bedroom. We don’t even have a phone in there anymore.

    And, I can’t remember the last time I was sick. I’ve decided the preventative maintenance of sleep, better eating, and a few vitamins have kept me healthy and more active the past few years.

    Good post! Great advice!
    Linda M Au recently posted…That One Big Thing

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    10 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 3:24 PM

    Great tips Linda — thanks for sharing them.

    I also watch what I eat, especially during the day. I have a modest breakfast and a modest lunch, with a fruit or nut snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon. (Sometimes I do have a large lunch, though, usually the Indian food buffet.)
    John Soares recently posted…How to Be a Healthy Freelancer

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    11 Cathy Miller January 16, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Hi John: I’m glad to see I do several of the tips you provided. I get about 7 hours of sleep per night. I unwind by reading for an hour or two before going to sleep. That’s a big part of my affection for the old-fashioned paper book. I’m not against e-readers, I just associate it too much with work (mentally anyway).

    I don’t eat past 6 or 6:30, I have a dark room, and use a fan for white noise. A few years ago I started eating my main meal at lunchtime. I eat very light at night and I think that helps with sleep. I haven’t set an alarm for years (except for times out of the ordinary-like early plane flights – and even with that, I always wake up before it goes off.)
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Your Business Communication Isn’t That Proprietary

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    12 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    You bring up two good points Cathy. The first is not eating late meals. I do fairly well with this, but sometimes I wind up eating a couple of hours before bedtime, but usually only a modest amount.

    The second is white noise. Stephanie and I moved to Ashland in May from a very rural location with no noise at night (except the occasional coyote). There is a bit of noise here, primarily the occasional barking dog, so I have a fan right by the bed that I can turn on. I also take the fan with me when I travel.
    John Soares recently posted…Why You Are So Slow Finishing That Freelance Writing Project

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    13 Susan January 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    Twitter: @UrbanMuseWriter

    I struggled with insomnia for years and anecdotally speaking, it seems like it’s a common problem for freelancers. There’s the temptation to work late into the night, stress about the feast or famine cycles and demanding clients, plus the lack of structure from an office. Of course, we also have the power to create our own structure and NOT work at all hours but some people are better at others at creating those boundaries.

    When I was seeing a sleep doctor he had me maintain a sleep diary and a strict sleep schedule. I had to get up at the same time each morning even if I’d only slept for a few hours because I’d been tossing and turning for most of the night. I’d use the “but I’m one of those people who NEEDS 9 hours of sleep” argument and he’d tell me that a lot of insomniacs over-estimate the amount of time they need and spend too much time in bed without actually getting quality sleep.

    I’ve relaxed some of the sleep hygiene things (still no TV or computers in the bedroom) and stopped keeping a sleep diary because it only reinforced my guilt about not sleeping and rising when I was supposed to. Now that I’ve reduced some of the stress in my life and let go of being the Bedroom Nazi, I sleep much better. Still have a rough night a few times a month but it’s not nearly as bad as it once was.
    Susan recently posted…Guest Post: The IRS Doesn’t Email and Other Tax Tips for Writers

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    14 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 3:21 PM

    I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with insomnia Susan, and thanks for sharing your story and how you’ve dealt with it.

    I agree that the freelance lifestyle can make it more difficult to sleep. There’s always something else we could do — more marketing, another blog post, finishing a current project so there’s room in the schedule for another project later.

    I usually fall asleep fairly easily, but sometimes I wake around 3 or 4 in the morning after getting 5-6 hours of sleep and then am unable to sleep anymore. I usually lie there and relax and try to doze until my normal wake-up time between 5 and 5:30 a.m.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    15 Anne Wayman January 16, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    John, as I get older I find I wake more, but the total keeps adding up to 7 hours almost no matter what.

    I often wake up in the morning to find one or two cats have joined me, but they do so in a way that doesn’t wake me.

    Strangely enough, when allergies are kicking (like now with our Santa Ana winds) I do get up around midnight or 1 o’clock… have an allergy pill and a cup of coffee and read in the living room until my sinuses relax and go right back to sleep! It may be that the coffee helps or it may be that I associate coffee so strongly with comfort… your guess is as good as mine.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…Can I Use My Articles On More Than One Site? Ask Anne

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    16 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    Wow — that’s amazing that you can drink coffee and go right to sleep. My brother was able to do that also.

    I know people who find a lot of comfort in sleeping with their cats. I haven’t done it in many, many years, but I did sleep with golden retrievers briefly. They were major bed hogs.
    John Soares recently posted…Freelancers, Would You Use This E-Mail Auto-Response?

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    17 Susan January 17, 2013 at 5:50 AM

    Twitter: @UrbanMuseWriter

    In my quest to ease my insomnia, I’ve read a lot about sleep (there’s a great book I wish I’d written called Wide Awake – A Memoir of Insomnia). Two things strike me about your comment, Anne.

    First, historically, people have slept in two shifts sort of like what you describe: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/opinion/sunday/rethinking-sleep.html?pagewanted=all The idea of 8 hours of continuous slumber is a newer construct.

    Second, it sounds counter-intuitive to sleep after drinking caffeine but there’s actually research to back up the idea of a caffeine nap: http://lifehacker.com/306029/reboot-your-brain-with-a-caffeine-nap
    Susan recently posted…Guest Post: The IRS Doesn’t Email and Other Tax Tips for Writers

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    18 John Soares January 17, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    Interesting articles Susan. I’d like to see more scientific studies of split sleep, but I do know a few people who sleep for a few hours, then wake for a while, and then go back to sleep for another couple of hours.

    My personal experience is that caffeine hits my bloodstream fairly quickly, and that I have trouble napping/sleeping if I’ve recently had coffee. My MO for the power nap is 15 -20 minutes (with a timer set), followed by tea or a cup of coffee that’s a mix of caf/decaf.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    19 Jane VanOsdol January 16, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    Twitter: @janevanosdol

    What a timely article for me! Lately, I’ve felt exhausted and have found myself dosing off while I am working. I recently started using a Fitbit, and the one I am suing even tracks your sleep. I can see that I am waking up around 7-10 times every night. No wonder I am tired! Now, I need to figure out why.

    I definitely find myself losing focus–not good because I work part time as an editor/writer. I thought perhaps the bright fluorescent lights were doing me in.

    Thanks for all your great tips on how to sleep better. I found the article very helpful.

    Reply

    20 John Soares January 16, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Thanks for stopping by Jane.

    I’m not familiar with Fitbit. How does it know you are actually waking up? Does it instead monitor your movement from position to position?
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    21 Jesse January 16, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    Twitter: @cajuncopy

    Hi John,

    It’s amazing that you wrote about this today, because I made a commitment to myself this week to get enough sleep – no matter what happens. I’ve been more productive and less stressed because of it.

    It’s so tempting to get “a little bit” done. When you look up, it’s 4 AM and you have a call to make at 8 in the morning. I’m glad I made this commitment. I hope others will, too. Timely post.
    Jesse recently posted…How to Increase the Sales of Your Product – Without Being Sneaky or Pushy

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    22 John Soares January 17, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    Jesse, getting enough sleep is one of my key goals. If for some reason I don’t get enough sleep during the night, I’ll schedule a 20-minute nap for mid-morning, certainly no later than early afternoon.

    I find my work is so much better when I’m rested and that I get much more done.
    John Soares recently posted…How to Get More Freelance Writing Assignments

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    23 Steeny Lou January 17, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    This brings to mind adrenal fatigue, which many people have but do not realize.

    If a person is having sleep trouble, and has a lot of stress in their life, they should do a quick googling about “adrenal fatigue” and see if what they discover makes sense with their symptoms.

    I’ve got it now, for the second time in my life, and it is a long, slow road to recovery. The good news is that recovery can happen. If, however, steps are not taken towards healing, it can progress to other more life-threatening illnesses.
    Steeny Lou recently posted…Here’s my first attempt at making a sign

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    24 John Soares January 17, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    Steeny, your story illustrates why it’s so important to deal with any physical causes of lack of sleep. Good luck with it.
    John Soares recently posted…Why You Are So Slow Finishing That Freelance Writing Project

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    25 Gene Burnett January 18, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    I’m a bit of an odd duck on this one…My natural rhythm, ever since I was a kid would be to go to bed between 4 and 5am and wake up around Noon. I could do this in high school during the Summer and at a few lucky times in my life when I had nothing at all pressing in the mornings…But generally, I’ve had to suppress this rhythm in the interests of making a living. I sort of became a semi-forced morning person. This was fine when all I was doing was teaching T’ai-Chi…but when I revived my creative/writing/musician life back in 2005 or so…I was faced with a dilemma…My creative life pushed me into the wee hours…My T’ai-Chi life started in the mornings…I was constantly struggling with this for years…every hour I stayed up felt great to my creative self, but my T’ai-Chi “make a living” self would feel guiltier and worse as the minutes passed and I dreaded how I’d feel the next day. Naps helped but not enough.

    Finally I came up with a compromise about a year ago that isn’t perfect, but it’s by far the best one I’ve come up with yet. I now sleep during the least interesting and productive hours of my day: 4 or 5am until 9 or 10am and then again from 2 or 3pm until 6 or 7pm. There are variations of course and sometimes I have to do stuff in the pm and things get a bit knocked off course. But this is generally working great. I love staying up late and not caring at all or struggling with it. My afternoon sleep is not a “nap” though…I really check out and go into pretty deep sleep. With this schedule, I get up fairly easily, even if I only get 3 hours of sleep. I teach a few lessons, come home for lunch, check my email and go back to bed for another sleep session. I get up in the early evening, have a cup of black tea and I’m good to go until the wee hours. Then I repeat.

    One down side is that when I do have afternoon errands or an afternoon gig or event of some kind, I have to do caffeine or just tough it out. Also, making phone calls is not easy, because often the afternoon is a good time to do this, but I am just too tired…but this is a minor price to pay. I am told that this is a “truckers schedule”. I don’t think it’s perfect health-wise but neither would be ignoring or suppressing one or the other sides of my nature…

    Another odd thing about me is that it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of media type stuff I do before I go to bed, I fall right asleep within minutes. I can watch a movie, do internet, read, whatever and I can just drop that and fall asleep. My wife is the exact opposite though and I suspect that most people can’t put media aside as easily as I can.

    Also, I had a student once who was having a hard time falling asleep at all. He was getting almost no sleep and was really tormented by it. He went to a naturopath who gave him a thorough examination and told him to drink a cup of strong coffee right before bed. He did this and immediately got the first full night of sleep he’d gotten in months. For some people this seems to work. Like giving Ritalin to hyperactive people. Normal people would get sped up, hyperactive people calm down.

    Reply

    26 John Soares January 18, 2013 at 1:53 PM

    Gene, you likely do fall pretty far outside the mainstream on this, but you’ve recognized what works best for you and you’ve adapted your life to it.

    There are times when my desire to go to bed by 10 p.m. conflicts with social engagements — seeing a play here in Ashland, for example, which often won’t end until 11 or so — so I have to make adjustments too.

    And FYI, Gene is my excellent tai chi teacher.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    27 Samantha Gluck January 22, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Twitter: @texascopywriter

    Hi John,

    What a great post with pertinent information about an activity that affects all areas of our lives – even play and leisure. I get enough sleep most of the time and need about 6 to 7 hours to feel good and productive. I can certainly tell the difference when I don’t get enough — or even if I get too much. Too much makes me sluggish as well.

    Thanks for reminding me about this important aspect of health. Dream to reach your dreams. ;-)
    Samantha Gluck recently posted…No Fail (Almost) Guide to Hashtag Basics

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    28 John Soares January 24, 2013 at 3:45 PM

    Samantha, I occasionally don’t get enough sleep — and then I can really tell the difference in how I feel and how much less work I get done.
    John Soares recently posted…Why I Did Not Help a Fellow Freelance Writer

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    29 Samantha Gluck January 24, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    Twitter: @texascopywriter

    John,

    Do you experience that sluggish feeling when you get too much sleep as well? Just wondering because I find this hurts my productivity about as much as too little sleep.

    Samantha
    Samantha Gluck recently posted…No Fail (Almost) Guide to Hashtag Basics

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    30 John Soares January 24, 2013 at 8:59 PM

    It’s hard to say because I almost never sleep more than 8 hours, and that’s usually when I only got 6 hours the night before.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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    31 Edward January 23, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    Getting enough sleep is one of my problems. Thanks for sharing your ideas about getting a good enough sleep.

    Reply

    32 Taswir Haider January 28, 2013 at 4:28 AM

    Great post ! I made a commitment to myself this week to get enough sleep – no matter what happens. I’ve been more productive and less stressed because of it.
    Taswir Haider recently posted…How to Find Blog Posts faster with Sitemap

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    33 Gwen January 31, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    You wrote what I’ve been thinking about for weeks. Wonderful! I’ll be referring back to this soon.

    Reply

    34 John Soares January 31, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    Glad you found it helpful Gwen, and thanks for linking to this post!
    John Soares recently posted…Two Motivating Questions I Ask Myself Every Morning

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    35 Pinar Tarhan February 8, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    Twitter: @zoeyclark

    I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get enough quality sleep recently. My mind is in overdrive and I keep thinking about scenes (of my fiction) in my head. I enjoy it, but it keeps me from falling asleep right away.

    I’m also not happy about the fact that I need 9 hours, which makes me feel like I’m missing out on the day.

    My biggest problem is that it keeps me from reaching my productivity potential.
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted…The Following: When Both The Protagonist and Antagonist Are Writers

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    36 John Soares February 23, 2013 at 6:55 AM

    Pinar, I suggest you look at what you do in the 2-3 hours before you go to bed. No caffeine and no sugar would be a good start, and also be careful what you read or watch on television/Internet. You don’t want anything that will overly stimulate you or agitate you.
    John Soares recently posted…50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination: A Free Special Report

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