Tuesday, September 16, 2014

30/07/2012 What is Deliberate Practice?

What is Deliberate Practice?

You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do.
Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it. Experience does not equate to expertise.
In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.Talent Is Overrated
Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior in any domain. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are either wrong, as is the case with talent, or misleading, as is the case with effort.
Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).
Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.
Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.
Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.
When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.
Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.
It’s designed specifically to improve performance
The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.
“In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.”
But it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.
“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”
In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.
Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *
Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.
With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.
Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.
Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.
Consider a chess tournament:
Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*
It can be repeated a lot
Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.
Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *
It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.
Feedback on results is continuously available
Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.
“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”
Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.
“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”
It’s highly demanding mentally
Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.
“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”
Ben Franklin, an interesting example
Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.
“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.
It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …
Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”
Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.
Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”
Like what you’re reading? Join my free newsletter. It comes out once a week on Sunday and it’s full of nutritious Brain Food.
Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.

15/10/2013 What can we learn from the science of high performance?

What can we learn from the science of high performance?

Anyone looking to build and sustain high performance should consider these 5 tips.

1. Routines

The first tip comes from Tony Schwartz author of The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything. In his contribution to Maximize Your Potential, he recommends harnessing the power of a ritual.
A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.
Willpower and discipline are over-rated.
In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister contends that the most successful people don’t make better decisions because of their willpower. Rather, they develop routines.
These routines reduce the number of decisions we need to make (as well as reducing stress). Thus it becomes easier to use your limited resources of self-control to avoid, rather than solve, crises.
Developing these routines are key. In Michael Lewis’ profile of President Obama, he writes:
You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” (Obama) said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
If we spend energy making too many little decisions, we’ll have less to make the more important decisions. Some companies are cluing into this.
“I think that the leadership at Google has an intuitive understanding of human nature and the way attention is a limited resource,” says David Rock author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.
Google organizes their environment to make allow their employees to make fewer decisions.
The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.
When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resources for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”
…Other companies could do well to do the same, noticing what their employees end up wasting their attention on, and doing something about it. It’s sure making me rethink my own company’s benefits policies.
… as well as minimizing distractions and respecting attention, Google does other things to help its people be more productive, in particular being more productive at complex problem solving.

2. Focus

Your routines should be geared towards helping you focus.
In Your Brain at Work, David Rock writes:
One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance
Combining routine and focus is the sweet spot. Here are two examples you can put into practice today.
First, Mark McGuinness argues in Manage Your Day-to-Day that you should put your most important work first. It’s much easier to deal with less taxing things, like email, later.
The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.
Another way to think of this is to pay yourself first: you are your own most valuable client. That’s what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger do.
Another useful routine is to deal with email in batches, say from 10-11 and 3-4 each day. The rest of the day, turn the email client off so you’re not constantly interrupted with ‘new mail.’ (How to deal with email.)
Consider the wise counsel of Herbert Simon:
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

3. Practice

Experience doesn’t always make you better.
In Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:
In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.
Wait. What? That doesn’t make sense.
We typically operate in the OK Plateau.
Bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein and USA Memory Champion in 2005, Joshua Foer explains:
In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying conscious attention. … The OK Plateau is that point when we reach the autonomous stage and consciously or unconsciously stay to ourselves, “I am OK at how good I have gotten at this task,” and stop paying attention to our improvement. We all reach OK Plateaus in almost everything we do. We learn to drive when we’re teenagers, and at first we improve rapidly, but eventually we are no longer a threat to old ladies crossing the street, and we stop getting appreciably better.
If we want to perform better beyond some basic competence researchers say we must engage in deliberate practice. These are designed, mindful efforts, to master even the smallest detail of success. To get better you have to get out of the autonomous stage.
One way to stay out of the autonomous stage is deliberate practice. Expert musicians, for example, focus on the hardest parts not the easy ones that would allow them to sink into autopilot. The way to get better is to push your limits.
Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.
Colvin continues:
Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Consider a coach.
In his fascinating New Yorker article, Doctor Atul Gawande writes “In theory, people can do this themselves.”
But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.
In other words, the coach provides objective feedback and structure.
Commenting on what it’s like to have a surgical coach, Gawande offers:
Osteen (Gawande’s coach) watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.
This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?
It takes a special person to bring in a coach mid-career and subject themselves to “scrutiny and fault-finding.”
Maybe you’re thinking, I don’t need a coach because “I’m my own worst critic.” That may be the case, however it is really hard, but not impossible, to be your own (objective) coach. You need structure and objective feedback.
(I don’t want to get into too much nuance, but you also have to think about feedback systems. Part of deliberate practice is immediate and constant feedback. This enables course correction. The time-to-feedback can derail deliberate practice if it’s too long.)

4. Exercise

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

5. Rest

Taking time to rest won’t make you a slacker. While the corporate culture of “back-to-back” meetings from 9-5 may seem “cool” it is actually crazy. Rest is a critical component of creating and sustaining excellence.

19/11/2013 The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep

Sleep is way more important than we realize. It’s also, according to David Randall inDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, “the largest overlooked part of your life and … it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.”
We spend about a third of our lives asleep. Or trying to sleep. Increasingly we’re turning to prescription meds to help us sleep.
In the interest of sharing things with you, I thought I’d share my “sleep” file.

We still don’t understand much

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

Sleep is more important than food

Sleep is more important than food when it comes to improving performance.
In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute midafternoon nap some 2 hours a day more than the average American.
The top violinists also reported that, except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists.

Sleep improves thinking

The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.

Sleeping makes you happier

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

Napping is normal

Napping is normal. Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals –- one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.
Napping and sleeping also help make you smarter: “sleep is needed to clear the brain’s short-term memory storage and make room for new information.”

Sleep on it

You should sleep on it:
“There is something to be gained from taking a night to sleep on it when you’re facing an important decision. We found that the fact that you slept makes your decisions better.”

How much sleep do we need?

More than Napoleon famously advised: “Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool.”
Is it just me or has the ability to function on less sleep become some cultural badge of honour these days? The assumption that whoever can still ‘do their job’ on less sleep wins? I’m as guilty as anyone.
Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.
Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

Teenagers need more sleep

Teenagers need around eight to ten hours of sleep but get much less during their workweek. A recent study found that when the starting time of high school is delayed by an hour, the percentage of students who get at least eight hours of sleep per night jumps from 35.7 percent to 50 percent. Adolescent students’ attendance rate, their performance, their motivation, even their eating habits all improve significantly if school times are delayed.

Are Early Risers Better People

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society. The old moral is so prevalent, however, that it still dominates our beliefs, even in modern times. The postman doesn’t think for a second that the young man might have worked until the early morning hours because he is a night-shift worker or for other reasons. He labels healthy young people who sleep into the day as lazy — as long sleepers. This attitude is reflected in the frequent use of the word-pair early birds and long sleepers. Yet this pair is nothing but apples and oranges, because the opposite of early is late and the opposite of long is short.

Stress impacts your ability to sleep.

Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.

But, I can’t sleep

When you can’t sleep, should you lie in bed with your eyes closed? No.
Brian Fung answers in the Atlantic.
The useful takeaway is that your best move, if you’ve been in bed for 20 minutes and still aren’t dozing off, is to get up and engage in a low-light, low-stress activity like reading until you begin to feel tired. Taking your mind off of “Why am I not sleeping?! I need to sleep!” is crucial. When you do get up, though, don’t use your computer or phone or watch TV — the blue-colored light from the screens tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime and not releasing melatonin.

Does jet-lag affect performance?

In a word: yes.
The Stanford researchers dug through twenty-five years of Monday night NFL games and flagged every time a West Coast team played an East Coast team. Then, in an inspired move, they compared the final scores for each game with the point spread developed by bookmakers in Vegas. The results were stunning. The West Coast teams dominated their East Coast opponents no matter where they played. A West Coast team won 63 percent of the time, by an average of two touchdowns. The games were much closer when an East Coast team won, with an average margin of victory of only nine points. By picking the West Coast team every time, someone would have beaten the point spread 70 percent of the time. For gamblers in Las Vegas, the matchup was as good as found money.
The kiss of death is shifting three time zones,” he said. Teams that flew to the opposite coast were twice as likely to be beaten by a lower-ranked opponent in the tournament’s first round. Circadian schedules trumped natural ability. The circadian advantage— or disadvantage, depending on your perspective– popped up in studies of figure skaters, rowers, golfers, baseball players, swimmers, and divers. Everywhere you turned, there was evidence of the body’s hidden rhythms at work. One study found that in sports as varied as running, weightlifting, and swimming, athletes competing when their bodies experienced the second boost of circadian energy were more likely to break a world record. Long jumpers, for instance, launched themselves nearly 4 percent farther when the body was at its circadian peak. But the circadian rhythm cut both ways. Athletes competing when their circadian rhythm corresponded to the so-called sleep gates— those times in the early afternoon or late nights when it’s easy for most people to fall asleep— consistently performed a little worse than normal, even if the slowdown wasn’t obvious to them.

Why Do We Dream?

Despite differences in terminology, all the contemporary theories of dreaming have a common thread — they all emphasize that dreams are not about prosaic themes, not about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about emotion, or what psychologists refer to as affect. What is carried forward from waking hours into sleep are recent experiences that have an emotional component, often those that were negative in tone but not noticed at the time or not fully resolved. One proposed purpose of dreaming, of what dreaming accomplishes (known as the mood regulatory function of dreams theory) is that dreaming modulates disturbances in emotion, regulating those that are troublesome. My research, as well as that of other investigators in this country and abroad, supports this theory. Studies show that negative mood is down-regulated overnight. How this is accomplished has had less attention.
I propose that when some disturbing waking experience is reactivated in sleep and carried forward into REM, where it is matched by similarity in feeling to earlier memories, a network of older associations is stimulated and is displayed as a sequence of compound images that we experience as dreams. This melding of new and old memory fragments modifies the network of emotional self-defining memories, and thus updates the organizational picture we hold of ‘who I am and what is good for me and what is not.’ In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the event and so prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start. This does not always happen over a single night; sometimes a big reorganization of the emotional perspective of our self-concept must be made — from wife to widow or married to single, say, and this may take many nights. We must look for dream changes within the night and over time across nights to detect whether a productive change is under way. In very broad strokes, this is the definition of the mood-regulatory function of dreaming, one basic to the new model of the twenty-four hour mind I am proposing.

Daylight savings time.

Studies have shown that disrupting circadian rhythms by even one hour during the switch to daylight saving time may increase depression, traffic accidents, and heart attacks. These rhythms affect consumption and metabolism in animals—it is hard to imagine that they aren’t also playing a role in human appetites as well. Controlling environmental light with lamps, TVs, and computers gives us incredible flexibility and productivity. But it interrupts daily and yearly cycles that were billions of years in the making and are shared by countless creatures on our planet.

What causes insomnia?

The cause is often the brain’s refusal to give up its unequaled ability to think about itself, a meta-phenomenon that Harvard professor Daniel M. Wegner has called “the ironic process of mental control.” To illustrate this concept, imagine someone telling you that you will be judged on how quickly you can relax. Your initial reaction most likely is to tighten up. After he posed that challenge to research subjects, Wegner found that the average person becomes anxious as his or her mind constantly monitors its progress toward its goal, caught up in the second-by-second process of self-assessment. In the same way, sleep becomes more elusive as a person’s sleep needs become more urgent. This problem compounds itself each night, leading to a state of chronic insomnia.
Patients with insomnia tend to think that one night of poor sleep leads to immediate health problems or has an outsized impact on their mood the next day, a mental pressure cooker that leaves them fretting that every second they are awake in the middle of the night is another grain of salt in the wound. In the inverted logic of the condition, sleep is extremely important to someone with insomnia. Therefore, the person with insomnia can’t get sleep.

Good sleepers have an active mind

[In] good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.
Ok, ok, I hear you saying. Get to the tips already.

How you can sleep better

First, we need to understand what goes into a good night of sleep?
Only recently has science figured out what goes into a good night of sleep. Falling asleep, and staying that way throughout the night, appears to be a battle with two fronts. The first takes place in the head. Between the time when a person lays his or her head on a pillow and the time when the brain sends out the first sleep spindles marking the onset of sleep, the mind must put aside its focus on its immediate surroundings and daily concerns. This process requires a person to give up direct control of his or her thoughts. At the same time, the body must be comfortable enough that the brain essentially forgets that they are attached. When something gets in the way of either, the result is often insomnia.
Mattresses don’t matter.
while a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense. It is obviously not a good idea to drink coffee in the evening if it keeps you up at night. Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.
Help your circadian rhythm by knowing when to use light and when to avoid it.
Via Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep:
…bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.
Cold showers and why we stick our feet out.
Via Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep:
Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. In addition to the appearance of brain waves like sleep spindles, one of the biological markers of the onset of sleep is a drop in core body temperature. At the same time, the temperature of the feet and hands increases as the body gives off heat through its periphery, which explains why some people like to have their feet sticking out of the covers as they fall asleep. The bodys tendency to release heat during the night is one reason why some mattresses are said to be uncomfortable—they “sleep hot.” In the simplest explanation, the fabric and materials that make up some beds trap the heat the body is reassessing.
Assisting the body in its cooling process, then is a natural way to improve sleep. One study by researchers in Lille, a city in northeastern France, found that subjects fell asleep faster and had a better overall quality of sleep following behaviors that cooled the body, such as taking a cold shower right before bed. The best predictor of quality sleep was maintaining a room temperature in a narrow band between 60 and 66 degrees Fahrenheit (or 16 to 19 degrees Celsius)
Exercise helps. “Those who exercised reported a better quality of sleep than those who remained sedentary.”
Other common suggestions from sleep doctors include maintaining a consistent bedtime, using the bedroom only for sex or sleeping, and turning the lights down low in the home about a half hour before climbing into bed.

The Age of Always On

The most important point in Dreamland might be that our round the clock non-stop world is throwing ourselves into.
We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.
Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.