Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Last week David wrote a powerful piece called 4am. It’s well worth reading if you haven’t already done so! It reminded me a lot of the sleep pattern/habit that I’m currently in and which I find really annoying!

Most mornings I find myself lying awake in bed, about an hour before I’m meant to get up. This happens a lot, and as I said, I find it very annoying; primarily because instead of enjoying the last hour of sleep that I need, I lie there scanning the day ahead of me looking for dangers.

I’m not sure why my brain does this, but I suspect that I’m probably not alone. The dangers that my brain is looking for are most probably rooted in the mists of time, well before I was even born. It’s an evolutionary thing that modern brains have held onto and into the modern age, God only knows why.

The dangers that my mind is scanning for aren’t found on the savannah, behind some bushes, or in a cave. Yet you’d think the way that my mind works at this time of the morning, here in the 21st century, that these dangers still exist.

That unwritten board report – it’s a sabre toothed tiger.

That maths lesson with the class from 3G – it’s a Haast Eagle.

That talk that I need to present at a staff meeting – it’s an empty food basket.

I really should just get up out of bed and shut these thoughts off. I always feel better once I’m moving and the light of the day shows itself. But yet I lie there, in the dark, hoping that I can find that last hour of sleep before the alarm goes off.

It’s a bit like I’m at the start line for a race. I’m waiting for the starting gun to explode, a whole hour before but my brain has already begun the run. I’m lying there trying to train my mind not to start the run until the starting gun goes, but my brain doesn’t want to listen. 

You’ve got to wonder – who is in control of these thoughts?

So, I’ve turned to Chat GTP3.5 and I’ve asked for a list of mindfulness techniques that I can use in bed. I’m going to give these a go over the next few days. I’m hopeful that I can train my mind over time to switch on for the big dangers only when I need it too.

What do you think of this list? Could these help you?

  1. Deep Breathing: Focus on your breath and engage in deep breathing exercises. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise, and exhale slowly through your mouth, releasing tension with each breath. Counting your breaths or using a mantra can help keep your mind focused.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Start from your toes and work your way up to your head, tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body. Pay attention to the sensations of tension melting away as you consciously release each muscle.
  3. Body Scan Meditation: Bring your awareness to different parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort, and consciously release the tension as you focus on relaxing each part of your body.
  4. Mindful Observation: Use your senses to observe your surroundings from your bed. Notice the feeling of your sheets against your skin, the sounds of the night, and any subtle scents in the air. Allow yourself to fully experience the present moment without judgment.
  5. Guided Imagery: Visualize yourself in a peaceful, calming place such as a beach, forest, or mountaintop. Imagine the sights, sounds, and sensations of this tranquil environment, allowing yourself to become fully immersed in the experience.
  6. Gratitude Practice: Shift your focus away from worries or stressors by practicing gratitude. Reflect on three things you’re grateful for, no matter how small they may seem. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can help promote feelings of peace and contentment.
  7. Mindful Listening: Tune in to any sounds you hear in your environment, whether it’s the hum of a fan, the rustling of leaves outside your window, or the sound of your own breath. Allow the sounds to wash over you without trying to change or analyze them.
  8. Relaxing Visualization: Picture yourself in a calming scenario, such as floating on a cloud or drifting in a peaceful stream. Imagine all your worries and concerns melting away as you immerse yourself in this serene visualization.



An eon ago you woke up, and try as you might, you just can’t get back to sleep. Random thoughts, ideas and worries flick through your mind in a messy cascade of wakefulness. You don’t really know how long this has been going on, but it feels almost endless. And you know this is bad – there’s work tomorrow.

Eventually, you roll over and check the time. Surely, it’s nearly time to get up, but those glowing wee neon lights make your heart sink. 4am.

How will you possibly get through the day? And yesterday the same thing happened .  .  .

.   .   .

Sleep – the best of things and the worst of things. And many, many school leaders slide to the wrong side of the equation on a nightly basis. When Steve and I talk to principal groups we often ask how their sleep is going, and on average, 75 percent of all principals we’ve asked report significant problems with their sleep.

If you’re one of the three quarters of these sleep deprived school leaders, it’s time you stopped worrying about the science of reading and started considering the science of sleeping because there’s a growing amount of it, and the current buzz phrase – “sleep hygiene”, might actually change your 4am experience.

So why do you wake up or stay awake?

It’s almost certainly a combination of things, but three that drive a lot of people’s wakefulness are:

  • A high level of cortisol
  • Misuse of caffeine
  • Bad habits around screen use


Question – do you regularly feel stressed at work?

People operating with elevated levels of stress produce more of the hormone cortisol. It’s our bodies way to get through difficult situations and in the right amount, for a short time, is good. Too much, for too long is bad.

As part of our human circadian rhythm, everyone’s cortisol naturally peaks around 2 – 3am daily, which is fine, unless your base level is already too high. If it’s too high, the 2am boost pushes you into consciousness (even if you are tired).

There are many ways to deliberately reduce stress (meditation, exercise, diet, etc) and I believe our job choice requires us to make an effort to do so.


Question – do you know how much caffeine you take each day?

(cup of instant coffee 60mg, double shot café coffee 200mg, can of Coke 30mg, cup of tea 50mg)

We love caffeine. It’s addictive, it’s fun and it’s certain to wreck your sleep if used thoughtlessly.

The problem with caffeine is that it binds to exactly the same receptors in your brain as does the natural sleep-inducing chemical adenosine. One function of adenosine is that it builds up over the day and at a certain level makes you feel sleepy. If you take caffeine, it blocks the adenosine from working.

With a half life of 5 – 6 hours, that 2pm coffee you had after lunch is still 50% active at 8pm and 25% active at 2am . . .

Based on this long effect, it’s generally well-known that taking caffeine after midday is not a winning move. However, drinking coffee first thing in the morning can also negatively impact sleep.

Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and researcher at Stanford University, has studied what happens when caffeine is taken in the first hour of waking. If you do this (and I always used to!), you’ll get the usual ‘lift’ as it blocks your adenosine, but at the cost of stopping your naturally rising cortisol from waking you up.

There are two downstream effects – firstly, that adenosine doesn’t disappear. It stays circulating waiting for a receptor to bind to and unless you keep adding more caffeine, will eventually succeed and cause the dreaded afternoon energy slump. But the bigger effect is that by stopping your body using cortisol to maintain a natural rhythm across the day/night you impact on your sleep too. A double whammy. Mr Huberman suggests waiting at least an hour, ideally two after waking, before feeding your caffeine habit.

Screen Use

Question – do you have a screen device in your bedroom?

Are you looking at a screen in the hour before going to bed, or worse, scrolling on your phone while in bed? Most people I know do one or both of these things . . . and they wreck sleep.

We’ve all probably heard that blue light emitted by screens effects sleep. It does this by supressing the hormone melatonin which regulates the good old circadian rhythm. What happens when you mess up your circadian rhythm? You also mess up your sleep cycle.

Any light when you should be asleep is bad, but the blue wavelength has the strongest suppressing effect on melatonin. It’s not rocket science to know what to do about this, but it can be incredibly hard to make change because addiction and habits are involved.

One simple step to take is to keep your phone out of the bedroom.

.   .   .

I’m no sleep scientist but have had my own struggles with sleep over the years, which is why I try to keep up with the thinking. I strongly recommend that you do your own homework in this area and happily, there are plenty of experts publishing practical guides that can help.

Two books to read are:

              “Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker

              “Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night”, Guy Meadows

Two podcasts to listen to are:

              Sleep Toolkit: Tools for Optimising Sleep and Sleep-Wake Timing, Andrew Huberman

              The 6 Sleep hacks You Need – Matthew Walker

Sleep well!


An earlier post Steve wrote on this topic.

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You take a look at the bedside clock. It’s glowing 3:00am and, truth be told, you’ve probably been awake for an hour already. There are nigglings, plans, and plain old emotions in the form of concerns rushing around your head.


Your mind is alive with thoughts. Many are worries. You lie there knowing that this could go on for a couple more hours, only subsiding into a deep sleep, ten minutes before it’s time to get up.


Emotions play a huge part in our principal roles. A school is a highly emotive place. There are highs and lows all the time. We live for these highs, and in a simple paradox, it is the lows that often make the highs so enjoyable. Like yin and yang, you need both.


The lows can have the power to swamp us, though. Especially if they’re coming at speed, one after another. It can be difficult to keep your head above water. This can result in routinely waking up in the middle of the night for many. Sadly, this is the reality of the job – it is volatile. This is not likely to change any time soon, so what can we do to limit the negative effects of these lows when we find ourselves awake far too early in the morning?


Switch off notifications: Turning off notifications on your phone or device has a significant positive impact on your thought processes. By doing this, you’re essentially putting up the closed sign at the front of the shop. If you do this on your phone each day, it’s a bit like telling your brain that you’re closed for business. Of course, many of you tech-savvy people will have some setting to automatically do this. Whatever works, just shut off those notifications and train your mind to recognise this as shutting up shop for the day.


Consider your brain as being half-open: Science tells us that the human brain is divided into two sides.

There’s a logical side and there’s a creative/imaginative side. At 3am, it really could be possible that only one half of your brain is open for business. If that is true, then it’s likely to be the imaginative side. You know what imaginative types are like – they come up with all sorts of left-field (left-brain) creative ideas. At 3am, your creative mind has suddenly woken up and it’s going to town with all sorts of thoughts. They are feeding your inner worries like wildfire.


Meanwhile, on the other side of your brain, the logical part is still fast asleep. There is nothing available to logically look at what your creative side is doing. There is nothing open to take a breath and say, ‘Hold on, that’s a little bit crazy’. This is why, when you wake up in the morning, you’ll think you’ve solved an issue in the middle of the night, only to find that in the light of day, the solution is actually pretty naff.


3am diversion therapy: It sounds like a great name for a rock band, but it’s a little strategy that we’ve given a name. Basically, there are many ways to divert your thinking from 3am worries. If your mind is open to thinking, then you might as well get it thinking about some worry-less material, not worry-more. This strategy is a bit like counting sheep and, with practice, it is useful. So instead of counting sheep try doing this:

  • Remember all the living rooms that you have lived in throughout your life. Including those dirty flats! If there aren’t many, work on remembering where the couch was, or where the TV was, in each room. Don’t focus on the ‘exciting’ memories/emotions that each room may give. You want your brain to be as taxed as possible on the details of those rooms, not on any emotions.
  • If living rooms isn’t doing it, try bathrooms, or kitchens, or backyards.


Anything slightly boring and just a little taxing will work. Every time you find your mind wandering back to the big worry topic, stop yourself and re-start your diversion, and each time, make your brain start again from the beginning.


Give in and get up: If you’re really struggling, get up. Make a cup of very sweet Milo and write down your thoughts. Get them all down. Let your mind go wild. Don’t worry about whether anything is wrong or right. The only person who will be judging this outpouring is you. So, you might as well go for it.


Before you go to bed, give in: Crank open your laptop. Don’t check your emails!! Instead, make a list of everything on your mind. Fingers crossed that the list isn’t too long! Write a quick thumbnail sketch like a paragraph about what has to happen with each item on the list. Don’t go into it in detail. If you wake up at 3am, let yourself know that you’ve already got this sorted! This gives your logical side power over your creative side, without even having to wake that part of your brain up!


There are plenty of ways of dealing with 3am worries. You certainly aren’t alone. Your sleep is vital, so finding something that works without reverting to copious amounts of alcohol has got to be a good. Be creative, but don’t let your mind move on to what’s worrying you. That’ll just keep you up all night.




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