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Why I can’t sleep some nights.

Day

“You have to tire yourself out each day or you’ve got too much spare anxiety left over to sleep well.”

Jenny said this to me over breakfast last week.

She’s right. For years, she’s always compared me to one of those dogs that the dog whisperer works with on that TV show. He shows up at the house, finds a boxer that is bored and fixes the situation by giving him a job. He has the dog wear a vest where he carries water bottles for the family on walks. He gets him a better exercise program. He gives him tasks. And the dog stops freaking out when he sees a leaf fall outside the window.

Though it’s not a straight comparison, I never eat shoes, it’s pretty close.

There are mornings I wake up at 5:15AM not because I’m some sort of amazing hustler, but rather because I am some sort of amazing worrier.

Unless I work.

Unless I go to bed empty.

Unless I feel like I’ve given my all that particular day. Not just to work, but to relationships, to my family, to my friends, and to exercise.

I think this is a fine approach, it works for now, but there is a rumbling doubt inside that I might just be addressing the symptom, not the real problem.

A counselor once told me, “It will be a great day Jon when you accomplish nothing and still believe you’re worth something.”

I think he was right.

I think it’s a balance. It’s a tension.

Working hard. Giving back all you were given. Worrying less, but realizing your work is not your worth. Success or failure is an outcome not an identity.

Question:
Have you ever had a hard time sleeping or doubting that you accomplished “enough” that day?

About Author

Jon Acuff
Jon Acuff

60 Comments

  1. Ugh. That is my tension too. I worry about not doing enough. And then I worry about doing too much of the wrong things. I’ve been going through this as I’ve been transitioning into a new job, which actually involves creating my own job. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done, and sometimes I feel like I’m all scattered.

    One thing I did a few weeks ago that helped (I think it was an idea from the Buffer Blog), was to keep a “Got done” list next to my day’s to-do list. I wrote down everything I did — from exercise to meetings to tasks to time with my family. It helped me see — at the end of the day — how much I did accomplish.

    • Jon Acuff Jon Acuff

      Joey-

      Wow, I love that idea. I need a “Got done” list too. I tend to over obsess at all the stuff I didn’t do while ignoring the stuff I did. Thanks for that tip!

      Jon

      • Nate

        Doesn’t that tend to still address the symptom though? Reinforcing that if your “got done” includes exercise and other tasks complete that then you are worth something and can stop stressing. But if all you “got done” was 1. ignored cleaning the house 2. thoroughly examined Facebook 3. Read good blogs, then you should feel like a loser and stress a lot because God will probably give up on you any day here… either way, the focus is performance (say it with me, Stuart Smalley!) and not our real identity, right?

        • ^ THIS.

          Let me tell you about the vicious cycle of anxiety and depression. Let me tell you about being drained of all “hustle” (that vitality that is necessary to get anything done) to the point where you can barely function as a member of society, and then beating yourself up mentally because clearly you are such a failure for not being able to cope.

          “God helps those who help themselves” is a dirty lie. God does not love us (or help us) because we are worthy. We are worthy because God loves us, and helps us.

    • rachealdhelmick

      Yes, thanks for that tip! A small shift in perspective can make a big difference.

    • Michelle Ellis

      Love this idea and think I will implement it.

  2. Pam D.

    Wow, as a wife and mother of young adult children, yes, worry and wondering if I have done enough seems to be almost constant. I have certainly grown in this area, praise God! Thank you for this post! A great reminder.

  3. Every once in a while, I will just do nothing. It’s rare. It hurts at first. The feeling that I could be getting something done is hard to suppress. I’m the guy that shakes the dinner table with the restless leg. After a few minutes, I begin to forget everything and slip in to that zone that it seems only men can find. My mind shuts off. If it weren’t for these moments I probably would spontaneously combust!

  4. Good post Jon. I think this is closely related to being a perfectionist. There are some days I don’t even want to start a task because I’m afraid it won’t be done “just right”.

    But then I read somewhere (in YOUR book Quitter I believe!) that doing some is better than doing nothing at all. And I gave gotten better about being perfect.

    That aside, I do feel alot better when I go to bed each night by having accomplished a certain list of tasks. I have learned those tasks dont gace to be perfectly done tho.

    We all have to realize however that there are those days we gave to RELAX and do nothing. And thats okay!

    I hope everyone survives this Monday!

    Brant Thompson
    theworldthrubrantseyes.blogspot.com

  5. I had a hard time sleeping early this morning, and I’m sure it was partially because I felt like I needed to get an earlier start on things that normal. (Normal for me is 4:25AM.)

  6. I couldn’t be described any more clear. It’s an everyday thing for me. I wake up early and write before I go to work. Work starts at 6:30 AM for me. I write because it makes me feel accomplished before I get to work and get drained by my job. I started writing, and my website, because I loved it. Now I’ve learned that I need it, but reading that article made me realize I am not giving my all to much else. It’s depriving the relationships of what they deserve each day. And that’s why I go to bed empty. This article was an eye opener. I was having a rough morning and now I think I know what I need to do to change it.

    Thanks, as always, Jon.

    Chandler

  7. Jim

    Appreciate the honesty–I think worry and doubt are just extensions of fear. Perhaps when self employed we really allow our fears to push us harder than when someone else is the boss. I’m struggling with this myself. I either have a super productive day and feel great, or anything less than a super productive day I feel like a bit of a failure. But this is not how to gauge success–or to live. I think Pressfield hits the nail on the head at the beginning of War of Art when he essentially says, “I put in my time and I don’t worry about the rest.”

  8. Beth Peninger

    WOW. So well said. What a perfect reminder or exhortation for Type A’s, perfectionists, and those who have bought the lie that their identity is in what they do rather than who they are. Wow. This one really resonates with me today. Thank you Jon!

  9. Suzanne

    I used to always be super busy, running around, working hard, thriving social life, active in church. And enjoying it for the most part. Now I’m at home, recovering from HELLP/PE and accident, that caused me to not even being able to take care of our special needs toddler by myself. I don’t feel like I do very much, with all this sitting still and being at home. But, as my surgeon said today: recovering is a fulltime job. Sometimes, rest is work. Today, I took a nap. I will write that on my ‘got done’ list tonight!

  10. I’ve felt the same way even after a twelve hour day at the USPS!! Today I have a day off and I’ve been hustling all day on only and hour and a half of sleep.

    I worry all the time that I’ve not done enough and have let someone down. Thoughts race through my mind and I have the most restless sleep.

    It’s on days like this where I’ve exhausted myself I feel worthy to get six hours of sleep and start again the next day.

    Thanks for inspiring all of us here!! You are GREAT!!

  11. Just last night I was in bed by 10:30 but couldn’t fall asleep until around 1 because my mind was racing about all I could’ve done over the weekend but didn’t. I love the line your counselor told you. I’ll have to remember that because that’s exactly what God wants me to remember.

  12. I just spoke at a women’s conference about how we too often equate our worth with our performance that day — how we’ve performed at work, how many loads of laundry we’ve finished, how much traffic our blog got, or how our children reacted to the dinner we prepared.

    It’s so normal, yet it’s a tenuous way for us to gauge our worth. I’ve been finding that the only way to overcome this in my own life is to replace it with the true narrative: what God says my worth is in Christ.

    The line from your counselor is something we ALL could take to heart!

  13. Paul

    To compound the issue, I often “KNOW” that someone ELSE in my same situation, WOULD have accomplished more on that given day. … in addition to nurturing anxiety, it’s also a little depressing ; /

  14. So so often. I was just thinking that the other day, how unless I feel like I have worked my hardest, I don’t feel worth anything.

  15. Sharon Beller

    I feel the same way! I retired early late last year to care for my husband who has PTSD & various side effects from agent orange, combat. Worked many long hours at stressful positions. Now, if I haven’t completed done major project on any given day, despite attending yo my husband, I feel worthless. Recently started to draw and write again. But I still feel edgy & worthless if i don’t do more.

  16. Erin Quarino

    Yes yes yes!! I call this my “5 am freakout ”
    I lie in bed and get so down on myself. I didnt work out yesterday. I left something on my desk for tomorrow. I should have said this instead of that…the list goes on and on. Life as a constant worrier. I love this quote and needed this reminder.

  17. I’m the same way – I have a full time job and run an international ministry and a graphic design company on the side. I’m always doing something and often get irritated if I feel I didn’t do enough in a day. Rest? That’s not easy for me. But I learned a trick.

    I took the StrengthsFinder test and discovered one of my strengths is Achiever – meaning I need to achieve something every day to feel like it wasn’t a waste. I had a hard time taking a rest day until I read that one way to enjoy a day off is to simply accomplish one thing that day. So on my days off, I pick one thing – even if it’s small – that I want to accomplish: doin the dishes, mowin the lawn, sending an email. Once that is done, and the only thing on my to do list that day, I feel accomplished and able to rest.

    It’s changed my life for sure.

  18. “Success or failure is an outcome not an identity.”
    I really needed this today.
    Thank you.

  19. Ahhh yes, the mind wondering, tossing and turning, sleepless night. This has been happening to me much too often recently. I am glad to hear I am not alone.

  20. Jon, you could have been writing my life! My boyfriend constantly says to me that I just need to learn the art of doing nothing, of not needing to stress and achieve all the time. Although, he has yet to compare me to a dog yet. That might complicate my response a little…
    My mission is to live a thoroughly nourished life, and in order to do that I constantly feel like I have to do something/achieve something in all the different spheres of my life every day. There is an art to feeling accomplished when you haven’t accomplished anything, like any skill you need to practice I suppose. Here’s to kicking your feet up a little more often.

  21. Michelle H

    Yes. Many days like this. Having a newborn means most days I’ve only accomplished feeding a tiny human and nothing else-not dinner, not the grocery store and sometimes no makeup applied. Not to mention my house is a mess. I lie in bed thinking about everything I needed to do but didn’t. Then I feel guilty for not realizing how important taking care of a baby is:)

  22. Yeah. Definitely. Seems to me that the reason to do something, to work, to have a job, must NOT be because “I’m a failure if I don’t.”

    For one thing, we’re failures regardless. We’re also redeemed regardless. Work must not define us, and must not be the source of our worth. The reason we work must be the reason we do anything: to glorify God. And another way to glorify God is to say, “This does not depend on me,” and do no work for a while.

    God has more or less held me down and told me to do no work, because I was driving myself to ruin. I’m okay with that now.

  23. Isabel

    It always seems like simple beauty is what takes me out of that place. Seeing God’s smile in my head, listening to a song that hits my soul at a deeper place than anxiety can go, looking at my frig and remembering to focus on how much food I have… It’s all God saying He loves me. It’s that place of kind of letting myself be childlike again. The more I’ve done it, the less anxious I get.

  24. Put my husband in Jenny’s place, and me in yours, and this would be accurate representation of some conversations in my own house. In fact, I’m now struggling with the fact my husband is “out hustling” me in certain things now. It’s like, “Great, honey – but I’m the one who has to be doing All the Things or else I’m useless.”

    Yeah, bit not good, that.

  25. My husband lives with major depression, a mood disorder. It has not responded to medication or any other treatment for over ten years. Well-meaning people who don’t understand the weight of a mental illness have suggested a “to do” list to help him get moving not realizing that, at the end of the day, what that list really becomes is a list of failures. When he was at his darkest times, I would sit with him at the end of the day and wait for him come up with three things for which he was grateful. We would make that our prayer. No matter how small, literally counting our blessings calmed the voices that said , “you’re not good enough,” at least for awhile.

    • Debra

      Donna, I encourage gratitude journals for all of my clients. It really does shift our perspective, sometimes in tiny ways, & others in HUGE ways! It can pull us out of worry & anxiety to simply recall all the wonder in our lives…no matter what the circumstances (I’m a 3-time cancer survivor, and without gratitude being a REGULAR part of my daily life, I truly don’t think I would have made it). Thank you for sharing about your husband.

      Mental illness can be devastating to not just the person struggling, but those in his/her life as well, and I commend you for helping him through it…never an easy thing. If you would ever like to visit about your own self-care (as we tend to lose some of that when we care for others), please reach out and let me know. I’d love to chat with you. 🙂 Wishing him (and you!) all the best!

    • Donna I pray for your husband now I often think of what miracles required the individual to believe and some didn’t. My thought would be for anyone to ask, ” What do I believe it would take to change this in my life ? ” If your answer is I have tried everything and not sure if there is anything that could work.
      Even the disciples would see miracles and not relate them to the next miracle they needed.If we are expecting answers from the most educated of the world , sometimes this works but sometime the answer comes from the unlikely. I believe it is not of God that we be trapped in a world without peace . I would encourage you to find several people that have found a way out of depression and see what they did and try that. A misconception is that motivation comes before action. It’s not true, action comes first and sometimes it takes several hours of action to feel the motivation but when repeated it will take less time day by day.

      • Not everyone is given a way out of depression.

        It’s possible to live a Godly life while depressed. It ain’t easy, but I tell ya what, God does not stand apart and wait for you to come out. My experience was that it was like being in a muddy pit. God did not stand on high ground shouting down to me (as others may do), nor did he lift me straight out (which is within his power). He was down there in the pit *with* me, sitting in the mud alongside me. “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139).

        Being healed of depression is a wonderful gift. But that was none of my doing. Killing the lies that fed my anxiety was helpful, yes. Good friends and strong theology were part of my therapy. But I would say that we need to kill those lies whether they’re the cause or not, and that we need good friends and strong theology regardless.

        We should absolutely pray for healing. But we should also accept that for some of us, healing will not come until the new earth does.

  26. Jim Sommers

    So timley Jon. I’m waiting on a writing deal. And I 100% am wrapped up in the deal happening the way I want it to. This is so dangerous. If it doesn’t happen I’m devestated. If it does I feel empty. But I feel that if I can love myself for who I am right now, this moment, deal or no deal, no matter what happens I win because I win without needing to.

  27. Good thoughts; keep up the good work Jon!!

  28. KatyAnn

    Today I was asked how my life would change if I was entangled with God’s character. My answer? I would worry less, because I would know God does. When I feel empy, it is simply His invitation to fill me up. Sometimes, well most the time, it isn’t about what I’ve done, but what He is doing.

  29. Jane

    This really hit home for me. In my case, I don’t wake up early–but I can’t go to sleep if I haven’t accomplished enough of my to-do list to satisfy me. I toss and turn and fidget, ceaselessly running through the list of tasks I’ll have to do the next day to ‘catch-up’, even though I’ve already made an actual list to reference. Being a perfectionist and an incorrigible “finisher” makes me a great worker, but also doesn’t give me a lot of peace. And the problem is, I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are less organized and motivated, so there’s the very real risk that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done–and I’ve seen that actually play out. It’s very discouraging and lonely. I know that Christians are supposed to always be giving and serving, but it’s exhausting. And there isn’t much peace involved–snatches, until the next wave of burdens hits. Which makes me feel like a failed Christian.

    • I’ll tell you what: either we are all failed Christians, or none of us are. Because none of us is good enough, none of us can serve enough, none of us can give enough. But we are solidly, irrevocably Christians because of God’s love and grace, which are not contingent on our performance.

      Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Maybe right now you’re right to carry a heavy burden, but it’s also possible that right now you’re carrying burdens that aren’t yours. God alone – not your anxieties nor your assumptions – can tell you which is true.

  30. Wow. This kicks me in the gut. Can I borrow Jenny for a while? She can just follow me around and tell me all the things I need to fix in my life in her awesome wisdom wit way like the teen girls in that weight loss commercial. All joking aside, I needed this. Thank you for your honesty.

  31. Amy

    For me, its knowing the gospel truth that we have been given full freedom in Christ, we are equipped right where we are to live a full “promise land life” today, right where we are (whether that’s the suburbs or Syria), and then worrying at the end of each day…did I honor that gift I have been given? Did I “do” enough? Did I accomplish His will? And all the while knowing I don’t have to “do” anything….Yes, you’re truly right in saying there’s tension.

  32. This is so on point that it’s hilarious. Here’s why- I’m feeling this way today. I’ve got an article deadline and I’m experiencing writers brain- not to be confused with writers block. I have so much in my head that I can write about that I feel like I will write about absolutely nothing and it’s almost noon and nothing has been done. I thought to myself “hmmm… I wonder if Acuff has something to say about this!” so I typed in acuff.me in the URL box and before the site loaded, I walked outside and stood in the dirt to just breath. 15 minutes later, I walk back in, and the only thing in my browser is your quote image.

    I shouted. I literally shouted. Not any specific word, but more of a loud sound that was probably trying to say, “HOW DID HE KNOW THIS IS ME TODAY???”

    Jesus, that’s how. #booyah

  33. There is an old saying : ” Inactivity breeds negatives ” .

  34. Donna

    My pastor once said, “The need is not necessarily the call.” Great thought for those of us who find so much to do that we find it hard to just BE. I have also learned that just because I’m good at it (or have a gift) it is not always mine to do. EVEN WHEN OTHERS SAY IT IS. Sometimes we need to “just let it play out,” as another mentor said. God might be doing his best work when we can tolerate ambiguity, and/or seeming lack of things getting done. I’m slowly learning.

  35. Jon, not sure how I missed this post, but this phrase is incredible. It’s been used against me too. It places the reality of our broken psyche squarely in my line of sight.
    “A counselor once told me, “It will be a great day Jon when you accomplish nothing and still believe you’re worth something.””

  36. Ronda

    But I’m so much better at doing than being…I’m afraid I might not be worth much

  37. Joey H

    I can certainly relate. My problem is I so often wonder if everyone else thinks I did enough. It doesn’t matter that I put in another 12 hour day or 60 hour week and still tried to keep up (though quite poorly) with being a husband and dad. Not to mention trying to foster my own walk with Christ. I know (in my head) that my worth is not found in people’s opinion of my “performance”, but for some reason I can’t convince my heart of that.

    I need to get back to something I learned from Michael Hyatt. . . Stillness.
    When I was practicing my morning ritual of stillness (described by Michael in his post “the practice of stillness” or on his podcast #98) for a mere 7 minutes each morning, things seemed to be prioritized more in the way they should be.

    Guess I have a goal for tomorrow morning.

  38. Wow, Jon, you hit a nerve here! I also feel that my self-worth is tied to my productivity. Ever since I started my own business, I feel like I need to produce an inordinate amount of work in order to feel like I am worth something. I have spent far too many nights where I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a project, and mornings waking up with my to do list scrolling in my head. For example, this morning, I woke up thinking about who I would like to invite to my new mastermind group. I love this quote, it may become my new mantra. I need to be more present, and satisfied with accomplishing nothing in a day.

  39. This Churchill quote has helped me re-frame my perspective quite a bit. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

  40. I struggle with this daily. Thanks for writing about it. If I don’t work on my writing one day I feel like I have failed. It can have a negative impact on everything in my life. I love the quote from your therapist.

  41. Andrew

    I have trouble sleeping most nights, but it’s not because I don’t accomplish much… I think it used to be, and now I’m just used to tossing and turning. Life is heavy I guess. Haha. Last month I wrote a novel, and in November I’m going to do it again, so I’m definitely trying to put my stamp on each day. But I still don’t sleep well.

  42. You’ve just described me / my challenges… Made me shed some tears too. Not that I feel like I need to prove something, the fact that I haven’t got round to attending to some things sometimes had me so restless… You and me Jon…

  43. Marc Gamble

    I once heard a speaker say that when you wake up earlier than you planned…it is the Lord waking you to spend time with him. I also think it’s my subconscious saying, “now you’ve got time to work out.” In either instance I fail regularly as I tend to lay there and watch reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

  44. Katelyn

    I think that this happens to a lot of us. Particularly while in college/high school.

    I always worry that I haven’t gotten enough done for the day, or that even what I did do wasn’t well enough, and I find myself wrapped up in worry over every little assignment because I’ve started defining myself by something that hasn’t even happened yet, like somehow, my endeavors will be worth more just because I graduate with honors, when all God called me to was school. Now, while it’s not wrong to aim high, in fact, it’s good, but it is wrong to begin to worry that if I don’t reach that goal, I’m worth even less.

    It happens to so many people.

    But the great thing is that 2 Timothy 1:7 still rings true today, that we aren’t given a spirit of fear [or anxiety], but of love, power, and of a sound mind.

    There are far too many nights that I think that what I did wasn’t enough, where I don’t look back and realize that God has brought me so far in the last two years. I cannot let my life ride on what isn’t done right now. It’s important to do, but it’s not who I am.

    Between school, work, and all of the church stuff I do, it’s necessary that I do put stuff on hold to just rest and, sometimes, do nothing.

    It’s a fine balance, and some days, it’ll be off. It’s okay.

    We just can’t camp every day all day on just one side.

  45. Janeen

    This came on a day when I got up “late” at 3:30, made my husband’s breakfast and lunch for us both. I raced into work to so I can meet a word count for the day, so I can start work at 6:00 grading papers and lesson plans, and then the day, followed by an after school activity, home to race to fix dinner, laundry, and all the other necessities in life to worry that I didn’t get enough done in a day.

    Thanks Jon! At least I don’t feel alone in living like this right now.

  46. Sandra

    I rarely sleep a full night (7-8 hours) more than 2-3 times a week. Some times I dread bed time knowing the struggle ahead. The best sleep I’ve gotten in a long while was when our family was on a mission trip with our church to some small towns in MT last summer. I actually slept 8 full hours for five nights in a row. No technology, the fresh air, busy days, few life distractions and being able to focus my attention on primarily one task contributed to the much needed rest.

  47. Steph Seefeldt

    I get stuck in the impatience of long term goals taking SO long to succeed. I’m high-capacity fired -up (most days) for the currently important, and I manage to get a lot done in a brief span of time. But it’s staying the course for the disciplines that take longer (weight loss, to be specific) that wakes me up at 5:15. That’s my anxiety. It’s pretty pervasive.

  48. Kimberly

    As a 50-something year old, this is a topic that hits close to home. Every couple will definitely have an Ant and a Grasshopper. One is very industrious and the other seemingly happy go lucky. I must remind myself everyday that what makes God happy is what matters. So if I get my morning Bible reading of one chapter a day and my prayer journal writing done first thing, then it’s a good day. If I don’t get it done, the day is new tomorrow. Get relationships in line, nothing else matters.

  49. Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God!…” Is an imperative surrounded by the imagery of war and destruction. I also struggle with those issues about performance and will “it ever be enough?” This verse states succinctly what is a core value of God’s as it concerns us. We were created to be in relationship with Him. His desire is that we know Him and spend the time necessary to know Him and enjoy his presence. That is not done in busyness or in running to and fro. It is done in taking time to still the mind and enjoy the moment, allowing ourselves the gift of piercing through the veil of muck this world throws at us and seeing the blessings God has given us, waiting there to be noticed. I am not saying this isn’t done through enjoying work, or in doing hard things, or attaining difficult goals; as always what is driving you is what is most important to HIm. Love Him, do your best and sleep well. (Micah 6:8 rephrased)
    Thank you, I needed to remember this.
    Donya
    IMB Missionary, Brazil