Don’t count sheep


I never understood how counting sheep, which I envisioned as anonymous fluffy white things, could possibly help one get to sleep. After I devised my own “counting” system for getting to sleep, I saw how it worked––but I think my method works better for those of us who are not actual flock-owners. I’d bet the figure of speech referred to one’s own sheep; livestock owners and wranglers can tell one sheep (or cow, or goldfish, or goat) from the others, and often name them. So lying in bed mentally counting your own sheep, “Old one-horn, Bent-ear, Mamma, Groucho, Blackie…” would be just like my system. But if you lack a herd of animals to count, try this:

Choose some category you’re fairly knowledgeable about. Baseball players, dog breeds, varieties of roses, countries of the world, band names, English poets, herbs and spices, whatever. Now, start naming them one by one, by letter of the alphabet. I do dog breeds a lot: Akita, Border Collie, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Dachsund, English Mastiff….and I have never gotten past the letter “R” before falling asleep.

If you choose a “closed group,” like States of the US, you’ll have to count on your fingers to be sure you end up with the right number. I just use the fingers of one hand for the new additions, counting up to 5 and then starting again, and seem to be able to remember the total, as in “I’ll be adding these new ones to 15”. But you could use the fingers of the other hand (twice) to track finished groups of five. If I were to arrive at Wyoming and before reaching 50, then I would have to start over.

How does this work? Seems likely it is by making the mind concentrate its energies on something that has no emotion connected with it. If you just lie there and think, it is probably your thoughts that will interfere with sleep, because you’ll get into planning, worrying, anticipating, remembering, and that disturbs the gradual relaxation need for sleep.

I’ve been using this method for 20+ years, when I started planning in my mind which roses to buy and where to plant them. It can work despite some degree of physical pain or mental distress, but at some point these will defeat it. (When I said, “I have never gotten past the letter “R” before falling asleep,” I should have added that on those occasions when pain is so great that I can’t get into my concentration by about “M”, I get up out of bed. Often it helps to sit in the living room until I feel cold––getting warm in bed then relaxes me and I can sleep. Or, I read for a while and try again.) However, the technique is easy, free, portable and always available, and has no side effects or addictive potential.

When you’ve used this method for a while it becomes a soothing routine associated with sleep and that helps too.

For best results

Stack the deck in your favor by following the experts’ familiar advice: avoid exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, and excitement for several hours before sleep; keep your bedroom a comfortable temperature; don’t watch TV in bed; use a fan or other white-noise generator.

Before I start naming or counting I relax for a minute by simply making my body feel heavy, as if it is sinking deeper & deeper into the bed. I’ve tried progressive relaxation (make your toes feel relaxed and warm, then your ankles, etc.) but I cannot concentrate enough to keep out whatever thoughts or sensations are keeping me awake.

Online shopping:

Online shopping’s had many recognized or anticipated effects, from thinning profit margins to boosting sales of specialized items, but I’m enthusiastic about how it makes “word-of-mouth” consumer information possible again.

As an example, I was looking to buy a pair of really comfortable walking shoes. I cared about comfort, comfort, and––oh yes, sturdiness. Don’t want them to fall apart in six weeks of regular wear. I’m retired, I can wear any damn shoes I want. Fibromyalgia makes my feet hurt all the time, and most shoes aggravate it.

So I went online looking for Clarke’s walking shoes, which had been recommended highly to me about 20 years ago. Back then spending $100 on a pair of shoes was out of the question. Today it has moved up on my priority list, and if I find a pair I like, I only need one pair. My searching took me to the online shoe emporium Zappo’s. They had a bunch of styles of Clarke’s. They also had customer comments for each, dozens of them. By the time I had read through the comments for 2 styles, I was sure that Clarke’s were not for me. Once made in England––terrific; then made in Portugal––pretty good; now made in China––forget it. The Chinese-made Clarke’s were reported to be stiff, uncomfortable, not true to size, and not holding up well.

I browsed through other shoe makers’ offerings at Zappo’s, following pointers from people who said things like, “Brand XY didn’t fit my narrow heel, but Brand ZZ was perfect, ” or “This one looks comfortable but is too inflexible, not like the last three pairs I got, so I am switching to Brand A.” I arrived at Keen’s shoes and read all the comments for half a dozen styles that looked possible, made my choice, and am very happy with them.

Back when communities and stores and numbers of products were smaller, people could do this sort of thing by literal word of mouth. Not so easy now. And, many of the comments I read included very specific idiosyncratic reviews, depending on what was important to each person. One said, “Great shoe but the sole really clogs up with mud and tracks it in; okay for city wear.” I live in the country; this shoe would have been pure aggravation, though it looked good in other respects. Another said, “Really comfortable and sturdy and provides good footing, but the uppers aren’t shiny and I can’t stand that about them.” We all have our priorities.

I suppose companies will begin posting numerous false but very specific testimonials (and anti-testimonials for their competitors’ products) but until then, reading a few dozen reviews about a product seems like a good way to check out how it has worked for others.

Brands in themselves don’t necessarily mean much any more, since “branding” has become a PR effort similar in intent to Pavlov training his dogs. The food in the dish now may be made (poorly or poisonously) in China––but the bell of “brand identity” is still supposed to make us salivate. Customer reviews give us a way to get up-to-date reality checks from a variety of other folks.