My insomnia started as a child. Sleep was a negative necessity

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder affecting around one in three people. It prevents you from getting to sleep, or getting back to sleep once woken. Entrepreneur Paul Tanner tells us about his experience, and how he learned to change his sleep habits…

Paul Tanner is the co-founder of Freedom To Exist, a minimalist watch brand founded with his girlfriend Kirsty Whyte. They live together in west London.

Paul Tanner

My insomnia started as a child. For me, sleep was a negative necessity that I rebelled against. With hindsight, my parents probably wanted time together to decompress after a hard day’s work. But for me, bedtime became a challenge rather than a requirement; something to fight against.

I would arm myself with books, a torch – and later, as I got older, I wired up my television with a really long power cable so that I could cut the power should I hear the stairs creak (I was an 80s kid, pre-remote controls).

Some of my fondest memories of being a kid are reading books underneath my duvet; devouring Roald Dahl books one after another. I remember reading Matilda in one sitting, occasionally pulling the duvet back to allow for some much needed cold air, as my duvet over the head and torch setup was creating a makeshift sauna.

As I got older, I continued to do this. Even as my bedtime crept closer and closer to 10pm and beyond, I still found myself going to bed armed with books, headphones, magazines and flicking from channel to channel. I could go to bed tired and still be up until 4am and beyond, still listening to taxi drivers on talk radio give their thoughts on politics.

Even before important exams or teenage sporting events, I would still be wide awake in the early hours, then rummage around my bedroom for things to keep me occupied with the aim of them tiring me out, in the hope I would simply just wake in the morning. I would say I had mild, and perhaps self-imposed insomnia.

I can notice a difference on my efficiency and disposition on days where exercise has not been possible

I have heard of people who have it far worse (who interesting all seem to be highly creative people) and I had got myself into a negative routine that just became normal. The stress of “I am not asleep yet… I am still not asleep… no sleep here yet…” would make me anxious, which would in turn stop me sleeping, and round and round it would go.

It affected me, as I was constantly tired. And maybe, looking back on it, it made it difficult to fully focus on things while at school and later work – I wasn’t “present” when trying to sleep, and I probably wasn’t “present” during my waking life. Today I have to be careful with my phone, as it’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole of social media and news updates. I have always been a daydreamer, and it’s something I am trying to to amend as it can come across as rude.

A big change came when I joined when I was nearly 30. I have always worked in furniture and spent eight years at Habitat before joining Made when they first launched. As the company was in its infancy, I would spend roughly two weeks in the UK, then two weeks in Shanghai, then back back and forth. A process that continued for nearly a year before I decided to move to China.

This constant time-changing meant that I simply had to sleep. If I travelled from the UK to Asia on a 12-hour flight, landed and then went straight to the factory, I had to sleep on the plane.

I developed two techniques. I realised that trying just to shut down my overactive mind wouldn’t work, I had to give it something to do:

1. Imagine a cup of hot water, then mentally drop an ice cube into it, and visualise it melting. If it doesn’t work straight away then visualise more ice-cubes (a cocktail based version of counting sheep). I found that really focusing on the melting, and really visualising the icecube getting smaller and smaller and gradually become one with the liquid, really helped me with unwinding, relaxing and switching off.

Now I can sleep anywhere within a few minutes

2. Imagine a journey, but it’s important that it’s a journey without an end point – ie, don’t imagine walking from your home to your local supermarket, it’s important that it’s open-ended. I imagine heading from my flat and into central London and so far I haven’t made it more than a kilometre. The more often you do it, the easier it becomes, as your mind starts to realise it’s being calmed down.

Now I can sleep anywhere within a few minutes. Once I started getting proper sleep it became a virtuous circle as I would wake early the next morning, which would make sleep easier the next night. I also discovered I could have lucid dreams (I become aware I am dreaming and can control what happens, for that reason I have never had a nightmare. For some reason my default dream is a Goonies-style adventure with friends and acquaintances from various stages in my life).

From time to time I still have issues sleeping, normally from my mind over-thinking and playing out scenarios again and again. I have started using the Headspace app on my phone, it talks about a technique called “labelling” which has helped me a lot. Rather than thinking about a work presentation for the 50th time, it simply suggests you imagine a box with “work presentation” on it, and place the thought in there. I have found that by doing this – and by imagining boxes for other things in my life I am stressed by, the loop stops. The problem does not go away, it just pauses, and lets me come back to it when I am ready, rather than imposing itself on me.

My routine now is a lot better, I view sleep as a treat, and something I look forward to. Also, now being a fully grown adult with a long term girlfriend, going to bed with a torch, book and tv remote isn’t something I even consider. Although I do now have to wear an anti-snoring aid – it’s a plastic clip I place inside my nose that stops me snoring. I have also invested in a posh sleep mask, recommended by Tim Ferriss, that does make me look like a ninja-turtle, but really helps with blocking out light and sound. I also use this a lot when I travel on planes and long car journeys.

My morning routine now is one driven by exercise and I’m fortunate that my local gym has early morning classes. I do 7am classes at least four times a week, and days I don’t exercise I go for a morning swim. I feel as though it sets me up for the day and I can notice a difference on my efficiency and disposition on days where exercise has not been possible.

Kirsty and I run our own watch brand. The experience at made us want to do our own thing. A benefit of selling a small item is that we can ship worldwide, so often when I wake we have orders from Australia, Asia and America which I prepare. When doing your own thing, there are not enough hours in the day, so sleep becomes more important, and now I make sure I get the best quality sleep possible.

Have you experienced insomnia? What helped you to overcome it?