How To Fall Asleep Quickly: A Pavlovian Tale

alone bed bedroom blur
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Last year I had a lot of trouble sleeping. At first I had trouble falling asleep. My doctor prescribed various medications, none of which worked well. After many, many months, I began to be able to fall asleep again, but struggled with something called “epic dreaming,” which I’d never heard of before until I read a great book on dreaming. There is no known treatment for epic dreaming, but those, too, eventually went away. For the last few months, I have been sleeping pretty well, but the most remarkable thing to me is that I have been falling asleep quickly. And I think I know why.

Back before our youngest daughter stopped napping, she and I would nap together after lunch every day. We did this for years. It was part of our daily routine and I looked forward to it. Indeed, when she grew out of napping, I continued to nap, and continue to do so today. One thing that I noticed about our naps was that I always–almost without fail–fell alseep quickly. Why was that?

The possible reason occurred to me what thought about how I described our naps to Kelly. I might say something like, “This was a one-song nap,” or “Well, it was a three-song nap today.” What I meant by “one-song” or “three-song” was how long it took us to fall asleep. You see, we had this playlist that we’d listen to when we went down for our nap. It was the same playlist every day, and I’d measure how quickly we fell asleep by how many songs I remember playing before I went out.

Once our youngest daughter stopped napping, I continued with the playlist for my naps. I found that over time, I seemed to fall asleep faster and faster. Today, it is not uncommon for me to fall asleep after just one-and-a-half songs. Sometimes, I fall asleep before the first song on the playlist is finished.

It worked so well, in fact, that when I went to sleep at night, I started listening to the playlist then, too. When I began doing that, I began falling asleep much faster than I usually did at night. It is usually not quite as fast as during the day, but at night, with the playlist playing, I usually fall asleep between 2-3 songs.

It seems that that playlist has had a kind of Pavlovian effect on my sleep. Hearing it, while laying down in bed, puts me out quickly. It is also remarkable how well it works. There are days when it doesn’t work, but they are few and far between.

I have a Siri shortcut I use when I nap. After laying down, I’ll say, “Hey Siri, let’s nap” which triggers Siri to do a number of things: put my phone into Do Not Disturb Mode, set an alarm for 5-minutes before the next meeting scheduled on my calendar (just in case), set the volume to a certain level, and start my napping playlist. I’ve created a modified version of this shortcut for when I go to bed at night. I call it my “Wind-down” shortcut.

These days, I am amazed at how quickly I fall asleep listening to the playlist. I don’t think it has anything to do with the songs on the playlist, as much as the habit and Pavolvian effect of it. Frequently, I’ll lay down for my nap, hear the first song, and wonder if I will be able to fall alseep with so much stuff on my mind. Often, I never even hear the end of that first song. It works for me, and I’m happy about that.

As I said, I don’t think it is the specific songs on the playlist that have a real effect, but rather the habit and repetition. Still, for those who might be curious, here are the songs that are on the playlist:

  • “Rey’s Theme” by John Williams
  • “Into the West” by Howard Shore & Annie Lennox
  • “On Your Shore” by Enya
  • “Exile” by Enya
  • “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel
  • “When the Angels Fall” by Sting

The entire playlist is 32 minutes long, which is about how long my nap usually lasts. (I generally wake up when the playlist has looped over back to the first song).

I suppose the one down side to this is that on the rare occasion that I happen to hear one of these songs come on in the middle of the day when I am busy with things, I suddenly feel unusually tired and sleepy.

Written on March 1, 2022.

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  1. I’ve been really lucky throughout my life in that (thus far!) I’ve never had any sustained difficulty sleeping. And I come from a long line of insomniacs, so it’s truly lucky. I do know that when something is worrying me, I will listen to podcasts when I go to sleep….focusing on the subject of the pod prevents me from ruminating on whatever might get to me. And when I check the next day, I’ve usually never made it past the first 10 minutes.

    1. My wife and 3 kids all fall asleep virtually instantly and I just don’t get it. They don’t have to use a playlist supplement to fall asleep. You people who fall asleep instantly like that ignite a rare jealously within me. 😉

  2. Beautiful playlist.
    I took it as a base to make a more extensive one that helps me to lower my anxiety when I work.
    Thank you very much.


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