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How Living Without Clocks Helped Me Sleep Better At Night

Imagine going two days without ever knowing what time it is, that's what happens at California's Camp Grounded. Here's what it's like.

[Photo: Flickr user Phalinn Ooi]

I’ve tried nearly every trick imaginable to get more restful sleep. For a long time, nothing worked: not a regular bedtime, herbal supplements, turning computers off before bed, or even a weekend away from work.

Then I found unexpected bliss at a famous device-free "Summer camp for adults" retreat in Mendocino, California’s Redwood forest, where I enjoyed one of the best nights of sleep I can remember. Unlike other fun filled vacations, Camp Grounded employs an innovative trick that the founder, Levi Felix, learned from living with the Bedouins: no clocks. No time is kept or displayed anywhere. Instead, campers are told to show up for lunch "around midday." Or, say, A camp singalong may start in "about the length of a Simpsons episode."

At first, I didn’t think much of this unusual clockless feature. In fact, I found the lack of rigorous scheduling a tad irritating. But as the weekend went on, I felt awash with unusual calm—a calm I didn’t experience elsewhere. Something was different.

Indeed, after I left the loving embrace of a clockless existence, my fatigue returned. I tried in vain to replicate my bliss, but couldn’t even on weekends vacationing in other natural environments.

Here’s an explanation behind the science of what I experienced, Camp Grounded’s approach, and how I retested the experiment.

The Science Of Stress And Sleep

To investigate my pleasant discovery, I turned to science and every imaginable healthy quantification technology I could find.
The first and most obvious choice, sleep trackers, such as the Basis Watch, were a dead end. All the wearable trackers suggested I was getting a perfectly normal night’s sleep (about 50% light sleep, 25% REM and 25% deep sleep). Yet everyone morning I woke up wasted.

So I dove into the gold standard of sleep science, "polysomnography," in which a pleasant Israeli scientist from a health startup, Sleeprate, hooked me up to enough wires to recreate a Wolverine flashback scene.

The good doctor’s report revealed that stress was the culprit of my perpetual fatigue—a metric that consumer-grade devices ignore. "You should relax," Dr. Anda Baharav wrote to me.

Indeed, research suggests that activation of the body’s flight or fight response (the sympathetic system) at night interferes with deeper states of sleep. I asked the doctor if meditation and a hot cup of herbal tea before bed would help but was told that calming only before bed was too little too late; daytime stress lingers long after work.

I learned a key lesson: The body prepares for sleep all day long. If I wanted a good night's sleep, I had to change my behavior as soon as I awoke.

The odd thing was, I don't ordinarily feel stressed. Like many of my creative-class brethren, I’m a cheerful workaholic, happily working 10+ hours a day. I love my work and am totally cool responding to emails well after sunset.

Unfortunately, a range of measures suggested that my body was not so cool with my lifestyle choice.

Primarily, a saliva test from NeuroScience labs revealed that my levels of cortisol, a hormone responsible for activating the fight or flight response, were running on empty—it began low upon waking and was almost nonexistent by the afternoon, which explained why I needed a nap most days just to think straight past lunchtime.

I had become so accustomed to running on sympathetic fumes, I didn’t realize my constant need for coffee or an afternoon nap was a sign of deep distress.

"Stress related sleep problems are extremely common among professionals and tech workers," writes Dr. Robin Berzin, Founder of Parsley Health, a functional medicine startup helping me sort through all the data. "I believe it’s a combination of chronic stress, persistently elevated cortisol, and living in sympathetic overdrive," she concludes.

So what does Camp Grounded do differently?

Camp Grounded’s Fight Against FOMO

Access to the world’s information is both a blessing and a curse. We have instant access to all the most amazing experiences, yet are saddled with the nagging fact that a few more minutes on our smartphone will reveal an even better choice—all the time.

The constant anxiety of looking for something better has become so common that it has been adapted by pop culture into a delightfully efficient acronym, FOMO ("fear of missing out").

Camp Grounded spends a conspicuous amount of resources helping campers understand that the weekend is a "no-FOMO zone." During the daytime schedule of elective activities, event times and locations are only loosely signed. It's damn near impossible to plan the day more than an hour ahead.

The point is to learn how to be happy regardless of what else could be going on. Being present is a skill.

"Most of the people who come to camp grounded will have a moment when they realize that they are attached to this thing called time," Felix* tells me.

Often a frustration for some campers, "no clocks" was one of the first rules he established. Felix’s early customers were tech CEOs, some from household-name companies, who came from a industry culture where the "fear of missing out" has become especially toxic.

"What is problematic about the culture is that FOMO drives everything," he warns.

Even on vacation with my friends in tech, our deep knowledge of cutting edge Information technology just enables a hyper-awareness of opportunity cost: Checking Yelp for the best dish at a restaurant, looking at local Twitter trends to unearth the coolest activities, and constantly refreshing social media to see how many friends respond to our vacation photos.

Yes, we have a jam-packed experience with friends connected around the world. And, even if it’s super-fun, our cortisol levels are running high the entire weekend. Many of us are already tapped out, and vacation has become about the-next-best-thing instead of deep de-stressing.

So in theory, Camp Grounded’s anti-FOMO strategy should give my body the rest from stress it is desperately seeking. But does it actually?

Testing The Theory

Armed with a new hypothesis, like a good scientist, I wanted to see if I could replicate the results. So the next year, counter to Camp Grounded rules, I snuck in an unmarked wearable from an under-the-radar Kickstarter project that measured heart rate variability, a common metric of stress used in previous sleep research. It was the closest thing I could wear to measure stress during a weekend without gadgets. If any of my fellow campers asked, I’d say it was just a harmless bracelet—definitely not technology.

The first full day of camp, I vowed to do almost nothing stressful and was extra-cautious about my ever present FOMO. When in doubt, I’d just let serendipity determine my fun for the day.

In the early morning, I spied a hot meditation tent by the babbling lake. Drenched in glorious sweat, I let the sunshine dry my skin, while I lollygagged off to an open field where campers will doing some acro-yoga and playing soccer. It was a painfully unplanned day.

But I dozed off that night without dancing opportunity costs racing through my mind. When I woke up the next day, I was reunited with an old friend on our anniversary—restfulness.

When I returned to civilization, I had the startup engineers for my wearable determine whether I had experienced any unusual nights, deliberately concealing my hypothesis so as to not bias their interpretation of the data.

"Saturday May 23rd definitely seems unusual relative to other nights…I’d say you had less stress" wrote Abe Carter, founder of the Amiigo wearable.

Success! Camp Grounded’s no-clocks strategy worked.

To be sure, this isn’t a complete solution. Most of us obviously can’t ditch clocks during the workday. But, when I need a refresh, I now know I can get it at Camp Grounded or a similar situation. It’s also a super useful insight to explore further how to take stress out of my day.

If I want to fix my sleep, I need to start working at it as soon as I wake up.

*Since last year, Camp Grounded’s founder, Levi Felix, has developed an aggressive form of brain cancer. There has been a crowdfunding site set up to help him with ongoing costs here.

This article originally appeared on "The Ferenstein Wire" on Medium and is reprinted with permission.

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