It may be hard to believe when our lives seem so frenetic at times, but many of us are sleepwalking through our lives—passively going through the motions of life while not feeling awake and alive.
This kind of “life sleepwalking” is different, of course, from physical sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism), in which we get up and walk around while in a state of actual sleep. But both forms of sleepwalking are similar in the sense that we’re engaging in everyday activities but not really conscious of what we’re doing.
“If we’re honest, sleepwalking describes many of our lives. You look like you’re awake while you’re not; you walk around talking to people while you’re out cold. We get up, we talk, we do our jobs, and we go back to bed never having been fully awake. You’ll know this is happening to you if you look back on your day and can’t remember the conversations you’ve had, the things you experienced, and the beauty you saw.”
-Bob Goff, Dream Big
How to Tell If We’re Sleepwalking: 10 Signs
Though we may forget it sometimes, our lives are precious, and it would be great to be present for them as much as possible. How can we tell if we’re in the trap of sleepwalking through our lives? We’re at risk of sleepwalking when we:
- have trouble getting out of bed in the morning or getting going
- go through the motions at work and just get through our days
- lack clarity—when we don’t know (or avoid thinking about) who we are and what we want
- berate ourselves with negative self-talk that dulls our spirit
- numb ourselves with binge-watching shows, doom-scrolling social media, or excessive work and busyness but without tying our actions to larger goals
- avoid hard truths or uncomfortable feelings instead of dealing with them
- defer our dreams and postpone our happiness
- aren’t living in alignment with our purpose and core values
- complain about things in our life instead of doing things about them
- feel overwhelmed often
“Trust me, your soul has been waiting for you to wake up to your own existence for years.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, writer
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
How to Stop Sleepwalking through Our Lives
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to escape the trap of sleepwalking. For example, we can:
Be mindful of the trap of sleepwalking and look for examples of it in our lives so we can do something about it.
Recognize that many people struggle with sleepwalking. Note that there are shrewd social media companies with powerful technologies and algorithms whose business model involves getting us to become passive scrollers on their platforms—and in the process sleepwalkers in our lives.
Note that this trap of sleepwalking isn’t an identity. It’s something we can get trapped in but not something we need to let define us.
Ask ourselves if we want to change and improve our lives by escaping this trap.
Recognize that making changes in our lives is rarely easy and often requires focused effort and discipline to keep working at it over time—but that it does eventually get easier once we build momentum and that it’s well worth it.
Consider what it would feel like to be fully awake and alive, what it would be like to enjoy our lives and pursue our passions and hobbies.
Remember that we’re all going to die and that we don’t know when. Recognizing the preciousness of life can help us snap out of the sleepwalking trance. (See my article, “What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living.”)
Fill our lives with things that matter to us. This will vary by person and depend on what chapter of life we’re in. It could be spending meaningful time with our spouse, children, or friends. Working on that life dream. Building a new enterprise or product line. Getting that degree or certificate. Learning that language. Writing that book. Going to those dream places. We can’t sleepwalk our way there.
Limit our time on our devices, social media, and streaming sites, since they can be wildly addictive and time-consuming (and thus life-consuming). According to Zippia Research, the average American spends 5 hours and 24 minutes on their mobile device daily and checks their phone 96 times per day, on average (about once every ten minutes).
Be present in the moment we’re in without letting our mind race back to the past or ahead to the future. According to researchers, mindfulness can improve our mood and increase our positive emotions while decreasing our anxiety, emotional reactivity, and burnout. Also, it may have positive impacts on our brains, hearts, and immune systems.
Focus on taking more action in our life and work—and earlier—without as much deliberation and hesitation. This can help snap us out of the sleepwalking trance.
Form a small group of trusted friends or colleagues and meet periodically to provide each other support, a sounding board (e.g., people checking in with each other if there may be a problem with sleepwalking), and accountability for chosen commitments in a safe place of confidentiality, trust, and respect.
Build sanctuary and moments of silence into our lives to give us peaceful time alone to reflect on where we’re headed and how we’re feeling about things.
Journal about our life and work, including our thoughts, feelings, and challenges. This kind of journaling can help us see the patterns in our lives, including traps like sleepwalking.
Create and use an affirmation or mantra for avoiding the trap of sleepwalking (e.g., “I’m fully awake and alive, and I refuse to sleepwalk through my life”).
Quality of Life Assessment
Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.
Are There Versions of Sleepwalking that Can Be Good?
We should be careful not to take a concern about the dangers of sleepwalking too far. Avoiding the trap of sleepwalking through our lives doesn’t mean that we must become hyper-productive automatons who are always doing something. (That’s a whole other problem.)
There’s most definitely an important place for renewal and rest in our lives, for enjoying entertainment, for rest and relaxation, and even for boredom sometimes. Our lives don’t always have to be productive and serious. There are also chapters of challenge in our lives in which we’re thrown off course. That’s both natural and common.
The key is intention and proportion. Are we consciously choosing those things and savoring them, or have we abdicated control of our lives and become zombies going through the motions?
When we’re sleepwalking through our lives, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and the people and things we care about. We’re not being good stewards of our precious time, and we’re squandering the limited days we’re given to enjoy our lives, connect deeply with others, feel vital and alive, and make a positive difference in the lives of others. Much better to wake up and craft our life and work intentionally.
“This day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity. The sun will never shine as it does today…You must play your part and sing a song, one of your best.”
-Herman Hesse, German-Swiss poet
- To what extent are you falling into the trap of sleepwalking through your life, or certain parts of it?
- How is it affecting your quality of life and work performance?
- What will you do about it, starting today?
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
- “Are You Drifting through Your Life?”
- “Taking Stock of Your Quality of Life“
- “The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness”
- “The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life”
- “How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life“
- “The Complacency Trap”
- “How Inertia Keeps Us from Making Needed Changes”
- “The Conformity Trap”
- “Are You Feeling Empty Inside?”
- “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”
- “How to Be More Decisive in Your Life and Leadership”
- “The Trap of Losing Yourself”
- “What Keeps Us from Moving On?”
- “Are We Numbing Our Lives Away?”
- “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”
- “The Trap of Self-Doubt—And How to Overcome It”
- “Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire”
- “Do You Have Limiting Beliefs about Yourself?”
- “What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living“
“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.”
-William James, American philosopher and psychologist
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Trap of Sleepwalking
- “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
- “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -William Shakespeare
- “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger, social entrepreneur
- “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” -Henry David Thoreau
- “There is…only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist…The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham
- “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow; than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” -Jack London
“For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.”
-D.H. Lawrence, English writer
Bonus: Your Soundtrack for Stopping Sleepwalking
If you’re looking for some musical inspiration to help you stop sleepwalking through your life, check out these songs:
“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…. You may ask yourself, What is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself, Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself, Am I right, am I wrong? And you may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?”
-song lyrics excerpted from “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!