"Death Spiral" is not the name of a goth metal band, but it should be.
Actually, I was introduced to the term "Death Spiral" by RPGs. In an RPG context, a Death Spiral is a rule that causes a character (or other entity) to become less effective as it approaches death. For characters, this has the effect of heightening tension and increasing drama. As the character becomes increasingly injured, he or she must struggle on despite the pain and handicap of wounds. Death Spirals - although for this to work they usually have to be accompanied by a mechanic for ignoring them at some cost - can often produce some awesome "from hell's heart I stab at thee" moments.
Of course, there are problems with Death Spirals. For one thing, the "circle round and beat the crap out of an increasingly crippled opponent" scene isn't much cooler than it sounds. A few games have done interesting things with inverted or otherwise altered Death Spirals that make opponents different or just plain nastier as they get more hurt, which is counter-intuitive, but usually a lot more fun, in that it produces rising action over the course of a battle, rather than falling action.
In the last few minutes, I've also learned that Death Spiral can also refer to some economics conditions, too.
But I digress. I'm here to talk about the Death Spiral in terms of sleep.
The Stress-Work-Sleep Death Spiral goes like this:
First, I am stressed. This is a general condition of my life. Then, I have work to do (also a general condition of my life). Because I am stressed, I am often doing the work at odd hours of the night. As it gets later, I get more tired, which reduces my efficiency and increases my stress. Which reduces my efficiency. Which causes it to become later. Which increases my weariness. Which reduces my efficiency.
And so on.
This is probably the worst thing about reality. Time, man, it totally blows. I would totally arrange things differently if it were up to me.
I think that recognizing the Stress-Work-Sleep Death Spiral (SWS Death Spiral, or SWSDS, for short) has helped me to avoid it, or at least mitigate it. The problem with totally preventing the SWS Death Spiral is that it acts upon the part of my brain that, well, acts. I may see it coming, but that doesn't mean I can do anything about it because it's the parts of me that manages time, makes decision, and works creatively that are slowed down, skewed sideways, and otherwise fucked up. However, there is something powerful about sitting in front of my computer at 12:45 AM and saying "damn, I know what this is - this is the Death Spiral" that helps. It opens the door to radical solutions, like "fuck it - I'm going to go to bed and set the alarm for 5:30 so I have time to do this before school" (a personal favorite). On a smaller scale, it sometimes helps spur me on to make more intelligent decisions about how to manage my time and reach the inevitable conclusion of the SWS Death Spiral - finishing my work and going, the fuck, to sleep.