We all know how important sleep is.
Consistently getting bad sleep can lead to depression, memory loss, immune deficiency, obesity and heart disease. It also leads to what doctors call “being a grumpy goose,” which is to say, it worsens your relationships and productivity.
So why don’t we make it a priority? Maybe it’s because we think of it as spoiling ourselves.
But in fact, sleeping better is self-improvement – at least as important as hitting the gym.
But knowing all that doesn’t always help as we toss and turn all night, anxieties rocketing through our mind. It’s not even like this sort of late-night ruminating is very helpful. You’re usually not thinking clearly. You’re thinking about that dumb thing you said in 10th grade to that one person you had a crush on and where are they now I wonder if they’re with someone more successful than me I need to ask for a raise but I can’t ask for a raise because what if they let me go oh gosh I should’ve been a lawyer even though I hate everything about being a lawyer oh damn I only have four more hours to fall asleep...
So how do we get consistently great sleep?
If you’ve ever raised a dog you know how much they need a routine to be happy. They need to know when they’re eating, sleeping and walking and if something’s out of the ordinary they’re going to stare at you with wild indignation.
If your body is used to sleeping at a certain time, this means biochemically and subconsciously you’ll be getting ready for it. The first thing this means is setting a sleep schedule and prioritizing it.
If you need to sleep by midnight, you should get ready for bed at 11 and only break this rule if you absolutely need to.
Creating a sleep routine is about more than just lying in bed, though. It means actively calming your mind down. Something as simple as a white noise machine can be really helpful, especially if you have noisy neighbors. Your mind will associate that sound with sleep and the sound alone will help you relax. An evening walk or yoga session can help relax the muscles and the mind.
You probably know this, but at all costs, avoid screens. Seriously.
Your phone has become an addiction by giving you bursts of dopamine. Now, we all think that’s pretty great, but it won’t help you sleep.
Even watching a mellow documentary or TV show in your bedroom has been shown to lead to worse sleep. If you can, keep all screens out of the bedroom.
If you must look at your phone or laptop, make sure your device is set to sleep mode. Most devices can do this and it filters out blue light from your monitor. Blue light makes the mind think it’s daytime and it prevents the body from producing melatonin.
Similarly, sleep studies find that using your bedroom exclusively for sleeping will help your mind associate it with the right things. Don’t work in bed during the day and don’t watch TV in your bedroom. If you’re not sleeping, don’t be in the bedroom. As for the bed itself, it’s worthwhile to invest in a solid mattress. If you can, keep your room a little colder than usual, too.
Have you read our blog on meditation? If not, it’s a great primer to learning how to relax your mind. Learning how to meditate is a valuable life skill. You’ll be glad you know how, even if you don’t do it regularly.
A basic form of meditation is to focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your nose, slowly, hold your breath for a few counts, then slowly exhale through your mouth.
Keep concentrating on your breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. Alternatively, try relaxing all your muscles sequentially from your toes to your face. Guided meditations or apps like Headspace can also help, but there are other ways to relax your mind too.
Reading before bed is common for a reason. There’s a sweet spot for a book that’s not too exciting to keep you awake but not so boring you reach for your phone. An audiobook or podcast can work wonders too. Alternatively, try keeping a pen and paper near your bed. If you find your mind racing, jot down everything that comes to your mind. You’ll usually find thoughts are easier to deal with when they’re laid out on paper.
If you really can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed fuming. Get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing like reading, meditating or stretching for a half hour. You’ll be less frustrated than if you just tossed and turned. Just stay away from your phone.
We’re just going to assume you know that exercise is good for you, but seriously, this will help you sleep more than anything else. It relaxes the body and mind. Just make sure you stretch to avoid lactic acid buildup. Try doing yoga before bed – there are gentle, anaerobic sleep-specific yoga classes that are meant to relax your system.
Avoid caffeine, especially in the afternoon. Caffeine can stay in your body for 12 hours! Also, avoid alcohol. A drink or two is probably okay but binge drinking in any capacity will wreck your sleep pattern. Drinking like this disrupts your neurochemical and hormonal balance, and because alcohol takes a few hours to metabolize, your body is still processing it late into the night. This is why you often wake up at dawn after drinking too much, exacerbating the hangover.
The same goes with heavy meals. They can reduce the quality of your sleep by messing with your digestion. If you’re a late night snacker, avoid sugary foods. Go with high protein, high fat foods like cheese, nuts, yogurt and peanut butter.
You might simply need to go to a sleep doctor if you’re really not making any headway towards a better sleep. There are major alterations to your diet or sleep schedule that really work for some people. With a doctor, you can fast to reset your biological clock and help get your circadian rhythm back on track.
That said, we wouldn’t recommend majorly atypical sleep schedules like polyphasic sleep. In those schedules, you nap in regular increments instead of one block of sleep. There’s no scientific evidence that this is beneficial to you and in fact, it very easily veers into sleep deprivation.
The first step to sleeping better is deciding to make it important to you. You’ll find that you’re more productive during the day if you’ve had enough sleep. The extra hours you get from sleeping less don’t count if you’re miserable during them. And because we so easily fall into bad habits, taking a critical look at your routine is always a good idea. Good luck!