“A good night of sleep starts the moment you wake up in the morning.”
~ Shawn Stevenson | Author of “Sleep Smarter”
Feeling like a victim of circumstance when it comes to sleep? You shouldn’t have to feel so helpless, like it’s a game of luck but I think it starts with our warped beliefs about sleep.
“I only need 4 – 5h sleep” – like there’s something noble about functioning sleep-deprived
“I’m not a good sleeper” – like you’re born with the skill of sleeping
“I never get enough sleep” – like you have no control of the time you spend asleep
If you abide by the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” motto, you might just find that “statistically” you’ll be dead a lot sooner than you’d like. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with immune system failure, diabetes, cancer, obesity, depression, and memory loss just to name a few. No thanks!
We don’t measure our life just on how much time we stay awake, but on the richness of our experiences and the outcomes we help realise. So if you want to get more done, let me introduce you to the cheapest and the most natural “performance enhancing drug” on the market – sleep.
Here are 5 strategies to help you make the most of what you’re already doing:
1 – Lighten your evening meal
Why do we typically make our heaviest, most energy-dense meal in the evening? Wouldn’t that impact your sleep? Sure it would.
You’re putting more “logs on the fire” and starting up your metabolism. The later you leave your evening meal, the less likely your body will be able to burn through that extra energy and the more likely your body will store the unused energy as fat.
We’ll naturally come up with bunch of imaginative reasons why we have to keep the status quo.
This is the way I was raised…but there are lots of things you do differently to you parents. Why not this? Sure, there will be occasions when you eat later but make it your own rule to eat your dinner by 6pm vs 8pm.
I certainly don’t have time to cook in the middle of the day but is that really the problem. The issue is that we’re serving those big portions of heavy food late at night.
What instead if we served a small portion for dinner and immediately packed a bigger portion for lunch the next day? Wouldn’t that be a better option? There’s generally a microwave to heat up food at the office and we’d be more in control of our next day.
Sometimes I lie to myself that I need this massive evening meal because I ‘ve had a big day and need to reenergise. Sure, I might need to still eat in the evening but I doubt I need to eat as much as I pretend I do. This is more of a reaction from not eating better or adequately during the earlier part of the day. Eat a bigger breakfast or lunch and you’ll rely less on dinner to get those calories.
Action tip: Eat a light meal by 6pm so you’ve got 4 hour of awake time to use that energy and can portion off more for the next day’s healthy lunch. It’s better to put the fuel in the fire, before you need the energy, rather than trying to play catch up afterwards.
2 – Don’t go to bed thirsty
Woops, I definitely made this mistake last night. I woke up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth, thirsty but too comfortable to get up and get a glass of water.
By the time your body gets the message that you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Just like how it’s hard to perform at your best when you’re dehydrated (mainly because the brain is such a water & energy hog), it’s hard to sleep at your best when you’re dehydrated.
Saying that, that doesn’t mean to drink more coffee or more alcohol. Coffee stays in the blood stream for between 8 to 14 hours. Drinking coffee after 2pm when you want to sleep by 10pm isn’t a great idea.
Likewise drinking that glass of wine each night can help initially to make you feel sleepy but what good is more sleep if you’re not going sleep soundly. Alcohol can suppress the REM (most important part) of your sleep. If you’re going to drink a glass of wine over a light meal earlier in the evening, that’s less likely to be an issue compared to a few glasses within 2 hours of going to sleep.
Action tip: Note the colour of your pee early in the evening (in your head’s fine…writing that down is a little OCD 😉 If it’s a darker yellow and you realise you’re already a little dehydrated, have a couple of glasses of water so you’re ready for bed. Just as too little water can wake you up, so can needing to pee.
3 – Run or Exercise daily
Have you already noticed that you tend to sleep better when you’ve been out running or working out?
Firstly, you’ll be helping to better regulate your energy levels,chemicals and hormones through exercise that raises your heart rate. Even 20 minutes is absolutely cool. You don’t need to slam yourself everyday to get that benefit. When you work the heart out, you’re pushing more blood through the body and allowing your body to balance everything out. Ideally, we want to work out for at least 45 minutes 3 x a week on top of our 20 minute daily routine.
Secondly, if you can exercise outdoors, you’re exposing yourself to daylight. This is really important to provide those cues to the body of what time it is. What tends to happen, especially in Winter is we spend all the daylight hours inside. The light quality is not as good and worse, we tend to expose ourselves to too much of the wrong kind of light in the evening.
Thirdly, exercise is proven to reduce stress. Stress is often what keeps our bodies overly awake late at night. It’s easier to go to sleep when your body is naturally tired at the end of the day.
Instead of seeing a run as an activity that takes sleep time away, see it as an activity that gives you better quality sleep so you don’t need as much of it.
4 – Create a distraction-free zone
If you look at the “normal” kinds of activities so many of us do before bed, it’s pretty strange. We tend to watch TV or browse the internet on our smartphones. It’s not like we’re reading text books designed to put us asleep. We’re watching engaging entertainment that’s designed for heightening your senses, emotions and attention.
Even if you’re not watching exciting content, you might be reading on a device. Firstly, the light quality (blue light) prevents the sleep hormone melatonin from being secreted. Even if you’re using the iPhone’s nightwatch feature as you’re getting ready for bed, you’re keeping the window open for distraction.
It’s not just an alarm clock on your smartphone. It’s your whole life. Think that’s not full of distractions, you’re wrong. If you’re watching YouTube or Netflix, what happens after you’ve watched an exciting piece of content? It recommends other exciting content you might like. It offers endless distractions.
Ariana Huffington talks about having a device free bedroom. There’re no screens to get lost on. The bedroom is for sleeping. She even puts her phone outside her room so it’s not beeping at her or offering a convenient distraction in the middle of the night when she wants to sleep.
5 – Make a relaxation ritual
We tend to frame our day with how we slept the night before…
“I had a bad sleep, so I woke up tired, so I slept in, so I missed out on my run and had breakfast on the run, so I was hungry by 10am, so I had a coffee and biscuit to wake myself up, so I crashed after the sugar/caffeine wore off…etc
Rather I think the frame should start with how we set ourselves up for sleep the night before. You have control over this whether you invest 5 minutes or an hour. Sleep doesn’t need to be left to chance or circumstance.
It’s about creating the right environment for sleep. Think of enticing sleep like you might entice a cat. You’re never going to catch it by running after it. You’re scaring it off by lighting up screens and projecting loud noises. Create a safe, quiet, comfortable, dark place and the cat will quietly drawn in.
First thing to do is set aside some time for it. Try 10 minutes and do it every night, even when you’re really tired and think you can go to sleep instantly. You’ll be training your brain to get into the habit of sleeping after these consistent activities. Once you’ve got it, it’s like a program your brain knows how to play automatically. That means you’ll get to sleep faster and relax faster the more you practice.
This relaxation routine shouldn’t involve more energy in. It’s like dimming the lights. The activity should be calming and gradually bringing down energy levels. Reading a book, dimming the lights (literally), deep breathing, meditation, light stretching are all good elements of a routine. You’re looking for relaxation, not distraction.