Imagine for a moment, that it’s approaching midnight. You have an early appointment in the morning. You went to bed an hour ago and you have been alternately staring wide-eyed at the ceiling and tossing and turning and your mind just won’t. Shut. up. You count backwards from 100. You count your breaths. You do everything you can think of and the longer you stay awake and the more you try and relax, the more stressed you feel about that appointment and your inability to get to sleep.
Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. In our house we call it Monday Night Syndrome because for many years my husband left for the airport at 4:15 every Tuesday morning to fly up to Fort McMurray to teach at the college there for the day. It was a long, packed day of teaching and while both of our kids were under 2 and I was in school it was our house’s biggest and most reliable source of income. If he missed that flight we were hung. So, nobody slept on Monday nights and we both tackled the longest day of our weeks on minimal sleep.
But who cares? Because as far as I can see no one gets good sleep, or almost no one. When I’m doing initial consultations with new perspective training clients, I always ask about sleep quantity and quality, and almost invariably I am regaled with stories about how tired they feel and how they are hopeful that getting a workout in first thing in the morning (effectively cutting out one more hour of sleep) will help with their saggy energy levels. Adulting is bullshit sometimes.
We’ve all heard that to have optimal health and productivity and shiny happiness we need about eight hours of sleep on an average night. Right? Some people do just fine on seven, some people feel like rusty buckets of bumholes unless they get nine, but for most people most of the time the magic number is about eight. I talk to lots of people who claim that they don’t need more than five or six hours’ sleep but they are lying. They are not functioning as well as they could during the week, their immune systems crumble at the first lick of a doorknob (handy tip: don’t lick doorknobs) and they fall asleep on Friday night at 10pm and wake up at noon on Saturday feeling terrible. Less than seven hours’ sleep at night is a losing proposition over the long term.
So, since we all have 24 hours in the day and not one minute more, and since we usually have to be functional human beings whether or not we got decent sleep the night before, let’s talk about ways that we can get a few more winks without compromising our productivity or having to bring an air mattress to work so that we can reinstate afternoon nap time like a bunch of kindergarten kids (although the widespread institution of mandatory nap time is not a bad idea at all).
- Set a reverse alarm. This is the single habit that has made a huge difference to me over the last year or so. A reverse alarm is an alarm that tells you when it’s time to get ready for bed. I get up at 4:05am just about every day so if I’m going to set myself up to survive the week it’s important that I get to bed around the same time as your average seven-year-old. I tend to act like a seven-year-old too, when that reverse alarm goes off and my phone starts pinging out lullabies at me at 8:30pm, telling me that it’s almost bedtime and it’s time to get ready. I grumble and swear and hop up and down and…then I get ready for bed. Which leads me to number 2:
- Getting ready for bed should look basically the same every night. Okay, I know I’m starting to sound like I’m writing a how-to for getting your kid to bed, but seriously – the same shit works for the grups too. If we can manage to set our egos aside and just embrace the fact that yeah, we are petulant and miserable people if we are too sleep deprived, we’re better off. So suck it up and stick to your bedtime routine.
- Take a 10-minute dump. And what I mean by that is, get a notebook and a pen (NOT a tablet or laptop or phone or anything with a screen – we’ll get to that in a minute), set a timer for 10 minutes, and write down whatever’s in your head. Grocery lists, to-do’s for tomorrow, meal plans, whatever irritated you today that you’re still stewing about, a story about Bruno the Hairless Bear – anything that’s rattling around in your little melons and likely to keep you awake. And then, before you put that notebook away, write down what went well today: maybe you totally nailed everything and feel awesome, maybe you just barely made it through the day without throat-punching anyone. Something good happened or you wouldn’t be at home getting ready for bed.
- Exercise. Exercise. Get some exercise every day. Not right before bed. But take time out of every single day to move your meat sack around. I promise it’ll pay off. PROMISE. Enough said about that. Next?
- Don’t eat right before bed – in fact, stop eating at least two hours before you want to go to sleep. A few years back Oprah spouted some nonsense about never eating after 7pm and that little gem just won’t go away no matter how much people with some form of nutrition education hop up and down and scream about it…because there is a grain (and only a grain) of truth to it. Imagine the last time you went out for nachos and beer late at night. Did you go home tired, fall into bed, and then spend the night dancing the hula with giant pink polkadot slugs playing ukeleles until you slip in one of the slime trails and fall off a cliff for miles, falling, falling, falling until you get swallowed by a whale and end up floating through outer space on the back of a unicorn? You don’t remember that dream? Anyway. Eating right before bed doesn’t really make for a good night’s rest, and it’s not awesome for your physique goals either. Eat lightly late in the day; you don’t need much fuel in you to sleep. As David Goggins, my absolute favorite Navy SEAL** said once, “Go to bed hungry, wake up hungry.”
- Now comes the tough part. This is the one that most people won’t do because it’s stinking hard, but it’s a game changer, so I propose that we all do it together. For the first 30 days – after that, you’re on your own to be an adult as you see fit. Okay, are you ready? Deep breaths.
Turn off your screens ONE HOUR before you go to bed.
Why? Because the blue light that is emitted from those little devices that we are so attached to interferes with our brains’ ability to produce melatonin – the hormone that prompts our bodies to close up shop for the evening. When you stare into your tiny little screens until you’re cross-eyed with fatigue you’re setting yourself up to fail at sleep. That’s no fun.
So here’s what I want the last part of your day to look like: two hours before bed, no more eating. Trust me, you don’t need it. One hour before bed, plug in your phones and tablets and pingy things – extra points if you put it on ‘do not disturb’ from here on in. (You can allow calls from certain numbers so that if your grandmother’s cat gets stuck in a tree you are as accessible as you want to be – emergencies happen after all). 30min before bed, your reverse alarm goes off to tell you that it’s time to start your bedtime stuff – I don’t need to tell you what that should be, right? Right. Once you’re scrubbed and brushed and clean, get horizontal and do your brain dump/daily wins. All done? Turn off the lights and have a good sleep.
**Enough of you asked so…I follow quite a few military and ex-military types; I really find the whole fuck-you-and-your-feelings mindset refreshing and entertaining, but also motivating. It’s a good foil for my usual soft-touch take-care-of-everybody approach to coaching but unfortunately for me I also tend toward laziness and having their barky uncompromising voices in my head keeps me going sometimes. Go GET IT!