Fantastic sleep, and how to get it


My friends and colleagues know me as an energetic, self-starting, go-getter: a productivity powerhouse. Behind the scenes, I struggled with sleep. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin. Throughout my struggles, I gathered many helpful tips that I want to share here.

This is the longest blog post I have ever written. It took me two years, a dozen rewrites, and quite some anxiety. The more people I spoke to, the more I realized that I was not alone. This convinced me to finish and publish this text.

While you read this, remember that everyone is different. Not everything may apply to you, and please consult a professional sooner rather than later.

TL;DR

Keep anxiety to a minimum by not over-complicating sleep rituals. Establish a maximum of 3 three habits. Consider the following three: no stimulants, restrict sleep, and establish a wind-down ritual.

Introduction

Not getting enough sleep had a negative effect on my mood, concentration, and productivity. Some health effects were immediately apparent. Others emerged over time, and it may not be possible to revert some health issues caused by inadequate sleep.

Then again, sleep is overrated. It doesn’t matter how well you sleep: it matters how well you feel and function during the day. So when I said that my sleep sucks, I forced myself to think about what sucks. Is it just sleeping, or does it limit my daily life in work, study, and social interactions? Sleep poorly but still function well? Then maybe that is good enough.

My concern about sleep was big enough to consult a doctor and ask for a sleep study. I did two of them, and both were no fun. I slept with various devices around my body and wires taped to my scalp. I looked like the cyborg that I never wanted to be. The doctors promised that the sleep studies could reveal serious illnesses like sleep apnea. Or, like in my case, exclude a physical ailment. Hooray!

Basic hygiene factors

I adhere to the general rules for sleep hygiene. They state that the bedroom is only used for sleep and intimacy. Only lay in bed if you genuinely want to fall asleep. And the same goes for the couch (no loopholes). The bedroom should be cool, dark, quiet, and fitted with a good bed. Check, check, check and… check.

Many hygiene factors were within my control. IKEA sells great light-blocking curtains. As I am not big on fashion, this worked for me. And a good mattress is always less expensive than bad health. Not drinking anything two hours before bed is free; it will even save some money.

It gets more complicated when kids or loud neighbors are in the picture. I lived above a supermarket with delivery trucks under my bedroom window early in the morning. Drastic situations may call for drastic measures, so I moved house. I am not advocating selling off the kids but doing what’s reasonably possible to create an environment where you can sleep well.

Good sleep hygiene can only do so much. It creates circumstances in which great sleep has the potential to happen. People without sleep problems will sleep well anywhere. And that is the ultimate goal: getting to the point where sleep hygiene factors are no longer critical.

Sleep medication

After my first sleep study, the hospital referred me to a sleep coach. She told me: “We try to sleep without medication.” I thought: “Totally agree, but how?!” Getting off the sleeping pills was one of the better decisions in my journey.

Sleeping pills, or similar substances like antidepressants, have a sedating effect. This effect differs from actual sleep. They may help with being unconscious but cause drowsiness the following day, which results in poor sleep the next night. So the cycle continues.

Starting with pills was easy, but I should have thought more about how I got off them. Otherwise, I would be on them for the rest of my life. Before I ever take pills again, I would rather exhaust all other options. I would interrogate my doctor about side effects and withdrawal symptoms. Sleep medication is needed because you’re not thinking clearly in the first place. Therefore I would consult my wife so we can make a joint decision.

Nowadays, I sometimes resort to Ibuprofen. I find that it relaxes the muscles, and it doesn’t seem to affect my intestines too much.

Alcohol, drugs, and other stimulants

The whole point is to get (and keep) the body in a natural rhythm. Stimulants like caffeine do the exact opposite. I don’t drink coffee and don’t care too much for tea. I do drink alcohol, but very limited. The discipline it takes to force my body into a few healthy habits will be easier to muster when sober.

Sleep restriction

The most contradicting tip I got was to restrict sleep: determine how much sleep is needed, plan a block and stick to it. To illustrate, I need 7:30 hours of sleep per night. That means I go to bed at 23:00 and get up at 7:00. This is a fixed rhythm. When waking up, I immediately get out of bed and am active. And no napping during the day.

A strict sleep schedule takes a few months to become a habit, and then sleep improves drastically. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Sleeping longer on the weekend is called Social Jet Lag. It sounds glamorous, but it’s not a good thing. It means we sleep too little during the week and try to catch up on the weekend. The solution is evident: sleep more during the week and no snoozing on Saturday and Sunday. I keep the same sleep rhythm on the weekends as I have during the week.

Exceptions to the sleep restriction rules

When it’s early in the day and I feel really sleepy, it might be good to nap. A short power nap is better than being a zombie the rest of the day. I make sure that the nap is light and short, and I really wake up afterward. This might require a shower or a short run.

I might ignore the get-out-of-bed-on-time rule when I had a bad night’s sleep. I would rather sleep an extra hour to be fit for the day. This is OK, as long as it is an actual exception. 

Sleep at night, if possible 

Sunlight helps keep your daily rhythm. I have an office day job, and there should be no reason for me to work late in the evenings, let alone at night. So if I sleep, then not during the day but at night. The same goes for traveling. Instead of being at an airport at 5:00 in the morning, I take a more expensive flight at 11:00.

Staying active during the day and evening

Every Ying has it’s Yang. And activity is the counterpart of sleep. During the day, I keep myself busy without exhausting or overstraining myself. I go for a walk instead of a run, and I visit a quiet supermarket instead of a busy one. The goal here is to keep a sustainable pace.

Working out is good, but perhaps not the day’s first activity. Chances are that I am full of energy and go all out. Then later in the day, I have no power left. On the other hand, evening walks work great. A 30 minutes brisk walk at 9 pm helps me sleep through the night.

Watching a little television is OK, but binge-watching Netflix is not a good idea since I get so much rest that I don’t need to sleep anymore. My sleep will be poor, and I will feel tired the next day, which makes me sit on the couch and watch Netflix.

In the category it’s-not-stupid-if-it-works I present: eating an ice cube. It has zero calories and wakes me up instantly.

Wind-down ritual

The internet says that blue screens at night are bad. I have no experience with this since I have a strict no-computers-in-the-evening rule. This rule is part of my wind-down ritual. Every single night we do the same thing. That’s the point: repetition until your brain expects it. I know it sounds super dull. But it helps me sleep well, and I wake up refreshed. 

This is our ritual: 

  • 22:00 turn off some lights, and my wife makes us a drink. She likes cognac, and I drink a few sips of water.
  • 22:30 turn off half the lights and watch a sitcom. We prefer foolish but funny stuff like The Nanny, Married with Children, or Friends.
  • 22:55 go upstairs to brush our teeth and put on our PJs
  • 23:00 in bed

Needing to pee in the middle of the night is obviously not helpful. It can be worse: the feeling you need to pee and not go. So the wind-down ritual restricts fluids in the evening.

Waking up at night or too early in the morning

The general advice is to not lay in bed awake. When awake, get out of bed and try again in an hour. I found that this is good advice when the sleep problems are severe. When they get milder, it works better to train myself.

It’s 4 am, and I’m tossing and turning. I’m awake, and I am aware that I’m awake. Oh oh… Nowadays, my only response is: “I hear you, everything is OK, now lay still, take a few deep breaths and sleep a little longer.” I tell this to myself every time I would wake up. No matter the time of night. With this exercise, I train my body and brain to stay asleep for as long as possible.

Waking up too early is either caused by too much stress or too little activity during the previous day. The first part of the night is usually not a problem. The second part is when we mull over stuff that happened. The more peaceful my day is, the better I sleep. 

Reducing stress

I can’t sleep if there is unfinished business elsewhere. Lingering thoughts haunt me. So I make sure that everything I need to do is either done or written down, so I don’t have to worry about it. This ensures that I am ON when I’m supposed to be ON. And I can be entirely OFF when I am supposed to be OFF. 

Even when all business is taken care of, fleeting thoughts will pop up. Some people propose to write down these thoughts in a physical notepad and then go back to sleep. This does not work for me. I want to teach myself not to have randomly interrupting thoughts in the first place. For me, it works best to ignore them. Not rudely cast them aside, neither feed them a five-course meal. When I write down the thought, I give it attention which makes the thought bigger. I am feeding the dragon. And I am teaching other dragons that popping up is OK. I don’t want to reward unwanted behavior.

Some thoughts might seem important. Maybe I found a solution to the problem I am studying. Should I dismiss this too? My answer is: yes because sleep is always even more important. I am confident that I will have the thought again. And if I don’t, then that’s a loss I am willing to accept.

Reducing stress and having clear boundaries between ON and OFF also reduces my night terrors, anxiety dreams, and tossing and turning due to general excitement. As I grow older, I am more aware of the day-night cycle and the effect that one has on the other.

Relation with work

Interruptions in the form of random thoughts are not my only interruptions. This is where we need to discuss mobile phones. I turn off all push notifications. And better still, I have only the minimum work-related apps on my phone. When I am OFF, I just won’t be confronted with work. There were times that I buried all work-related apps in one separate stack. I even considered getting a secondary work phone.

Sleep anxiety and high-tech gadgets

The average adult wakes up two to four times per night. So… maybe waking up is totally fine? Oof… maybe I’m almost normal! This realization taught me that I probably sleep better than I assumed. And my key learning was that worrying about sleep makes sleep worse.

To reduce sleep anxiety, I found it helpful to track my sleep. Although it is challenging to quantify sleep, there are methods and tools to make quantification somewhat possible.

I explicitly do not use a journal. I found any manual activity related to sleep enhances sleep anxiety. For this reason, I rely on automation. I feel strongly that any method or device should be entirely non-invasive. I should not have to set anything before going to bed. It should just work. I’m not thinking about sleep; I do it. I use the Withings sleep tracker. But there are other products like the Oura ring.

I have no idea how accurate these products are. But if they are consistent, they should show reliable-ish trends over time. Over months, they show averages of when I go to bed and get out of bed. Any tracker will give some sleep score. I reflect on the previous day and adjust when this score is low. On some days, cause-and-effect is more apparent than others. It becomes even more difficult if effects are delayed over days.

A hassle-free tracker has the added benefit that I can leave my phone out of the bedroom. This stops me from fiddling with my phone while I should be sleeping. My time-to-sleep and time-to-get-up are shorter because of it.

Sleeping well is a team sport

As couples do, my wife and I sleep together in the same bed. We found it crucial to work on sleep together. It’s like eating healthy or quitting smoking. It is doable alone but easier when the whole family joins in.

I have to admit that my wife and I are quite anti-social at night. Cuddling is totally great, but not in the middle of the night. Please, let each other sleep! If we are both awake, it is tempting to interact and chit-chat a bit. Our advice is simple: don’t. Any interaction will wake you up more. If you ever wanted to ignore your partner, this is the moment.

Conclusion

It can be challenging for a pro-active (read: hyper-active) person like me to turn OFF. My racing, worrying mind does not stop at night. This was not an issue when I was younger, but as I age, I have to be more mindful of my body and habits. If you read so far and are worried about me, rest assured. Getting my sleep back on track was a struggle, but these tips made a huge difference for me. I hope they also work for you.

Good night and sweet dreams!

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