For something that takes up about a third of our lives, it’s surprising that sleep is still rather mysterious. It’s not fully clear why we need it the way we need it. There are people who have died from lack of sleep. There are researchers trying to “hack” human biology so that some people–for example, soldiers–are able to function reasonably well for several days at a time without any. And others, including the current GOP presidential nominee, brag about how little sleep they require. Do you have one of those people in your workplace?
We all know what it feels like when we get a really good night of sleep. But it’s not always apparent what led to sleeping so well. Was it the right amount of hours? Going to bed at the right time? Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before going to sleep? Because you were able to sleep in?
Even if we don’t fully understand why we sleep, there are definitely some steps toward improving it.
For starters, four or five hours is probably too little. Ideal hours vary with age, and surely from person to person also. But even for older adults, who require less sleep than children, the bare minimum is probably about 6 hours. Four hours plus three cups of coffee is unlikely to allow for full rest overnight and good brain function during the day–even though it might feel like you’re doing OK. And we’re finding out that it’s actually dangerous to your health to think that you can “catch up” on sleep on the weekend or other days that you can sleep in.
The hours you sleep need to be deep sleep, as you’ve probably figured out. A huge hindrance to that in the age of smartphones is our screen time leading right into bedtime. The lighting of smartphones and other devices actually tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–making it harder to fall asleep and achieve restorative, REM sleep. Many people sleep with their phone right next to them, and any kind of sound or vibration doesn’t help either. Smartphones are the epitome of an always on, always connected society. That’s not a friendly condition for achieving good sleep.
Getting the hours on a regular schedule also seems to be especially important. It helps your body lock into a consistent rhythm of waking and sleeping. Alert when you’re usually up; asleep when you’re usually in bed. We need that usually to be as consistent as possible.
So how can you start to put these things together in a practical way?
Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. The rhythm and length are clearly important. As you start to get closer to regular going to sleep and waking up times, think about how your body is responding to the number of hours that you slept. Do you feel better with 7 than with 8? Does it seem like your body might need something more like 9 to be your best? Having regularity will give you a feel for how much sleep is right for you.
Have a ritual when you go to bed. Start working on shutting off phones and other tech a little while before you think you might climb into bed so that your brain can unwind from the screen activity and other stimuli. Make sure your bed is a haven of rest and relaxation: good pillows, regularly cleaned sheets and blankets, good room temperature, and all that. My wife and I have experimented a bit with essential oils and salt lamps, and things like that can definitely help you relax and sink into sleep. There’s an old rule for many that the bed is for sleeping and sex–nothing else. Maybe you need to give that rule a try.
In the morning, don’t hit the snooze button! Time and again, sleep research has shown that this significantly ruins your rest rather than adding to it. Maybe you need to establish a morning ritual too that gives you an enjoyable reason to get out of bed: a tall glass of cool water, making some coffee, climbing in the shower, going for a walk, meditation, whatever. Just don’t grab for your phone right away. It may be tempting, but it’s the wrong kind of engagement with the world when your brain isn’t even fully alert yet.
Are these things easy? Of course not. A night of too much drinking, 2am texts, or stressing about life can easily ruin the best sleep intentions. And going to bed with too few hours before your alarm is set to go off, or sleeping in late on a Saturday, can throw you way out of rhythm–even (or especially) if you had rhythm for several days beforehand.
But intention is an important place to start. This week, see if you can get your bedtimes and waking times to occur around the same hour or two each day. Maybe one night you go sleep at 10:30pm, and the next, 12:15am. Then you can work on narrowing it to something like between 11pm-12am every night. That’s better than 10pm some nights and 3am others.
I’ve found that I feel pretty great with about 7 hours of sleep–around 11pm to 6am. Give me a nice cup of coffee at 7:30ish when I’ve been up for a bit, and I feel ready to tackle most anything the day can throw at me.
Because even if we don’t fully understand sleep yet, you’re going to spend a third of your life doing it and the other two-thirds either buoyant or in agony based on how you spent the sleeping third. You might as well try to get some good sleep. You deserve it.