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How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

This post is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Read full disclaimer.


As a natural night owl – who also had insomnia for 3 decades – I thought it was impossible for me to feel good upon waking any time before 10 a.m. But I was wrong.

I also thought it was impossible to fall asleep quickly. Now I typically am out in 5 to 15 minutes.

I share this not because I did anything special to cure my insomnia but rather because I followed all the typical advice about 10 years ago and much to my chagrin it totally worked.

Here’s your invitation to revisit the basics, cultivate a new evening downshifting habit, and to finally figure out how much sleep you personally need. (And then start getting it regularly.)


Daytime and Early Evening Activities

“Morning begins at night” is something one of my mindfulness teachers says. Similarly, a good night’s sleep starts with what you do earlier in the day. You know the drill:

  • Get some physical activity.
  • Know your caffeine cutoff time and stick to it. It might be earlier than you think (2 p.m. for some!).
  • Limit or forgo alcohol consumption in the evening.
  • Have dinner 3-4 hours before going to bed so you’ve got time to digest. If you need a snack, try a banana with nut butter, some oatmeal (not too much sugar though), or some nuts or trail mix.

Which of the above do you need to revisit?


Downshift Your Evening Routine

1. Ditch the Screen Time

Yes, seriously, put the phone or laptop away. Turn the TV off. Bonus points if you banish your phone, computer, and TV from your bedroom entirely (or symbolically put them away for the night if your desk is in your bedroom).

If you resist or are unwilling to do so, I gently ask you to explore why. A few common reasons include:

  • It is a habit and habits aren’t easy to break. I feel you. Bit by bit though, you can replace any habit with a new one. You can create your new evening downshifting routine to cease use of electronics by 30 minutes to an hour before bed. Once you have a regular lights-out time, it may be easier to have a cutoff time.
  • You’ve let part of your identity be tied to electronics use late at night. For example, you’re a hard worker getting it done, you’ve got a “sleep when you’re dead” mindset, it’s badge of honor to not need sleep, etc. I feel you. Culturally we’ve let being well-rested become a luxury or a sign of not hustling enough. I’ll invite you to gently ponder what it would be like to incorporate being well-rested into your identity. What would it take to be someone who prioritizes sleep as part of their identity?
  • You’re using electronics to numb out at the end of the day. I feel you. You’re stressed, possibly anxious or depressed and electronics offer a soothing escape from having to manage uncomfortable things head on. In this case, consider picking up a book – the old-fashioned kind made of paper – or use your e-reader that doesn’t emit blue light. You might also dabble with a journaling practice to empty your brain as a part of winding down.

2. Establish Your New Nightly Ritual

If you are a parent, you know that a nighttime routine is incredibly helpful for getting your kiddos to bed. Truth is, nighttime routines are great for adults, too.

Aim for 30 minutes to 1 hour for your wind down ritual. It can start by including something more active like a walk around your block with your dog or some intuitive stretching. Maybe some sexy-fun-times if you’re lucky. Perhaps you do some preparations for the next day like laying out your clothes or packing a lunch. Then you might do some Sudoku or attempt an origami figure or read for a bit. A ritual beverage is a nice thing to include, like a cup of chamomile tea, tart cherry juice, or other drink you’ll choose only to have during your wind down. And of course, putting on jammies, brushing your teeth, slathering on eye cream, etc., are all part of your wind down ritual.

Experiment until you find a routine that helps you transition out of your day and into a calmer, restful state.

If you find that you are remembering things that need to get done or are having ideas during your wind down time, write them down and put them where you’ll see them the next day.


Do an Infrastructure Audit

Check in on your sleeping environment and see if there is anything that needs to change. Again, you know the drill:

  • Sleep in a dark room. Audit your space for all light sources (even the tiny ones) and see what you can do to abate it. Maybe try an eye mask.
  • Sleep in a cool room. Around 65F seems to be a winning temperature for most bodies.
  • Sleep on the right mattress for you. If you haven’t found it yet through trial and error, do some actual sleuthing on the internet and go about finding it in an intentional way.
  • Sleep on the right pillow for you. Don’t be afraid to try the expensive ones – they usually have a money back guarantee if they aren’t right for you.
  • Are your sheets and jammies comfy?
  • Anything else… Perhaps a white noise or nature sounds machine? Humidifier? Aromatherapy diffuser? Earplugs?

Which of the above do you need to revisit?


How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Every body is different. For healthy adults, you’ll hear anywhere from 7 to 9 hours as the recommended amount. But those figures are population-level guidelines, meaning your actual needs are unique to you.

If you feel amazing each morning when you wake up, and frequently wake right before your alarm, you are probably getting the right amount of sleep for your needs.

If you think it is a fantasy to wake before your alarm or to feel good when you get up, then you probably aren’t sleeping enough.


Experimenting With Sleep Duration

Full disclosure: This will probably take you 4 to 8 weeks to really dial in. If there were a quick fix for sleeping better, then you’d have already found it.

First, a little terminology.

  • Lights-out time = the time you are going to try to go to sleep. Lights off, eyes closed, ready for slumber.
  • Bedtime = the time you get into bed. Since you may be reading, journaling, or doing sexy-fun-times in bed, it could be earlier than your lights-out time. Some people find that it helps to not to get into bed until they are ready for lights out.
  • Alarm time = when your alarm goes off. Should be the same time, including weekends. (Yes, really.)
  • Wake time = when you notice you are waking up. When you are sleeping well consistently, it is common to wake naturally just before your alarm. (Yes, really.)

1. Choose Your Alarm Time

Choose your alarm time and commit to getting up when it goes off, regardless of how tired you are or what day of the week it is (yep, weekends, too). If you’re accustomed to hitting snooze, decide whether you want your alarm to go off at the last possible time that would get you ready for your day or if you want to establish an earlier time. In other words, decide what time you truly want to get up each day.

2. Lights-Out Time

Chances are, you currently don’t try to fall asleep at the same time each night. Rather it depends on the night and what you are doing. If that’s true for you, start your sleep experiment by subtracting 7 hours from your alarm time and set that as your lights-out time.

If you do have a usual lights-out time and aren’t feeling rested when you wake, then bump it 15 or 20 minutes earlier as a starting point.

Use the same lights-out time and alarm time for 7 to 10 days. It may take a few days to adjust, which is why you want to give it some time before evaluating how you feel. At the end of that time period, ask yourself if you are waking up feeling rested and before your alarm or not. If not, bump up your lights-out time by 15 or 20 minutes earlier and try that for 7 to 10 days. Keep repeating as needed.

You might find that there is a range that feels good to you. Personally, when I sleep for 9 hours I feel AMAZING. But I feel very good and highly functional when I sleep for 8. I can, of course, function with 5 or 6 when I really need to, but I feel physically terrible when I am waking up.


Challenges

You are a night owl in an early rising world.

I think it is perhaps harder for night owls to adjust to regular, earlier (gasp!) bedtimes but it can be done.

My mom says that even as a baby I stayed up late and slept in. I distinctly remember it being excruciating to get up for kindergarten. Morning classes in high school and college were a blur. In a perfect world, I’d probably sleep from midnight to 9 a.m. I’d get my best work done in the late afternoon and evening. But I’ve found that through deliberate habit, I’ve been able to get productive sleep during hours that facilitate me feeling rested when I get up at 6 a.m.

Your partner has a different sleep schedule.

If your sleep schedules are at odds with one another, you’ll need to discuss what each of you need and figure it out together. If discussing sleep leads to fighting or you can’t come to a resolution, perhaps seek professional guidance from a counselor or therapist.

You want to stay up late for [reasons].

Once you’ve established consistency in your sleep schedule, there will of course be things that throw off your wind down routine and lights-out time. Whether it’s a social evening out, binge watching a show alone, or something unexpected, you’ll want to live your life.

No matter how late you stay up: 1. do a mini wind down ritual 2. get up at your usual alarm time.

That second point can feel brutal the next morning but for many it is a key to getting good sleep the next night. You can always grab a late morning or early afternoon power nap.

Your brain kicks on and you stress.

If your brain starts racing the moment you turn out the lights and hit your pillow, you might benefit from a brain dump as part of your wind down routine. Get out a piece of paper and write down all the things on your mind and the very next action for each of them. If new thoughts come up as you are trying to fall asleep, you can keep a pen and paper by your bedside to capture them. In the morning, transfer the items into your regular projects / next actions / to-dos system.

If you start ruminating on thoughts you’ve already written down, gently tell your brain “Thanks, brain, but I’ve got that written down and know how to proceed tomorrow. Right now, I’m choosing to rest.” It can feel weird at first and you might find yourself repeating it every 30 seconds. Eventually though your brain will come to trust your new system.

You are caring for an infant.

Sleep when you can. Sorry, I’ve got no tips.

Traveling

Sleeping in different environments is its own challenge for many. And trying to sleep consistently across different time zones is… extra. A downshifting routine is even more important when you are traveling. If you travel a lot, you may want a separate routine just for travel nights.

I used to routinely travel to Washington, DC from Denver for one night. Getting up at 6 a.m. Eastern time for a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting feels like the wee hours of the morning in Mountain time. My hack was to do my best to nudge my body to adjust to Eastern time ASAP. I found that on east-bound travel days, eating meals on Eastern time was helpful, even if I wasn’t particularly hungry. So was packing a single tea bag of a calming herbal tea to have in my hotel room. My hotel wind down routine also includes yin yoga, using the plethora of pillows available.

Sleep Disorders

If you’ve got an established nightly downshifting routine, regular lights-out time and a regular wake time, have experimented with getting more and more sleep (e.g., beyond 9 hours), and still wake up tired or can’t fall or stay asleep, it’s probably time to see a doctor. The most common sleep disorders are insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy.


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