I need my sleep. I need about eight hours a day, and about ten at night.” Bill Hicks
Our collective relationship with sleep is one of the most paradoxical things I deal with on a regular basis. When I run workshops to help people become more productive, or creative or resilient, it is rare that people don’t know how much sleep they need (between 7-9 hours every night) and equally rare that people get that amount of sleep (averaging instead between 6-7 hours).
Despite the fundamental importance of sleep, and the unanimous awareness of its necessity, it is clear that many of us struggle to get enough. Indeed, doctors in Britain now issue more than 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills every year.
People who don’t sleep enough tend to fall into one of two groups. Some don’t give themselves enough hours to clock the required amount of sleep. Others allocate enough time, but either struggle to fall asleep, or wake in the night and then find it hard to fall back to sleep.
If you’re someone that regularly wakes up less than 7 hours after going to bed, (e.g. bed at midnight with your alarm set for 6:30am) the problem is obvious, and I fear you need to review your priorities. Sure, you’re busy, but cutting down on sleep to get more done is a fallacy. The research is clear: insufficient sleep is correlated with impaired reasoning and compromised attention. If you sleep for less than six hours a night for five nights in a row, you can expect your cognitive performance to drop to that of a person who has not slept for 48 hours (and over years of poor sleep your brain literally starts to shrink). So tiredness leads to bad decisions, you lose the ability to distinguish important work from unimportant work, and so your workload increases. You work even longer hours, and sleep even less.
If you regularly either struggle to fall asleep, or wake in the night and then struggle to get back to sleep, the rest of this article is for you. I want to begin by reassuring you that you do not need to develop a skill you don’t already have. Instead, try to see sleeping well as nothing more than and exercise in creating the right conditions. Sleeping well is the natural result of creating the right physiological, environmental, and mental conditions.
HOW TO SLEEP BETTER
1. Create the right physiological conditions
- Relax to lower your cortisol and adrenaline levels. Before you get into bed you want to ensure that your physiology is compatible with sleep, and the best way to do this is by relaxing your body. Try progressive relaxation, meditation or mindfulness. To go the free audio resources from ‘The Brain Book’ and start with the 7.5 min recording ‘Progressive Relaxation’.
- Lower your core temperature. Your body temperature drops significantly when you fall asleep so do what you can to cool down before you get into bed. Remember you are trying simply to create the conditions that will happen naturally.
- Avoid stimulants in the evening. Be wary of stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol, and avoid eating or exercising too late is these activities will elevate your core temperature and as you now know this is something you’re trying to reverse.
2. Create the right environmental conditions
- Significantly reduce your exposure to light at night. Your brain’s sleep/wake cycle is set in part by light conditions outside, so darkness sends a message to your brain that it is time to sleep; light exposure does the opposite and increases alertness. So stop using artificially lit screens (especially laptops, tablets, and mobile phones) at least one hour before sleep. An alternative approach is to ensure you get plenty of bright light during the day (e.g. go for a walk outside at lunchtime).
- Set your room temperature to around 18° C. We’ve mentioned that your core temperature drops and so be wary of an overly warm bedroom.
- Remove visual ‘clutter’. It may not affect you, but for some people a cluttered environment can negatively affect sleep as it negatively affects their mind and sense of control. Without wanting to be the person to tell you to ‘tidy your bedroom’(!), if you feel any mess or disorder is affecting your sleep, do something about it.
3. Create the right mental conditions
- Empty your mind once a week by doing a ‘brain sweep’. All too often people say their overactive mind keep them up at night. It’s not an overactive mind, it’s one that simply needs managing. Get a pen and paper (or an app) and spend 10 minutes emptying all the unattended tasks, errands, and things you need to do. Anything that isn’t already written down somewhere else – get it out. The purpose of this is not necessarily to create a to do list. Instead see it simply as an exercise in emptying your mind. If you empty your mind regularly, and keep it empty, you will feel a sense of mental calmness that will now enable you to fall asleep quicker.
- Stop working at least two hours before bed. Don’t check your email (or other news feeds) before bed and give your brain the time it needs to wind down. As tempting as it might be to check your email to make sure you’ve not missed anything, the chances are it can wait – and the minute your brain becomes ‘active’ it will take longer to calm itself and drift off into a natural sleep.
- Use focused meditation. Finally, if your mind still feels overly active, practice a form of focused meditation. Lying in bed, close your eyes, and start to count your breath, counting in cycles of 1 to 21. This simple exercise will give your mind something to focus on entirely, and help calm an otherwise racing and distracted mind. To go the free audio resources from ‘The Brain Book’ and try the 15 min recording, Progressive Relaxation + Focused Meditation.
There you have it: three approaches to sleeping better. Remember, sleeping well is not a skill you need to develop, it is the inevitable product of creating the right conditions: physiological conditions, environmental conditions, and mental conditions. Follow these steps and you will soon find yourself drifting off to sleep easily, remaining asleep for the entire night, and waking feeling sufficiently rested with a clear head and a sharp mind.
The best of luck.