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How to Get Better Sleep

Gone are the days of bragging about how little sleep you got last night. It’s not cool anymore. Not sleeping well isn’t doing you any favors. In fact, it’s likely significantly hindering your ability to focus, make good decisions, and continue moving forward in life. But you probably knew all of that already. Getting the right amount of high quality sleep is pretty much the most important thing you can do for yourself on a daily basis. Luckily for you, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to consistently get a good night of sleep

I used to lie awake for HOURS every night. I’d toss and turn for two or three hours each night just trying to get to sleep. After I decided that feeling exhausted every single day was significantly lowering my quality of life and committed to getting a good 7-8 hours every night, I set out to figure out how to make sure I was getting good sleep, and how to fall asleep more quickly. Now I fall asleep easily and stay asleep the whole night pretty much every night. I use several tactics to improve my sleep. Each of these tips has made some sort of a positive impact on my ability to sleep restfully. Combining all of them together lets me fall asleep in 10-20 minutes every night, and get a restful 8 hours.

First, determine why you aren’t sleeping well. Sometimes there are simple fixes. Is your bed comfortable? Is the room too hot or too cold? Too loud? Too quiet? Does your cat sleep right where your legs should be and so you’ve got to sleep in a weird C shape around her? Start by fixing these issues.

A very common reason that people aren’t sleeping well is due to being unable to quiet their mind in order to sleep. I struggled with this issue for quite a while and it turned out the culprit, and you won’t like this, was caffeine. Caffeine makes my mind race, and makes it very difficult to calm my thoughts in order to sleep. I suspect, given the prevalence of coffee and racing thoughts in our society, that many other people are also facing this same issue without realizing it. Wean yourself off the caffeine as much as possible. Personally, I have no more than one cup of regular tea per day, and never have regular coffee. Meditation has also helped me greatly with being able to calm my mind before bed, as the practice has taught me how to release thoughts, rather than running away with them.

Go to sleep at the same time every night. Yes, including Fridays and Saturdays. Prioritize sleep over whatever it is that you think you need to stay up late to do. If you’re trying to get work done, I promise it’ll go better the next morning after a full night of sleep. And do you really enjoy that late night of heavy drinking more than you enjoy having your dream life? Probably not. Go to sleep at the same time every night. Don’t break this routine for a while, and eventually your body and mind will get tired at the time each night and wake up at the same time every morning without you having to do anything about it. We have Pavlov and our body’s natural clock to thank for this. It’s more powerful than you give it credit for. After so many years of maintaining the habit of getting up early, I now wake up by 7 every morning, even without an alarm, and I struggle to keep my eyes open any later than 10 each night.

Exercise, but not too late in the day. Exercise is so good for you. It’s good for your bones, your heart, your mental health, and yes, your sleep. Getting even a few minutes of moderate exercise during the day will make it easier to fall asleep at night. If you can help it, don’t exercise immediately before bed. Getting your breathing and heart rate up will wake you up more, making it harder to fall asleep after. Getting some exercise during the day, however, will help to make you feel tired when you’ve reached the end of the day, rather than still being full of energy at midnight.

Get up and do things during the day. If you’re spending the whole day doing nothing, you’ll put yourself in that zombie state that isn’t good for being awake or for sleeping. Get up, go places, move around, put on real clothes, and don’t hang out in bed scrolling on your laptop. If you do have to spend a lot of time on your laptop, at least do it at a table or in a place that isn’t your bedroom. Ideally, get out into the sun for some time every day. Sit on your porch or go for a walk. Moving around and getting things done helps to signal to your body that right now is day time. Then when you stop doing things and wind down for the day, there’s a clear distinction between awake time and sleep time.

Create a night time routine. A routine will help to tell your brain “oh okay, after this I know it’s time for bed” so it’ll start anticipating sleep when the routine starts. Fill your routine with things that relax you and make you excited to go to bed. My night time routine includes things like cuddling with Bennett, making sure my apartment is clean and ready for the next day, and meditating. Try things like sleepytime tea, lavender candles, and a good book to get you in the mindset for sleep.

Don’t worry if you aren’t falling asleep right away. Sometimes, the tossing and turning we experience at night brings us more stress because we’re worried that since we’re unable to fall asleep, we’re not going to be awake enough to function in the morning. Know that this resting time is still beneficial to the body, even before you’ve fallen asleep. Try to find a comfortable position, and then remain still for as long as possible. Each time you move positions, you delay falling asleep. Remaining in one position without moving is one of the most helpful things I’ve found when it comes to falling asleep. Resist the urge to move or worry about the fact that you haven’t fallen asleep yet. Focus on being still, and your slow, steady breathing.

Meditate regularly. Meditation has benefited my sleep in multiple ways. First, practicing meditation regularly helps me to manage stress and to practice non-reactivity when things aren’t going well. Managing stress allows for a more peaceful and relaxed life, and having a relaxed life will typically make it easier to fall asleep. Second, I often meditate right before bed. I even fall asleep listening to guided meditations regularly. The Calm app even sleep stories (like bedtime stories, but for adults) and meditations meant to help you sleep, and I find them very helpful. Meditating right before bed clears out whatever stressful things are still floating around your mind from the day, making it easier to sleep. Meditations for sleep and sleep stories have been one of the best things I’ve found to help me fall asleep.

Avoid blue light before bed. All of those bright blue-white lights, including the light from your phone and laptop, interfere with melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Preventing the production of melatonin before bed will make it much harder to fall asleep. Basically, all that blue light makes your body think it’s sunny and time to be awake. Luckily, most technology these days comes with some sort of night shift that will make your screen warmer during certain hours. I have night shift set to turn on at sunset each night. Switch out any blue-white light bulbs with warmer toned ones. Avoid big, bright overhead lights and use small, warm toned lamps instead. There are even yellow tinted glasses that you can buy to wear at night to block out blue light.

Seriously, take a caffeine break. Caffeine builds up in your body and it can take a few days to reset. If you have a caffeine addiction, it is almost definitely severely impacting your sleep quality, making the addiction even worse. Caffeine will wreck your sleep without you even noticing it. Quitting caffeine, or even cutting back significantly, can be very difficult for the first several weeks, but once you quit, your sleep will improve immensely. And a bonus: lower tolerance means that caffeine will work much better for you when do you have it as a treat or have a very busy day.

Take some time to wind down before bed. Ideally the last hour or two of your day shouldn’t involve anything stressful. Don’t read the news, don’t do anything related to work, don’t argue with people, don’t watch horror movies. Doing things that excite you and raise your blood pressure before bed will leave you feeling amped when you should be feeling sleepy. Spending the last hour of your day doing calming things will leave you actually feeling sleepy so that when the time comes to go to sleep, your mind and body are ready for it.

So what should you do in the evenings? All of those cliche pre-bed activities are cliches for a reason. Lavender scented anything, sleepytime teas, bubble baths, candles, coloring books, journaling, meditation, stretching, reading, or getting a massage from your partner will all leave you feeling more relaxed and ready to sleep. Try to include one or two of these in your evenings, or build one into your evening routine.

Get in touch with nature. This can be as simple as keeping some plants in your bedroom or spending a few minutes outside taking in the stars and fresh air. Nature is calming and helps you to feel more centered and whole. Going outside moves you away from all of the obligations that exist inside your home and takes you into a new space to enjoy the ambient sounds and let the stresses of the day release themselves into the world.

Notice that I never said no screens before bed. It’s 2019. Life involves screens. I’m often on my laptop pretty late, and on my phone right before bed. Avoiding screens before bed is common advice for better sleep, but you don’t need to implement every single tip you hear in order to get good sleep. Choose the ones that work for you. It isn’t realistic for me to cut out screens before bed. I make sure that night shift is on for my laptop and phone, and while I’m sure cutting out screens completely before bed would help me get better sleep, it just isn’t realistic for me.

Don’t feel the need to implement every single sleep tip that you find. Take one step at a time, and after you’ve tried something for a couple weeks, evaluate if it’s actually helping you or not. Suddenly changing your entire evening in an effort to promote sleep is counterproductive and won’t help you go to sleep faster, since all the new things will require effort and mental energy, making you feel more awake. Take things one step at a time, gradually morphing your current routine into something that better facilitates sleep.

Be patient. Sleep is a difficult beast to tame. Every person has different needs and benefits uniquely from each approach. Limiting day to day stress and caffeine intake will likely have the largest impact on sleep. Pay attention to which days you get a good night of sleep and which days you don’t. Try keeping a sleep journal, and note down throughout the day how much caffeine you’ve had, how much exercise you got and when, and how stressed you’re feeling. Make note of which of these tips you implemented that day, and keep track of how well you slept each night. By keeping track of sleep and the things that impact it, you’ll notice your own personal patterns and what does and does not work for you. Each person is unique, but these tips offer a good place to start.

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