If you’ve been around here for a bit, you know I love routines (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C). The more you can automate the boring stuff using routines, the more time and energy you have to go do stuff that you actually care about.
Routines take all of the thought and questioning out of getting stuff done. If you have a routine that involves going to the gym, there’s no wondering whether or not you’re going to the gym or battling with yourself to get there because that was figured out long ago. You just go.
One of my favorite and most treasured routines is my nighttime routine. It’s a great way to wrap up a busy day and prepare myself for tomorrow. My nighttime routine transitions me perfectly from whatever I did all day to being ready to sleep.
Why build a nighttime routine?
Too often we try to jump right from a busy day to trying to fall asleep, and then we wonder why we can’t sleep. It’s important to give your mind and body time to transition and prepare to sleep so that when you finally get in bed, you’re feeling tired and fall asleep more easily.
Having a routine also prevents me from spending hours on my phone in bed when I should be sleeping because that just isn’t part of the routine. I have a set of actions planned out that flow from one to the next, so avoiding my phone takes less effort.
Ending my day with a thoughtfully planned routine wraps up the day on a positive note, leaving me feeling accomplished and good about myself. No matter how bad or unproductive the day was, starting it with my morning routine and ending it with my nighttime routine means that no days are completely wasted.
Nighttime routines also set you up for success the next morning. I firmly believe that your morning routine starts the night before. If you have your fully-awake-evening-self prepare things for your zombie-morning-self, your morning self is much more likely to do what they’re supposed to. Don’t make life harder for your morning self.
When you fully prepare for your morning the night before, you set yourself up for a smooth morning, which leads you into an intentional and productive day. By having a nighttime routine, you give yourself a much better chance at having a productive day tomorrow. And isn’t that really what most of us are striving for?
My Nighttime Routine
Now that you know why I have a routine, I’ll walk you through what compromises my routine. Then we’ll wrap this post up with my thoughts on some of the potential building blocks of a good nighttime routine so that you can set out to build your own. Sound good? Cool.
Most of my routines have a “basic version” and a “fancy version.” The basic version includes only the most important steps so that I know what to focus on when I’m pressed for time, feeling lazy, or otherwise unable to do every little thing that I’d do in an ideal world. Because, as I’m sure you know, we don’t live in an ideal world. Life is wild and unpredictable, and it’s much easier to navigate it if you know that and go in prepared.
Tie Up Loose Ends
Step one of my nighttime routine is making sure I’ve finished anything important for that day. I do a quick skim over my to do list and make sure I left all of my projects at a good stopping place, rather than abandoning them mid-sentence. It can be difficult to let go of the day when things are left unfinished.
Prep for Tomorrow
The most important part of preparing for tomorrow is making sure that my day is calendar blocked out.
Throughout most of college, I planned each day out the night before and found a lot of success through this. After graduation, I switched to planning out a week at a time, but found I wasn’t as productive as I’d like to be. My plans would often change on short notice, and rather than rearrange my schedule, I’d just get distracted and lazy.
Recently, I tried out calendar blocking as part of my morning routine, but I also found that that didn’t work either. I’d push it off later and later, and before I knew it, it was 10 am and I still didn’t have my day planned.
So now I’m back to calendar blocking out my days each evening before I go to sleep. Deciding when I need to start my day the night before prevents procrastination. If I know that I need to be at the library by 9:30, it’s much more difficult to procrastinate. I’m on a schedule, and I need to stick to it or I won’t get everything done.
Calendar blocking my time has consistently been one of the most beneficial things that I can do for myself. When my time is scheduled, I know what I need to do and when, and that if I stick to the schedule, I can get it all done. Without a schedule, I'm way less productive.
Another helpful thing to do to prepare for tomorrow is to prepare any outfits and bags that you will need. In my case, this means packing my gym bag.
I often work from the library because I know that getting out of my apartment is good for my mental health, but if I come home after going to the gym, I’m unlikely to ever actually get myself to the library. To solve this issue, I back a bag and go directly to the library from the gym.
I do have enough wiggle room in my morning routine to pack my bag if I needed to, but it’s much easier to pack it the night before. My morning self doesn’t want to mess with choosing an outfit or trying not to wake my sleeping fiance.
I prefer to set aside my mornings as dedicated “me-time” to do things that are relaxing and set me up for a good day. Packing bags isn’t one of those things.
After wrapping up everything I need to do each day and preparing myself for tomorrow, it’s time to do the things that leave me relaxed and ready for bed.
This starts with brushing my teeth, and then doing my skincare routine. Taking a few minutes to pamper my skin is just… pleasant. It feels nice, and I get to feel good about myself because I did something that I know is good for me. I find the whole thing relaxing and like to take my time and enjoy applying the products to my face.
Meditation and Music
The last step of my routine is to crawl into bed, get cozy, and either meditate or listen to music.
I’ve been listening to music to fall asleep since I got my little iPod nano back in middle school, and I still do it most nights. I’m not sure what it is, but listening to music to fall asleep is just something I really enjoy and one of my longest-lasting habits.
A year and a half ago, I started meditating. Since then, depending on my mood, sometimes I meditate to fall asleep as well. The Calm app (which I love) has some meditations for sleep, as well as sleep stories, which are basically bedtime stories for adults. Both are great at helping me fall asleep quickly.
I switch back and forth between music and meditation. For the first several months of 2019, I had been meditating every night before I fell asleep. I’ve recently been in more of a music mood, so I’ve moved my meditation to the mornings and listen to music to fall asleep. Both work, it just depends how I feel.
The steps outlined above are the non-negotiables. They happen every night, no matter what. Then, depending on how I’m feeling and how much time I have, I have a few other things that I like to add to my nighttime routine. Most of these typically happen once or twice a week, without any set schedule. I just add them as I need them.
And I don’t just mean a quick flow through a yoga video—though I have been enjoying Yoga With Adriene recently. When I do yoga as part of my nighttime routine, I make sure the whole thing is an experience.
I’ll play some chill music, set our smart lightbulb to a dim pink, light some candles, and spend forty-five minutes to an hour stretching out every tired and sore muscle in my body. Since I lift weights almost every day, I usually have a muscle or two—especially in my upper back—that feels sore and tight.
Though many of the stretches that I do are yoga poses, I don’t feel the need to stick to any specific flow or routine. Yoga had always kind of scared me off because it felt like I had to follow an instructor and breathe when she breathed and do what she did and the whole idea just seemed too high pressure for me.
Instead, I listen to my body. I’ve cultivated a relationship with my body so that it will tell me how I need to move. For the last seven months or so, I’ve been spending at least half an hour every day stretching at the gym. I’ve built an understanding of what works for me, and learned to really, really love those deep, slightly-painful-but-in-a-good-way stretches.
I don’t get to incorporate yoga into my evenings very often because it’s fairly time consuming, but I’m always grateful when I do have the opportunity. Typically, I’ll do it after I finish preparing for tomorrow but before I brush my teeth.
I love to read, but I’m not great at just picking up a book for a few minutes here and there. When I read, I like to dive into the book for at least half an hour. This, again, is why I don’t always read as part of my evening routine. I don’t have that kind of time every day.
A few times a week, though, I like to set aside some time in the evening to read. It’s a great activity to do before bed, as long as the book isn’t too interesting. Reading before bed is especially great if you’re trying to avoid screens before bed or spend less time on social media. Actually, reading is great at any time if those are your goals. Read more.
This is a small thing that I probably should just do every day, but I don’t. I just do it if I feel like being extra nice to tomorrow-Abby. I’ll set out everything I need to make coffee in the morning so my sleepy self needs only to turn on the kettle. It only takes a minute or two so my morning self is perfectly capable of it, but it’s a nice treat to have the coffee already figured out when I wake up.
I don’t even know if this qualifies as part of the routine because it’s such a minuscule step, but melatonin is great. From what I understand, you can develop a reliance on it and it becomes less effective if used too many days in a row, but sometimes I just can’t sleep.
When I’ve had too much caffeine—which is easy to do because I’m very sensitive to it—or just can’t sleep because of whatever reason, I’ll take 2 mg of melatonin before brushing my teeth. It’ll kick in just as I’m getting into bed and make it so much easier to sleep.
So now that you know why nighttime routines are important and what mine consists of, it’s time to start building your own.
What your routine ultimately ends up looking like will depend on your goals. Do you want to focus on preparing yourself for tomorrow? On falling asleep and staying asleep? On breaking bad habits that you currently have? Figure out what you’re aiming to accomplish with your routine and keep that in mind as you build it.
Start fairly small. If you don’t have a routine at all right now, a routine that takes no more than ten minutes is probably a good place to start. Once you’re able to stay consistent with that routine for a few weeks, you can build off of it. Trying to do too much at once doesn’t work, and if you want your routine to stick long-term, it’s important to start small.
With that in mind, here are a few things to serve as nighttime routine inspiration:
You’ve probably heard these all a million times: nothing strenuous, nothing that will elevate your heart rate, no blue light, no caffeine after 10/noon/3/6/whatever, make your room as cool and dark as you can, lavender scented things, yada yada yada.
These are popular because they’re good advice. Though I didn’t mention it above, I do my best to follow all of that generic advice each night, and they do help, but I won’t bore you by talking about all of them again.
Get Off of Your Phone
This one isn’t so much a step that is part of your routine as it is a consequence of having a routine. When you have a set of other actions to accomplish, it’s much easier to stay off of your phone. As Charles Duhigg talks about in The Power of Habit (which is a great book and has definitely improved my life), often it’s easier to replace an existing habit than it is to break an old habit or start a new one from scratch.
(Disclaimer: That's an Amazon affiliate link. If you make a purchase using my link, I make a small commission at no cost to you. If you can, support your local library.)
By replacing your nighttime internet habit with a set of intentional steps that will improve your life, it’s much easier to stay off of your phone. I know I’m not the only one who will fall into a Netflix/YouTube/Instagram rabbit hole if I get on my phone when I’m tired. It’s just so difficult to peel yourself away. Having a routine prevents you from getting on your phone in the first place.
In effect, my recommendation here is to create a nighttime routine because it will keep you off of your phone. I start my routine forty-five minutes to an hour before it’s time to sleep, which means I am off of my phone for most of that time. Rather than trying to break the habit out of sheer willpower, add other activities to your evenings to get you off of your phone.
Personally, I journal in the morning as part of my morning routine, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t journal in the evening, or do both.
Incorporating journaling into your nighttime routine is great if you struggle to fall asleep because you can’t still your mind. By getting all of your thoughts out onto paper, you relieve your mind of the burden. You know that they will still be there tomorrow should you need to return to them, but for now, you’re free to sleep.
As part of journaling, you could list things that have happened that day that you’re grateful for. Keeping a gratitude journal can help improve happiness and make life feel more fulfilling. Too often, we dismiss the good things in favor of dwelling on the negative. By taking some time each evening to list things that you’re grateful for, you remind yourself that it isn’t all bad.
Prepare for Tomorrow
This is a big part of my routine, and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking to build a nighttime routine. Your morning starts the night before. Don’t you want to give yourself the best possible shot at having a good day tomorrow?
Some things that you could do to prepare yourself for tomorrow include deciding on an outfit, making sure any books and papers that you need are in your bag, meal prepping your breakfast and/or lunch, and making sure that the kitchen is clean so that you aren’t dealing with dirty dishes first thing in the morning.
Think through your mornings as they currently are. Anything that you do in the morning that would be just as effective if done the night before is a candidate for your nighttime routine.
Meditation is so helpful when it comes to falling asleep. I highly recommend it if you struggle to quiet your mind. Combined with journaling, you have a powerful pair of tools to get your brain to shut up.
Meditation helps you acknowledge your thoughts and let them go, rather than running away with every idea that pops into your head. It’s always helpful for me on those nights where my mind wants to keep telling me stories.
If you’re new to meditation, there are plenty of guided meditations for sleep out there. I like the ones on the Calm app, but I’m sure Google can show you hundreds more. An unexciting audiobook or podcast can also be helpful because it gives your brain just enough stimulation that your thoughts don’t race, without being enough to prevent you from sleeping.
Put Your Phone in a Different Room
I don’t personally do this because I use my phone for music every night, and I’m fairly good at staying off of my phone when it’s time to sleep, but if you’re an aimless nighttime phone scroller, put your phone somewhere that you can’t get to it easily.
Putting your phone in a different room also gets you out of bed in the morning, assuming you use it as your alarm. Even if you don’t use it as an alarm, you can’t scroll in bed in the morning if you don’t have your phone. If you don’t want to spend so much time on your phone in bed, don’t bring your phone to bed.
That about wraps that up. Of course, there are hundreds of other things that you could consider adding to your evenings, but when you’re starting out, it’s best not to get too complicated. The more involved your routine is, the less likely you are to actually do it. And none of this matters unless you actually do it.
Now seems like a good time to remind you that it doesn’t matter how much you read my blog (or anyone else’s)—if you don’t take action, you haven’t accomplished anything. Take your first step today. A baby step is always better than not doing anything at all. No one cares what you want to do, only what you’ve done.