Improve Your Sleep 101

Sleep is a fundamental aspect of our life. Think about it: We spend about one-third of our daily 24 hours sleeping, which translates to one-third of our life. And how that time is experienced also influences the other two-thirds of the day. This should speak for how important sleep; a seemingly unproductive and evolutionary questionable activity; actually is for us. We neglect sleep at our peril, so I’ve put together a list of notes and tips that could be used to improve our sleep.

Sleep Problems

I haven’t personally experienced noticeable problems with falling and staying asleep, but I’ve scratched the surface of the psychological literature on this matter and sorted out some critical points:

  • Clients with insomnia often work with sleep restriction, which is about restricting the time you spend in bed, by only going to sleep when you’re sleepy. This may sound counterintuitive but the reason for this action is because of a conditioning process that may take place, where you associate the bed/nighttime with negative feelings, therefore making sleep even more difficult. Sleep restriction also includes reducing sleep to a single session every 24 hours. Naps only temporarily help, and may only be productive for people with satisfactory sleep. This has to do with the chemical adenosine, which builds up sleep pressure; the need for sleep. Make the nap short; only a few minutes of light sleep, to not enter the next sleep stage.
  • Anxiety and stress are two common factors of sleep disorders. If you’ve identified these as underlying factors, attack the root of the problem. I’ve found that journaling is very helpful for transferring thoughts from the mind to a piece of physical or digital paper, resulting in me falling asleep with fewer thoughts and worries. Journaling is something one may get recommended in cognitive behavioral therapy for sleep disorders, along with mindfulness. Additionally, at my bedside table, I keep a bunch of post-it notes and a pen, for what I call “night notes”, that is interesting thoughts I randomly come up with when trying to fall asleep.
  • Since humans don’t have a built-in mechanism where we can just decide to fall asleep, we must give ourselves the conditions to fall asleep. These conditions include but are not limited to: Building up sleep pressure during the day through physical and mental activation, performing calm activities before bedtime (preferably without much light), making sure that your physiological needs are met, regulating the environment to be silent, dark and cool, etc.
  • It’s not unusual in clinical practices (even those not about sleep issues) to suggest improving one’s sleep hygiene. From what I can tell, this usually casts a focus on making the wake-up time consistent, since that’s key for regulating the circadian rhythm; your inner biological clock which, among other things, controls cycles of sleepiness and alertness.

Wake up on Time

One of the worst decisions we can make every day is to ignore the alarm and unintentionally sleep in. This means that we have failed the first task of the day: Getting up when we intended to. A friend of mine, Jesper Ahlbom, wakes up before 5 AM, at 4:56-4:59 to be precise. With his help, I created a list of a few essential tips for waking up on time. I’ve at least at one point found all of the following tricks very helpful:

  • Do NOT snooze! You don’t get quality sleep from snoozing, and it disrupts your circadian rhythm. Don’t mess with your biology, or “repeatedly assaulting your cardiovascular system”, as sleep expert Matthew Walker, author of the book Why We Sleep, puts it.
  • Prepare something to do the night before. Negotiate with yourself so that you can come up with an activity that you would actually do. Even the resistance of my standard 100 pushups followed by a semi-cold shower (it can take 10 minutes and I could easily do it if I had to) could beat my willpower in the morning. It’s better to just list “get dressed” or “take a warm shower”. This may not seem like tasks worth celebrating for completing, but that’s not the case if it helps you beat the habit of sleeping in.
  • Get dressed right away, and make your bed. These are relatively easy tasks that in my case eliminate the possibility of going back to sleep; I’m not doing it when I’m clothed and when the bed is made. “Getting out of bed” can be a difficult and abstract task, but if you break it down and frame it more concretely, such as “get dressed” and “make your bed”, it may become easier.
  • Don’t use a default anxiety-provoking 90 decibels alarm that just repeatedly beeps on you in the morning. When thinking about it, it’s difficult to design a more dreadful way to start the day! Put on some music that inspires you instead. An uplifting beat, that I have a personal connection to, will do the trick for me. Maybe you will also find any of the pieces in my alarm clock music playlist interesting.
  • Have the alarm clock outside the reach of your hands, so that you have to start a series of blinking to get your vision back from the sleep, and as soon as you make the judgment that you’re awake enough to somewhat stably stumble across the room to turn off your alarm, proceed to execute this motoric routine. Congratulations; you’re not in bed anymore! You might as well get dressed in the clothes that you conveniently happened to place beside the alarm the night before, and get the day going.
  • Have something/someone to stay accountable to. One of the reasons I’ve had a more difficult time going up in the morning nowadays is because I don’t have to be in school at 8 o’clock anymore. The aspect of doing one’s duty and staying accountable to others is something that always kicks me into action. Therefore it can be useful to have someone to stay accountable to or a project to attend to.

Extra tips and notes

  • There is a common conception that you can catch up on the sleep you’ve lost, probably by sleeping in on weekends. However, sleep is not like a bank. Matthew Walker explains that “you can’t accumulate a debt and then try to pay it off at a later point in time”.
  • If you’re having a very difficult time falling asleep: Get up and do some light activity until the sleep pressure hits you. While this may result in a temporary deprivation of sleep, it will help you reset the circadian rhythm, if you avoid napping during the following day.
  • Up until recently, I didn’t know that chronotypes; the natural inclination to sleep at a certain point of the day; were a scientific concept. These chronotypes are determined by genetics, environment, age, and proposedly geography. It does make sense that we have developed different tendencies of our circadian rhythms, perhaps as a result of the evolutionary strategy of biological variation. Knowing your chronotype can be useful for designing a routine that supports your natural inclinations. If you’re an “early bird”, you can turn that into a human superpower by optimizing your morning routine, and by going to bed early so that you’ll get a sufficient amount of sleep before waking up early.
  • I don’t understand the glorification of waking up early, but seemingly the absence of building night routines with a healthy amount of sleep and a consistent wake-up time. Perhaps it’s the combination of these aspects that makes the magic. I certainly had a negative experience of waking up earlier than I’m used to, which I tried in an experiment on YouTube, where I tried waking up at 6 AM every day. I have a feeling that I will attempt a similar experiment in the future.
  • The meta-advice; the most important part of this post; is to not let the good advice you hear about sleep, and about personal development in general, just pass you by. Take action! I would suggest starting small: Pick a few points that you just read that resonated with you, make those points into daily measurable units, and see what happens. I would recommend starting with setting a consistent wake-up time. Good luck!

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