How to Sleep

(This is the second of two pieces on Sleep.)

We have already discussed why sleep is our most valuable asset, but now we must talk about how to get better sleep.

Most adults need 7–9 hours of quality sleep every night to feel fully rested.

In order to get that sleep, you need to sleep in cycles (more below). The reason being that waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle leaves you feeling tired and groggy, but waking up in between cycles leaves you feeling refreshed and alert even if you haven’t slept the minimum 7.5 hours.

You can use a bedtime calculator to figure out your sleep/wake times. This calculator works by counting backwards in sleep cycles.

Or, you can count those sleep cycles manually. Each sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes. A good night’s sleep consists of 5–6 complete sleep cycles, which equates to 7.5–9 hours of sleep. It takes the average person 14 minutes to fall asleep, so be sure to account for that time in the calculation as well.

Figure out your sleep/wake times depending on your schedule based on the sleep cycle. Then, sleep and wake at the same time every day. This will help you take control of your body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm). Doing this would also obviate the need for calculating those times, and you would have one less thing to think about.

While sleeping/waking at the same time every day would be ideal, it might not always be possible for you to do so for a variety of reasons. In that case, I suggest counting the sleep cycles manually (1 sleep cycle = 1.5 hours) and waking up at the start or end of a sleep cycle.

You won’t be able to change your sleep schedule overnight. Focus on slowly making small changes. For instance, if you typically go to bed at 11 and are aiming to go to bed at 10, try going to bed 15 minutes earlier at 10:45. Do that for a few days before you go to sleep 30 minutes earlier than usual. By making slow changes, your body will adjust over time to your new sleep schedule.

When you keep to your new schedule for a few days, you’ll find that your body wakes up naturally after a full night’s sleep — usually 7–9 hours — and you’ll feel most alert when you wake up without an alarm.

The idea is that you end up staying awake fewer hours than most people would, but when you’re awake you’re really awake. And that’s what matters. High-quality sleep is better than more time spent on restless sleep.

Your physical environment (light, sound, and temperature) affects the way you sleep. Your ideal sleep environment should be a room that’s dark enough, quiet, and not too warm. Evaluate your bedroom to ensure ideal temperature, sound, and light. Your body’s internal clock is sensitive to light and darkness, so getting a dose of the sun first thing in the morning will help you wake up. Too much light in the evenings can signal that you should stay awake. Before bedtime, dim as many lights as possible and turn off bright overhead lights.

Avoid computers, tablets, cell phones, and TV an hour before bed because your eyes are especially sensitive to the blue light from electronic screens. The blue light emitted by these devices can over-stimulate you and hinder your body’s ability to fall asleep. This blue light restrains the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle (or circadian rhythm). Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. After spending an entire day surrounded by technology, your mind needs time to unwind. Read a physical book instead.

Keep your cell phone a few feet away so as to not affect your sleep. Also, put it on Do Not Disturb mode so that only those contacts you deem important enough will be able to reach you in the event of an emergency.

Avoid stimulants such as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol in the evenings since they take hours to wear off. As a rule of thumb, avoid drinking coffee after 4 p.m.. If it’s 12 oz. or more, 4 p.m. is the latest you can have coffee before it starts affecting your sleep at night. 6 hours later, half of the caffeine is still active. You can sleep with as much as 140 mg.

Physical activity improves sleep quality and increases sleep duration. Be sure to get in 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week as moving your body can help you sleep better at night.

Doing as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can significantly improve the quality of your night-time sleep, especially when done on a regular basis. This will help you fall asleep faster and help you wake up feeling more rested.

Exercising in the early hours enables you to have deeper sleep at night. People who work out in the morning sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend significantly more time in the most reparative stages of sleep than those who exercise at later times during the day.

Exercise raises your body’s temperature for about 4–5 hours; after that, your core temperature decreases, which signals your body to start shifting into sleep mode. The increase in body temperature that comes with cardio workouts, along with their stimulating nature, might interfere with falling asleep. So, if you plan on doing exercise in the evening, do it a few hours before you sleep, so that the body has enough time to lower its temperature and shift into sleep mode.

You can even try yoga or simple stretching as part of your evening routine, both of which can help you unwind and relax for a restful night.

Here are some best practices for ways to sleep better:

  • Recharge your mind and body with 30 minutes of napping. Short naps have been proven to increase creativity; as a result, we feel clearer, sharper, and more alert. Even short naps (30 minutes tops) can help make up for lack of sleep from the previous night and leave you feeling refreshed and more alert for the remainder of your day. If you’re going to take a nap during the day (30 minutes tops), do it before 4 p.m., so as not to affect your night sleep.

  • When you find yourself sleeping less during the week, you can make up for it by sleeping more on the weekends.

  • Sleep/rise at the same time every day (weekends included). It’s still a win if you can do it most days.

  • Sleep only when it’s dark outside, and stay awake when it’s light outside. This also works when you’re traveling and may be susceptible to jet lag.

  • Have an evening routine that lets you unwind and sets you up for sleep. Reading fiction can help you sleep better. Reflecting on your day can bring closure to your day, which in turn can also help you sleep better.

  • Schedule and do three things in your calendar — eat, move (exercise), sleep — and you’ll be so much more effective in everything else.

  • Finish your last meal at least 2 hours before sleeping. This will help you digest most of your food, which leads to sound sleep. It’ll also leave your body free to do its repair work, and will make your body more effective in burning fat. Having dinner at the same time every night will help you keep on track. This goes back to scheduling your meals so you don’t have to think about it again.

  • There are things you can do that will help you fall asleep — especially when you’re under stress. Write down what’s on your mind (to get it off your mind). Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind. Meditation helps a lot to dial down the frequency and intensity of internal chatter at night. Playing Tetris for 10 minutes on a dimmed screen can also help.

Getting 7.5–9 hours of sleep should be a daily priority. When you do that, it’ll set you up for the rest of the day and enable you to do your best work.

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