Sleep. Most of us feel we should probably be getting more of it, getting it more consistently, or catching up on whatever time in the past we have spent staying up far too late trying to get just one last thing done.
As a result, sleep can be a source of guilt that we struggle with, rather than a source of rest that we look forward to. How can you rebuild your relationship with sleep, and improve your “sleep hygiene” habits?
First, accept that your body needs sleep, and be grateful that it tells you so. It is normal to feel tired. In truth, if you are not getting approximately eight hours of sleep every night; you should feel tired: it is your body telling you to take care of yourself.
Without these reminders of fatigue, you would burn out. The next time you feel tired, stop, take a breath, and remind yourself why you can be thankful for the feeling, rather than having to fight it.
Second, let go of the concept that people either have good sleep habits or bad sleep habits, and you are probably among the latter. False. If you hold on to binary thinking that you need to have perfect sleep habits in order to start sleeping better, you will never make a change. Instead, reframe working towards better sleep as, “every day I can make some positive sleep choices, and feel just a little bit better the next day.” As with most things, it is a lot easier to make small steps toward positive sleep habits than to suddenly attain perfection.
Third, reframe your notion of sleep from yet another a burden you have to do, to something you get to do. Fight discounting of sleep by focusing on long-term gains, not your short-term feelings.
Try imagining some of the best sleeps you have ever had, and just how accomplished you felt waking up rested and ready to start your day. Think of how sleeping is going to help you stay healthy. Picture everything you learned during the day consolidating in your memory when you sleep. Focus on whichever positive aspect of sleep motivates you.
Oxford dictionary defines hygiene as, “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease” — exactly what sleep does. Why, then, do we consider showering, brushing our teeth, or washing our hands essential, but sleep optional? How much sleep we have affects not only our own physical and mental well-being, but how well we can interact and contribute to those around us.
Sleep is a pretty simple concept. It allows your body time to recharge. This results in a stronger immune system, less sickness, reduced chronic pain, fewer injuries, better mood, clearer thinking, and longer memory. These might seem like “bonuses,” but think of how beneficial they would be, and how much time they could save you. There is a big difference between how much sleep you can get by on, and how much lets you perform at a healthy and optimal level.
Most people function at their best with eight and a half hours of sleep. Only 3% of people need less than six hours of sleep. Newsflash: you are probably not the exception. If you already get six or seven hours a night, you might be doing alright, but try committing to just one week sleeping a solid eight hours at the same time every night, and see if you notice a difference in how you feel.
Is it actually possible to sleep eight hours a night in college while also maintaining solid grades and working a part-time job? As someone who has done it fairly consistently for the last year, I can say, yes.
Sleep Hygiene How-Tos
- Reduce disturbances. In order to rest, your body cannot be alert.This means reducing light and noise to the greatest extent possible. Put your flashing devices in a drawer. Dump a sweater on top of them. Tape a piece of paper over the AC light on your ceiling. Pull the blinds all the way down every night. Buy a sleep mask and some cheap, good earplugs: low-cost, high-return investments into your health, and the easiest way to control your sleep environment in any surrounding.
- Build cues. Don’t underestimate them. Cues tell your body it is okay to stop focusing on performance in the day, and safe to sleep instead. Use physical cues like wearing a sleep mask or the same t-shirt every night. Listen to the same playlist in the same order. Spritz the same smells, for example, a dab of perfume or essential oil on your forehead.
- Settle your mind, and use sleep guides. How many times have you endlessly laid awake, simply because you cannot stop thinking about your day? This challenge is solvable. Take ten minutes before tucking in to journal, read, or do a guided meditation on a meditation app. Then in bed, focus only on counting your breaths — in, and out. If you can fall asleep with earphones in, try listening to the same sleep meditation every night, like this one, which can help you fall asleep in ten or twenty minutes.
- Maintain a schedule. This one is tough, but important. The closer you can stick to a schedule, the easier for your body to know when to fall asleep and wake up. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and remind yourself that an hour of time working in the morning is equal to (or better than) staying up late. Resist staying up later on weekends just because you can — this throws off your whole schedule.
- Avoid sleep deficits. Your sleep bank is not a savings bank — it needs a minimal viable balance, every single day. You cannot save up for the future or make up for the past. Staying up later does not give you more time now. It just reaches into the future and takes it out of your supply of happier, healthier, better-rested time.
- Say no to caffeine after lunch. Caffeine takes eight hours to work through your system, otherwise, it will keep you awake.
- Nap — but only strategically. Studies show naps are more useful than caffeine for improving productivity — but only if they are limited to twenty minutes, and only in early afternoon, before 3 or 4 PM. Even then, naps cannot make up for the longer, solid eight hours of time your body needs to maintain its circadian rhythm.
- Think in circadian rhythms, not just sleep. Circadian rhythms are the basically the intrinsic, 24-hour patterns of how our bodies operate. Keep a steady, natural time to when we wake up, eat, intake caffeine, exercise, and sleep. This can be hard, but try starting with keeping just one factor stable — sleep, food, exercise — and build from there.
- Sleep earlier, rather than later. Your body starts secreting melatonin around 9 PM, and usually stops by 7 AM or 8 AM. Most people ideally sleep between 11 PM to 7 AM, although your internal clock may differ — again, find the timing that makes you feel best, and try to arrange your schedule around it.
- Avoid looking at screens the hour before you go to bed, or at the very least, use a blue light filter on your devices. Blue light signals “daytime” and reduces melatonin production. See my other article here for more on screen filters and healthy computer habits.
Alternatively: ignore all these tips — the most important thing is what works for you. Just pick sleep hours you know you can consistently stick to, try adding an hour to your current sleep amount, and build from there.
If you want more science on sleep, try “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, or check out this Goodreads list.