Most of us suck at sleeping.
It falls into that weird category of things we do every day but don’t know that much about, along with nutrition, exercise, and thinking rationally.
We don’t fully understand what’s going on when we sleep, or why we need the amount we do, but here’s what we do know:
There is tons of low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving you sleep that few people are taking full advantage of.
If you’re taking more than 10 minutes to fall asleep, your sleep can be improved.
If you aren’t waking up completely energized without wanting to snooze, your sleep can be improved.
If you feel tired during the day, your sleep can be improved.
And for a whole host of reasons that we’ll get into soon, you owe it to yourself to take control of that hidden third of your life. It’ll make you happier, more productive, healthier, and you’ll get laid more (okay, I can’t promise that last one).
So here’s how to do it. A complete guide to getting control of your sleep so you can use it to augment and enhance everything else you’re doing in life.
And for implementing it, make sure you grab the checklist.
- 7 Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
- 5 Necessities For Falling Asleep Quickly
- 5 Steps to Waking Up Earlier
- 6 Parts of Your Lifestyle that Affect Your Sleep
- How to Start Improving Your Sleep
7 Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
If you’re sleeping less than 7-8 hours, or if you’re sleeping poorly, there are a host of problems that come with it. If you weren’t motivated to improve your sleep before, hopefully seeing a few of these will kickstart your interest.
Sleep Loss Leads to Memory Loss
Short term memory is processed into long term memory while we sleep, and any amount of sleep deprivation decreases the amount of memory we retain from the day.
The main factor in memory retention is how much of your time asleep is spent in REM. We naturally sleep in cycles of deep sleep and shallow sleep, with each cycle being punctuated by a period of REM for about twenty minutes. The more REM you have a night, the more well rested you are the next day and the better you’ll have processed your short-term memory into long-term.
REM cycles are about 90 minutes, which is why it’s best to sleep in multiples of 90 minutes. 7.5-8 hours will be 5 REM cycles (there’s a short one at the end there). If we only sleep 6 hours, that’s 4 REM cycles. We’ve lost 20% of the memory and restoration of our sleep. It only gets worse at 4.5 hours, or 3 REM cycles, where we’re only getting 40% of the memory processing time.
It’s very easy to waste a day of work or study by not sleeping properly. And, yes, this means pulling all-nighters to study for anything is idiotic.
Microsleeps Can Kill You
Sleep deprivation can also lead to microsleeps where the brain automatically shuts down a number of processes for periods ranging from less than a second to a minute.
These microsleeps can happen during any activity, and because certain parts of the brain are shutting down, the person experiencing them is not usually aware that they’re happening. Ever seen someone “nodding off”? Those are microsleeps.
Because we’re not aware that they’re happening, we can go for an entire minute in a microsleep, passed out to everyone else around us, and not even know it. This is why people who get into fatigue-related car accidents don’t remember the accident; they went into a microsleep and lost control.
Stunted Growth, Muscle Development, and Immune Regulation
Being deprived of sleep increases your cortisol the next day, which results in being less able to handle stress and metabolize food.
Higher cortisol and weaker food metabolization leads to less energy being used for the production of growth hormones, meaning less overall growth for young people, and less muscle development for anyone trying to get stronger.
And, worse, it also takes energy away from your immune system and results in sleep deprived people being more susceptible to disease.
Sleeping Poorly Makes You Fat
People who habitually sleep too little gain weight over time, which is suspected to be one of the causes of the obesity epidemic.
This weight gain happens for a number of reasons, the most significant being an energy deficit from not being fully rested. If you don’t sleep sufficiently, then your body doesn’t get the time it needs to fully recharge. If you have no energy, then it makes perfect sense to eat whatever you can to stimulate yourself back to normal. But it’s only a band-aid over a bullet hole. We overeat to make up for lost sleep, and in the process become overweight, unhealthy, and then sleep even worse as a result.
When you’re trying to lose weight, or just maintain a healthy weight, make sure that you’re sleeping sufficiently.
Sleep Deprivation Makes You Stupid
After being awake for just 17 hours, you begin to operate as if you have a blood alcohol content of .05%. Stay up until 28 hours, and it’s like have a BAC of .1%, which is above the legal limit for drunk driving in most places.
It’s no surprise then that the one day in the US when we have the most traffic accidents is the day we move the clocks forward. This loss of only one hour of sleep increases the number of traffic accidents by 17%. If you’re getting an hour less than you need every night, you could be putting yourself in danger.
Undersleeping Kills Your Willpower
Our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that regulates long-term thinking as well as our ability to “buckle down” and focus on work, becomes severely inhibited by any temporary negative states—-especially being drunk or sleep deprived (which are pretty much the same thing, but one’s less fun).
By not sleeping properly we lose the ability to push ourselves through the work that we have in front of us, and as a result have significantly less productive days.
So if you think you should only sleep 6 hours in order to have more time for work, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You might gain two extra hours, but now your entire day is less productive because you can’t focus.
You Lie To Yourself About It
I know tons of people who say they can get by on 6 hours of sleep a night. You might be one of them. You might be sitting there in your chair, reading this, scoffing, and saying “Nat, I sleep six hours a night and NONE of these things happen to me.”
This is really just one of the problems of sleep deprivation though–when you’re constantly sleep deprived, you forget what it was like to be well rested. We’re almost always unaware of being mentally impaired, or at least of the extent of our impairment.
Not only that, but because of our aversion to cognitive dissonance we tell ourselves that we’re fine and functioning properly, even when we aren’t, because we don’t like to admit that we might be wrong or doing harm to ourselves. This tends to happen out of a combination of the hindsight and confirmation biases.
Five Necessities for Falling Asleep Quickly
There are three aspects to controling your sleep. Controling when you pass out, when you wake up, and the quality of the sleep you have in between.
Here’s how to make sure you’re always falling asleep when you want to.
Sleep in (Almost) Total Darkness
Our exposure to light regulates our internal temperature and melatonin production, both of which can be easily disrupted by artificial lightness or darkness. One of the benefits of being in a totally dark room is that it signals to your brain to start producing melatonin and lowering your internal body temperature, but there’s a catch–keep the room too dark, such as with blackout shades, and you never get the signal to wake up in the morning.
Even when your eyes are closed they’re still detecting external light to try to determine when your brain should start waking you up, mostly by releasing cortisol and raising your body temperature. If there’s no light to wake up to, this process never begins, and that alarm clock going off makes you feel terrible.
So what’s the trick? Sleep in a room with no electronics that give off light, and draw the shades enough to cover as much night-time light as possible, but not so much that the sun can’t get in at all.
Have a Dedicated Bed
We develop habits related to specific things in our environment. When you go into the bathroom in the morning, you probably grab the toothbrush habitually. When you get in your car, you probably have a quick routine that you go through of checking the mirrors, interior, etc. We fall into little habits based on things in our lives, and our beds are not exempt.
The problem with doing a bunch of different things in your bed (such as reading, working, playing games, watching television, talking on the phone, etc.) is that when you get in it to go to sleep your body has no idea what it should be doing.
Compare this to doing nothing but sleeping in your bed. The minute you get in, your brain goes “sleep time, let’s pass out” and you can fall asleep quickly. If you get in and your brain goes “time to turn on the TV!” you’re not going to sleep particularly well.
Commit to only using your bed for sleep (okay, and sex). By doing this you avoid the confusion from having a number of different bed habits and you tell your brain that it should start shutting down as soon as you get between the sheets.
Sleep in Silence or White Noise
We may not live in the wilderness surrounded by predators anymore, but we’re still listening for threats while we sleep. Errant noises, especially sudden and loud ones, can mess up our sleep.
The best prevention I’ve found is to use a white noise generator like this one which creates a sound similar to air going through a tunnel. It’s something you can focus on while you’re falling asleep (in order to avoid monkey mind) and over time, you’ll train yourself to start getting tired as soon as you turn it on.
Remove Your Cell Phone
Put your cell phone on silent while you’re asleep. If you have a child, or friend in the hospital, or anything like that then set your phone to ring for only them, but you shouldn’t be getting audible messages at night since they’ll mess up your sleep. Lay it facedown as well so that the light from it doesn’t affect you either–even that small light from the screen can make your body start to think the sun is coming up.
99% of “emergencies” aren’t, and can wait until the morning.
Create an Evening Routine
An evening routine is a series of tasks right before you go to bed. The benefit is that the more you do it, the more your body will get used to going to sleep after doing these things which will make it easier to pass out when you know you need to.
Things to include:
- Reflecting on the day
- Planning your goals for tomorrow
Things to avoid:
- Bright lights
- Email / social media
- Exercise, or anything stimulating (video games, etc.)
Five Steps to Waking Up Earlier
Why Be an Early Riser
According to an interview in the Harvard Business Review, people who are early risers tend to be more productive and more proactive in the workplace, and many CEOs are super early risers waking up between 4 and 5 AM.
There are three main reasons for this:
- Our morning attitude determines our attitude for the rest of the day
- Once we are being constantly bothered by other people we are less productive
- Control over when we wake up leads to greater control of our lives
When you wake up early, long before you have to wake up, you control your morning. You decide what to do, what to spend your time on, and what’s important. You’re not rushed, you’re moving at your own pace. You can take some time for a nice shower, maybe go for a run, meditate, whatever you want to do.
Contrast this to waking up at the last minute: you’re rushed, you have to get out of the door, you have no control, you speed through your shower and getting dressed. You start your day stressed and rushed and now your entire day feels stressed and rushed.
Your productivity will also be largely determined by how long you can work without any distractions. Once everyone’s awake they’ll be sending you emails, knocking on your door, and breaking up your workflow. Early in the morning you don’t have these problems because everyone else is still asleep.
Finally, when you can get yourself out of bed immediately, wake up at a set time every day, and choose whether to sleep in or not, you’ll feel more powerful. You’ll have more willpower to apply to other areas of your life, and you’ll start noticing how uncontrolled people who sleep erratically seem you.
Here’s how to easily start waking up early.
Step One: Move in 15 Minute Increments
The trick with becoming an early riser is small incremental changes.
If you try to make too great a change too quickly, you’ll fail and oversleep and demotivate yourself to try again in the future. By making small incremental changes, we provide ourselves with “small wins” which are highly motivating and show us that we can succeed, and not only can we succeed, it’s easy.
If you’re already waking up at 8 or earlier, I wouldn’t try to move your wake up time by more than fifteen minutes a week. By slowly moving your schedule forward like this you’ll be more likely to succeed, and it will make the change easy. It will also give you more time to adjust to the new time that you need to go to sleep at. You might be able to wake up an hour or two earlier for a few days, but without the gradual shift it will be harder to maintain.
Step Two: Alarm Clock habits
The basic anatomy of a habit from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” is a cue, routine, and reward.
This means that for the 40% of our actions that are habits, we’re simply responding to some stimulus with an action that has been rewarding in the past.
When we open up the Internet and immediately start looking at Facebook, that’s a habit.
When we get to the office and go get a cup of coffee and talk to a few people, that’s a habit.
Because habits influence so much of our lives, they are frequently what needs changing when we want to improve ourselves. Not waking up early is largely a fault of having bad alarm clock habits.
Set aside some time to practice getting up. This is going to feel silly but bear with me.
Set your alarm for 1 minute in the future, get in bed, and when it goes off immediately get out of bed and go do something. It doesn’t matter what, just make it consistent. I’d recommend getting some water, as that’s also a good thing to do when you wake up. Then go hang out for a bit before you try it again (so you don’t develop a habit of getting back in bed after getting your water). Do this a few times throughout the day-—the more you practice it the better.
Now tomorrow when you wake up, get up at your normal time, but don’t snooze: just get out of bed and go do whatever it is you did today when you practiced. Do this for a week before moving your schedule forward at all—-it’s imperative that you get out of bed as soon as your alarm goes off.
Once you’ve locked this in for a week straight, then you can start changing what time you wake up.
Step Three: Create a Morning Routine
A morning routine gives you a clear routine to follow as soon as you wake up which prevents you from being tempted by getting back into bed.
Better, it gives you a “small win” first thing in the morning that motivates you to keep being productive throughout the day.
Pick something from this list and make it the absolute first thing you do when you wake up:
- Make coffee / tea
- Have breakfast
- Go for a run
- Write three things you’re grateful for
- Write something
- Read a book
- Do a hobby
- Complete an exercise on a site like Duolingo
Then pick 2-5 more things and create a structured first 30 minutes of your morning.
You should also define things NOT to do. For example, don’t:
- Check social media
- Check email
- Check your phone
Why? Because all of these things get you in a passive, responding mindset. You’re spending your time responding to other people instead of on taking care of yourself and setting yourself up for the day.
Stick to your new morning routine religiously for 28 days and see how it makes waking up easier and makes your mornings less rushed.
Step Four: Be Diligent on Weekends (at first)
When you’re first trying to wake up earlier, staying up late on weekends will mess you up.
Commit to waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, for three weeks. That will make it easier to bounce back when you stay out late on the weekends in the future.
Step Five: Don’t Break the Chain
Last, if you want the early riser habit to stick, you need to not seriously mess it up for at least 28 days.
Every time you let yourself slip, and sleep past your alarm clock, you make it even harder to wake up on time the next morning. You’re weakening the habit you’re trying to develop.
6 Parts of Your Lifestyle That Can Make or Break Your Sleep
Now that you’re falling asleep quickly and waking up easily and early, it’s time to nail down the last part: making sure that you’re getting quality sleep.
All of these lifestyle aspects can help or harm your sleep. If you’re feeling groggy or unenergetic, even after getting 8 hours, one of these factors is likely the culprit.
How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep
While alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, it disrupts later parts of your sleep and significantly reduces the amount of REM you get.
This means that although you’re sleeping quicker and for the same amount of time, you’re sleeping less efficiently than you could be and are not getting the full restorative effects.
You don’t have to completely stop drinking though. Alcohol’s affects on your sleep seem to only last four hours, so just stop drinking four hours before you would go to sleep (or as close to that as possible).
How Caffeine Affects Your Sleep
While it might help you wake up easily, caffeine can impair your sleep if you have it too late in the day.
It takes caffeine 5-10 hours to make its way through your system, which means a coffee at noon is still affecting you, albeit subtly, at 10pm.
Beyond that, your reliance on caffeine will make it harder to wake up naturally since you’ll be dependent on it to get going in the morning.
If you want to sleep your best, cut back to just tea or no caffeine at all. But at the very least, stop drinking coffee or anything caffeinated after noon. You’ll fall asleep easier, sleep better, and not be as reliant on it for energy during the day.
How Exercise and Activity Affect Your Sleep
To get the full benefits of sleep, your body needs to be physically tired.
But sitting in front of the TV and Facebook all day doesn’t take any energy, and since you’re using so little energy, your body never fully wakes up.
The good news is that you don’t need to become a bodybuilder or marathon runner to see the benefits–simply switching from sitting all day to standing and walking helps immensely. Try switching to an easy to set up standing desk, going for walks when you need a break from work, and getting in some moderate exercise at least four days a week.
The people who reported the best sleep were the ones who were sitting fewer than 8 hours a day and staying active in simple ways. It doesn’t take much.
So if you’re feeling lethargic while awake, and don’t feel like you’re sleeping well, try working more activity into your day. Being active takes time, yes, but it makes all of the rest of your time more effective and productive.
How Stress Affects Your Sleep
If you’re stressed, you won’t sleep well. Stress leads to insomnia as you toss and turn worrying about different things, and to nightmares which disrupt your sleep and cause you to wake up. Stress levels can may seem hard to change since a lot of it is caused by external factors, but it is still within our control.
The best cure is to cut the stressors out of your life. If someone is an asshole, stop talking to them. If you’re doing so many things that you’re losing control, cut back. If you’re spending half your commute in traffic, find a new route or go at different times.
Second to that, take up meditation. It helps immensely with realizing when stressed out thoughts are just silliness that you shouldn’t be obsessing over.
How Light Affects Your Sleep
Our bodies are dumb. They can’t tell the difference between light from the sun, and light from your computer screen or overhead bulbs.
During the day this is fine, but at night it creates problems. Your screen is telling your body that it’s daytime, but the clock is telling it that it’s nighttime.
Because of these conflicting signals, we frequently don’t produce melatonin (the sleep hormone) properly, and which can lead to insomnia and sleep disruption.
The best cure is to remove all blue light (computer screens, phones) from your environment at least an hour before bed. Leading up to that, use an app like flux to change the color on your computer screen so that it’s less blue light and more red & orange, which doesn’t affect your sleep as much.
How Hydration Affects Your Sleep
Most people are perpetually dehydrated. The 8 glasses of water a day is the bare minimum, and I’d venture a guess that most people aren’t even getting that.
A lot of the time when you’re waking up feeling crummy it’s because you’re dehydrated. Making sure you’re staying hydrated throughout the day is an easy way to ensure that you sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed.
You have everything you need to start getting your sleep totally under control, and reaping the benefits from it.
- First, get in the habit of waking up early, or at least at a regular time.
- Second, create a good sleep environment where you can quickly pass out so you don’t lose time to insomnia.
- Third, assess your lifestyle for ways you can make it more supportive of good sleep, and adjust accordingly.
Finally, if you want a step by step checklist for creating the perfect night’s sleep, and for troubleshooting any sleep problems you’re having, get that here.