I write about sleep often, as it's something I have struggled with for a while. For most of my life, I haven't had difficulties sleeping—once I actually got myself to bed. Getting myself into bed at a decent hour is what has been my nemesis. I love to stay up late and chat, watch movies, snack—pretty much any activity that isn't about going to sleep. I know I need to get to bed early in order to thrive and enjoy life, but it's just so hard to do.
As I'm in my forties now, my hormones have been shifting and a good night's sleep (once I'm finally in bed) is more elusive than it once was. I don't like this one bit, so I've been paying more attention to what factors need to be in place to a) get myself to bed and b) sleep well once I'm there. I've gotten really positive results. When I sleep more and get better quality sleep, it's remarkable how much better the average day feels.
Since many of my clients struggle with the same challenges, I thought I'd share with you some of the tricks that have been working well for me:
1) Be realistic about how long it takes to get ready for bed
I used to start "getting ready for bed" shortly before 11 p.m., and felt frustrated almost every night that I'd get to sleep around midnight, as if it was a surprise. Every morning I'd swear I'd get to bed earlier that night, but would end up getting the same late-night result. It was key for me to identify and fully accept that it somehow takes me an hour to get ready for bed, and that the process starts by taking my dog downstairs for her last short walk of the night (let's avoid discussing how long it takes me to wash my face and put all the various layers of skin products on after). Rather than starting my bedtime process at 11 p.m., I now aim to start at 9:30 p.m. by taking the dog down then. That would have seemed shockingly early to my old self! I now get to bed quite reliably by 10:30 p.m., just by being more realistic and having that time goal every night.
2) Have a wind down routine
I used to sometimes do a bit of work in the evening, or engage in other things that could reliably keep me awake (for example, talking about my workday or worries with my honey late in the evening). In order to wind down, your brain enough to fall asleep easily. So make a point of doing restful things as bedtime approaches, an hour or two in advance if at all possible. Turn the lights down low after 8 p.m., read a good book, don't watch or talk about anything stressful, have some tea or a bath if that's what soothes and calms you. Pay attention and you'll notice that if you do this, you'll get sleepier and sleepier as the evening progresses. I find that if I have a particularly relaxing evening, I may even take the dog down earlier as I feel so ready to go to bed.
3) Know your high risk decision points
What activities get you into trouble and sabotage your get-to-bed-early intentions? Sadly, I've found that taking a good book to bed is a mistake. Even if I get to bed early, I'll end up reading for hours. I have also noticed that if I look at anything on my phone after I'm in bed, I'll get sucked in for at least half an hour (not to mention the phone is highly sleep toxic, see my next point). Another enemy in getting to bed is my famous "I just want to look one thing up on my computer" delusion. If I go near my computer late in the evening, I'll usually see something that distracts me and before I know it I have spent almost an hour down the rabbit hole (also see my next point re. the effect of computer screens on sleep). And don't let me get started about watching television series on Netflix (just one more episode! just one!). What causes trouble for you, and how might you avoid getting sucked in?
4) Get off those screens. Seriously, get off!
I have known about the impact of screens on sleep for a while, as most of us have, but it was this study published by researchers from Harvard Medical School that finally got me to change my behavior. The article cites that 90% of us use a light-emitting device in the hour before sleep, and the researchers found that using an light-emitting e-reader instead of reading a regular print book four hours before bedtime produced the following negative sleep effects: increased alertness in the evening, increased length of time to fall asleep, suppressed melatonin production, disturbed circadian rhythms, and less alertness the following morning. I started keeping a sleep log to see if this was true for me, and have consistenly found that I don't sleep as well or feel as refreshed on the nights that I give into my perpetual longing for some kind of bright screen. The nights that I just read a normal book in a cozy low-light evening environment, I want to go to bed early, fall asleep quickly, and wake feeling great (yes, I know it doesn't make much sense but if I read a book on the couch I get sleepy and want to go to bed, but if I read a book in bed I want to stay up all night reading - who knows why!). If you struggle with getting to bed or getting a good night's sleep, it's important to pay attention to what, for you, promotes good sleep and what seems to most commonly steal it from you.
Let's take back the night and use it for what it was truly designed: getting the rest, restoration and refreshment you so badly need in your crazy busy life.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali 2015