Chuck Schaeffer Ph.D.


6 Steps to Getting a Good Night's Sleep

How to achieve more restful, restorative sleep starting tonight.

Posted Mar 29, 2018

Does this scenario feel familiar? Night after night, staying awake and active long after you'd like to? Having anxiety about your performance the next day?  Perhaps you notice you are nodding off in meetings, struggling to concentrate, becoming snappy with others, and/or reaching for ever-more caffeine and sugar.  Then you might be one of the 60 Million people in the U.S. who struggle with a sleep disorder. Indeed poor sleep pervades our lives at work and at home despite how many people know how important it is to achieve restorative quality sleep.

Fear not! Over the years I've helped hundreds of people and organizations master the basic skills required for gaining consistent, restorative sleep. You don't need any medications or drugs to pull this off-you'll never have to worry about those terrifying Lunesta moths again! All you need is a little patience and some practice to improve your sleep one night at a time.

Here are six steps that will help you start falling asleep and staying asleep so you can achieve restful, restorative sleep.

Source: Anmol/Unsplash

Practice self-care. The physical, emotional, and sometimes financial, demands of your professional role are the enemies of a good night’s sleep. Stress hormones keep you vigilant and ready to dash to your phone, tablet, email or IM. Putting in place realistic self-care practices is one of the most effective ways to combat stress.

With your schedule packed with back-to-back meetings, and family or personal commitments outside of work, not many people feel that they have the time to get lost in a good book or the money to spend a relaxing day at the spa. But most can find little spots in their day to indulge in a mindless pleasure – a magazine, a favorite TV show, or a slightly longer shower or bath. Pick a few activities that help you unwind, and work them in a few times a week to help you release stress.

Log off and cool down. Although the connectivity and stimulation of smartphones, laptops, tablets, and TVs is useful during the day, at night it confuses your body’s clock into thinking it should stay awake. This is even true of devices that supposedly make our lives easier – like wearing watches that buzz when you receive an email – but actually keep you vigilant and awake, waiting for the next beep.

Create a cut-off time (about an hour before going to bed) to unplug and put in place rituals that tell your body it’s time to sleep. This means no more emailing, texting, or web-surfing. Doing so shifts your body into what I call the “cool-down” zone. In the cool-down zone, you can practice sleep-promoting behaviors, such as dressing for bed, washing up, cuddling or (dare I say) having sex with your partner, reading a real book for 20 minutes. (Tablets don’t count – the light from the screen is stimulating to your brain.) Another good option is doing a few relaxation exercises or five-minute deep breathing meditations to unwind. Check out this video from Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained specialist in relaxation and holistic health, for some guidance on how to do simple controlled breathing for sleep.

Cut back on caffeine and alcohol. Many people find caffeine as the fuel that keeps them going after a sleepless night, so they keep the java flowing all day long. The problem is that a single serving of coffee (half a tall coffee at Starbucks) stays active in your system for eight hours, elevating your heart rate and keeping your body stimulated. Cutting caffeine off at 2 pm has a tremendous impact on your ability to feel sleepy and stay asleep.

Alcohol, which can become a companion to unwind from the stress of the day, also undermines your rest. While a glass of red before bed may initially make you sleepy, your body uses a lot of energy and water to break it down. That dehydration and digestion can interrupt your sleep and keep you awake, even when you are tired.

Reconsider naps. Decades of research on insomnia suggest that the body’s natural hunger for sleep is the key to sleeping through the night. If you think of sleep as the feast you have been waiting for all day, then napping is like snacking – it can ruin your appetite for dinner.

Make your bed feel sleepy. Associating your bed with sleep and feeling sleepy is essential for quality sleep. Make your bed an oasis for rest by only using it for sleep, unwinding, and having sex. (That means no watching TV or using a tablet or other stimulating electronics.)

If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed. Trying to force sleep results in a lot of tossing and turning, anxiety, and frustration, which then becomes associated with your bed. Instead, get out of bed and do something boring or not stimulating until you feel sleepy. (Think: sorting junk mail and reading a magazine NOT making to-do lists, re-reading a document, checking a spreadsheet, surfing the Internet, or watching TV.)

Go Easy on Yourself

Most people are juggling multiple roles and are understandably anxious about being a great manager and a top producer, but many suffer unnecessarily under the pressure of feeling like they need to be the perfect leader, parent, housekeeper, family financial planner, provider, and the list goes on. These worries keep many people awake. You’re constantly doing your best to deal with a complex and fast-changing environment. Give yourself a break and know that getting good sleep and recharging are the keys to taking care of yourself.

Some people will still have difficulties falling asleep despite trying to follow these steps. If you consistently have difficulties with anxiety about sleep, falling asleep, staying asleep, or going back to sleep after you wake up in the middle of the night, you should contact a sleep specialist to determine if you have a formal sleep disorder like primary insomnia.  Be sure to work with behavioral sleep medicine professionals who specialize treatments for sleep that are based on rigorous evidence and clinical trials like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).