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3 Tips for Getting a Real Night's Rest

... and the Number One reason you may be having trouble.

Have you ever had a night of light, disrupted sleep because you couldn't stop thinking about work? Or have you fallen asleep but dreamed about work and all the potential disasters that could occur there? While in university, I worked nights at a restaurant. After getting off work, I felt wide awake and when I had work-related dreams, they felt so real that I would wake up feeling exhausted. Over the years, I heard this story from countless others. Does it sound familiar to you? Are you unable to leave work behind and so you end up feeling like you clock an imaginary (and unpaid) shift overnight?

When we are unable to leave work behind to initiate or maintain sleep, we suffer from poor sleep quality, leaving us unprepared for the actual work day ahead. This phenomenon signifies that we need to engage in some "counter-arousal strategies," strategies that more clearly delineate the end of the work day and the start of relaxation and refueling.

Some have ambivalence about drawing this line, for a few key reasons:

  1. They may have an insight during a dream that allows them to solve a work-related problem they were unable to crack during the day.
  2. They falsely believe their body does not need a break and that rest is an unproductive waste of time.
  3. They want to “stay on top” of issues via their smartphones so that they will have less to take care of when they return to the office the next morning.

But such beliefs get in the way of healthy sleep and may warrant new long-term strategies for health and well-being. Feeling well-rested and relaxed are important states during non-work hours—and are useful states for work as well.

If sleep is so critical, what’s the secret to avoiding the unwanted, imaginary shift while in bed? Here are 3 top strategies to clock out for real:

1. Create a buffer zone.

Create a pro-sleep environment with a buffer zone—"protected time" one hour before bed devoted to winding-down and relaxation. This should also be your electronic devices’ bedtime, for these reasons:

  • Devices can deliver emotionally charged material that can subsequently delay sleep.
  • Devices keep us in work mode, a mode incompatible with deactivation and sleep.
  • For some, devices can delay melatonin release and delay falling asleep.

Engaging in things that make you feel happy, content, or relaxed are compatible with successful disengagement from work. These could include relaxation practices such as yoga, deep breathing, guided imagery, or another technique of your choice.

2. Implement a mindfulness practice.

Thinking ahead while in bed promotes alertness and often, worry. The person we are at work is a “doing” person, a person who thinks ahead and solves problems. The “doing” person mindset is productive for work but counterproductive for sleep. Sleep needs to be effortless; efforts to produce sleep have a paradoxical, sleep-interfering effect. Thus, the ideal sleep state is in a state of “being” rather than “doing." Transitioning from our “doing” self to our “being” self is an important skill. I call it a skill because it is something we can learn and practice. Those with a mindfulness meditation practice often are able to switch into a “being” mode more readily.

3. Leave the room when you're awake.

Regardless of the cause, always get out of bed and go into another room when you find yourself awake and/or upset. Pairing the bed with upsetting thoughts, problem-solving, worry, or wakefulness will increase the likelihood that in the future, merely getting into bed will elicit wakefulness or a negative state of mind.

Some unwanted thoughts are a result of transitioning in and out of a light stage of sleep. Often, people are unaware of how they are drifting in and out. By getting out of bed to go into another room, you end the transitional state of light sleep and become lucid—a state with less susceptibility to problem-solving and worrying about work.

There is a hidden benefit to the sleep deprivation incurred by getting out of bed. Some sleep deprivation tonight may result in deeper sleep tomorrow. Further, you unpair the association of the bed with wakefulness and worry, which makes worry and sleeplessness less likely to recur in your bed.

Investing in good sleep habits will help you to sleep and be a more focused employee during your “actual” shift. Moreover, an investment in good sleep habits pay dividends for better health and well-being.

Sleep Well.