I had a sleep problem most of my life. As a boy, I hated being told it was time to sleep. Going to bed was mostly something imposed from above. Just as there were “times” to eat, there was a “time” to go to bed. I recall lying in my bedroom, staring at the blue light at the bottom of the door, thinking of the television shows that the grownups were watching a few feet away.
By being relegated to the bedroom, I felt I was missing out on life. That was a belief I carried into adulthood. Staying up later felt grown-up somehow, the way I later thought about smoking and drinking alcohol.
At least that was the story I came to believe. I resisted going to sleep then, and often feel the impulse to resist when drowsiness or a yawn signals to me that it’s time to call it a day. There is often a sense of something else that could be done, something not to be missed, something to stay up for that’s better than going to bed.
There is a huge amount of research now on the benefits of sleep. These include studies that show sleep helping with everything from reducing stress and inflammation to better sex to stronger immunity and slowing the aging process. Further, sleep deficiency is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes and even a greater chance of being involved in accidents.
But the point of this post is not to convince you that getting enough sleep pays big dividends. You probably already know you should be getting at least seven hours of sleep, just as you know to eat your vegetables, drink enough water and get regular exercise.
The growing chorus of voices making the point about the importance of sleep includes Mark Hyman, Christiane Northrup and Arianna Huffington, whose 2015 TED Talk is a fine, short introduction to the subject of sleep and the high cost of sleep deprivation.
Now that you know
The hard thing about self-care isn’t knowing what to do. It’s getting from where we are to where we know we need to be, despite cultural norms, conflicting priorities and time constraints. We develop habits over time, and sometimes our habits about things as basic as how we eat and when we go to bed are among the hardest to change. Something as basic as determining what would be an appropriate bedtime, in order to get the sleep you need, can be daunting.
Other things may have to be adjusted. You might, for example, need to tape Stephen Colbert’s show, to watch it the next day, rather than see it live. You might need to stop drinking fluids a couple of hours before that bedtime, to avoid having to get up several times overnight. It may be necessary to curtail Internet use and do something more conducive to sleep in the hour or two before your bedtime. It may help to define when to do everything from walking the dog to flossing your teeth.
As my experience suggests, getting to bed at a reasonable hour is one of those basic things in adult life that can stir up very child-like resistance for those of us who stopped being children decades ago.
If you’re inspired by Huffington’s video, you may be interested in her recently published book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
Calling it a day
One of the best ideas about sleep was suggested to me by a mentor years ago. Pick a bedtime or a time just before you go to bed, and treat that as the beginning of the next day. So if this time is 10:30 p.m., your Tuesday begins at 10:30 on Monday, rather than at midnight or sunrise the next morning. If you stay up past that time on Monday, you’re stealing from Tuesday. When you think about it, this makes sense, since it’s on Tuesday that you’ll experience the diminished energy, alertness and productivity.
It may help to stop thinking of it as something that carries over from the previous day, something that happened in the past. The sleep you choose to get on Tuesday plays a large role in how you experience Tuesday.
This notion of when the next day begins can help to anchor a new ritual around sleep. If 11 p.m. was the designated end of your day, you might decide, for example, not to eat or drink anything after 9 p.m., to turn off televisions and computers by 10 p.m., and use the last hour only for things that help you prepare for your bedtime (like walking the dog, turning out lights or brushing and flossing your teeth) or that help to bring you to a drowsy state, like reading or meditating or writing in a journal.
The latter can be especially useful. A simple exercise such as writing down three things that went well that day and one that could be improved upon might help us to reach a point when we feel ready to release the day. We can stop resisting sleep and let go with acceptance, knowing we can begin again tomorrow.
Sleep can be approached as mindfully as eating, driving or any other activity. If you’ve already developed good sleep habits, good for you. If you haven’t: there are few more important habits of health, and if you haven’t started yet, there’s no better time than tonight to begin to cultivate this one.