How You Can Benefit from Adjusting Your Sleep Habits

Sleep seems like an obvious piece of our lives, yet so many of us abuse it.

I often get asked questions like, "How are you so productive?" or "Where do you find the time to get everything done?" While there are many answers, the main answer is sleep. I get enough sleep every night and I feel well-rested most of the time. People usually dismiss me quickly as if that is too obvious. I think sometimes they would rather hear me say I drink some magical potion instead of talking about sleep.

I consider myself "reformed" on my sleep behaviors.

I like talking about the power of sleep so much because I have been on both sides of the sleep continuum. I used to say things like, "I can sleep when I die," or "Maybe I don't need as much sleep as everyone else." I would stay up around the clock during college, trying to get more done and to be more successful. But it didn't really work for me. I started to forget large chunks of memories and I wasn't retaining new information. I was gaining weight and feeling stressed out all the time. I didn't know why I felt so tired all the time...which sounds like an obvious statement, but we so undervalue sleep in our society, we actually wonder why we're exhausted when we haven't slept well for months or even years. I changed my behaviors in my mid-twenties and really embraced my sleep "revolution" after graduate school.

Side note - I have never had a medical condition related to sleep. If you struggle with narcolepsy or chronic insomnia, please talk to your doctor. I am not providing medical advice here, just my own examples of what has worked, backed up by research in the field.

Rules I follow about sleep:

  • My bed time is 10pm and I wake up at 6am. Every day. Exceptions are rare.
  • I start to get ready to fall asleep at 9pm. This includes regular routines such as brushing my teeth, not looking at screens (phones or computers), and generally relaxing.
  • Limited caffeine after 12pm. A cup of coffee at 4pm would probably keep me up all night at this point. I stick to coffee and caffeine in the morning.

It took me several months to establish these rules for myself.

Getting one night of really good sleep is not revolutionary. But 300 nights in a row? That changed my life. I do not need my alarm clock in the morning - my body just wakes up at 6am. My 20-year-old self would have been completely baffled that this was possible for me. Persistence and dedication to my rules have really paid off for me. I have a lot more energy, which results in having the energy to exercise, which helped me lose weight and make better food decisions...the benefits all stack on top of each other. For me, I know it started with changing my sleep habits.

Small adjustments are the key to successful sleep habits.

If you are someone who is currently struggling with sleep, trying to follow my rules isn't going to work for you. Those rules took me time. You have your own pattern that you need to find. So I recommend small adjustments at first.

Examples of small adjustments:

  • Track your sleep behaviors. Maybe you currently say, "I try to go bed by 12am." But some nights that drifts into 2am and other nights it is 11pm. Do you really know when you're going to sleep? Track it. Fitbits or a simple log next to your bed are helpful for tracking.
  • Add an extra half hour to your regular sleep time. Sometimes I hear my students try to make really big goals like, "I usually go to bed at 2am, but I'm going to go to bed at 11pm now!" Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's going to be really hard to stick to on a regular basis. But what if you say, "I'm going to go to bed at 1:30am for three days in a row." Start small.
  • Download an app that decreases the blue light coming from your screens. I like F.lux, but there are many options out there. Use it for a few weeks to see if it helps.
  • Limit your screen time before bedtime. Keeping your cell phone under your pillow should probably be the first thing to go. Set it aside. I wrote about not having a smartphone at all in a different blog post - it helps my sleep habits.

These are just some small examples. I can't emphasize how important sleep is to me enough. I shout it from the rooftops almost any chance I get! If you want to learn more about the science and research behind sleep, I highly recommend this post by James Clear. The National Sleep Foundation also has several articles about sleep. Understanding how sleep works, making small adjustments, and building on those good habits have been my secret to successful sleep.

What about you? Are you currently struggling with sleep? Or have you found some helpful tips? Share them below in the comments!