For the past couple weeks, I’ve been sleeping much better. I used to toss and turn, sometimes for hours every night, and now I fall asleep within minutes of going to bed. So I thought it was worth taking note of all the things I’ve been doing differently these past two weeks, in case they can be of help to anyone else.
As someone who has often struggled with sleep, I wanted to dedicate a post to all my best tips to getting some much-needed rest at the end of the day. Without further ado, here are my top tips!
1. Stay consistent
This is, and I cannot emphasise this enough, by far the most important thing to getting a good night’s sleep. Go to bed at a consistent time, and wake up at a consistent time. If this isn’t something you’re ready to do, then perhaps sleeping well also isn’t something you’re ready to do.
This was the big one for me. For years, I wasn’t ready for the lifestyle commitment of going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time. Even if I was quite generous with my timings – 1am bedtime and 9am wakeup – it still got turned upside down quite regularly.
As a child, I never liked going to bed, as I always felt I was missing out on something. But I try to remind myself that I’m not losing out on any time by getting an early night – in fact, I’m gaining morning time, and I absolutely love the morning (as documented in my posts about waking up early and becoming a “morning” person).
My key factors for getting to bed on time, and getting up on time, are:
I’m going to tackle these one at a time below.
1. a) Lighting: Follow the sunset.
Ever since the invention of the lightbulb, we’ve been able to extend our days by as long as we like. As much as this is a positive thing, it’s also a massive negative – if we *can* work longer hours, chances are, we will. It messes with our sleep, it messes with our circadian rhythm, it messes with our sense of achievement. So, I’ve started pretending that lightbulbs aren’t a thing any more. Of course, I still use them – let’s not be ridiculous – but once the sun has set, I restrict all indoor light to dim, mellow side lighting. It’s worked wonders for my sleep.
On top of this, I recommend downloading f.lux right now if you don’t have it already (it’s free). Basically what it does is remove the blue light from your computer screen after a certain point in the evening (you can adjust the timings). iPhones have this function as well (just go to settings -> display and brightness -> night shift, and turn on “scheduled”). The warmer the better, and I’d recommend setting it to turn on a couple hours before you aim to get to bed, just to give your body time to adjust and let it know that it’s time to wind down. It’s amazing how much of a difference blue light makes.
Let’s talk circadian rhythm for a second. Our internal body clock aligns itself with the sun. The bright blue daylight signals to us that we should be awake, and similarly, dim, warm light or no light at all will make us sleepier. Here’s what the BBC has to say about all this:
Today, many of us miss out on these environmental cues as we work inside. Agriculture and fishing, for example, now make up just 1% of jobs in the UK.
We have become a light deprived species, and this has far reaching consequences for the quality of our sleep, and consequently our wellbeing. The optimum amount varies from person to person, but we do know that our bodies need exposure to very bright light that the majority of indoor lighting does not provide.
Minimising light exposure before you go to bed, and trying to get us much morning light as possible, are simple steps that could help most people to regulate and improve their sleep.
I also have a Lumie alarm clock (very kindly given to us as a wedding gift), which basically wakes you up with light, rather than just sound. I’ve found it really helpful in tricking my body into developing a rhythm for waking up every morning.
1. b) Preparation: Straighten up the house.
After taking what I learnt from my 50s housewife week and developing a weekly cleaning schedule, I realised that “straightening up” various parts of the house in the evening can really help me relax and get ready for bed. Typically this involves:
- Refilling the dishwasher
- Wiping down kitchen surfaces
- Fluffing the living room pillows
- Folding up throws and blankets
- Doing a quick tidy of anything obviously out of place
It’s not all about tidying – “preparation” applies to any activity that helps you start the next day off on a good note. Of course, this will be individual to you. For some people, getting tomorrow’s clothes or gym gear ready and laid out the night before can be helpful. For others, preparation might involve answering all outstanding emails, so you can wake up and have nothing whatsoever on the “to-do list”. But for me, having a tidy home really does help me start the day with a tidy mind.
1. c) Hours: Give yourself enough time
Most people I talk to don’t seem to get enough sleep. Tip: if you regularly need to “sleep the week off” by having an additional few hours on weekends, you’re not getting enough sleep. For many people, 8 hours is the right amount. This means you should be in bed *more than 8 hours* before you need to wake up. For example, I need 8-9 hours’ sleep, so in order to wake up at 8am, I need to be in bed by 11. My husband only needs 7-8, so he can get a slightly later night with the same result. Basically, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can “force” yourself into a healthy sleep schedule by exhausting yourself so much that you’re absolutely shattered every night. Getting enough sleep is highly important, and your daily routine should acknowledge this.
2. Try to avoid stress
This is quite an empty statement. We often can’t just “avoid stress”. But what we can do, is try to detach ourselves from stress once we’re in bed. Again, this point is split into a few smaller sections:
2. a) Don’t mix work and sleep
This almost goes without saying, and to be honest, this isn’t a problem I’ve had for a very long time, but please, for the love of God, don’t work in bed. If you can, try not to work in your *bedroom*. Your bedroom should pretty much only be used for sleep, and as such, I recommend keeping it as clean and tidy as possible. Try to make it aesthetically pleasing, whatever that means to you – whether it’s getting some houseplants and candles, or keeping it minimalist.
I also recommend taking this one step further. Earlier, we talked about not having main lights on once the sun has set. I recommend trying to avoid work at all costs once the sun has set. I’m not saying “do absolutely nothing after dark” – after all, doing the dishes could easily count as “work”. But there’s a big difference between 20 minutes of straightening up or replying to emails, and getting the bulk of your work done in the evening. It’s almost impossible to wind down straight after exerting yourself, so if possible try to keep this to daylight hours.
2. b) Don’t try to monitor your sleep
The worst thing you can do for your sleep is to over-monitor it. Achieving “perfect sleep” is impossible, and there’s nothing as stressful as lying in bed and stressing over how little sleep you’re going to get (and then being kept awake by these thoughts only for the cycle to continue). If you have a bad night here and there, that’s ok. If you don’t get enough sleep one night, you can always make it up the next. The more anxious and perfectionist you are about sleep itself, the more of a problem insomnia will become. I suggest sticking to your schedule as much as possible, and allow yourself the option of being tired if you need to be. What the worst thing that’ll happen if you’re tired for a day?
2. c) Create positive associations with bedtime
For me, it’s the lavender candle I keep next to my bed, along with an episode of American Dad last thing every evening. I find that my mind wanders if I try to sleep with nothing to distract me, so I enjoy listening to an audiobook or to an episode of Friends. Whatever you do last thing before bed, whether that’s yoga and a shower or a cup of green tea and a book, should be something you find relaxing. I personally find that tidying up and brushing my teeth doesn’t exactly scream “calm evening”, so I need my cartoon show with an alien to help me “switch off”. There are no rules here – whatever works for you!
I also highly, highly recommend changing your sheets every week. I used to change them every other week or even less often (shame on you, university me!) but I’ve found that having fresh sheets every week really does make your bed more relaxing. I actually can’t believe how I could ever not change them every week – what had previously been the norm now feels quite clammy to me. Having fresh linens really does make a massive difference in terms of comfort, and therefore in ability to relax. It can almost make you look forward to going to bed!
Along with creating positive associations with bedtime, I also recommend creating positive associations with waking up. I touch on this in my “morning person” post, but more than anything else it just gives you something to look forward to the next morning. Again, this will be personal. For me, it’s just the feeling of it being the morning, and my cup of tea or coffee.
3. Give the rest of your day some structure
We’ve already talked about not doing work just before bed. But there are some other things you can do throughout the day to avoid pushing your bedtime later and later.
3. a) Keep your mealtimes consistent.
This is pretty intuitive, but I’ll say it anyway: if you want to keep your sleep consistent, your mealtimes should be consistent too. Most importantly, dinner should be early enough so you have time to digest it before bed (if not, digesting your food can actually in itself interfere with sleep!) I also recommend having breakfast pretty much as soon as you wake up – it’s really helpful having breakfast to look forward to last thing before bed, and it also helps create a positive association with the morning.
3. b) Eliminate caffeine (and, if possible, alcohol)
Now I know me saying “don’t drink in the evenings” is going to fall on deaf ears (most notably, mine), but I’m still going to say it! If you do want to drink, have you considered day drinking? Much better for sleep.
I literally don’t drink caffeine after 2pm any more (I have a rule that I can’t have it after lunch, just to make life easier) and it has honestly made such a big difference. This, of course, includes black tea, a drink which doesn’t release as much caffeine into the bloodstream as coffee, but which releases it over a longer time frame. Some people seem to be able to drink as much caffeine as they like with little to no effect, and if you are one of those people then GREAT FOR YOU – but for the rest of us mere mortals, caffeine is the devil when it comes to sleep. It doesn’t even wake you up – it just keeps you equally tired, but unable to sleep.
I’ve started letting coffee and tea be a sort of “morning treat” – another thing to look forward to when going to bed.
3. c) If you didn’t get it done, give up for today
If you don’t manage to tick off your to-do list for the day, pick yourself up and try again tomorrow. Do not, and I repeat DO NOT, stay awake all night in hopes of completing your to-do list before dawn. Terrible, terrible strategy.
It also instills in us a better work ethic – rather than continually procrastinating and postponing tasks, this forces us to get them done at a reasonable time, or not at all. Sometimes, we just miss the boat. Sometimes, it’s better to give up. If you didn’t get the job done on time, you didn’t get it done on time, and that’s that.
This line of thinking will help you massively when it comes to getting enough sleep; instead of lying awake all night, beating yourself up over all the things you didn’t achieve and have yet to achieve and need to do tomorrow, just let. them. go.
This also helps solidify the idea that mornings are the time to be productive, and evenings are the time to forget about all the things that need doing and just relaxing. Nothing will help your sleep more than to remember this (and of course, the 8 other things listed in this post).
Let me know what worked for you, and if you have any other tips in the comments!