For a long time I tried to get by on the least amount of sleep as possible. No matter how much I read or heard about the importance of 8 hours of sleep, I always thought that was a pipe dream for someone balancing career, family, and life. I’d supplement with multiple cups of coffee during the week and sleep in as late as possible on the weekend. I always rationalized my sleep habits by finding the Lava Magazine and Wall Street Journal interviews of business exec triathletes with families that had ridiculous schedules that appeared to consistently get little to no sleep. It wasn’t until I started journaling and paying attention to the correlation between how much sleep I was getting and how I felt throughout the week that I realized how crucial sleep is for me.
When I was consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep I noticed that my self-discipline was impaired and I would fall back into habits and routines I was trying to change, I craved simple carbs and greasy foods, and my mental capacity was inhibited. My attempt to squeeze every minute out of every day by sacrificing sleep was actually doing the opposite and preventing me from living every day like I intended.
On the other hand, when I was consistently getting 7.5+ hours of sleep I was making better choices about my diet and daily habits. My brain felt unleashed and my ability to find creative solutions to problems (and how quickly I came up with those solutions) improved dramatically. I also noticed that I could handle more training volume and my recovery from workouts was faster.
The main reasons (and things I’ve personally experienced) that sleep is now a top priority in my daily schedule vs. something I view as discretionary are:
- Sleep spurs the release of human growth hormone which is an essential player in cell regeneration and recovery
- A full night of sleep enhances memory performance and creative problem solving skills
- Adequate sleep makes you a better person to be around by helping you see the positive in your interactions
- A full night of sleep boosts athletic performance, immunity, and resiliency to daily stress
- Ghrelin is the “hunger hormone” that tells you when to eat and Leptin is the “satiety hormone” that tells you when you are full. A lack of sleep increases Ghrelin and decreases Leptin so, essentially, a lack of sleeps makes you hungrier and less likely to stop eating.
It is one thing to prioritize sleep time but it is a whole other thing to actually get quality sleep. As any busy person knows, it can be hard to wind down your mind and body to actually fall asleep when you intend to. There are a couple of strategies that have worked for me.
When possible, avoid screen time about an hour before bed: TV, computer, and iPhone & iPad screens emit blue light that interrupts the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Exposure to blue light in the evening keeps me alert and awake even though I know I shouldn’t be.
Read an actual book: To avoid screen time before bed, I have started reading an actual physical paper book. However, I make sure the book isn’t going to make me think of things I want to do (e.g., non-fiction or business books) since my intent is to wind down my mind. Therefore, I started re-reading Lord of the Rings before bed.
Download f.lux or wear blue blocking glasses for screen time within an hour of bed: On the many occasions that I don’t get away from screens in the evening, I use f.lux on my computer or wear blue blocking glasses when I’m on my iPhone, iPad, or watching TV. This helps limit my exposure to blue light.
Dim the lights when it gets dark: To help maintain my body’s natural circadian rhythm that occurs with the rising and setting of the sun, I avoid using overhead lights in the evening and use lamps instead.
Drink some calming tea or bone broth before bed: I’ll frequently make some calming tea or bone broth in the evenings. I’m not sure how much of the effects are placebo vs. the actual properties of the tea/bone broth but it does seem to help me wind down. I like Yogi Honey Lavender or Yogi Kava tea.
Prepare for tomorrow: One of my evening rituals is to pack lunch my lunch, get my clothes together, clean up the kitchen, pick up the house a bit, and scan my work calendar and task list. Feeling organized and prepared puts my mind at ease.
Try to keep your bedroom cool: I sleep so much better in a cool room so we’ll program our thermostat to be a few degrees cooler at night than the rest of the day.
Use a sleep mask and ear plugs: My wife loves watching TV in our bedroom and it supposedly helps her fall asleep at night. Instead of fighting against having the TV on in the bedroom at night (I would never win that battle anyway), I have started wearing a sleep mask and ear plugs. Even if I hear the TV in the background, I have a tendency to start paying attention to the show instead of going to sleep.
When you wake up, get up: This was hard for me at first until I learned that the little pockets of sleep that the snooze button provides doesn’t help pay back your sleep debt. Instead, it can actually make you feel even more tired and groggy when you do get out of bed. I started being honest with myself when I set my alarm about what time I was actually going to get up. I tended to be one of those people who ambitiously set an early alarm only to feel exhausted when my alarm went off so, to the annoyance of my wife, I would hit snooze a few times. Ideally I can get to a point where I can wake up without an alarm but I’m not quite there yet…
Expose yourself to light as soon as you get up: One of the first things I do when my alarm goes off is look at my phone to get a jolt of blue light. Additionally, I’ll turn on as much light as possible (careful not to disturb my usually still sleeping wife) in the house if it is still dark or step outside to get some sunlight. This is usually enough to immediately jolt me awake.
Avoid coffee after late morning: As much as I thought a cup of coffee in the afternoon didn’t affect my sleep, it did. The half-life of caffeine in the body is 4-5 hours so my usual 1-2pm afternoon coffee was still in my system in the evenings. Now I try not to drink caffeinated coffee after 10am. On the occasions that I’m craving coffee in the afternoon I’ll just have a small cup of decaf.
Understand and control the impact of cortisol: Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” but it also has an important relationship with sleep. Cortisol elevation is what causes us to naturally wake up in the mornings. Low cortisol levels in the morning is what contributes to that overwhelming desire to hit the snooze button and stay in bed. Cortisol levels should be low in the evening so our bodies can fall asleep. Exercise and blood sugar spikes can raise cortisol levels. Therefore, it is best to avoid big meals and high-intensity workouts before bed. Correspondingly, exercising in the morning is a good way to raise cortisol levels.
It probably took me a good 1-2 months of trial and error to really dial in what worked for me. I’ve found that a full night of sleep for me is about 7.5 hours for a typical day and 8 – 8.5 hours to recover from a higher stress day. Sleep has become the core principle that I’ll always maintain as my core foundation. There isn’t much that a good night’s sleep won’t solve for me and sleep is what I will always go back to if I feel like I need to hit the reset button.