“Awareness is half the battle when it comes to sleep, both because most of us underestimate the costs of getting too little and because of the extraordinary value of getting enough. This recognition is the first step in making more sleep a priority.
IF you’re not getting enough sleep, you almost certainly need to go to bed earlier, given that you likely don’t have the option of waking up later than you already do. The key to sleep is to be relaxed, something that is increasingly difficult to achieve given the pressure of our daily lives. One obvious alternative is to use sleep aids. Every form of sleep medication has its drawbacks, from limited hours of effectiveness, to leaving us feeling groggy in the morning, to being addictive. Alcohol, the most common form of self-medication when it comes to sleep, is likewise a double-edge sword. Because it acts initially as a sedative, it does induce sleep, and nearly 30 percent of insomniacs use alcohol at least occasionally to help them fall asleep. But alcohol is also metabolized rapidly by the body, which can lead to physiological withdrawal symptoms in the middle of the night, including frequent awakenings, shallow sleep, and less overall sleep time. In simple terms, the less alcohol you drink and the earlier you drink it, the more deeply you’re likely to sleep through the night.
The best way to fall asleep naturally is to begin quieting down at least thirty to sixty minutes before you turn out the lights. That means avoiding anything stimulating as you get closer to your bedtime – e-mailing and the Internet, mystery novels, highly charged conversations – in favour of whatever you find relaxing: drinking a glass of milk or herbal tea, taking a bath or a shower, listening to music, or even reading a dull book.
Because feeling relaxed is so critical to sleep, it can also be helpful to intentionally “park” your anxieties before you turn out the lights. This simple technique involves writing down what you’re worrying about in a notebook or on a piece of paper. For many of our clients, this strategy has proven to be a surprisingly powerful means of temporarily setting aside concerns that otherwise keep them awake. By writing down what’s on your mind, you effectively give your brain permission to release it from conscious awareness. The same technique can be used when you wake up in the middle of the night, begin to ruminate, and have trouble getting back to sleep.
Setting a specific bedtime is especially critical, because without one, we tend to default back quickly to whatever time we’re used to going to sleep or simply stay up until we feel tired. Once the lights are out, one effective way to relax is deep breathing and progressive relaxation – tightening and releasing muscles throughout your body, starting with your toes and working your way up. For obvious reasons, we sleep better in environments that are dark and quiet. It also helps to sleep in a cool room, which allows the body temperatures to drop, as it’s meant to do during sleep. If you have any doubt about the value of a cool room, think about what it’s like to try to sleep on a hot summer night.
Peter Goettler, who headed investment banking at Barclays Capital until 2008, spent most of his working life feeling sleep-deprived. When that’s the case, it’s nearly always where we begin our work. Goettler went to sleep most nights between 11 pm and midnight and awoke around 5 am, scarcely an unusual sleep pattern for many of our clients. When Goettler got out of bed, he had the first of several cups of coffee to jack himself up. During the day, he often yo-yoed between feeling jittery and tired, especially in the late afternoons.
After working with us, Goettler decided to build a ritual in which he went to bed at 10 pm, got up half an hour later in the morning, and stopped drinking coffee altogether. Almost immediately, he was successful in going to bed earlier. At first, he reported that he found himself waking up earlier and therefore sleeping the same number of hours he always had. It’s a pattern we’ve often seen: the body can become deeply habituated even to sleeping patterns that leave us feeling tired.
We suggested that when he woke up, Goettler simply lie quietly in bed, relaxing as best he could and effectively giving his body permission to sleep longer. Even if it didn’t work immediately, he’d be getting more rest. After a week or so, he did begin sleeping longer. The extended sleep was transformative for him. “I was more rested, I felt better, I thought more clearly, I got less tired as the day wore on, and I had more energy when I got home,” he told us. “I never would have believed an hour more of sleep could make such a difference.” Adequate sleep, we’re convinced, sets the stage for taking more control of every other part of our lives.”
(From Chapter 5 Sleep or Die, “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live” (formerly known as “The Way We’re Working isn’t Working: the Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance” by Tony Schwartz)