Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sleep Testing

One of the most important things you can do for your health, happiness, and productivity is to get enough sleep.  You have probably heard this so many times that it feels like white noise at this point, but what if you could actually do it?  What if you could wake up refreshed and energetic every day, and not struggle to get out of bed?  I believe this is achievable for everyone - as long as you are willing to take the time to methodically test your sleep schedule, and make a few minor changes to your bedtime routine.


There are a few main points that you need to keep in mind when trying to get the most out of your sleeping hours:
  • Eat well
  • Exercise
  • Avoid bright lights and turn off all electronics at least 1 hour before bed
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each night (even on weekends)
  • Sleep a consistent number of hours each night
  • Sleep in 1.5 hour increments (e.g. sleep for 6, 7.5, or 9 hours)
  • Pay off sleep debt when needed
Let's break these points down a little more.  

Preparing Yourself For Sleep

Getting to bed on time and falling asleep quickly are both critical components to establishing a consistent schedule and feeling great when you wake up.  There are a few strategies you can use to make this process easier.  

At the risk of stating the obvious, exercise helps you sleep and improves sleep quality.  Consistent exercise will also give you more energy during the day, and provide many other benefits.  

Eating well is also an important part of sleep quality.  This means not eating a large quantity of food before bed, as well as maintaining a healthy diet.  This isn't a post about what to eat, so to keep it simple just follow the rules that (almost) all diets agree on: lower your sugar intake dramatically, eat lots of fresh vegetables, and consume everything else in moderation.  

I have also found it helpful to brush my teeth well before bedtime, since it prevents late night eating and removes that barrier to actually getting into bed.  Getting your bedtime routine done early is a huge step towards going to sleep at a consistent time each night.  

Finally, as I mentioned above it's important to avoid bright lights and turn off electronics around an hour before you plan on going to bed.  The impact of this varies from person to person, so it's worth testing how it affects you.  I use this time to read and catch up with Steph, but it's also a great time to do things like fold laundry, wash dishes, or do some minor cleanup around the house.  The key is to find something relaxing that helps your mind wind down from the day and prepare itself for sleep.

Figuring Out How Much Sleep You Need

Only 1-3% of people are "short sleepers", and can get by on 4-5 hours of sleep a night.  The rest of us usually need to fall into either the 7.5 or 9 hour bucket.  On the plus side, it's easy to figure out if you are one of these people.  If you are a natural short sleeper, you:
  • Go to bed late and get up early
  • Don't drink caffeine, but still feel alert
  • Don't feel the need to catch up on sleep during weekends
  • If you are sitting in a dark room during the day (e.g. watching a movie), you easily stay awake
This is extremely uncommon, and as a result many people are not getting as much sleep as they need.  These people fall behind and build up a long term sleep debt.  Paying this sleep debt down needs to happen before you can reliably determine how much sleep your body really needs day to day.  As a result, when you start your sleep testing project you should sleep at least 9 hours every night for 2+ weeks (longer if possible) to establish a clear, rested baseline to work from.

Once that baseline is in place, and any sleep debt you had is paid down, you can experiment with other amounts of sleep.  Start by dropping from 9 hours to 7.5, and stay there for two weeks to see how it feels.  It is important that these are hours of real sleep, not just time in bed.  The strategies above will help you fall asleep more quickly, but it will still take time.  Figure out how long you typically take to fall asleep and add that to the multiple of 1.5 hours that you are shooting for.  If you feel great at 7.5 hours you can try going to 6, but it's likely that 7.5 will be your sweet spot - if you start to feel crummy while trying 6 hours a night, go back to 9 to pay off the debt you accrued and then settle in at 7.5.  

Waking Up

If you have trouble getting up in the morning, even after doing the steps above, you might want to try using a wake up light.  I've heard from a number of people that these can work wonders, especially if you have trouble getting out of bed when your alarm goes off even when you get a lot of sleep.  The concept is that by simulating the dawn, these light based alarms activate our biological triggers for waking up.  I've never tried one, so let me know if you have experience with these in the comments. 

It's also important to avoid snoozing your alarm.  As this video explains, snoozing your alarm over and over again simply confuses your body and causes you to interrupt deeper parts of your sleep cycle.  You are much better off just setting your alarm for a later time and skipping the snooze button.

Conclusion

I was watching an interview with Gretchen Rubin recently (author of The Happiness Project), and she made the point that most people these days are knowledge workers, and that our brains are our most valuable asset.  Chronic sleep deprivation means chronic underperformance.  If you aren't getting enough sleep, you aren't operating at your best, which makes you a worse employee/engineer/friend/significant other/etc.  It's not always easy, and sometimes things get in the way of sleep.

Face licking starts at 6:30AM sharp!
That said, if you can make the necessary adjustments to sleep a little bit more, and a bit more consistently, I guarantee you will like the results.