An in-depth look at mastering your sleep.
One of those days again: Your alarm goes off, you open your eyes, and all you want is snuggling back into your sheets and sleep a few more minutes.
But duty calls, so you get up, wash your face, and grab your first cup of coffee to compensate for the lack of recovery from the night. What follows are hours of operating in automatic mode just to get through the morning before you actually feel awake.
While we all know how this daunting scenario feels, a lack of sleep doesn’t only come with short-term sacrifices. In the long run, sleep deprivation significantly harms your health and productivity.
According to Shawn Stevenson, there’s no facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.
Contrary to what you might think, sleep is an active process. During the night, our brain processes everything we saw, heard, and learned throughout the day. Additionally, our immune system gets strengthened, our metabolism gets regulated, and our damaged cells are being repaired.
That’s why high-quality sleep boosts your entire day’s output and ultimately increases the quality of your life.
Even though great days start the night before, the majority of today’s population is chronically sleeping deprived and suffering from low quality sleep.
Yet, besides a balanced diet and sports, sleep is the ultimate key to creating mental and physical balance.
According to studies, a lack of sleep leads to less creativity, more stress, and underperformance. This lack of rest leads to millions of people not living up to their full potential because they’re tired.
While many young people get trapped in a hustle mentality, thinking they’d accomplish more if they cut down on their sleep, the reality is the contrary: If done correctly, sleep can be the ultimate performance hack.
Minimizing your sleep to have more hours to work will backfire rather sooner than later.
Yet, also lots of sleep will barely lead to an energized body and a clear mind. Instead, it’s the quality of your sleep that impacts your recovery.
And while being awake is a state of using energy, sleeping is anabolic, it builds us up and fuels us with the needed energy to get through the next day.
“You will factually work better, be more efficient, and get more stuff done when you’re properly rested.”
— Shawn Stevenson
Even though sleep optimization might sound complicated, it can be quite simple. A few uncomplicated habits can already lead to improved recovery and more energy throughout your days.
Understand Sleep Patterns and Build Routines
Even though many successful people and books preach waking up early, getting up at 5 AM is certainly not the holy grail to a successful day or life.
For many people, mornings are the only time when they can focus on side projects or their personal growth. Yet, when you wake up and when you go to bed, don’t matter as much as you might think. The only thing that matters in terms of productivity is how you spend the hours in between.
So instead of focusing on when to wake up, aim to maximize your energy and make the most of your time awake.
Our bodies love routines; that’s why going to bed and waking up at the same time massively affects your recovery.
Abnormalities might happen every now and then, but sticking to regular sleep patterns and going to bed at the same time will help you to fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed.
Be Aware of Sleep Phases
While sleeping, we pass five different stages of sleep. These different stages of light and deep sleep form so-called sleep cycles, and each stage has different characteristics.
Stage 1 & 2: These are the light sleep phases. During these stages, our body temperature, and blood pressure drop, and we slowly fall asleep. Stage 1 is a transition phase between being awake and sleeping and only makes up to 5% of each night. During this time, we wake up easily.
Stage 2 is accountable for up to 55% of our sleep time. That’s when our brain activity slows down, and waking up becomes harder.
Stage 3 & 4: These stages are considered deep sleep. Our brain activity drops to a minimum, and recovery processes are at a high. Thus, these stages are the most important for getting the ultimate rest and recovery.
Stage 5: The last stage is also called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase. During this phase, our eyes move, we dream, and our brain activity is at its high.
After completing these five stages, a new sleep cycle starts.
Each cycle lasts for around 90 minutes, which means we usually repeat these cycles four to six times per night.
Four such sleep cycles would lead to six hours of sleep while six cycles account for nine hours.
Okay, but why does that matter?!
Well, understanding sleep cycles matters because when you wake up influences your energy levels. Waking up in the middle of a deep sleep stage will make you feel worse for wear, waking up during a light sleep period will lead to an energized morning.
In short: Being ripped out of deep sleep will cause you to feel less energized than waking up during a light sleep period.
How to do it:
As you know that each sleep cycle takes around 90 minutes, you can set your alarm accordingly. Instead of waking up in the middle of a cycle, ensure that your alarm rings when a cycle is fully completed.
Rather than aiming for the standard eight hours of sleep, make sure you complete your sleep cycle and don’t get ripped off of a deep sleep phase.
The easiest and most effective way to understand and take control over your sleep cycle is by using smart devices such as a watch or ring to track your sleep. Yet, even most smartphones can track your sleep if you place them close to your pillow.
If you, however, don’t want to make use of devices, work with the 90-minute rule and calculate when your alarm should ring based on getting a full sleep cycle rather than waking up in the middle of a deep sleep phase.
So, if you go to bed at 10.30 PM, rather set your alarm for 6 AM, instead of 6.30.
Soak Up Sunlight
Studies show that getting more sunlight throughout the day can help to sleep better at night.
We have a built-in 24-hour clock, the so-called “circadian timing system” inside our bodies that helps us to regulate day and night time.
Sunlight signals alertness to our brain and triggers the production of daytime hormones, which are responsible for regulating our biological clock. Thus, too little light during the day and excessive light exposure (e.g., through screens) at night influence the quality of your sleep negatively.
How to do it:
Whenever possible, get your body out and soak up some sunlight early in the morning. This will help to regulate your inner clock and differentiate between daytime and nighttime more easily.
You can, for instance, get to work a little earlier and walk the last mile, take your breaks outside or at least close to a window, or implement a short walk as your new morning routine.
Avoid Blue Light
The artificial blue light emitted by our screens has a negative influence on our sleep patterns as it harms the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us to fall asleep with ease and sleep well.
Due to the exposure to artificial lighting, our bodies can barely differentiate between day and night. Thus, falling asleep is more difficult after staring at our screens late at night.
Engaging with our devices late at night keeps our brains alert and harms the quality of our rest. And even though watching your favorite movie or typing a few messages might not seem like a big deal, it is.
Browsing through the web is keeping your brain active while all you need after a busy day is to disconnect and unwind.
“Disconnecting from our technology to reconnect with ourselves is absolutely essential.”
— Arianna Huffington
How to do it:
Whenever possible, avoid screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Experts even recommend avoiding artificial light through screens 90 minutes before bedtime.
Instead, practice activities that help you calm down, such as reading, stretching exercises, meditation, or any other calming hobby.
If you really can’t stop using your devices, install a blue light blocker on your screens (e.g., f.lux). By doing so, the blue light of your screens will turn into a red light, which is less harmful to your body and sleep. Most phones already have a “night feature”, which also reduces the blue light that is emitted.
Alternatively, you can also grab a pair of blue light blocking glasses.
Darken Your Bedroom
In addition to avoiding screens, dimming the lights of your bedroom will also improve the quality of your sleep.
If exposed to too much bright light, your body doesn’t know if it’s day or night. Thus, sleeping becomes harder, and the quality of the rest drops. Sleeping in an utterly dark room, however, will help you to fall asleep faster and wake up fully recovered.
How to do it:
If possible, completely darken your room through (roll-up) curtains. If that isn’t possible, grab a pair of sleeping masks. These are cheap and effective, plus, you can take them wherever you go, which makes them a great companion during travels.
In addition to light, also minimize noises in your bedroom. If you have any digital devices in your bedroom, unplug them and ensure silence during the night.
How to do it:
Close all doors and windows that might lead to unnecessary noises during the night. Additionally, make sure to mute or unplug all devices that might be noisy.
If avoiding noises isn’t possible, get used to earplugs: Just like sleeping masks, these are cheap and effective, plus, you can take them wherever you go, which makes high-quality sleep during travels easier.
Similar to light and sounds, our body temperature has a significant influence on the quality of our sleep.
When we go to bed, our body temperature usually drops so that we can fall asleep easier. If the temperature in the bedroom, however, is too high, falling asleep becomes challenging.
According to studies, the ideal room temperature for high-quality sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Celsius.
However, in addition to the temperature of your bedroom, you should be cool too, meaning you should let go of all negativity and tension in your mind and body.
We all face negative experiences throughout our days. Even if you are an unbroken optimist, you’ll come across annoying people. And it can be hard to control our emotions throughout the day. Yet, at the latest, before going to bed, let go of all the negativity you faced during the day.
How to do it:
Make sure to cool your bedroom down before going to bed. Also, don’t wear thick clothing for sleep. Instead, let your skin breathe.
Additionally, do things that help you cool down mentally before bedtime.
Activities such as meditation or journaling can help you to let go of negative experiences and focus on the positive, even if you had a tough day.
If you want to take it one step further, you can write all your anger down on a piece of paper and burn it down. Literally, burn the piece of paper, but be cautious (e.g., do it in the sink). By doing so, you physically let go of the problem.
Other activities to calm down before bedtime are reading or listening to audiobooks.
Sleep at the Right Hours
One of the least known “sleep hacks” is the fact that our bodies recover most by sleeping between 10 PM and 2 AM.
Sleeping during this time will amplify the quality of your rest and help you feel more energized in the morning.
According to Shawn Stevenson, that’s based on the fact that we are part of nature. We are simply designed to sleep when it gets dark.
How to do it:
The 10 PM to 2 AM recommendation might vary depending on time zones, the time of the year, and other influences. Yet, the core idea is simple: Get to bed within a few hours of it getting dark outside.
“Timing your sleep is like timing an investment in the stock market — it doesn’t matter how much you invest, it matters when you invest.”
— Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary
Avoid Excessive Exercising
Heavy exercising before bedtime isn’t favorable as it boosts your metabolism, pumps your heart rate, and makes it difficult to calm down right before bedtime.
While an excessive workout in the evening might harm the quality of your sleep, a massage, and some stretching can be priceless.
Stretching and massaging your body with a foam roller will not only improve the quality of your sleep, but also help to calm down, connect with your intuition, and let go of tension.
Particularly if you have an office job and spend most of your days sitting, your body will thank you for releasing muscle tightness at the end of your day.
Besides the benefits of typical stretching exercises, a foam roller helps ease muscle pain, increase flexibility and blood flow, and help you relax.
How to do it:
If you want to do something good for your body right before going to bed, choose yoga or stretching exercises. Turn on some calming music and help your body to let go of tension. Not only your body, but also your mind will calm down, which is highly beneficial to have a night of high-quality sleep.
Avoid Big Meals and Caffeine Before Bedtime
Eating late can lead to inflammation and impairments in blood sugar regulation. Thus, whenever possible, avoid eating late at night. Your sleep, your body, and your performance will undoubtedly reward you.
However, if you should need to eat close to bedtime, make sure to consume protein-rich foods instead of carb-loaded, fatty meals.
In addition, avoid caffeinated drinks in the afternoon so that your body can get rid of the caffeine until bedtime.
Overconsumption of caffeine often leads to sleep problems, which leaves you tired, which again leads to more caffeine consumption, and soon you find yourself in a doom loop between coffee and bad sleep.
How to do it:
Instead of a late-night snack, you can drink herbal teas that help to sleep better. Chamomile tea, for instance, is known for its antidepressant qualities, and lavender tea reduces stress and anxiety.
Additionally, ensure to have some high-protein snacks at home in case you get hungry and want to eat something close to bedtime.
Depending on your body and what precisely you consume, caffeine usually has a half-life of around 5–8 hours. This means that half of the substance will be removed from your body in 5–8 hours. That’s why you should stop drinking coffee at noon or in the early afternoon to ensure your body gets rid of the caffeine until bedtime.
Preparing for high-quality sleep doesn’t need to be complex, long, or exhausting.
On the contrary: It can be short and fun. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all these ideas about what you could do to improve your sleep, have fun experimenting with them at your own speed. Keep what works for you and screw the rest.
What to avoid:
- Avoid or reduce blue lights that are emitted by screens.
- Avoid excessive exercising shortly before bedtime, choose yoga or stretching instead.
- Avoid big meals for at least two hours before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine in the (late) afternoon.
- Avoid waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle and being ripped off of a deep sleep phase.
What to do:
- Understand your sleep patterns and build a consistent sleep schedule.
- Get some sunlight early in the morning.
- Darken your room and minimize all noises.
- Cooldown the temperature in your bedroom.
- Calm your mind and let go of negativity, for example, through meditation, reading, or journaling.
- Get to bed within a few hours of it getting dark outside.
Take your time to experiment with different rituals until you find one that fits your needs and helps you to live a happier, more joyful life.
Choose one or two new routines and try different combinations until you find a pattern that helps you maximize your wellbeing and performance throughout your days.