I Don’t Know How to Put This…

In my first year of college at William & Mary, I made the traditional rookie mistake and signed up for 8:00 am classes. That was a later start than high school, so of course, I thought it would be no big deal. Tuesdays and Thursdays had Greek & Roman Mythology 8 – 9:30, and Linear Algebra 9:30-11:00.

You can see where this is going, right?

I still have the spiral-bound notebook from the mythology class, which always gives me a chuckle. There’s usually about a half-page of written notes, with the handwriting getting progressively sloppier, and then honest-to-goodness random lines where I dozed off and my hand drew random things on the page. At least there were 150 people in the class, so my sleeping went unnoticed. Linear Algebra had 35, and often I found myself out cold on the desk as class was wrapping up.

One day I was walking through Jones Hall*, and I bumped into my Linear Algebra professor. He said, “I don’t know how to put this… you need more sleep.” That was it. Man was I embarrassed. But that simple encounter helped me get my act together for the rest of the semester. 

I would love to tell you that this was the turning point in my life as far as sleep is concerned, but of course, it wasn’t. I was young and invulnerable. In fact, I idolized individuals who had mastered the art of getting by on very little sleep. I remember one phenomenal leader. He brought an unparalleled intensity to the job. He helped us grow the business by bringing in a fresh perspective. He had a gift for humor to complement his intensity – work hard and play hard. And he routinely survived on 4 hours of sleep a night.

I tried desperately to figure out the secret formula that allowed him to do this. Imagine what I could do with an extra 2-4 hours in my day every day? I never figured it out, and I eventually realized that little sleep wasn’t at all healthy for me, and probably wasn’t healthy for him either.

When he left our company, he took several months off before starting a new role. I vividly remember seeing him at the midpoint of that break. He was glowing. He was down to his high school weight. He was exercising regularly. He was happier than ever. I knew two things at that moment: 1) Even he needed more sleep and 2) If he could figure out how to carry his current self into his next role, he’d be an even greater leader than he already was.

So. I don’t know how to put this. You probably need more sleep.

I recommend prioritizing sleep over anything else you can think of to improve your health. Over exercise. Over nutrition. Over meditation. Over daily gratitude. Over social connection. Start with sleep. Here are my favorite techniques.

Not Eating Before Bedtime

Our bodies need time to digest what we’ve eaten. The closer to bedtime we eat, the less restful our sleep is. I finish eating at least two hours before bedtime and strive for three. Pro tip – brush your teeth after that last meal. That helps to mentally reinforce that I’m done eating and drinking for the day (other than water).

When I eat close to bedtime, it shows up in my sleep data. It takes my body hours to get to its lowest heart rate (more on this later). 

Stick to a Schedule

Our bodies thrive on a set schedule. I used to have a “weekday” schedule and a “weekend” schedule. I finally bit the bullet and settled on a consistent schedule all the time (with the occasional exception for special occasions). Catching up on sleep over the weekend can help a little but getting the right amount seven days a week helps a lot more.

Digital Sunset

I’m not going to lie; this one sucks. I am really, really attached to my iPhone. I think of my attachment as the first step on my path to a full-on cyborg sometime in the future. However, I’ve realized the importance of putting it away an hour before bedtime, along with every other digital device. I don’t succeed at this every night, but most nights, one hour before bedtime, the phone is put up. I’m done with the computer. The TV is off. The tablet is put away. No more devices or screens until morning. 

I will usually take a warm shower and then read an old-fashioned physical book with low light until bedtime. When I do this, I fall asleep quickly and sleep much more soundly. When I stay on a screen until I hop into bed, I lie there overstimulated, waiting for sleep to come.

Suppose you don’t have this luxury because you’re working on a big deadline or something else requires technology. In that case, I encourage you to put your singular focus on whatever task stands in the way of Digital Sunset, get it done, and then shut it all down. Don’t fall into the trap of watching YouTube for an extra hour because you’ve already failed at Digital Sunset.

The Best Available Technology

As I mentioned previously, I am a big believer in leveraging the best available technology. I love my Oura ring. It tracks my sleep faithfully, tells me how much I actually slept (compared to how long I was in bed), how much light, deep and REM sleep I got, and knows every time I ate too late (and points that out to me the following day, among other things). If you are the sort of person that can leverage data to drive results, consider an Oura ring or another wearable device that can track your sleep. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to sleep while wearing a ring or a watch, but I was wrong. Now I sleep with both the Oura ring and a Garmin watch every night, and they don’t bother me at all.

Darken the Room

If you have trouble falling asleep or trouble getting back to sleep when you wake up, consider darkening the room. I got blackout curtains and removed anything that was emitting light. The room is pitch black until the sun rises. My Garmin watch doubles as my flashlight if I need to get up during the night.

I’m averaging 8.1 hours of sleep per night this year. That’s the highest ever since I started tracking it in 2017. I’m confident that this foundation is a key component that helps me be my best self every day. Which one of these tips can best serve you?

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*Fun fact for William & Mary folks – back in those days the Computer Science department was also in Jones Hall, along with Math and IT.