Tip: there was no artificial light up until recent history
Historian William Manchester wrote a book called A World Lit Only by Fire that chronicles life during medieval times, a time when dim candles and fires were the only light after sundown. People slept curled up in tiny alcoves built into walls. Work was backbreaking and exhausting. I imagine sleep was very different then.
Today we don’t work seven days a week from dawn till dusk. A lot of our work is cerebral rather than physical. We sit too much. And we have lost the ability to sleep on a regular basis. Just as those peasants in the middle ages had very different sleep habits, we have to adapt our daily habits to regain the ability to sleep for the required 7.1 hours nightly. Fortunately the work of science and sleep coaches shows us a path to falling asleep and staying asleep until we wake naturally, refreshed and ready to go.
Let’s look at five behavioral changes we can make to get those ZZZs.
Screens off one hour before bed
Actually, all of these steps are basically programming youself to enter sleep mode gradually in the hour before you go to bed. Because the screens in our lives, including TV, phones, tablets and computers emit light that is a stimulant, they need to be off a full hour before bed. Sleep experts are united in their belief that there is no room for a tv in a bedroom, period.
This is a great time for reading an actual printed book. I have a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on my nightstand. At 1200+ pages it has seen me to sleep many nights, not because it is boring (it most definitely is not!) but because each page is dense with great writing, writing that requires thought. This hour before sleep is not a great time to plan or organize as those are wakeful mind activities.
As obvious as it may seem, we really need the room to be as dark as possible to trigger sleep mode. No nightlights and blinds or curtains that can be completely closed. One sleep coach* for a European soccer team actually brings light blocking screens and sets them up in the players’ hotel rooms to ensure darkness. He is also big on weighted blankets that limit movement.
Caffeine is in your system for twelve hours
This varies by person and by age but the average time caffeine is in your system is a full twelve hours, so that cup of Joe at three in the afternoon may keep you up till three in the morning. The general rule would be no coffee after noon. But remember, cola and most soft drinks have caffeine, as does chocolate.
Alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant
Yup, a few drinks can help you conk out but it’s not unusual for them to wake you up in the middle of the night. Alcohol hits us in stages that alternate between stimulation and depression.
In keeping with the hour before sleep concept, it is best to not consume any food or drink for at least an hour before sleep, including water, which can have you waking in the night to go.
Walk two miles daily without fail
Two miles is not a lot. The average walker covers a mile in 20 minutes or about 2500 steps. Anyone who uses a fitness tracker knows that steps can add up pretty quickly just from daily errands and things like yard work. If you’re not a walker, try not hopping in the car for every little task around town. Walk. It is a great way to solve problems, get a little meditation time in, and fresh air. And you’ll sleep better. I do a mile loop in the morning before my coffee and it has changed my productivity in positive ways. That is the time for planning your day.
Bonus: try ten minutes of meditation when you can’t sleep
Sometimes there are those times when you simply can’t sleep. It’s better to not lie there trying. Turning on a light and reading for a few minutes can help, as can ten minutes of meditation using the breath counting method. Breathe naturally and on each out breath count starting with one. When you reach ten, start over. Just observe the breath and try not to breathe deeply or otherwise influence the breath. Just breathe. Six or seven rounds of ten breaths should be about ten minutes. With a little practice this will ‘deprogram’ your mind, helping you switch from daytime mode to sleep mode.
Seven or eight hours of sleep can make a huge difference in the quality of life. It’s worth building a set of habits that help you achieve that every night. You’ll feel a lot better, recover from illnesses a lot faster, be more productive, and more creative. I think that’s worth the effort.
*The sleep coach, Nick Littlehales, has written an excellent book on sleep, Sleep: The Myth of Eight Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind.