We've already covered why sleep is so important, so now lets look at how you can practically get the best sleep possible. Like most things, it's not so hard once you have a plan and a system you can follow. And yes, you can even create this if you have kids - it might just have to offer additional flexibility too. But at least if you have the basics down, you'll be sleeping better, more of the time.
- Have a consistent bedtime
Your body and brain are a habitual machine that prefer things the same day in and day out. If a similar routine is followed the body knows when to peak and relax, when to work and when to switch off.
Setting a goal for a consistent bedtime can help you get a little closer to your ideal sleep. Set a time of night which you know is realistic, and which is also going to give you the hours of sleep you need. You pretty much have to work backwards from the morning afterwards and when you'll need to wake up.
Even if you only went to bed 15 minutes earlier each night - that's an extra (nearly) 2 hours per week of sleep you weren't getting before.
- Your wind down routine
Once you have decided on the time you'll go to sleep you can plan your wind down routine. Allowing a period of time to wind down before actually going to sleep is so important. Just like you wouldn't expect to exercise without a warm up you shouldn't expect to fall asleep without the equivalent wind down.
Everyone needs a buffer between the stress of the day and actually getting to sleep. Remember the last time you came home late, and needed to relax by watching an hour of TV before you felt sufficiently wound down to go to bed. That was your body and brain saying "hey let me just switch off a bit before I sleep".
This time should be anywhere between 1-2 hours before you plan to go to sleep, and should consist of low stress, low tech activities.
- Make your bedroom more suitable for sleep
Our actual sleeping environment gets very few makeovers. We might buy some new curtains or a new bed every 10 years or so, but besides that give little thought to how suitable the bedroom is for sleeping in. There are several things you can do quite easily that can maximise your bedroom to make sleep more likely.
- Make sure your room is totally dark. Is there light coming in from other parts of the house or outside? Ensure window coverings block out all light. Add to this wearing an eye mask too.
- It should be a quiet room. Make sure there's no noises that will affect you. Ear plugs could be used to overcome a noisy street (good for central city dwellers).
- Keep your bedroom cool. More and more information is coming to light that sleeping in a cooler environment could be beneficial. Make up your own mind. First and foremost it should be comfortable for you.
- Your bed, pillows, and sleeping position. Yes, there is an ideal sleeping position, though you may need to buy a couple more pillows. Check out Kelly Starrett's video below.
- All electronics out of the bedroom. See the next tip on electronics.
- Keep those electronics off
Light from electronic screens, tablets, laptops, TV's and phones, can disrupt melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone secreted to make you sleepy and is an important part of sleeping well.
During your wind down period (1-2 hours as above) you should avoid using these items for this reason. Using these items at this time of night can also lead to the checking of emails/work affairs - which can cause anxiety which is also not a sleep promoting emotion. If you need to read a few pages of your book before going to sleep read an actual book instead of an e-reader.
All of these electronic devices should not only be not used during this time, but also not be kept in your bedroom overnight. You may need to use an old school alarm clock to get up in the morning, instead of your phone.
If you can’t sleep at night, the light from electronics can suppress the sleep promoting hormone melatonin. In addition, checking your email at night can add to worry and stress, which you are better off saving for the daytime.
- Save the worry for morning
Everybody has had these moments. It’s dark, quiet and you feel wide awake. Possibly it's not having had the wind down routine you need, but it could also be plain old worry. Worry about work deadlines, emails, projects, whatever. Nighttime is not the time you want to be spending stewing on these thoughts. There's usually not much you can do about them in the middle of the night, and they'll still be there in the morning anyway - only hopefully easier to tackle after a good nights sleep.
If this is happening often, re-look at your wind down routine, something might be missing there.
- Get some daily activity
There's nothing going to set you up to sleep well as good as being physically exhausted. If you're asleep every night before your head hits the pillow chances are you are managing to tire yourself out physically.
If not, up your exercise and other activity levels until you feel a difference in your feeling of tiredness at night time. Simpley add 10 minutes per day, assess whether sleepiness has increased. If not add a bit more, and after a short time you'll have an idea how much activity you need to be doing to allow you to sleep well. Whether that's enough activity to get you fit and healthy is another post.