Like most Americans, last night you declined to listen to the knowledgeable voice inside your head, and instead of doing the right thing, you plugged your phone into the other outlet — the one right next to your bed — so that you could watch watch 10 episodes on Netflix before passing out at 3 a.m.
It’s OK. We all do it. Except that it’s not really OK. Because sleep actually is as important as people say it is. It might actually be more important.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sleep is at the very bottom of the pyramid, right next to food and water. Above this tier of the hierarchy are all of our more complex needs: relationships, employment, and finding meaning in life, to name a few. This implies that if a person hasn’t had a good night’s sleep, their pursuit of anything more complex will be significantly impaired.
For Spartans, sleep is extra important because it helps the body to recover from exercise. Without sleep, the body becomes prone to illness and preventable injuries like stress fractures. And, of course, you feel like you got hit by a truck when you get up in the morning.
Here are 10 simple ways to improve your sleep hygiene and get better sleep.
1. Only use your bed for sleep.
The human brain works by forming associations between concepts. Unfortunately, sometimes this feature works against us, and the brain forms an association that makes life more difficult.
One unhelpful association is an association between “stress” and “bed,” which can form as a result of turning your bed into your late-night office annex. Besides forming this “bad connection” in implicit memory, working with a bright screen in bed suppresses the body’s natural secretion of melatonin, the hormone that tells our bodies it’s time to sleep.
A good night’s sleep is a priority. Set yourself up for success by purging your sleep space of everything not related to sleep.
2. Make your sleep schedule non-negotiable.
It’s 9:36 p.m., but your boss just called and asked if you could start and finish an urgent project by tomorrow morning. What’s the answer? Come on Spartans, what’s the answer?
That’s right: you have priorities. You know that your body functions best when it has adequate rest. You know that without your health, you have nothing. Not only that, but projects that are urgent are rarely important. Sleep, on the other hand, is very important.
3. Wake up at the same time every morning.
Establishing a set “starting point” to your day provides a reliable cue (the technical term is “zeitgeber“) to your body’s circadian rhythm. Doing this consistently says to your body, “This is the official beginning of the day,” and soon your body will wake up at this time automatically.
Pick a time and commit to it.
4. Avoid alcohol one hour before bed.
As usual, the quick fix doesn’t really fix anything. Although alcohol may help you to fall asleep faster, it disrupts the most important part of sleep: REM sleep. Without this restorative sleep stage, sleep does not accomplish its goal.
5. Keep a dream journal.
Having dreams is a signal that you’ve spent time in REM sleep, which is supposed to be a restorative sleep stage. Dreams serve numerous purposes:
- Giving you interesting stories to tell your friends and loved ones
- Indicating that you’ve had good, restful sleep
- Giving you something to look forward to every night (What will it be tonight? Flying through deep space China on the back of a hippo?)
6. Lights out at 9 p.m.
Out of curiosity, I asked a Cambodian boat driver what time he went to bed every night.
“Around 8 o’clock,” he said.
I asked him when he woke up on a typical day, and 6 a.m. was his response. As the sun set on our boat and I yawned (at only 6:30 p.m.), I started to understand why.
The world is supposed to get dark from time to time. Our bodies expect it; not only that, but they depend on it. Help your body by dimming the lights in your home at the same time every night.
7. Establish a relaxing, consistent sleep ritual.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. In the case of sleep, it’s something you can use to your advantage. Because the body expects consistency, it responds well when the same thing happens at the same time every day.
Do your body a favor and do the same thing every night before you go to bed. It could be brushing your teeth and taking a shower, doing a little yoga, or reading a chapter of a book. Just keep it familiar and predictable (as a soothing contrast to your normally unpredictable and adventurous life).
8. Make sure your body works hard during the day.
Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise every week significantly improves sleep quality, according to the Sleep Foundation.
9. Nap as early as possible (or not at all).
Napping is normal. People typically feel tired between 1 and 3 p.m. due to a build-up of adenosine (the “tired” chemical) in the brain, and a nap generally clears the brain of this chemical and leaves a person feeling “rested,” i.e. not tired. The thing about adenosine, though, is that you need it to feel tired at bedtime. If you “clear out the system” too close to bedtime with an evening nap, you won’t be tired when you’re supposed to be tired, your sleep schedule will get pushed back, and you’ll probably make the same mistake the next day, so on and so forth until you’re nocturnal.
10. Get sunlight during the day.
Daylight is a natural cue for your body. It tells your body (through sensors on your retinas) that it’s daytime, time to be awake and active, and not time for sleep. (This is why it’s difficult to fall asleep in a brightly lit room.)