You spend close to 50% of your life in sleep. So why is it that we often fail to do it properly? We spend years going to university, school and work to perfect our waking selves, but we spend almost zero time learning how to sleep well. Fascinating. And perhaps a little stupid. And it seems as though the most problematic issue relating to sleep is that of getting to sleep. Many of us struggle with that seemingly simple task.
In this post I am going to give you some tips on how to get to sleep easier.
Why getting to sleep is important
Over the past few years here at The Daily Mind we have had some very popular posts on the topic of sleep. This one on waking up fresh has had more feedback than any other post. It was popular because many people struggle to wake up in the morning after a long night of deep slumber.
But in actual fact, the way you get to sleep can have a big impact on how well you sleep during the night and how easily you can get out of bed in the morning. A solid routine at bedtime can completely alter the way you sleep. Furthermore, if you get to sleep quickly and sleep solidly throughout the night you will find you feel much better during the day. For this reason the act of getting to sleep becomes very important.
NOTE – This post is about getting to sleep easily, not about staying asleep or waking up early. If you want advice on those latter two issues see the links above.
How to get to sleep easier
At first I thought about creating a “guide” to getting to sleep but changed my mind because I realized that people might not be prepared to completely change their sleeping habits. Instead I am going to give you a series of tips that you can implement all at once or one at a time as you feel comfortable. As always, please leave a comment if you have anything to add.
1. Realize that “eight hours of sleep” is a harmful rumor
The first and most important thing that you need to do is realize that the idea of getting eight hours of sleep per night is a harmful rumor. You don’t necessarily need eight hours sleep. Everyone is different. Thinking that you need a solid eight hours is just a cause for anxiety and concern. Forget it.
For example, I need around six and a half hours of sleep per night. If I have over seven hours I struggle to stay in bed, get very agitated and need to get up. Mrs. Daily Minder, on the other hand, cannot do without at least ten. If she gets less than nine hours she just cannot function. We are completely different.
When you go to bed at night remind yourself that you don’t necessarily need eight hours of sleep. It will vary depending on how tired you are and how busy you have been. Just relax thinking that whatever sleep you get is going to be enough.
2. Understand that “only deep sleep counts” is rubbish
I recently heard a sleep expert from Germany talking about how the idea that “only deep sleep counts” needs to be completely wiped from your mind. It is rubbish. You do not need deep sleep to refresh and process the day. And you certainly don’t need a super deep sleep to refresh.
The evidence for this is napping. Many countries have a siesta period where the shops close for an hour and everyone has a nap. This is a wonderful thing because it charges their batteries and allows them to sleep less the next night. They simply don’t need as much and can get up early to work or go to school.
Deep sleep is not necessary all the time. Sure it is nice. Sure it is beneficial. But don’t get caught up on it. If you wake up during the night to go to the toilet or yell at some noisy cats don’t get back into bed in a huff and force yourself to sleep. Just relax. Whatever you can get is good.
3. Stop the train of thoughts at dinner time
Dinner, for me, is the time when I actively decide to cut the train of thoughts about the day and switch off for the night. Whatever worries I have about work or the next day I let go of and think “I’ll worry about it later”. Dinner time becomes my cue to switch off for the day.
A lot of people blame their busy mind when they talk about not getting to sleep easily. I used to be like that; laying there unable to turn off the constant stream of mental chatter. I would fight it and force it until I become so worked up there was just no way I was getting any sleep. Until I decided to make a regular switch off time.
Make a habit of joining an event in your evening with “switching off”. It might be dinner or desert or an evening shower. Try to make it about an hour before your bedtime. Every night for the rest of your life I want you to actively say “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” when it gets to that time of the day. Let the thoughts go.
4. Don’t be your own sleep enemy
Relating to the last point, don’t become your own sleep enemy. If you have been unsuccessful in turning the thoughts off for the night it is important to just chill out and not work yourself into a state. I used to toss and groan and kick the covers when I couldn’t sleep – do you think that was helping things? Not at all.
If you can’t switch off and your mind is too active the worst thing you can do is get worked up. Yes you have to go to work tomorrow. Yes you need your sleep. No thinking about that is not going to help. Just relax.
If you find yourself in bed with the thoughts running you can try a simple breathing meditation. This is where you shift your focus from your thoughts to the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your nose. It is very effective and if it doesn’t cut the train of thoughts, it will at least relax your body.
5. Avoid coffee, wine and chocolate at least two hours before bed
What! Coffee, wine and chocolate? Are you serious? Yes. Very. These three things are said to be the worst thing you can have before bed because they are stomach irritants which cause sleep harming gases to be released. Coffee will also stimulate your mind and body and making it harder to slow down.
How annoying that these three substances are the very thing our culture has taught us to eat and drink in the evening! It will take some time to break these habits but it is very important. No coffee after dinner. No chocolate for desert. And no wine two hours before bed. Can you do it?
Try it for a week and see if you find it easier to get to sleep. If it doesn’t make a difference then you can go back. I’m betting, however, it makes all the difference in the world.
6. Make the bedroom totally black
Our eyes are very sensitive, and like the point above, the brain starts to associate light with day time. And what do we do at daytime? We don’t sleep. We wake. A crucial part of getting to sleep easily is making sure the room is pitch black.
This might seem simple but light comes from lots of places. It might be a hallway light you leave on for the kids, or something as simple as the bright moon shining through some thin curtains. Either way, you need to find a means of blocking it out. Heavy blinds, a doorstop or an eye mask. Block out that light. Your brain associates darkness with sleeping. So make it as dark as possible.
7. Go to bed at the same time every single night
If you struggle to get to sleep you need to make some big changes. One of those big changes is the bedtime – it needs to be at the same time every night until you are back into your rhythm.
As we have seen in some of the points above, the body and the brain learns from habit. We are habit forming creatures. If you can go to bed at the same time each night you are basically setting yourself up for success because your brain is going to soon associate that time of day with sleep and rest.
If you can’t go to bed at the same time each night you should at least try to wake up at the same time each morning. This will help you find a natural rhythm with your sleep so hopefully you are tired enough at night to just drift off.
Getting to sleep easily is, like most things, a matter of training. If you can train your body and mind to switch off you will not struggle at all. The tips above will help with this. Above all else, relax when you go to sleep. Don’t stress about not being able to sleep. And if all of this fails to work, go see your doctor. They will be able to help.
Is there anything in particular that helps you get to sleep at night? Do you have a routine? Leave a comment and let us know.
Originally posted on December 9, 2009 @ 1:06 am