Sleep more. Sleep better. Prioritize shut-eye over everything else.
It’s the most boring advice on the internet. But it’s probably the hardest advice to act on as well. Despite good intentions, few people actually get the 8 hours that would make them feel best — that number creeps toward 9 hours for athletes who train a lot.
And yet we know sleep’s important. Enough sleep improves strength output, coordination, ability to perform across several different physical tests, and body composition, when compared to those who are sleep deprived.
Most of us, in all likelihood, care about all of these, and understand that a few more hours’ kip would help us toward our goals.
The advice to improving sleep is straightforward and widely known:
Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time
Have a bedtime routine that winds you down
Practice deep breathing, meditation or stretching to relax the body before sleep
Turn off phones, laptops and other screens an hour or more before sleep
Get light in your eyes first thing in the morning
Avoid caffeine after midday
Keep your bedroom as cool and dark as possible
Take a bath or shower to help your body cool down before bed
I suspect there are three main reasons that few people take the necessary steps to improve their sleep quantity and quality.
There aren’t enough hours in the day
They’ve “tried everything” already and it “didn’t help”
They think they “get by” with the amount of sleep they currently have
I’d like to push back on each of these. While I understand the frustrations of working on improving sleep, I also think these excuses are weak. Let’s unpack them.
1. There aren’t enough hours in the day
There are two scenarios I put in the “not enough time” bucket.
The first is the busy office worker’s last-minute cramming of a few more emails or administrative tasks into the day, in a futile attempt to save their future self from an inbox avalanche.
The second scenario is more common. After a full day’s work, and training, many people don’t come home until late in the evening, or come home to another series of responsibilities (think basic house maintenance, childcare, adulting). The sun goes down, the kids go to bed, and a small sigh of relief means there is a small window when responsibilities can go on hold in exchange for “me time” or quality time with one’s partner. It’s natural to want this sacred hour to stretch on, to extend the quiet lull from a relentless expenditure of effort.
This, I believe, is one of the biggest drivers for people to stay up later than they might intend to, or allow Netflix to autoplay the next episode, or doom scroll social media into the night. And I don’t blame people in either of these camps. But I do think it’s a short-sighted approach. Because I think a lot of time comes back in productivity savings by being fully rested. I strongly suspect that the majority of people, at least those in work where there is some flexibility in schedule and results are determined by outcomes not output (time), allowing themselves to sleep sooner, and better, would allow them to complete that work faster, get home sooner, and be sharper for the time they are at home as well. Increasing the
quality of one’s sleep can improve overall quality of life, and ability to be present for it as well. The time lost to an earlier bedtime comes back like good karma.
2. They’ve “tried everything” already
Sure. Most people will have tried several things on the above list of how to improve sleep. But few people have tried several of them, consistently, for a span of many weeks at a time. In the same way that conscious behavior change takes time, retraining your brain to go to sleep when it’s not used to doing so, earlier and faster, also takes time.
Expecting results after one day of turning off screens and skipping the fourth coffee is like eating one salad and expecting to drop off a decade worth of weight gain. It doesn't work like that. Slow down. Be patient.
When I’m working with clients on sleep habits, I tell them to give it three months. Which is longer than I’d expect for it to take effect. But if they were truly consistent in their efforts for three months with improving all those behaviors and their sleep didn’t improve, then I would
send them to a sleep specialist. (This hasn’t happened to anyone yet.)
3. They “get by” with the amount of sleep they currently have
No, they don’t. Or perhaps they feel like they do, but ‘getting by’ and ‘being optimal’ are not the same.
Imagine a dirty windscreen. If I got in a car and the windshield was already dirty, and I didn’t wash it right away, would I notice a big difference if a small bug went splat on the dirty windshield? Not really. What if I got in a brand new car, drove it off the lot, and immediately ran into the same bug, sullying the untouched glass? I’d definitely notice.
Most people are driving around with dirty windshields. They don’t know how good they’d feel if their sleep habits were better. The odd 5-hour night doesn’t seem like a big deal compared to a usual 6 hours, and they might not feel much worse off. But they’ve forgotten how good it can be to have a regular 8 hours of sleep. They have no sense of a clean windshield, because it’s been so long since they’ve washed it. I’d encourage anyone in this camp with the option to do so to just try getting 8 hours for a month, and see how they feel. The vast majority of people will feel a difference.
All of this is fine and wonderful for those that work regular hours on a daytime schedule, and don’t have small children to wake them up in the middle of the night. I get that I write from a privileged position, where I can choose my own work hours, have no children, and few additional responsibilities outside of work to tend to. This whole concept is harder for shift workers, parents, and others who have less control over their sleep patterns.
The advice for those people is the same. Do as much of the above as you can. I know it will be tougher for you and you won’t always succeed. Control your controllables — the extra Netflix episode or the screen time cutoff — and do your best.
For the rest of us who have more control over our sleep environments: it is worth it. I know I could do better on the days I have 5am or earlier starts. My windshield is cleaner than a lot of people’s, but it’s far from spotless. But I also know which things on that list I can control, and what I can do to improve my wind-down routine, and those are the things I work on when I am making an effort to improve how I feel. My focus this last month was getting light in my eyes in the morning, and next month will be relaxing before bed. By chipping away at one or two things each month, most people could give themselves a much better sleep - and all the focus, training, and physique benefits that come with it.