Just like organizing, getting good sleep is a skill that you can learn. I’ve spent the last few years retraining myself to sleep better and longer, and you can too.
Some people can sleep through anything, and that was me before kids. I could sleep through a tornado. I could fall asleep nearly anywhere, and sleeping 8-10 hours at a time was easy. From the minute I got pregnant, all of that changed. Always a night owl, I stole sleeping hours to get ahead in business and write many of these articles you’ve read.
Sleep is a Skill
The body needs rest. It seems inefficient to me, but research is clear that the body uses sleep as a time to repair damaged cells and clear the memory banks in the brain. Once babies arrived at my house, I was getting only 4-5 hours of sleep, broken two or three times each night, and this went on for years. I was functioning, but I was also forgetting things, gaining weight, and feeling stressed.
As I reached one of those big birthdays ending in a zero, I made some conscious changes to get more and better sleep. Here’s how I did it.
1. Start leaving the home office earlier.
A very fluid daily schedule had me alternating between work and home responsibilities for the seven years my kids were mostly at home before they entered elementary school. That meant that I pretty much kept my computer on all the time, and would wander back into my home office after everyone else went to bed to get a few more things done. I do most of my writing when the house is quiet and there are no distractions, but I knew I was “stealing” from sleep. So I started physically shutting down my computer earlier in the night, usually just after dinner. Let’s be clear…not every night, and I still check my phone, but once the computer is out, the big work is done for the day. Now that working at home is the norm for so many of us, many people are going to have to learn this same trick of walking away even if your computer is plugged in.
2. Get some exercise during the day.
It’s true, you sleep better if you’ve exerted yourself during the day. Whether it’s a short walk around town or working a big job for a client, getting physical helps the body get into deeper sleep modes and stay there longer.
3. Add some entertainment, but do it early.
When the pandemic hit, my no-TV family started watching serial TV shows, one episode each night on Amazon Fire TV. We all looked forward to the shows, and they were something we could talk about at dinner in the vast days and nights when it was just us four at home, all the time, with not much else going on in the world. We started with Downton Abbey, which kept us busy for over a month. For me, always in constant motion, sitting down for a 47-minute episode was torture, but it did force me to relax my body. When the episode ended by 9 pm each night, I was more likely to head to bed instead of back to the office. If you already watch TV, this isn’t a big aha for you, but it was a HUGE shift for our family. But the TV goes off at 9 pm and everyone heads to their rooms — without electronics — to get in sleep mode.
4. Turn to podcasts.
Podcasts + iPad have been the game-changer for my sleep. Call me a hypocrite here, but I do bring my iPad to bed set a sleep timer for 30 minutes of my favorite podcast. It’s adult story time. With an iPad, I don’t have to worry about getting a phone call. (With your phone, you can use the Do Not Disturb mode or Airplane mode to eliminate the chance of hearing phone calls at all hours.) The podcast can’t be work-related, or I’ll pay too much attention. The podcasts I listen to are just for fun, lighter stories, even comedy shows with audience applause. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I need to turn off my brain and my to do list or I’ll be up until morning, and turning on that same podcast again allows me to drift back to sleep, usually in under ten minutes. Apparently I’mnot alone with this strategy, since the BBC Shipping Forecast is so good for promoting sleep, it’s considered a British national treasure. I also recently discovered the Night Falls Bedtime Stories podcast with a dreamy narrator.
5. Get into a perfect bed.
People think there is some virtue to making the bed every morning, but I think the only reason to make the bed is so you can get into a perfect bed at the end of a busy day. “Making the bed” is just 30 seconds for pulling the bedding smooth and straightening the pillows. Think of how you feel at a hotel, pulling back those crisp sheet and slipping into a cool, fluffy cocoon. THAT’s the reason you make the bed in the morning…because your future self deserves that much pampering at the end of a hard day. If you are shoving piles of laundry and papers aside to get into bed, or if you are wrestling with itchy, wrinkled, balled up sheets, is that how you really want to end your day? That’s an easy fix that gets taken care of about 16 hours before.
6. Snack lightly at night.
When I used to stay up writing at night, I almost always would snack up until midnight while writing. Chips or pretzels were my fidget tools as I pounded the keyboard. It’s no surprise that I gained weight. When we started with our nightly pandemic TV shows, of course there were snacks, but we stick to one scoop of ice cream rather than three. The kids think I’m mean, but we all sleep better with a little snack and not a huge lump to digest overnight.
7. Reduce alcohol intake.
A half glass of wine seemed to help with the evening wind-down, but it also disrupted sleep for some reason. Research points to alcohol as a sleep disruptor once the buzz wears off. It’s counter-intuitive, but it does hold true for me.
8. Reduce liquid intake after 7 pm.
Nearly any liquid in the evening leads to a bathroom visit at night. Once I’m up, it’s a struggle to turn my brain off again, so I’ve really tried to eliminate all drinks after 7 pm. Sometimes I forget to stop drinking after dinner, when I’m still trying to hydrate and get enough water. It’s a very fine balance to achieve.
9. Design the bedroom just for sleeping and sex.
I’ve never had a TV in my bedroom, and I try to keep the computer out of there, too. It’s probably no surprise that my bedroom is organized, with no piles of clothes or paperwork. I don’t want an “invisible to do list” staring at me first thing in the morning and last thing at night. An organized bedroom can lead to better sleep.
10. Protect your bed.
By the time I get to bed, I’m tired. I don’t let the kids play on my bed, although they try. I don’t put laundry there. At bedtime, I spray the pillows with lavender calming spray and turn the lights off. Everything else has a place in or on the nightstand. The bed is just for sleeping. Period.
11. Choose your sleeping partner…or don’t.
Many marriages are saved with separate beds. Sleeping with a partner isn’t always the best option. If your partner is waking you up and they don’t even realize they are doing it, say something rather than getting grumpy. Maybe sleeping separately is best for you both. Some moms tell me they share a bed with growing kids until they are literally pushed out of bed. And pets…don’t they always end up with the largest part of the bed? The point is, you don’t have to do what you’ve always done. If you need space, you could literally extend your life by making a change in how you sleep.
12. Melatonin may not be the answer.
On my journey to better sleep, I did visit the drug aisle. My international friends think Americans are crazy to mess with melatonin, which is not an over-the-counter medicine outside of the US. It is not a sleeping pill; melatonin is a hormone. Very cautiously, I learned that taking one pill at the same time for just a few days helped to re-set my clock just enough to sleep better. It should not be taken every day or forever. Even though you don’t need a prescription, definitely talk with your doctor if you need to get pharmaceutical help with sleep.
13. A sleep study may help.
A friend has such poor sleep quality (and she sleep walks) that she recently underwent a sleep study. Unfortunately, her physician didn’t learn anything at all, and the doctor wouldn’t repeat the test. She’s stuck with more very active nights, at least until she tries another doc.
14. The Perfect Sleep Temperature Isn’t Perfect for Everyone
Journalists report that the perfect sleep temperature is between 60-67 degrees, which is a very wide range. The seasons and the things around you matter, too. I can’t sleep in the summer without a fan on, even when I’m chilly. In the winter, I can’t get to sleep if my feet are cold. Sheets and bedding can trap heat and make you wake up during the night. There’s a lot of chilling sheets, pillows, and mattresses on the market these days. With something so personal, you may have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your fairy tale sleep situation.
Adulting Your Sleep
That’s 14 points for better sleep. Being an adult means taking charge of your own sleep happiness. Does it feel like getting a good night’s sleep can be a lot of work, or are you still able to sleep as soundly as you did when you were a kid?