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This sleep doctor reveals what really works to get your 8 (or at least 7) hours of sleep every night.
I love New Year’s resolutions. Apparently, even ancient people marked the new year by reflecting on changes they wanted to make; the Babylonians apparently made promises to return borrowed objects and repay debts in the new year. While I have absolutely no plans to return my neighbor’s leaf blower anytime soon, I do think there is merit in starting the year on a good note.
Resolutions come in all shapes and sizes, and as a physician, I support these little promises to go to the gym, eat better, or to actually stretch like your physical therapist asks you to do every time you see him for lower back pain.
My favorite: vowing to “get more sleep.” I know it’s not easy. Limiting yourself to one episode of American Ninja Warrior can be pretty difficult, especially since for many people, the evening is the first time you are officially off the clock. Your work is done and family obligations have been met. For me, the computer is off, I’ve helped various children with their homework, the kitchen is cleaned up, and the dog is dealt with. Time to relax.
But relaxing for a minute or two often turns into twenty or thirty or more. For me, as I sit down and turn on the television, Stephen Colbert is often wrapping up his monologue and it’s approaching midnight. But I want to hear more about whoever’s up next, so the show stays on. Or, bedtime gets postponed because I lose track of time—something I regularly hear from my patients.
So with mere days until the resolution must be formally declared (via dinner declaration, Instagram/Twitter post, etc.), how can you help ensure your success over the next 365 days?
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What time do you want it to be? What time is reasonable? I could declare 9 p.m. to be my bedtime, but with the amount going on in my home, it’s doubtful that anyone living with me would support the decision to retire in the midst of the nightly chaos.
You also need to decide to commit to it. People are convinced they “just can’t” get to bed earlier, but you really just need to look a little harder for where to carve that time out. Start with finding 15 extra minutes to sleep, then raise that until you’re getting the right amount. Most people who successfully change their bedtimes quickly see that the barrier was simply habit and not something more substantial keeping them from having their wind-down time and their sleep time.
Currently, I wear a Withings HR Steel fitness watch that allows me to set a daily alarm. Instead of using the watch alarm to wake me from sleep, I use it to remind me to go to sleep. It’s disturbing how frequently the alarm goes off and I realize I have not yet prepared for sleep. That little vibrating reminder is essential for making me see that whatever I am working on can typically wait. Whatever I am reading or watching can be continued tomorrow.
Your reminder doesn’t have to be a wearable: One creative person hooked his living room lights up to a timer, so that when bedtime came, so too did an all encompassing darkness. Or, set your smart thermostat to slowly lower your home’s temperature starting at dinner time and ending at 65 degrees when bedtime rolls around. This gradual loss of temperature and light can really help stoke the motivation to sleep.
Your workout might be the reason you keep getting a second wind in the evening. If you’re an evening or night exerciser, try a different routine. Limit your exercise to the morning and fill evenings with a cup of Get Some ZZZs tea (loaded with chamomile, passionflower and valerian root…all sleep promoting).
Like cutting sugar out of your diet, changing your sleep habits might sting a bit for the first week or two—change is challenging—but the dividends to your health, cognition, and athletic recovery will be worth it.