Let me start off with what should be an obvious disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a professional sleep expert of any kind. What I am, however, is someone who sleeps unbelievably well.
I used to be a terrible sleeper. It would take me at least two hours to fall asleep every night, I’d wake up with my mind racing in the middle of the night, and I never felt rested enough to get up easily in the morning. I always knew it wasn’t healthy, but since sleep issues seem to be so common, I didn’t put that much thought it into it.
Years later I realized that I had become the best sleeper of anyone I knew. While friends and colleagues were trying everything from fancy light bulbs to prescription sleep aids, I was getting eight solid hours a night and waking up before my alarm in some cases. I developed a reputation for being the one with the best sleeps, and various people in my life started asking for my secrets. What started out as more of a joke became a real question I was asking myself: what makes me sleep so well?
I narrowed it down and created a list of the top 7 things I believe help me to sleep well. Of course, I only know what works for me, but hopefully some of these things can help you get a better night’s sleep too!
- Regular Exercise
This one seems logical – the more tired your body is, the better rest you’ll have. There’s different studies supporting how long before bedtime you should work out, but I’m not overly vigilant of that, to be honest. I think it’s less of a one-to-one relationship and more of an overall trend: the more generally active you are, the more physically tired your body gets, and the more you’ll want to rest (at least subconsciously). If you’re using up your energy, your body will seek to restore it. This is useful in both falling and staying asleep. It feels good to lay down and relax your body when it’s been working hard.
In addition to physically draining your energy stores, regular exercise is great for clearing your head. It’s easier to fall asleep when your mind isn’t wandering in a hundred different directions (see my next tip for more on that). Exercise is great for releasing tension and readjusting your perspective on whatever is currently happening in your life. On a possibly unrelated note but I suspect not, I’ve noticed that since I’ve started exercising regularly, I rarely have bad dreams. I can’t help but think this might have to do with how much fitness has improved my mental state over all.
Personally, running is my favourite form of exercise. I supplement that with strength training, but running is truly a hobby. From my own experience, high intensity cardio really works wonders for falling asleep later on. There was a period where I did very little cardio relative to other workouts, and at that point my sleep wasn’t nearly where it is today. It seems like to get the best sleep results, you need to really push your body. This just parallels the reality of fitness in general: to get real results, you have put in real work. Acknowledge your limits and don’t overdo it, but know that pushing your body out of its comfort zone will pay off in more ways than the obvious ones.
- Regular Meditation
If you aren’t a meditator – don’t be scared. You don’t need to sit like a pretzel humming for two hours a day. All you really need to do to sleep better is get used to redirecting your mind back to the present moment. If you can take even 5 minutes out of your day to sit somewhere quiet, observe the way you feel in that moment, notice your breathing patterns, sounds around you, the feeling of your body, etc. and practice bringing yourself back to the moment when thoughts arise, you’ll start to develop mindfulness. This magical skill will in turn make it easier to ‘shut your brain off’ and fall asleep when it’s time to unwind.
I won’t go into detail about my personal meditation regimen here. I will quickly mention, however, that if you’re interested in starting mindfulness style meditation, I recommend downloading the Headspace app. It’s free and it’s fantastic for those who are really starting from scratch. It gets increasingly more thorough as you work through the guided sessions, really growing with you in your practice.
But enough about that.
As I was saying, regular meditation teaches you to be more present-minded, which is hugely beneficial in falling asleep. When lying in bed, don’t continuously replay something that happened earlier in the day, or earlier in the year, or any other time. Equally as important is to avoid focusing all your attention worrying about or imagining the future. Every second you spend thinking about the past or the future is a moment that you are not present. These are mutually exclusive mind states.
Long before I was a meditator, I would lay awake at night thinking about everything other than the relaxation I was trying to achieve. I had no control over my thought patterns, which were the furthest thing from peaceful most nights. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night for whatever reason, the cycle would start all over again. I wanted to relax and settle back into sleep, but my thoughts were replaying past situations and showing me an endless slideshow of things to worry about. I was a slave to my brain.
You need to learn to watch thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, neutralize them, and come back to the present. The action of acknowledging rather than suppressing your thoughts gives the power back to you. There’s no need to label thoughts good or bad, they just are. You are neither a good or bad person for having them. You can name the visiting thought what you perceive it to be if you want to, be it jealousy, frustration, greed, longing, self-deprecation, pride, whatever. But don’t condemn yourself for having those thoughts. Simply return to focusing on the present moment, until a new thought comes along. Do the same thing, acknowledge that it’s there, do not condemn or celebrate yourself for having that thought, and return your focus to the present. This is the fundamental idea behind mindfulness practice. The best part? The more that you do this, the easier it becomes to focus on the present, and cultivate the inner peace that will help you live and sleep better.
Try taking a few minutes each day to work on developing this skill. Although the time commitment is minimal, the consistency is important. Like any skill, it takes practice to develop fully. In addition to seated practice, you can work on developing this skill while walking or doing simple tasks, such as ironing. Focus on the way the ground feels below each part of your foot as it connects with the sidewalk, or the feeling of your arm as it stretches and retracts on the ironing board. When a thought arises, observe it, let it go, and come back to the present. You get the idea.
- In-bed Meditation
Further to my long-winded explanation of using mindfulness practice in a general way to aid in sleep, you can do specific mindfulness meditation exercises in bed. This can be used to help your mind from running wild as soon as the lights go out.
Lay flat on your back in bed. Once comfortable, try focusing all your attention on your body parts, one at a time. Often people start from their toes and work their way up. I have no rules about that myself. Pay special attention to the feeling of physical relaxation settling into each of your muscles as you lay still. Feel the way your body sinks into the mattress, slowly releasing the tension it carries throughout the day.
If you find your mind wandering back to the past or the present, don’t chastise yourself. Simply refocus on the present moment. The number of times you have to willingly refocus does not matter. The important part is that you keep bringing yourself back to the present. The more you practice this ability to begin again and return to the present, the easier it becomes.
Getting into the habit of doing this mindful winding down routine in bed can help replace old, negative bedtime habits. Rather than using precious falling asleep time to replay the day’s events or make a mental plan for the days and weeks ahead, give your brain the same rest your body is getting. Enjoy each moment of settling into sleep. Live that moment fully as means to a peaceful, and restful, end.
- Nighttime Preparation
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a planner. Rather than lying awake at night stressing about what needs to be done, I like to complete a task list before I hit the hay. By the time I’m ready to go to bed, I want to feel as ready for the next morning as possible. For me, that looks something like this:
- Take a shower and/or bath
- Lay clothes out for the following day (including shoes at the front door!)
- Set up the coffee maker so I just have to press “start” in the morning
- Plan and prep for breakfast, even if it’s just putting a plate out by the toaster
- Make lunch to bring to work
Usually I can accomplish this whole list in under 30 minutes. It’s definitely worth the time it takes for peace of mind alone. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t have to scramble. Everything is just waiting for me. It always starts my day off on the right note. More importantly, it ends my day on the right note. Once I’ve completed my list, I feel like I can really relax. There’s no guilt for going to bed when there’s other things I should be doing instead. All that’s left for me to do is refuel and enjoy a great sleep.
Think about what small tasks you might be able to accomplish at night instead of in the morning. Even something as simple as checking the weather for the following day and planning an outfit accordingly can make it easier to wind down at bedtime.
Reading in bed is an essential part of my nighttime routine. Even if I’m not sleeping at home, you’ll never catch me without my beloved Kindle. I like e-readers because many have built-in lighting options that are more conducive to sleeping than that of a regular lamp. There’s also about a thousand other reasons I like e-readers, but that’s for another post.
I don’t have much insight into why reading before bed helps me sleep so much better, all I know is that it does. I used to only read during the day. I also didn’t read that much. Then, I got my first Kindle for my birthday and turned into a full-fledged book worm. Soon enough my Kindle started coming to bed with me and within about one week my sleep improved substantially. Years later, I still credit a lot of my great sleeping to this practice.
It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m reading; the outcome is always the same. I often read three books at a time: one non-fiction, one fiction, and one piece of classic literature that I tend to read more slowly. No matter which I opt for, it does the trick. I typically fall asleep in under three minutes from the time I put my book down.
I do have one theory as to why reading has helped me sleep so much better. I think getting lost in a book is the final step in helping me take my mind off of anything else that’s going on in my life. Clearing the mind is a common theme through all my tips for a better sleep, and I believe the same principle is at work here. When I close my book, I’m not thinking about anything other than what I just read. I power down, process what I read, reflect a little, realize how relaxed I am, enjoy that feeling, and then… Wake up refreshed the next morning!
Okay so it’s not always that magical, but it is pretty remarkable. If you aren’t a huge reader, this tip might not be for you. Then again, ten years ago I would have said that I’m not a big reader and that the only reading that put me to sleep was my textbooks. Give it a try, you might be surprised.
- The Right Environment
It probably sounds cliché, but having the right environment can make all the difference in having a good night’s sleep. For me, a good sleep environment needs to be clean first and foremost. Climbing into an unmade bed just does not feel good. If I want to give myself the best possible chances at having a good sleep, I need to put in the small amount of effort to prepare my environment. This means washing my bedding regularly, making the bed, tidying my room, and ensuring that my whole living area is generally clean and tidy. I usually do a sweep of my whole apartment before bed just to be sure there’s no major disasters waiting for me in the morning.
The definition of a good sleep environment varies from one person to the next. Some people need to have a fan blowing, or blackout curtains. Some people need a certain temperature, or a relaxing scent in the air. Spend some time figuring out what a good sleep environment is to you and do what you can to make that your regular environment. The small amount of extra effort can make a big difference in your sleep quality.
- Never Going to Bed Hungry
My final tip for sleeping better is slightly controversial. From a bodyweight standpoint, there are many different studies looking at how late is ‘safe’ to eat before sleeping. For the purpose of this post, I’m not concerned about that. What matters to me is feeling physically satisfied when I climb into bed. Personally, I find hunger extremely distracting and unpleasant. When I’m trying to fall asleep, the last thing I want is a growling stomach. Actually, the last thing I want is the fire alarm to go off, but you get the point…
I’m not saying you need to have a full meal right before bed to sleep well. What I am saying is, if you start winding down and notice you’re a bit hungry, go have a snack. Of course it’s better to stick to something nutritious and light, but ultimately you just need to pay attention to what your body is telling you. The goal is to eat until you’re full and that need has been met. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night or early the next morning aching to get something into your demanding stomach.
The majority of the time, I don’t need to eat anything between dinner and bed. Some nights though, I notice I’m getting hungry an hour or before I’m planning to go to sleep. I’ve made the mistake of ignoring it too many times in the past, and my sleep has nearly always suffered. I’ve noticed a big difference in my ability to physically relax in bed since I’ve stopped depriving myself of food after a certain time of night. The bottom line is this: if your body is telling you it needs substance, eat something, no matter what time it is.
On that note, it’s time for me to get to bed!
If you have any of your own secrets to great sleep, do share them in the comments.