If I’m so smart, why can’t I get a good night’s sleep?

You get it.  You should get a good night’s sleep.  Every. Single. Night. 

The research is conclusive.  And extensive. 

As Arianne Huffington has so decisively proven, “There’s practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep.” 

A good night’s sleep is imperative if we want to be healthy, work smarter, be safe, maintain a trim figure, have better sex and a better memory.  Sleep even makes us younger according to a published study from NCBI that discovered that women with the five key symptoms of insomnia are biologically almost two years older than women of the same age without sleep issues.

Sleep is important and the findings are backed by science on every level, including cellular, which research on Telomeres by Doctors Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel proves. 

Yet we continue to procrastinate when it comes to bedtime.  This is often because we are depending on willpower to propel us into bed. 

Yet, according to Stanford Professor Kelly McGonigal, willpower is a limited resource that decreases over the course of the day.  

Thus, if we’re trying to use willpower to propel ourselves into bed at a reasonable hour, we’re doomed to fail since by bedtime, our willpower for the day is most likely used up and ironically needs a good night’s sleep to regenerate. 

Instead of using willpower to get ourselves into bed we need to switch to autopilot by making going to bed at a particular time a habit, not a conscious choice. 

A habit is created when a behavior, like going to bed at a specific time, becomes automatic. 

A habit, once it is formed, is something we do that takes very little thought, motivation, or willpower.

For this to happen, we need to switch the decision from our thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) to our basal ganglia or non-thinking part of the brain.  To do this let’s first look at the 3 parts of a habit:

  • The Cue — which is what tells the behavior to start
  • The Routine — which is the habit itself
  • The Reward — which is why we encode the habit

Most of us think we need to concentrate on the routine piece of the puzzle when we are trying to make, or break, a habit.  But it’s the cue and the reward where we hit pay dirt.

For many of my clients who complain about not getting enough sleep, not having a definitive cue is often at fault. 

This can be solved by simply deciding what time you will be in bed each night and at what time you will turn out the light and then sticking to your decision.   

Once you’ve decided what time you’ll turn the light out, you can determine what time all your devices are turned off.  The National Sleep Foundation recommends turning off all devices an hour before bedtime, which according to a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School includes e-books.

Once you have a bedtime and a time to turn off your electronic devices, the rest, as they say, is easy sailing. 

Create a cue that it’s time to turn your devices OFF.  Ironically, many of my clients use their phone for this!  When the alarm goes off, it’s time to power down and get ready for bed.

Turning off your devices at a specific time is an ideal cue to start a bedtime routine. 

Then, start your routine. To get you thinking about what an ideal routine might include, I’ve listed some below. Remember, you only pick one or two! 

  • Get one small chore done. (Wipe down the counters, throw in one load of laundry, fold one load of laundry… you get the idea) 
  • Put on Pajamas (changing into “real” pajamas has been proven to help trigger your brain into knowing that it’s time for sleep.)  
  • Wash your face
  • Journal about your day for a set amount of time
  • Write down 3 things you’re thankful for that happened during the day
  • Make a bullet list of anything that is stressing you out or causing you to worry
  • Read a book for a set amount of time
  • Do a couple of relaxing yoga poses
  • Listen to a sleep meditation (This one breaks the device rule for me because I use the Insight Timer Meditation App.  However, I use an old ipad that only has music and apps loaded onto it so there is no temptation to use it to check email, social media, the weather, etc.)
  • Set aside time to talk to your partner
  • Take a hot bath or shower
  • Rewire your thoughts with a couple of calming affirmations

Research suggests keeping your routine simple by picking a one or two things that work for you and sticking to them. 

It is also easier if you build up your routine over time especially if a bedtime routine is new for you. 

Decide to do something that is super easy and repeat it for a full week before adding on the next easy step. If you limit yourself to two or three simple steps your new bedtime routine will be established in less than a month.  

It is also helpful to use a current habit to trigger your new routine. 

Just like how a computer can be instructed to carry out an arbitrary set of operations automatically, so can your brain.  For instance, if you check email every night use finishing up as a trigger to turn off all your devices. 

By putting bedtime onto autopilot, we move it from conscious effort to unconscious action, which is far easier on our brains and takes willpower out of the equation. 

Not having to decide whether you are going to answer a couple more emails or check Instagram or watch another show or finish reading one more report or do a load of laundry when you are at the point in your day when you are most likely to make a bad decision is pure gold. 

As is a good night’s sleep.