How I sleep trained myself

If you asked me in my twenties if I was a night owl or a morning bird, I would have likely said “night owl.” But more accurately, I’d say I didn’t need that much sleep.

I would joke with friends that sleep was for the weak and prided myself on my ability to run on five hours or less. In reality, I was running on caffeine and adrenaline and would eventually crash and burn for extended periods of sleep that could last a full twelve hours or more.

Of course, I’d heard many times that my body needs sleep to function, but I appeared to be functioning just fine. Sure, my metabolism seemed sluggish and my brain was a little foggy at times, but stress could have been playing a role. Also, my stress levels were high because I had a busy job, a social life, and a home life to maintain—fitting in more sleep would definitely make it more difficult to keep all those balls in the air.

Further evidence of my sleeping problems could be seen in the fact that one of my dearest friends lived on the West Coast while I was living on the East Coast. Our weekly evening phone calls would end when she needed to go to bed, around 9:30 or 10 p.m. her time, 12:30 or 1 a.m. my time. We laughed every time we said it was her bedtime. Today we laugh when I affirm the sacredness of a sleep schedule.

What changed?

Years of sleep debt caught up with me, and a doctor (actually, more than one doctor) told me I needed to get more sleep. But the prescription for more sleep was not an overnight fix. In fact, as with most things, I needed to get to the root cause of why I wasn’t sleeping before I could determine a solution. 

Sleep is productive.

The first hurdle I had to overcome is the idea that sleep is mostly a waste of time. Sleep felt unproductive to me—and before the 1950s, that was the dominant belief about sleep. But modern sleep research has revealed sleep is anything but passive, which is why my doctor explained, “Most of what your body needs to function well happens while you’re sleeping.” The stages of sleep each serve a purpose of calming the body so that it can shed toxins and restore itself. The effects don’t just translate to a healthier body, they also help to sharpen the mind.

According to a sleep cycle guide from Harvard Health Publishing, “Studies of students’ ability to solve a complex puzzle involving abstract shapes suggest the brain processes information overnight; students who got a good night’s sleep after seeing the puzzle fared much better than those asked to solve the puzzle immediately.”

Why is that? “Scientists believe that REM or dreaming sleep restores your mind, perhaps in part by helping clear out irrelevant information.”

As it happens, there are four stages of sleep and good sleep involves cycling through those stages multiple times each night. “Things need to get done in your sleep in a methodical way,” says Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher at UC Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep.

Understanding that sleep involves a process flipped a switch for me. As a highly-productive person, my reticence to sleep more was that it felt like I was losing time to get things done at work, at home, or with my friends. But if the process of sleep could lend a hand in helping me accomplish all I needed to get done, then it was worth prioritizing it.

Around the same time I was diving into this sleep research, a friend shared a poem called “Sleep” by Charles Péguy, that drove this point home to me. The entirety of the poem conveys a sense of angst that sleep would somehow hinder productivity. The messages conveyed in these stanzas became a sort of anthem I’d repeat to myself as I fell asleep:

Human wisdom says: Woe to the man who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.
And I say Blessed, blessed is the man who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.
Blessed is he who puts off. That is to say Blessed is he who hopes. And who sleeps.

Whether it was my to-do list or a situation in my personal life that was causing me to put off sleep, more likely than not, the situation would look better in the morning. I think the sentiment conveyed in the poem—encouraging us to surrender to sleep—can have a mystical effect that can help us conquer our to-do list, calm our nerves, or simply just foster gratitude at the rising sun and another day.

Sleep training is a process—having the right tools helps.

Better sleep habits didn’t develop overnight for me. Since I couldn’t always see the results of better sleep day after day, some sort of progress tracker seemed like a good idea. I downloaded the Sleep Cycle app several months into my endeavor to get better sleep, and it was a game-changer for me.

Marketed as a “smart alarm clock,” the Sleep Cycle app uses your breathing patterns to analyze your sleep. Using this information, the alarm is set to wake you in a 30-minute window—this way you’re not waking up in a deep sleep stage when grogginess is likely to accompany your wake up.

The alarm clock feature was nice; I especially like the tone of the alarm, which is a calmer sound than the abrupt ringtone I’d been using on my phone. But I really loved the tracking of the number of hours slept and the quality of the sleep each night. Though it’s difficult to know if the sleep quality data is completely accurate (among its data, it factors in how many hours you sleep, what time you went to bed and woke up, and exercise), still the app gave me a nice baseline from which to set goals.

When I started using the sleep app, my quality of sleep appeared consistently below 80 percent and often closer to 70 percent. After six months of use, my quality of sleep is now consistently above 80 percent and sometimes 90-100 percent. I avoided obsessively checking and tweaking factors in my life—but seeing that I only got six hours of sleep one morning motivated me to get to bed a bit earlier the next night to make sure I got seven hours. And there is a sweet satisfaction in my mind and body when I see 100 percent sleep quality has been achieved. It’s worth noting here, too, that certain seasons of our lives—particularly related to early parenthood—mean sleep habits will not be as consistent as we’d like.

Perfection is not the purpose here, but, at least for me, this tracking and calculating of hours slept and sleep quality gave me the motivation to keep striving for a better night of rest.

As I worked on this article, I struggled to catch more than five hours of sleep for a series of nights. The lack of sleep has definitely been wearing on me and also had me a bit worried about whether I could even complete this essay. But, I took the wisdom I tried to articulate in this article and tucked myself in early. A good night of sleep brought the clarity I needed and motivated me to remind whoever may need to hear this—rest easy tonight, for perhaps the things keeping you up (babies notwithstanding) will resolve themselves by the morning. 

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