Last year, I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. To this day, I can confidently say it is the book that has most changed my life.
Since reading Why We Sleep, I have prioritized good sleep over almost everything else in my life.
According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, “if there was only one thing that you could do to improve your life, only one, it would be to sleep a decent amount every day.”
Over the past year, as I’ve tried to improve my sleep, I’ve discovered many unique insights that have helped me sleep better and longer.
Sleep Takes Commitment
The single best thing you can do to improve your sleep is to stay true to a consistent sleep schedule.
This idea is well-known but is readily discarded; most people would swiftly trade sleep for almost any other experience.
Most social gatherings take place at night: when given a choice between sleep and extra socialization, people almost always forgo sleep.
In nearly every situation that I traded sleep for extra time socializing, I have regretted it. It takes true commitment to tell yourself that you’re going to set a bedtime and stick to it; often, you need to give up late night experiences to improve your sleep.
At least for me, this trade off has always been worth it.
Caffeine has a much greater impact on your sleep than most realize.
Caffeine works by blocking the receptors in your brain that normally accept the chemical Adenosine. Your body generates adenosine while you’re awake, and over time the build up of it will make you feel tired. This is a biological pressure that helps you fall asleep after 14-16 h of wakefulness.
Because caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, adenosine instead builds up in the background. As soon as your liver removes the wall that caffeine creates, you are hit with all the extra adenosine that has been building up. This is why people experience severe crashes after using large amounts of caffeine.
It pains me to see close friends pull out an energy drink to support late night studying. Students often use caffeine late at night to fuel extra work sessions. This is a fruitless attempt; because sleep plays an integral part in the formation of long term memory, losing sleep to study generally does not provide any tangible benefits.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon/evening at all costs. It takes your body 8-10 hours to fully remove caffeine from your system, so if you want to consume it, do so no later than 12 pm.
Harness the Power of Light
Light is one of the key factors that influences your circadian rhythm.
It’s easy to use light to assist sleep, but most people don’t realize the impact light can have on sleep and alertness during day.
First, it’s vital to coordinate your light exposure to match the experience of a pre-industrial revolution human. Artificial light has only been around for 150 years, which is nothing on the evolutionary timescale.
This means that you should get around 30 minutes of sunlight exposure early in the morning. It’s best to spend some time outside, but simply opening all the blinds around the house and turning on the lights would make a tangible difference.
Conversely, in the evening, you should reduce your light exposure to match the behavior of the sun. Turning off the unnecessary lights around your house after sundown is a good first step.
The light that technology emits can also drastically affect your sleep schedule.
In the past, at night I would simply scroll through social media on my phone or watch YouTube for hours before sleeping. I had absolutely no concept of a regular sleep schedule or bedtime. I’ve found that most people my age exhibit similar behavior.
It’s important to stay off all electronic devices an hour before you go to sleep. If you have to use your phone, try to keep it on low brightness and on night shift.
Hopefully, adopting a few of these behaviors will help you access the psychological benefits that a good night of sleep has offered me.
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