How I stopped my poor sleep habits from killing me

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How I stopped my poor sleep habits from killing me

I bought a Fitbit Charge last December for one main reason, which was to start tracking my sleep more carefully.

Although I’ve always loved sleep and prefer it to the company of others, I’ve grown aware over the past few years that I’m sort of terrible at it. Last summer, after a surprise bout of insomnia that effectively derailed me for 3 days, I decided to start tracking my sleep. There are plenty of iPhone apps that will do this, but the problem with them is you have to keep the phone next to you on the bed as you sleep, and it’s hard for me to relax when I know there’s an expensive, fragile slab lying next to me, because it reminds me of my ex. Ha ha zing!

It was also hard for me to remember to use any app consistently, so my early attempts at tracking my sleep are filled with gaps that grow wider and wider until there’s only an empty screen. The Fitbit promised to end that problem with its set-it-and-forget-it functionality—I just had to remember not to take it off and my part of the job was done.

The Fitbit worked, and I started recording details of last night’s sleep each morning—or rather, Fitbit recorded it for me while I ate breakfast or checked my email. I was surprised to find that while I had assumed I was getting between 6-7 hours sleep a night, in reality it was closer to 5 hours.

That’s nowhere near enough time for me to be my best the next morning, and until a few months ago I didn’t realize just how bad the problem was. Maybe I hadn’t realized it in part because I was sleep deprived from such poor sleep habits.

It’s easy to trivialize this problem because for most of us it feels so temporary and easy to fix—"I’ll just go to bed a little earlier tomorrow night," or "I’ll catch up over the weekend," or even "I can just get by on less sleep than some people." But 30% of the adult population reports sleeping less than 6 hours a night, according to the CDC. Their numbers date back to 2005-2007, but considering that the intervening years brought us the iPhone, the explosion of YouTube and Facebook, and sexting, there’s no reason to think we’ve gotten any better at catching enough shut-eye.

Here’s a reality check of just how bad this is for us collectively.

Driving: AAA estimates that between 1999 and 2008, "16.5% of fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver." [PDF]

Lifespan: People who sleep less than 6 hours nightly tend to die sooner than people who sleep between 6-8 hours!

Health: Sleep deprivation also tends to be linked to sleep apnea, which in turn is linked to heart disease. It’s no coincidence that insurance companies charge more for coverage if the applicant has sleep apnea.

There may even be a link between insomnia and depression.

The CDC's sleep deprivation chart

The CDC says sleep deprivation is so widespread that it’s become a "public health epidemic" that’s linked to accidents, workplace errors, disease, and reduced quality of life. I know that their list of sleep-related difficulties describes me perfectly: I forgot to write this article at least twice, I still haven’t filed my taxes, and I haven’t performed a lick of volunteer work in ages. At least now I know why.

So it’s resolved: as a general population, we don’t get enough sleep, and that’s bad for us.

More sleep means higher productivity, better workplace performance, safer roads, less stress on the body and mind, better overall health, a longer lifespan, and probably smoother skin for all I know. And for the purposes of this blog, it’s important to note that better health usually leads to better, cheaper life insurance and long-term disability insurance coverage.

But how do you go about making things better, especially if you can’t really change much about your work hours or commute times or family obligations?

I’m going to list several ideas below, but first, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that while this is all starting to sound like a pitch for a new fad diet, getting better sleep is not the same as losing belly fat while you shower or trundlebiking your way to a perfect butt.

The super famous Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön once wrote that self-improvement plans aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, because "the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself." I like to think she’s talking about starting a family, but it’s also a great way to frame your new "get more sleep" project: you’re not going to try to change yourself, you’re going to find ways to optimize the world around you so that you can enjoy the sleep your body already craves.

In other words, if you try one of these techniques and it doesn’t work for you, toss it aside like an old iPhone and try something else. You’re life hacking at this point, so feel free to get creative.

(Also, I added this Buddhist part to try to make up for my admission earlier that I don’t do any volunteer work.)

Section 1: Hygiene

Get rid of blue lights.

The Verge just posted a great piece on how light affects your sleep cycles. Go read it. Or if you don’t have time, here are the key points, supplemented with some more official research from Harvard:

  • Blue light is bad for your brain when it comes to getting enough sleep.

  • Red light is better. If you use a nightlight or have other sources of light in your bedroom at night, make them red.

  • Heck, even green is better than blue. Your brain is that picky about this topic for some reason.

Most of The Verge’s article is about how to deal with bright blue-tinted LCD screens at night, so if this is a problem in your bedroom, be sure to check it out.

Don’t use your bed as a couch.

Or a chaise longue, a pizza eating platform, etc. The Sleep Foundation (and a former doctor of mine) say that it’s a lot easier to fall asleep if you treat your bed as only a bed and nothing else.

But what about sex, you ask? Okay, you can also use it for sex, according to the Sleep Foundation. You don’t have to have all your sex on the floor, I guess.

Make sure any medicine you’re taking isn’t part of the problem.

If you’re taking a drug regularly then I’m almost positive you and your doctor are already on top of this. But juuuust in case you’re not, this is your reminder.

Stick to consistent sleeping and waking times.

It makes it easier for your brain to know when to start pumping out melatonin.

Avoid booze before bed.

There’s no moralizing here. It’s just that while alcohol can help get you drowsy, it doesn’t actually lead to quality sleep. It can even disrupt your sleep if its effects wear off in the middle of the night and you wake up again.

You'll frequently see advice to avoid caffeine before bed, too, but caffeine doesn't have the same effect on everyone.

Take care of your significant other problem

Whoa there! I just meant if your bedmate has a sleeping problem, then congratulations, it's now your problem, although it's likely you already feel this way if you've been sleeping together for a while. Start looking into ways to fix it.

Address your sleep apnea!

It’s very common for chronic sleep deprivation and sleep apnea to go hand-in hand. Don’t treat this as a trivial issue. No, it’s not going to make your head blow up before you turn 45, but it’s very possible that it can cause serious health problems as you get older—and you can count on it jacking up your insurance premiums.

If you’re not sure where to start, the Sleep Foundation has a tool to help you find specialists in your area.

Some of my fun personal strategies that may or may not work for you:

  • Make brushing your teeth, drinking a glass of water, or doing some fun OCD activity the last thing you do before getting into bed. Make sure your phone is already plugged in and turned off (and preferably face down) before this.

  • (iPhone specific) Learn how to use the Do Not Disturb mode on your phone. If you have an iPhone, it’s one of the first things you’ll see when you launch Settings. If you’re the type who worries that you’ll miss an important call when DND is activated, flip the switch that lets repeat callers through. You can also indicate favorites who won’t ever be blocked. But phone calls aren’t the big problem for me at night; where I find this feature most useful is for silencing emails, poorly timed reminders, and text messages while I’m in that all important fuzzy period right before drifting off to sleep.

  • (also just for iPhones) Adjust your Siri settings so that you can trigger it by saying "Hey Siri" when the phone is plugged in and locked. If you keep your phone face down so the light doesn’t bother you, you can do any last minute things, like making a to do item or checking on tomorrow’s weather or setting an alarm, without having to pick up your phone at all.

  • Finally, I’ve implemented a rule where once I close my eyes, I’m not allowed to open them again for any reason. I’m constantly breaking this rule, but I find it useful if only because it reminds me to weigh the pros and cons of breaking my vow once I’ve committed to going to sleep.

Section 2: Tech

Get a sleep tracking device.

Although I’m using a Fitbit Charge ($130), it’s far from your only option—you can find sleep trackers from companies like Jawbone and Misfit too, and prices range from $50 to over $200. To be honest, I can’t even vouch for the Fitbit's accuracy. One night I left it on the dresser by accident and the next morning it had tracked my "sleep" according to when I put it down and when I picked it up again come dawn—which would be fine except that it also somehow managed to record several times during the night when I was restless. Either I’ve got a restless ghost who keeps the same hours I do or Fitbit’s "tracking" includes a lot of "guesstimating."

Having said that, I still find the device useful because it helps keep me aware of my sleep habits on a daily basis. I also assume that even if the data it collects is only an approximation, the approximation is consistent over time, so I can still use the data as a reference point.

Don’t get a sleep tracking device.

You can also try any number of sleep tracking apps for your smartphone.

If you want to skip fitness trackers and iOS apps, you can even set up an IFTTT recipe that will let you text your sleep hours to a Google Drive spreadsheet each morning.

Or you can look into devices that your bed wears instead of you, like the Beddit Sleep Monitor or the Withings Aura. The Aura happens to come with a special lamp that syncs to your sleep cycle, but if you’re into mood lighting you can also install some Philips Hue bulbs and use any number of tools (including IFTTT) to control their color between dusk and dawn.

I started 2015 with an average sleep duration of around 5:15, but I’ve been slowly getting my score up so that now I’m around 5:50. My goal is to break the 6 hour mark by mid-April and keep improving from there.

As you can guess from my use of the word "score," I’ve managed to turn this into a game, which lets me tap into my competitive side so that I’ll remain engaged. You may not respond as well to gamification tricks, but just by keeping track of your nightly hours you’ll end up seeing trends emerge—and then you can take steps to improve them.

I may never break the 7 hour mark for sleeping, at least not any time soon, but if I can just get my average above the deadly 6 hour mark I’ll consider that a win. Maybe I’ll even start volunteering or something.