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Challenge of the Month: Sleep well in March!

Ah, sleep. The foundation of all health, mental, physical, or otherwise. One bad night’s sleep can ruin a day, and get no sleep at all for 8 days and you’ll probably die.
But we as a culture do not appreciate it nearly as much as we should.
Your challenge this week is to put sleep first: both sleep quality, and sleep quantity. The key source on this subject is Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Buy it, read it, it may save your life. But for now:
Turn off those screens.
Cut out the caffeine.
Get to bed early.
You’ll thank me later.

I’ll address how to get better sleep in a moment, but first I’ll catch you up on how last month’s challenge of adding a good habit went for me. As many of the participants have told me, it is much easier to create a new habit than it is to break an old one. Really, I should have switched the order around, but nobody’s perfect. My habit for February was to start each day with creative work, not reactive work. Creative work includes things like teaching a class, writing an article, working on the next book (current working title: The Principles of Solo Training), shooting some video. Reactive work is responding to emails, admin crap, that sort of thing.
This ties in nicely with this month’s challenge, because I found that for no reason I was waking up horribly early- maybe 2 hours earlier than usual. So I decided that when that happens, I’ll just get up, do some meditation and light exercises, then storm ahead with the book. Which is why the draft currently stands at a bloated 82,000 words. And on days when I haven’t woken up so early, I’ve still put creative work first. The feeling of having made something is so much more rewarding than the feeling of having answered an email. Really. Even to someone I like.
On days when I’ve woken up early, I’ve gone to bed early. Our bedtime has generally shifted an hour earlier, and sometimes I manage to sleep through to a reasonable hour- one glorious night I managed 9 hours. Oh, my, goddess.
On the subject of getting up early, there are some truly insane famous people out there who seem to fetishize the time they wake up. Mark Wahlberg springs to mind: he gets up at 2.30 in the morning. I’m glad to also report that he goes to bed at 7.30pm, but simple maths will tell you that’s only 7 hours. I’d suggest getting up an hour later and skipping the fucking golf.
Perhaps even stranger is Jocko Willink. Don’t get me wrong, Jocko is the real deal: ex-Navy Seal, very tough, very strong, very disciplined. But he gets up at 4.30 every morning, and posts a dramatic black and white photo of his manly watch (a Timex Ironman Triathlon, in case you care), on his manly wrist, at about 04.32 every day, and many of his followers are now doing the same. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this behaviour, except I’d like to see him posting his bedtime too, and have that be 8.30pm. 8 hours, people. As it stands, it’s incitement to sleep deprivation.
If you listen to him describe his routines such as on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he is hauling himself out of bed because he’s deeply conscious of there being terrorists hiding in caves planning to get him. That may be literally true in his case, but it’s a terrible example to set: it borders on paranoia. Honestly, I worry for his mental health. And as he is so influential these days (I think 500k Twitter followers counts as influential), it also worries me that his followers will be becoming sleep deprived trying to follow his example. That is not cool.
Getting up early in the morning to get the things that matter most to you done before the day can get derailed is a great habit to have.
But it must, must, must, be balanced by getting to bed early, or by compensating with afternoon naps.
So, as for sleep quantity, you probably need about 8 hours (Walker says so). If your alarm wakes you up, you’ve not had enough sleep. Simple as, and I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary.
Sleep quality is harder to measure. Sadly the wearables on the market (such as the oura ring) are woefully inaccurate on pretty much every measure except heart rate. My oura ring once had me in “deep sleep” while I was walking briskly across downtown Helsinki at about 1.30am. But here are the general guidelines (borrowed from The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts):

• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Earlier to bed is better: my Grandma used to say that “one before eleven is worth two after seven,” and as usual, she was right.
• Avoid caffeine (for at least six hours before bedtime). Even better would be to cut it out altogether, as it stays in the body for hours and hours. I don’t touch caffeine after 12pm, usually.
• Avoid alcohol (for at least four hours before bedtime). I find that a couple of glasses of wine make no difference to sleep quality (as measured by heart rate during the night), so long as the alcohol is out of my system before going to bed.
• Avoid eating a heavy meal for at least three hours before bedtime. This makes a huge difference, I find. If my body is working on digesting a big meal, my heart rate remains much higher all night than if I go to bed long after the last calorie went in. If you’re waking up too early due to hunger, then a light snack before bed may help.
• Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime. If you absolutely must be using a screen, on an iOS device enable Night Shift, or use F.lux or something similar to adjust the wavelengths of light your screen emits.
• Avoid social media for at least an hour before bedtime. There is nothing more likely to keep you awake than some foolish thing said on the internet. Remember that social media companies hire really clever people whose only job is to get and keep your attention; and nothing says you’re not paying attention like falling asleep.
• Keep your bedroom as dark as possible: use black-out curtains, and cover or switch off any sources of light pollution such as luminous clocks or devices with LED lights on them. This to me is one of the hardest things to get right when travelling. One hotel room I stayed in had an illuminated light switch in the middle of the headboard of the bed. I had to get my old boarding pass out and stick it over the damn thing with chewing gum to get any sleep.
• Create a wind-down ritual that persuades your body that it will be going to sleep soon. Keep it gentle. I find reading a good novel is hopeless, because I stay up late to get to the next bit, but reading a fairly dull but useful non-fiction book is great.
• Get a decent mattress. It’s worth it. You literally cannot put a price on sleep.

So, what are you going to do to improve your sleep this March? And how are you going to know that it has worked, or not?

My Patrons on Patreon.com/theswordguy got this article last week. Want to get everything early? You know what to do…

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