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My Nighttime Routine – Love Your Work, Episode 259

July 08 2021 – 07:30am

Nighttine RoutineYou hear a lot about morning routines, but nighttime routines are every bit as important. Your parents probably had a bedtime routine for you, and if you have kids you probably have bedtime routines for them. But we need bedtime routines as adults, too. I follow a specific nighttime routine, and it helps me get to sleep faster, and wake up better-rested.

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Wind down, and don’t try to force sleep

My nighttime routine follows two overarching principles:

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  1. Wind down
  2. Don’t try to force sleep

1. Wind down: Before I started my nighttime routine, I didn’t think about what I was doing before bed. I just went to bed when I was tired. I was treating all hours of the day as equal – following time management instead of mind management. Once I started my nighttime routine, I realized “going to bed” starts well before you’re tired. It’s like the difference between crashing a plane and a smooth landing.

2. Don’t try to force sleep: I recently did a sleep study at a lab, and started doing my nighttime routine. But the study was supposed to start before my usual bedtime, and the nurses at the lab wouldn’t let me follow my routine. I didn’t sleep the whole night and the study was a waste. The problem for me was trying to force sleep. I had insomnia as a kid and trying to get to sleep always made me more anxious and less able to sleep. So now I’m careful not to force sleep.

Two phases: wind-down and sleep-time

In the spirit of not trying to force sleep, my nighttime routine follows two phases: wind-down and sleep-time. Wind-down phase: During the wind-down phase, I want to signal to my body that it can get ready for sleep. Again, I’m not trying to force sleep, just giving my body permission to get sleepy. I’ll get more into how I do that in a bit. Sleep-time phase: In the sleep-time phase, I’m again careful to not force sleep. But I have specific steps I follow that help me transition from the wind-down phase to actually getting to sleep.

Five rules for my nighttime routine

Your parents probably had bedtime rules for you. In your bedtime routine as an adult, you need rules for yourself. Here are five rules I follow:

  1. No social media after 9 p.m.
  2. No bright screens after 10 p.m.
  3. Blue-blocking glasses after 10 p.m.
  4. Reading only after 10 p.m.
  5. In bed by midnight.

Here’s some more detail about each of those:

1. No social media after 9 p.m.

I have a theory that associating with anyone you’re not close to before bedtime disrupts your sleep quality. The only proof I have of this is I’ve experienced it myself. Though it would make sense from an evolutionary perspective: You and the tribe might find it hard to sleep if strangers from another tribe were lurking around your campfire. I don’t want to think about a news story in the world at-large, witness a petty argument amongst strangers, or read a hostile Twitter reply too close to bedtime. I sense that it sets my brain on alarm, making it hard to sleep. Twitter is my social media of choice, and it’s valuable enough to outweigh the above negatives, generally, but not after 9 p.m. When I say no social media, that doesn’t mean that I won’t chat with a close friend on WhatsApp or Messenger. I would guess associating with people you’re close to before bedtime makes it easier to get to sleep, if anything. I often make a FaceTime call to my father after 9 p.m., but no Twitter.

2. No bright screens after 10 p.m.

By now it’s well-established that blue light exposure late at night disrupts sleep and is even associated with higher cancer risk. Yes, our devices have nighttime modes that reduce this light, but I don’t trust that to eliminate blue light completely. So I avoid bright screens, wholesale, after 10 p.m. I stow my phone and tablet in a charging station in my living room, and ignore them until the next morning. This also makes it easier to follow my rule of no social media. The brightest thing I look at after 10 p.m. is my Kindle. It’s not great to be on an electronic device, but I set it in dark mode, so it’s actually less light exposure than I would get reading a paper book under lamplight. As part of this rule, I also switch off my internet and WiFi at 10 p.m. This is a good way to keep yourself off the internet, but it also may be better for your health. Studies have shown that EMF exposure before bed alters your brain activity during sleep. Scientists haven’t found any ill health effects from this (yet), but why not turn off your WiFi? We didn’t evolve to have our brain activity altered while we sleep, and you’re not using it anyway.

3. Blue-blocking glasses after 10 p.m.

Even if the nighttime modes on my devices did eliminate all blue light, there’s still blue light in the lights in my house, or from street lights outside. So, I nip that in the bud with blue-blocking glasses. The blue-blocking glasses I wear are not fashionable. They are orange, and large enough to wrap around most of my face, as well as cover my glasses. Very little blue light gets past these, and I get sleepy easier and wake up more refreshed when I wear these glasses, starting two hours before my target bedtime. I even take them with me when I travel, and they help out when I need to push my bedtime earlier to get up for early flights.

4. Reading only after 10 p.m.

Back when I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing before bedtime, I would often work until I could hardly keep my eyes open. I’ve since tried different activities before sleep, and found that nothing works better to get me sleepy than reading. So, the only activity I allow myself to do after 10 p.m. is read. This means there are a lot of activities I avoid before bed. Aside from bright screens, I’ve found that certain activities get my brain too active, and make it hard for me to fall asleep. If I play a video game on my VR headset, write in my journal, or even do something creative such as drawing, it’s not as easy for me to get to sleep, and I wake up less-rested. I also select the type of reading I do in a specific way that helps me get sleepy. For the first hour, I can read pretty much whatever I want. This hour helps me get through a lot of science, history, or biography books, the highlights of which I store in the digital Zettelkasten I talked about on episode 250. I use much of this reading as raw material for ideas for newsletters, articles, and books. As I’m reading, I’m looking out for specific signals help to me decide when I’m ready for bed. The first thing I’m looking out for is how well I understand what I’m reading. About this time of night, I can lose my reading comprehension very rapidly. One minute I’m engrossed in a complex neuroscience book, the next minute I realize I’ve read the same sentence several times over. This happens before I’m consciously aware that I’m tired, but it signals to me it’s time to change my reading material. When that happens, I switch from non-fiction to fiction. If 11 p.m. rolls around and I’m still comprehending non-fiction well, I make the switch anyway. Now I’m looking for the final signals that I’m ready for bed. At some point, I will realize I’ve just “come to.” I will have just started to doze off – my eyelids have gotten so heavy they’ve started to close, and I may have even lost control over the arm that holds up my Kindle. I’m not the type to fall asleep accidentally, but as soon as one of these things happens, I close my Kindle and go to bed. If by 11:30 p.m. my eyelids haven’t started closing involuntarily, I bring out the big guns. This is the reading that’s most likely to make me sleepy. I read some poetry by Robert Frost, or a play by Shakespeare. If I really want to go back in time, I’ll pull out The Iliad. Sometimes I’ll read some Emerson. The Robert Frost poetry is folksy and he and Emerson talk a lot about nature, which is very relaxing. The rhythms of Frost and Shakespeare lull me to sleep. And The Iliad is just hard to read.

5. In bed by midnight

By following this progression of reading, I almost always get sleepy by midnight. My rule is “in bed by midnight,” but really if I don’t get sleepy by then, I find it does me no good to go to bed anyway. So I try to be in bed by midnight, but if I’m not sleepy, I’ll just keep reading the big guns. I have found that having a set bedtime helps me get to sleep more easily, and wake up more rested. There’s not a big difference between whether I go to bed at 10:30 p.m. or midnight, but once it gets past midnight, there’s suddenly a big difference. If I can’t get to bed until 12:15 a.m. one night, I’ll feel it the next day, and will take a couple nights more before I can get my sleep back on schedule. By the way, I make sure to have already brushed my teeth by the time I’m going to bed. I do that at some point during the wind-down phase. I hate the feeling of being sleepy and still needing to brush my teeth, so I try to do it before. And this helps prevent any late-night snacking.

Going to bed: the sleep-time phase

Once I’m in bed, I’m still following the principle of not trying to force sleep. I take off my glasses, but leave on the orange goggles. I get a couple of other valuable sleep tools ready: I position my sleep mask on my forehead for quick deployment, and I put in earplugs. Now, I lay on my back stare off into space, and let my thoughts flow. I do not close my eyes and try to go to sleep until I feel my eyelids get heavy again. You might wonder: My eyelids were just heavy, now I’ve gone to bed and am waiting again for my eyelids to get heavy. Why didn’t I just read in bed? I’m a big advocate of the philosophy that you should only do two things in bed, one of them should be sleeping, and the other should not be reading. If you do other activities such as reading or surfing the web in bed, you’re just programming yourself to not be sleepy when in bed. So, I make the small compromise of having to get myself to bed once sleepy, then needing to again wait to get sleepy. It usually only takes a minute or two before my eyelids are falling closed. At that point, I take off the orange goggles, lower my sleep mask, and fall asleep.

There’s my nighttime routine

There’s my nighttime routine. After that, I sleep until I wake up. I don’t use an alarm. I try to stay in bed until at least 8 a.m., even if I do wake up earlier. (I find if I’m patient, I do fall asleep again.) I hope this gives you some ideas for your own nighttime routine. Pay attention to what activities do or don’t help you get to sleep, wind down gradually, and keep a regular bedtime. You may, like me, get to sleep easier and wake up better-rested. Image: Gauze by Paul Klee

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