How to sleep efficiently

How to sleep efficiently

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 To achieve the impossible dream, try going to sleep.

 Joan Klempner

In this blog post, you will learn

  1. That sleep is the prerequisite for efficiency and productivity
  2. Your mindset has more to do with your sleep than you think
  3. What to do if you can’t fall asleep
  4. How to calm your inner chatter

To be efficient, don’t compromise on sleep

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

– John Steinbeck

I will start this pillar post about sleep by quoting professor Stickgold, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School who writes: 

“Sleep is involved in a “multitude of biological processes—from the inner workings of the immune system to proper hormonal balance, to emotional and psychiatric health, to learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain.”

Losing a few hours of shut-eye depresses various functions, reducing our cognitive and memory powers, souring our mood, even reducing our body’s ability to defend against infections. If we did not snooze at all, eventually we would die.”

That’s why I decided to write about sleep as the first topic of achieving efficient habits. 

Sleep is the cornerstone of efficiency.

If you want to be efficient in your life at all, you got to sleep.

And it’s not about quantity, but rather about the quality of your sleep.

I am naturally inclined long sleeper and night owl.

I guess if I have never had to go to school or work I would have never developed the discipline of waking up in the morning. I would have stayed awake late and then slept till 10-11am when the rest of the world is already in their offices and cubicles.

I still sometimes devour longer sleep during the weekend or after longer hiking trips, but after jumping on the ‘efficient sleep wagon’ I tend not to do it anymore.

I find sleep to be the best medicine when I am sick, depressed or just feeling down. And as an absolute must, I always switch my phone to ‘airplane mode’ while sleeping.

It’s all about the sleep cycles

It’s all about 90-120 minutes. 

If you don’t remember anything from this post and you only remember this one (plus your mindset :)), you are good!

Remember number 90 minutes. If you want to wake up ready to efficiently take on your challenges, set up your alarm clock so it corresponds with 90 min cycles, e.g. if you go to sleep at 11 pm, it means your alarm should go off shortly before 7 pm. By that time you have finished 5 sleep cycles (25 repeated sleep stages) or recommended 8 hours of refreshing sleep.

What are the sleep cycles, you ask?

As anything on the earth, in nature and in human bodies, everything moves in cycles, sleep included.

When you sleep, your body goes through 5 stages, repeating in cycles. The recommended amount of sleep cycles for an adult is 5. It is higher when you are a kid and lowers when you are getting older.

The time of cycles varies between 90-120 minutes. You need to find your time by experimenting. I found out that 90-100 minutes work for me.

You can test it by calculating the cycle time from the time you go to sleep and seeing how you feel when your alarm goes off. If you are torn out of your dreams or can’t wake up at all, your alarm just went off during one of your deeper stages.

Finding out when exactly to set the alarm can be quite challenging and that’s why there are apps and smart devices great for that. 

I tried the Sleep tracker and it worked.

You have to realize that these devices are not quite perfect and can’t cope with situations when you e.g. need to go to the toilet at night or are sleepwalking.

However, they are better than alarm in situations when you can’t fall asleep. They really try to wake you up in a way that your sleep stages are not compromised. You set an alarm, let’s say for 7 am and specify 30 minutes as a range when to wake you up. The device will track your heart rate and body movements to determine when you will be least disturbed.

What are the sleep stages, you ask?

Source: How Sleep Works

There are 5 sleep stages recognize by the scientists.

  1. Awakeness
  2. REM Sleep – or ‘rapid eye movement’ sleep – dreams occur here and your memories and learning are consolidated – 25% of your sleep
  3. Non-REM Stage 1 – 5% – transition period between dreams and deep sleep
  4. Non-REM Stage 2 – 45% – restoration of your body organs happens here
  5. Non-REM Stage 3 – 25% – deepest sleep – processing of memories and learning – if woken up here, you feel most groggy and it takes ca 30 min to get to normal

Did you know?

“During the REM stage, dreams are most common. Your muscles are completely paralyzed to avoid any injury that would come from your dreams – running, kicking, boxing, falling out of your bed”

My personal experience with sleep …  or no sleep for that matter

Here is one personal story that shows how sleep can make or break your efficiency.

First one is from when I moved to Denmark. 

You see, Denmark is a really picturesque country with a lot of lush green meadows, but only maybe 3-5 days a year, when it’s actually sunny. Otherwise, the country is gray in different tones of gray.

The night falls at 3 pm during the winter and at around 11 pm during the summer. Now compare that to Middle Europe and it’s a good 2-3 hours difference.

I love the sunshine, it’s warmth and energy it gives. My mood is immediately better when I see the sun, just for one day a week. Ideally, every day would be the best.

Denmark is very greedy in the sunshine and if you come from more balanced climate you may suffer. 

I did.

My body couldn’t get accustomed to it and I became an insomniac. I couldn’t fall asleep for anything in the world. It’s not fun, I was stressed from the new job, a lot of demands, deliveries and on top of that, I couldn’t sleep… I was ‘dead’ tired, but I couldn’t fall asleep.

Naturally, my body compensated with craving junk food – a lot of fats and sugars to keep going. This lead to even less sleep, because the diet is very important for a good sleep.

It was a vicious circle.

What is more, I got quickly sick. Little sleep – junk food – not enough exercise – flu season. I acted totally stupid and I kept going to work. I got a terrible cough and couldn’t sleep even more. Fortunately, I didn’t push it to total exhaustion. At some point, I looked so sick that they sent me home from work to rest and get better. I finally released and let it go.

I couldn’t think, I couldn’t exist normally. 

My brain wasn’t able to come up with any creative thought or anything substantially productive. That was my lowest point.

This lasted for about 3 months, from the point I developed mild insomnia, got to the point of exhaustion, got sick and finally got rid of the flu.

The sickness, despite being bad, helped me sleep a little more, especially without a schedule. I could sleep in and recharge the depleted energy.

I also searched for a little bit of help in the area of falling asleep and discovered this awesome app called ‘Relax Melodies’. It is based on the research that sounds in certain wavelengths have a positive influence on your brain and can help with concentration, but also relax and sleep. I tried it out.

I think it was a good combination of placebo effect and the app really working, but I slowly returned to normal sleeping mode.

Despite all the insomnia agony, I am lucky that it happened quite early in my life so it motivated me to research and learn about the sleep and how to sleep efficiently. 

I am also extremely lucky that this didn’t happen when I decided to run my own business.

When you build your own dreams, stress levels are higher and you have to deliver even more ferociously. Being efficient is a must to finish up all the todos in a quick and quality way to preserve a little bit of life and sanity.

When you are an employee, you are just one piece in a huge machine and if you fall out, it won’t fall apart. If you are lucky with a boss with whom you have mutually respectful and trustful relationship and you work in a country like Denmark then you can rely on a humanistic approach to such situation. You will never become a business owner, but you could end up with a 25 years plaque on the wall in company’s hallway. There are pluses and minuses in everything.

Mindset shift and efficient sleep

Next story is about my resolution in 2014 to learn to program in order to build prototypes or as they are known in Lean Startup methodology – MVPs (= Minimum Viable Products). 

I have inclined to programming since I started producing websites and apps in 2007. Getting to it was an act of serendipity, but I quickly became to like it.

A few years later I started working with software engineers directly, as a Product Owner and I totally love it. It inspired me to come up with tons of new ideas for digital products.

The only drawback I have is that I don’t have a technical education.

Engineers don’t like to talk to non-engineers if you don’t prove your worth. You gotta show that there is something they can trust. Talking about your ideas and coming up with investor focused presentations won’t help at all. It can make their eyes glow when you show them financial projections, but they are mostly about facts and what you really bring to the table.

So I said to myself, in order to attract quality engineers and not only them, but any hires that I would need in my venture, I need to prove the business models of my ideas.

How do I do it?

Definitely not by talking, but by doing.

If you have an idea, it’s usually a product/service of both in one. It is something tangible that you are able to show to the people, they either buy it, rent it or rent your experience. You should be able to show some kind of prototype of your idea in order to progress validating your business model.

After all, when you start your business unless you have rich parents or a trust fund, you care about the money and what you create.

You will not spend your time and money on something that you build hoping that people will just use it. You should iterate, build-measure-learn. 

And for that approach, prototypes and MVPs are the best way.

In the beginning, it’s more important to validate your business model = how you make money and become profitable, than a super-duper product/service. I don’t mean that the prototype needs to look like crap. It just doesn’t have to have all the blows and whistles. It needs to have great user experience, design, and functionality, but only the core ones. The ones that will prove your product is wanted in the marketplace and people are willing to pay money for it.

OK, the strategy was there, but I had a full-time job. 

When should I have found time to learn the software development? Usually, after work, I was too tired to do too much and I couldn’t focus so well anymore. I mean, if you don’t have a chance, any time is better than nothing. However, why not to look for a better solution?

I tried studying after work at home, the proverbial 2nd shift, but I wasn’t efficient enough. Some days I was so tired, that I just went to sleep without looking into studying at all. Other days I just fell asleep being exhausted from a long day. I had my goals and ambitions, but I wasn’t just motivated to do them.

In regards to working today so you have more time tomorrow, I have a separate post coming. 

Some of you may say, when I push it today, I gain more time tomorrow. Well, you can, but how efficient you will be the next day? You maybe wing it tomorrow, but if you do it in long-term, the sleep deficit will accumulate, your cognitive functions will falter and you will be less efficient. Just don’t do it. There is a better solution …

The Miracle Morning

“We are at our very best, and we are happiest when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we’ve established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep. It makes everything else in life so wonderful, so worthwhile.” 

– Earl Nightingale

In the end of 2014, I started listening to a podcast called Entrepreneurs on Fire by John Lee Dumas. 

He had a guest on the show, Hal Elrod, who talked about his book ‘The Miracle Morning’.

What’s that? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a book that talks about creating a morning routine and be fueled to perform at the highest level directly from the morning.

It’s about changing your mindset using the simple technique of Life S.A.V.E.R.S –  Silence, Affirmations, 5amVisualization, Exercise, Reading and Scribing (writing/journaling). He recommends doing each part in 60 minutes, or 10 minutes per ‘saver’. When you don’t have extra 60 minutes, just reduce it to min. 1 minute per ‘saver’.

I read his book in a breeze and applied it in April 2015. My life has been one helluva ride since then.

It took a month getting used to waking up at or befo5 am, but the ‘savers’ helped, especially morning exercise, affirmations & visualization and scribing. 

I wasn’t really sold on meditation, but that was mainly because I didn’t know how to do it. I discovered Headspace just a few months ago and since then, meditation has been a huge part of my morning routine.

In regards to reading, I read during the day extensively (min. 10 pages per day) so I don’t make that part of my morning routine. You see, you can adjust your routine provided you don’t miss any of the ‘savers’ during the day.

Coming back to my goal of learning programming. 

I bought a Complete Web Developer course from udemy.com and followed it relentlessly for few months during my ‘morning routine’.

I used approximately 30 minutes for Hal’s ‘savers’, or 5-5.30am, then studied programming and did exercises from 5.30-7.30am (2 bananas and orange juice keep the sugar levels up), then had breakfast and at 8.00 I was out of house sprinting to catch the train.

I finished the course in 3 months and started developing on my own. My code is not beautiful, but it does what I need it to do – front-end wth back-end interaction between users and database.

Part of the Miracle Morning concept is about going to sleep as well. 

It’s not only about waking up and fueling your day journey. It’s also about mentally preparing for the waking up a night before.

The simplest thing you can do is to ‘affirm’ yourself about the fact that you will wake up full of energy with a smile on your face.

It sounds like hocus-pocus, but it works. Obviously, it takes some getting used to, but after a couple of days, it just works.

No matter that it’s winter and pitch black when you wake up at 5 am. If you tell yourself you will wake up full of energy and with a smile on your face, you will.

It’s a lot about working with your mind.

Don’t be fooled, I am pragmatic as one only can be and I used to be totally skeptic about any of such bogus talk.

What changed me was that my ways just didn’t work and I had to look for an alternative. I just gave it a chance. I had to suppress the ‘naysayer’ in my head and just patiently follow through. It worked.

After I had done Hal’s Miracle Morning for a year I thought about experimenting with it a little bit. 

Since January 2016, I have done a slightly different routine.

I still do the exercise, then affirmations and visualization. I added 15 minutes of meditation and gratefulness scribble, which consists of writing down 3 things you are grateful for each day, plus one positive experience you had in past 24 hours.

This positions your mind on positive things happening in your life so you become more grateful and positive. In turn, it fuels your performance, efficiency, and productivity. I needed it very much and it helped me a lot.

I continue in 2017.

What if I can’t fall asleep.

People who can fall asleep quickly freak me out… I mean, don’t they have thoughts? 

– Internet

That’s true. Hal’s morning routine is not really flexible with situations when you can’t fall asleep. 

I mean, even affirming yourself that you wake up refreshed and with a smile on your face won’t help you if you spend hours trying to fall asleep.

That’s why my research on sleep continued and again, thanks to JLD’s Entrepreneurs on Fire podcast I discovered Shawn Stevenson and his tips on how to sleep smarter – ‘21 tips how to sleep smarter‘.

Some of the tips are ‘duh, I already know that’ and some of them are completely new, both making you re-think your sleeping habits.

You can read about all of them in Shawn’s book, but here is a quick summary of some of them that worked for me like a charm.

Tips on how to fall asleep more efficiently.

I tried all of them and they worked for me 100%:

1. No ‘blue light’ at least 90 mins before sleep

What is ‘blue light’? – blue light is artificially emitted light from your devices that has the same wavelength as sunlight and inhibits production of melatonin, ‘the hormone of sleep’ and encourages production of serotonin, ‘the hormone of awakeness’

No computer, no TV, no iPad, iPhone, no artificial illumination of high lux quantity before going to sleep. But, but, but I am a night owl and I am most creative working at night, and I just love browsing the internet before going to sleep or reading my Kindle.

Well, I am too and how did I solve it? I installed f.lux on my computer, I dimmed my mobile devices, including Kindle and I don’t tend to watch TV before going to sleep (unless it’s an evening before day-off).

You can set up f.lux so it follows the sunset and sunrise in your time-zone and it effectively dims blue light emission from your devices.

You can also dim your iPhone or iPad, disable backdrop light on your Kindle and use low lux lamp near your bed.

2. Heat up your body during the day and cool it down in the evening

This one was kind of biggest revelation to me, despite it’s the most logical. 

If you are heated up, you can’t really sleep… Just think of trying to fall asleep after you run up and down the stairs.

Now think of the last time you had to spend longer time out in the winter when it’s minus. Yep, you started to feel sleepy.

The most interesting thing is that the more your body heats up during the day, the lower the temperature drop will be at night and the easier it will be to fall asleep. 

Make effort to walk the stairs instead of taking the elevator, use a bicycle instead of public transport or a car, or make effort to go to a gym to run on a treadmill or do some aerobic exercises, even if only for 10 to 30 minutes.

Your sleep will thank you for it.

3. Get out during the day and expose your eyes to sunlight

But, but, but what if I live in the north and I don’t get enough sunlight? 

Well, make it happen. Just because you don’t see it, the sun is still there, just above the clouds. Just think of your last flight when you took off in darkness and just as the plane reached above the clouds, you caught a glimpse of beautiful sunshine.

Take a walk outside – go to the shop, walk to the bus stop, walk from the office for a lunch.

If it’s not possible, especially during the winter months, then buy a ‘daylight’ lamp and use it. I tried it a couple of times – borrowing a lamp from my colleague and it worked for me. It’s definitely not the same as natural sunlight, but it helps to alleviate the symptoms

Another sunshine related fact.

During the winter months, or generally, if you live in the north without enough of direct sunlight, make sure to take vitamin D in recommended doses. Vitamin D is a vitamin that your body is able to produce on its own if you get enough sunshine. It supports the immune system and helps to avoid depression or feeling down. 

4. Drink enough water during the day, before going to sleep and after you wake up

Despite common belief, your body ‘works’ during the sleep as well and uses up resources including water. 

If it doesn’t have enough, the body is stressed which can affect your falling asleep and sleeping process.

That’s why I have a glass of water before going to sleep. Just be careful not to overdo it as then you will have to go to the bathroom at night and that affects your sleeping cycles.

This is also very helpful when you wake up – drink ½ liter of water just after you wake up. 

It’s like fuel for your car, your body will start working after hours of slumber. JLD from Entrepreneurs on Fire recommends Organify, but if you eat enough fruits and veggies during the day, water or juice are enough.

5. Avoid noise

Well, this one is more and more difficult, especially when you have neighbors that don’t respect the night silence, or in case you live next to the main road or train tracks.

In that case, get medical, soft earplugs that will inhibit noises and help you fall asleep. It gets some time to get used to, but better than not being able to fall asleep when you need to.

6. No heavy foods and sugars before going to sleep

No steaks, no heavy cheese – trust me I tried it and couldn’t fall asleep until the wee hours.

The body has to work too hard to digest these and your body heats up. Plus the nightmares are excruciating.

No sugars – artificial or organic. 

If you eat a chocolate or candy, or even oranges, bananas or other sugar high fruits before going to sleep, your body will feel like fully charged Tesla with ‘insane’ mode and your body will pump blood so hard that falling asleep will be more of a miracle than a natural process.

7. Limit Coffee/Tea intake

This one can bring a lot of arguments because I know people who drink coffee or caffeinated drinks directly before bed and they sleep soundly like a baby. 

I guess it has something to do with genetics.

My body definitely can’t cope with caffeine. If I had coffee at night I would be up like my lemur buddy here …

Animals GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I would act the same if I had black tea (In England, simply called tea), so no 5 pm tea time for me!

Green tea is different, though, I can have a cup in the evening and I will be fine. I guess it has something to do with how ‘resistant’ I am. I have drunk green tea since I don’t remember.

You should stop drinking coffee before 4 pm to allow your body to process the caffeine and get it out of your body. 

I stopped drinking coffee in January 2016 as part of my resolution. I haven’t touched it ever since.

Before, I used to drink coffee as performance help because I never liked the taste. It helped me to overcome the after lunch sleepiness. If I drank coffee after 4 pm I had trouble falling asleep at night, but having last one between 2 – 4 pm worked fine.

8. Limit Alcohol intake

I will not preach about how alcohol is bad for you. 

However, effects on your sleep are evident.

The fact that you drop ‘dead’ after drinking too much, doesn’t mean you are getting quality sleep.

You are losing the very important deep and REM sleep. Your body is working hard to process all that alcohol and toxins involved and after you wake up you are more screwed than ever.

Why do you think there is so much written about hangovers?

Same as with caffeine, have a time limit when you stop drinking alcohol so your body has time to process it before you go to sleep. 

What worked for me is that after having 2-3 beers, I start drinking water. Dilutes the alcohol in your blood and helps to get it out of the system faster.

9. Darkness

Avoid strong lights just before going to sleep. In the rooms that you frequent before going to sleep, install saving light bulbs that are weaker than common lighting.

Avoid lights from the street – use blinds that shut your window completely. This one is arguable, though because, during the summer, it’s great to wake up to natural sunlight.

Avoid lights when going to the toilet. We have really strong illumination in our bathroom and every time when I needed to go to the toilet at night or wash my teeth before going to sleep, I woke up just from the light. It’s great when I really need to wake up :), stimulates the serotonin, but at night, it’s not really needed.

That’s why I was really happy to discover Illumibowl in TV Show Shark Tank. I got it in the US and installed. It comes with different colors so you can choose the one you like and it works enough so you don’t step into your toilet at night 😉

10. Calm your inner chatter

This one is easier said than done, but it’s a bitch. 

If you think, you can’t sleep.

If you think you can’t sleep, you won’t sleep.

Your thoughts can be the number one reason why you can’t fall asleep. I mean all the above-mentioned reasons can act as triggers to more thinking, so make sure you take care of them first.

Then take care of your thoughts.

Think about it, you are even afraid of going to sleep because you know you can’t fall asleep because you are thinking too much. This leads to a vicious circle because these thoughts stress you out and you can’t fall asleep thinking how you can’t fall asleep.

And then broad pleiad of all kind of things keep coming to your mind – todos, anxious thoughts, things you forgot to do, things you have to do … what ifs, what if not, etc. Suddenly your mind is racing like a Lamborghini Gallardo on German Autobahn and you don’t even think about sleep anymore.

Eventually, you are so exhausted that you fall asleep, only to wake up way before your alarm to go through the ‘Lamborghini’ process above all over again.

After meditating with Headspace, I learned that you shouldn’t chase your thoughts or try to stop them. Both can create resistance and resistance is stressful. All you have to do is to become a bystander, being aware of your thoughts, but letting go, watching them from the side. In that case, you become calmer and can go on with the fluffy dreams.

Here are few techniques that helped me. You can try them to stop your ‘inner chatter’ when you need to sleep.

Remember ‘Why’ you need to sleep? Because you want to be efficient and productive, plus all your personal goals and ambitions you have for yourself that you want to achieve. If you get a good night sleep you will move closer to achieving them!

Remember – can you do anything about whatever races through your mind right now? Unless you work across time zones with min 6h difference, there is nothing you can do about it. Use your nights for sleeping and days for being efficient with your tasks. Even if you work across time zones with a 6h+ difference, then you can schedule your day in a way so you don’t have to lose your sleep. If you try, you will get.

If the ‘Lamborghini’ situation happens, stop, stand up from the bed and go for a walk in a different part of the house for ca 5 minutes – go to the toilet, have a sip of water, or whatever – you have to ‘dislocate’ your brain from thinking about BS. When you come back to bed, change position.

Scan your body, from toes to top of your head (or the other way around), feeling each centimeter of your body and repeating: “I don’t feel my toes”, I don’t feel my fingers”, etc. Before you get to upper body, you are asleep

Start counting your breaths, fully focusing on your breathing. Count to 10 and repeat. Even better is to focus on your out-breaths only, count them till 5 and repeat. Thoughts will come and go, but let them, focus on your breathing and continue counting. This will help a lot.

Where will I go from here

This post is not all about me, it’s about you too. 

Thank you for letting me share my experience with efficient sleep. My sleeping techniques are not perfect by no means so I am always on a lookout to improve whenever I can.

The main point here is awareness and experimentations.

You can’t have everything immediately, so you need to be patient. It all starts with being aware that you want to achieve something and a better sleep will help to achieve it.

After that, let your curiosity take the lead.

High five through the screen!

-Marian

Lessons learned

  1. You sleep, therefore you are efficient!
  2. Clarity of ‘Why’ for your life brings easy sleep
  3. List of 10 tips how to make sure you fall asleep without much effort

Resources and tools mentioned in this post

Let me know

Hey, all. Hope you found interesting points in this article that you can apply and sleep more efficiently. Can you please let me know and share what worked for you in comments below? I am always on a lookout for new techniques how to sleep even more efficiently so any feedback is welcome.

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