We sleep for 26 years in total, so the ultimate productivity hack is undeniably improving our quality of sleep. Imagine if all your life, you thought breathing was best accomplished by inhaling through a straw. Improve your waking life by invalidating misconceptions; it’s that simple.
You’ll relate to this: You look at your alarm clock. It says 4:36AM. You’ve been trying to go to bed for the past 2 hours, and the longer you’re awake, the more you worry about having to properly “wake up” at 6:00AM. You can’t sleep because you’re stressed from being awake; and you can’t wake because you’re stressed from lack of sleep.
We’ve all had nights like this. In the business world, it’s almost a competition to see who can function the best with as little sleep as possible. Information overload is a very real problem in the 21st century. Sleep debt is getting even worse among the Millennial generation, and the alarm function on most smart phones is an inadequate solution.
Many studies have emerged that show the harmful effects of not getting a good night’s rest. Our bedtime is now measured by how long it takes us to get bored of browsing the internet. Side effects include anxiety, depression, irritability, poor health, and arguing over who snores the loudest.
What matters more than the number of hours we sleep is the quality of sleep we receive. In one of the largest sleep studies of all time, composing of data from 1.1 million participants, they found that death rates increased among those who exceeded 8 hours of sleep per night and those that slept less than 4 hours. It seems the golden zone is between 6-7 hours of shuteye per night.
So in an ever-connected world, how can we get a good night’s rest consistently?
How can we minimize the number of hours we sleep and get a better quality of sleep?
What are some different sleeping techniques? What if I can’t sleep?
Stop changing tabs and focus. I’ll answer all of this and more.
Every morning Seth Priebatsch runs track until he collapses. He’s not an athlete, but you will eventually be as familiar with his work as you are with Mark Zuckerberg’s. Seth is an entrepreneur, and he’ll do for gaming what Mark did for socializing.
Both of these modern geniuses have unconventional sleep habits. Seth has been known to work 96 hours in a row and plans on living in his office with a sleeping bag. Mark wrote Facebook’s initial code in two weeks and often slept at his desk. Needless to say, there just isn’t time for 7 hours of conventional sleep if you want to change the world or succeed in business.
Seth sees anything capable of distracting him or his colleagues as evil.
Mark says, “I’m here to build something for the long term. Anything else is a distraction.”
We creative types have had many restless nights. Nights we can’t stop thinking about it. It was constantly on our mind. We couldn’t let it go. This was my life for several years. From dealing with server crashes at 3am in the morning to taking energy drinks late at night, I found myself wandering back and forth between work and distractions—too tired to wake; too wired to sleep.
We spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping, so just like everything else in our unconventional lives, we’ll eventually decide to optimize it.
Too many people view drugs, whether over-the-counter or prescription, as a kind of cure-all for sleeping or being more productive; however, my findings suggested that diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene are infinitely more important than taking a pill.
The key to sleeping like Seth and Mark is to aim for quality, not quantity.
This is the easiest modifier and can have the greatest impact on the sleep-wake cycle. My bedroom unfortunately faces south, so every morning, I wake up to the sun glaring through my shades. We’re naturally meant to wake with sun hitting our faces. It sets our internal clock and prepares us for the day as nature intended.
However, this is a simplified explanation. If you really want to take control of your sleep, do not be intimidated by the neuroscience behind it. Recalibrating your “biological clock” is really called phototherapy and happens to be highly effective in the treatment of sleep disorders. The clock itself is actually called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and the ticking of this clock is called circadian rhythm.
The SCN is located in the hypothalamus, which is the region of the brain that connects to the endocrine system, a regulatory system responsible for hormone secretion. Directly below the hypothalamus is the optic chiasm where the optic nerves cross that deliver sensory information from our eyes in order to give us stereoscopic vision (depth perception) and interface with our brain for processing.
The SCN is smack bang in the middle of the optic chiasm and the hypothalamus. In other words, our sleep is affected by both light and hormones. To really bring our explanation to life, scientists have studied what would happen if the SCN is destroyed in rats, and it’s not pretty.
Firstly, plasma corticosterone levels became erratic. Again, don’t worry about the fancy word. All corticosterone does is regulate energy, immune reactions, and stress responses. This is to say, without sleep our concentration, ability to fight diseases, and resilience to anxiety is compromised.
Secondly, thyrotropin or TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) was affected. It stimulates the metabolism of every cell in the entire body. The chemical reactions during this process literally keep us alive by fuelling cells (catabolism) or developing cells (anabolism).
Lastly, temperature regulation was affected, which could become uncomfortable as you can probably imagine. All in all, quality sleep is paramount to the quality of life.
This is why we’ve seen an appearance of specialized dawn simulators that exploit the role of the sun in circadian rhythm regulation. These clocks work by emitting a bright light in excess of 200 lux, which tricks us into thinking it is morning. Within a few days to a week, your body will start to wake up before the alarm itself actually goes off.
Just as there is artificial light, logically, there is artificial dark. If your sleep schedule has you waking up after the sun rises—delayed sleep phase disorder—then consider wearing a sleeping mask.
An alternative to the sleeping mask could be these nifty sleep headphones that also block light and, of course, sound great playing rain.
They connect to a regular 3.5mm jack on your phone and allow you to listen to music without being encumbered by cords or light. There are just about a gazillion sleeping related apps on both Apple and Android devices that are meant to help you go to sleep. Personally, I find this Youtube video to be one of the most effective methods of going to sleep. The video does a great job at allowing you to shut off your internal thoughts and just follow instructions by the speaker. Typically being unable to sleep is either due to something you ate or having a cirdaiym rhythm that is off sync but most commonly, having a restless mind.
Wavelength of Light
Finally, the Psychology of light can be boiled down to its wavelength (color).
Blue is a terrible wavelength to be absorbing during the day; it’s just too calming. Likewise, warmer colors in the red spectrum are terrible for night-time browsing (unless you’re trying to stay awake). f.lux is an app designed to change this. Taken from their website, the developers say it best:
Ever notice how people texting at night have that eerie blue glow?
Or wake up ready to write down the Next Great Idea, and get blinded by your computer screen?
During the day, computer screens look good—they’re designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the sun.
This hack can be common sense, i.e., don’t paint your bedroom red, but this approach is a little more comprehensive than that. The color temperature of your backlit monitor affects your circadian rhythm. As you browse Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and Tumblr, all you see is blue!
PS: Don’t forget to turn down the brightness of your monitor at night too 😉
Apart from light, one might consider the humidity in the ambient air temperature. Remember how mom would always bring the Humidifier out of the closet whenever you were sick as a child? Well, why only use it when we’re sick? Especially in the winter time when you’re running the heater quite a bit, it tends to zap the humidity out of the air. This means your nostrils might become dry thus effectively making your body more susceptible to inhaling a virus. This is because the tiny hair follicles in our nose need to be wet in order to catch the viruses/bacteria we might inhale.
If you’re breathing in air with moisture, it helps your lungs and your breathing throughout the night. This is why I have a humidifier next to my bed. It’s possible to get a more budget-friendly one for about $35, but I paid a little extra to have something that was appealing to the eyes.
Below you’ll find a picture of a brilliant looking Humidifier that looks more like an art fixture than it does a Humidifier. It senses the humidity in the surrounding air automatically and will automatically shut off after a period of time. It’s great for sleeping and is very low maintenance. Next to it you’ll find a Zeo Clock. They were really the leader in sleep monitoring a few years back, but the company went bankrupt and went out of business. The idea of wearing a wireless headset on your head didn’t seem to attract anybody except Anderson Cooper.
Apart from light, I’ve already mentioned that the SCN regulates temperature, but it works both ways: Sleep regulates temperature; temperature regulates sleep. Ever wake up in the middle of the night sweating? It’s not a great feeling. Coincidentally, I either feel unusually cold or unusually hot after a sleepless night. Our body is constantly trying to achieve homeostasis via a feedback loop of input VS output that aims for our systems to be “normal”. The more we can help it do this, the less it has to work and the better sleep we’ll end up getting.
There are a few ways of doing this, most notably with air temperature. I have had a Nest thermostat for the past few years, and it was one of the best purchases I ever made. Nest advertises its ability to create an automated schedule depending on how often you change the settings in the first week. I never liked that and chose to set the schedule to manual mode and customize it myself. During the day, I let the temperature rise to a comfortable 74°F, and at night I’ll gradually bring it down to 66–68°F: too cold or too hot will make it harder for the body to stay in that stable zone.
If running the AC every night isn’t an option due to budget concerns, you could also consider getting a Chilipad. This is a neat little device that you simply plop on top of your bed. It heats or cools water that runs through little tubes you lie over. I find it surprisingly effective and like to set it to 86°F during my evening ritual, so it’s nice and warm when I go to bed, but I’ll set it down to 76°F before I go to sleep. I find it’s easier to go to sleep in a warm bed and stay asleep in a cooler one. As for the cost, yeah it’s pretty expensive, but it is much more energy efficient than running your AC down to 66°F every–night—and it’s hard to put a price on quality sleep.
Here is an example of my Nest Schedule. You’ll notice it automatically starts to get colder at night right around the time I go to sleep. Then it’ll gradually warm back up in the day.
Also, if it’s a cold night even with the heater, you may get in bed and your feet will tend to be the coldest. Cold feet can prevent us from going to sleep, so consider getting some classic woolen socks, just like mother always said.
There is only so much we can modify in our environment to make our sleep a little better. The largest part has to do with ourselves and the things we do leading up to sleep. We need to make quality sleep hygiene just as routine as brushing our teeth before bed.
Another thing to consider is tracking your sleep. With things like the Fitbit or Kickstarter projects like Beddit and Chrona, there are new and emerging ways to track the quality of your sleep without having to attend a sleep lab. They’re great if you can pay attention to your habits and see how well or how badly your routine affected your sleep. They offer a way to measure and quantify in order to make a hypothesis about how Wine affects your sleep and actually put numbers to it. The benefit of sleep measuring devices is they give you the freedom to experiment and try things to increase the efficiency of your sleep. The problem is that nobody does this, so whether or not they’re worth your money is really a personal choice.
Below is a screenshot from the Beddit team, analyzing my sleep during a normal night. The monitor detects movement and bases it’s analysis on how much you move throughout your sleep. They showed me that in fact I move around quite a bit. Still working on how to improve that though.
DON’T let checking emails be the last thing you do at night.
This is like a shot of intellectual espresso before bed. What good is it going to do you to get an email that is going to cause you to stay up all night worrying, or trying to figure out what you’re going to say? Don’t do this to yourself as email is a toxic mix of dopamine from the “news” aspect of it, and yet it can cause loads of turmoil depending on whether that news is good or bad.
DO Plan your schedule for the next day.
You’ll be loads more productive if you spend 10 minutes every night sorting through your task list. In fact, if you attend to your worries in advance (not before bed), your mind will be free to sleep. Look at what needs to be completed and then pick out a handful of items you know you need to do. Hell, write them down on sticky notes and stick them to the front of your computer monitor, so the next morning, you’ll instantly know what you need to work on for that day.
DON’T Consume stimulants in the evening.
This one is pretty obvious, but at the same time, we don’t all respond the same. I used to consume energy drinks at 9–10PM at night and still manage to get to sleep by 2AM. I didn’t realize that I was sleeping 8–9 hours, so I later discovered I wasn’t being very efficient by doing this. It can be a pretty hard habit to break, but once you do, it’s easy to discover you don’t need stimulants to stay awake or to “be productive.”
The general rule of thumb here is to try and not have caffeine or anything else after 2:00PM or 8 hours before bed. This time might vary for some, but generally, for me, 4PM is my rule. If you’re still looking for an upper that won’t kill your sleep, then you’ll like my drugs section.
DO have an Evening Routine
So it’s not hard to spend half your day working on the computer and the other half of the day on Facebook or playing games. Apart from the obvious blue light issue, they all do one thing—and that is to stimulate us into wanting more. Before we know it, 10PM turned into 2AM in that World of Warcraft session, or we couldn’t help ourselves watching a slew of Game of Thrones episodes in a row.
It’s hard to get ourselves to stop, and this is why it’s important to have an evening ritual to help get us into the proper mood and mindset. 2–3 hours before bed, I’ll brush my teeth (which also helps me resist eating more); turn on the humidifier, Chilipad, and a heated blanket; and spend 30 minutes reading.
On an optional note—because these things can get very expensive—massage chairs are great to incorporate into your sleep routine. I didn’t include this in the Environment Section as luxury is rarely practical. The chairs allow the mind to run wild while the body relaxes. This provides an outlet to let your mind go wild to analyze the day’s events (so you don’t get into the habit of doing it in your bed) and can be accomplished with or without a fancy chair—think, meditation.
If I want to go back on the computer, I can still do that, but it’s broken apart from my regular work segment of the day. It helps to establish a mental routine, so you are getting yourself mentally prepared for going to bed. We create moods for ourselves in working, eating, and “reproduction,” so why not have one for sleep?
DON’T Eat & Exercise Before Bed
The farther away you separate your eating from your sleeping, the better. A general recommendation is not to eat 3–4 hours before bed. This also applies to beverages. If you find yourself waking up at 3AM to go pee, then you might want to limit your drinking to avoid such a disturbance. This seems obvious but might not be as obvious as you think.
However, this isn’t to say you should allow yourself to become thirsty. Be mindful and determine whether your body actually needs the liquids or if you just feel like having something to drink. A great alternative is to use mints like this.
DO Figure out how to Stop Your Mind from Racing
This is one of the biggest drivers to people staying up at night. Ever go to bed and you can’t stop thinking? You can’t stop worrying or wondering what is going to happen tomorrow?
This is a form of anxiety that we all have but very few seem to recognize. This is partly why meditation is so important because it teaches you not only the awareness factor that this is occurring but also the tools you need to be able to tell yourself “NO.”
Make a conscious effort to stop your mind from racing and focus on a single thing, whether that is counting your breaths or the number of sheep in the sky.
DO realize Polyphasic Sleep is Difficult
Spend enough time on the internet and you’ll eventually come across polyphasic sleep. The majority of us are on Monophasic sleep cycles where we sleep once a night. The second most popular form of sleep is called Biphasic, otherwise known as taking a siesta. This is where we take advantage of that post-lunch dip in wakefulness from the rest-and-digest response following a meal.
This nap isn’t any longer than 20–30 minutes otherwise you’d end up going into deeper stages of sleep, which would diminish the benefits of having this nap. If done right, Siesta sleep can be one of the most effective forms of sleep as studies have shown that 20-minute naps have greater effects on willpower and concentration than any kind of stimulant.
Last but not least, a sleep method I’ve personally tried is calling Polyphasic. Sleep is spread throughout the day with 4–6 different segments of naps. Again, there are multiple variations of this with the most common being Everyman and Uberman.
A typical Everyman sleep would have you sleeping 4 hours in one go with 20-minute naps spread throughout the day. Uberman takes this to the next level with 6 x 20-minute naps throughout the day.
The allure of being more productive by having to sleep less attracts people from all walks of life to try Polyphasic sleep. In fact, you’ll have so much free time that boredom becomes a huge problem. However, it’s not an easy schedule to implement.
The level of commitment required to get your body used to this new method of sleep is insanely difficult. Imagine being too sleepy to work for 2–3 weeks before you’re able to adjust the body’s circadian rhythm. Even then, you’ll have to modify your schedule or activities around your strange sleep schedule. (Hey guys, you go ahead. I’m just gonna take a quick nap in this here bathroom stall.)
There have certainly been some really interesting people who have documented their experience with Polyphasic sleep, most notably Aeia; however, even she stopped sleeping polyphasically after 2 years. Additionally, there has been a lack of evidence supporting the long-term health benefits of shorter nap cycles.
From all the user experiences I’ve read on Polyphasic, they are bored out of their minds—which I’ll mention again. Even if you’re able to adjust your circadian rhythm to the new routine, that doesn’t mean you’re going to feel like working during those extra hours. Many reports of users seemed to show they mostly procrastinated during their free time as they had less willpower throughout the day as a whole to tackle big projects.
So while it might be something to consider, it’s not really a long-term method of increasing productivity. As much as I wish I was a robot with a battery that I could simply replace, I’m not. We need to learn to recognize our limitations and accept and work around them, not try to overcome them.
Now, I could call these supplements, but it’s important to recognize that these so-called supplements are just as much drugs as any other traditional kind of pharmaceutical and should be used with caution.
I list these here, but I only use them occasionally if I’m having a hard time going to sleep. Use any one of these drugs on a recurring basis, and you negate the benefits of them, and your body will start to rely on them in order to go to sleep. The last thing you need is to be dependent on anything. No matter how trivial it may be, even Chamomile tea should be used for no more than a few days in a row.
The drugs below are listed in order of severity of sleeping problem. The farther down the item is on the list, the more potent it is. It’s always best to gauge your level of sleepiness and try and figure out if you need something gentle or something that will have a greater impact.
Warning: None of these should be taken above the recommended dosages, nor should they be taken for extended periods of time. Always consult a physician before taking anything.
One of my favorite teas to have before bed: it gives a nice relaxation, helps to calm the mind, and puts you in the proper mood for bedtime. It’s not entirely potent but can help you fall asleep faster.
While I’m on the subject of tea, I figure I might as well mention this. Yerba Matte is great for late night work and creativity. There is a little bit of caffeine mixed with some L-theanine, which increases serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and glycine. (It regulates mood.) It can help give you a small boost without affecting your sleep.
You can also take L-theanine directly. This is really one of the best things to take for relaxation. It isn’t going to put you to sleep, but not only is it a great neuro-enhancer to take the edge off Caffeine, but it can help lower anxiety and those racing thoughts. In many ways, it is similar to an antidepressant, although mild in comparison. L-theanine is also present in most teas we consume.
This is a relatively interesting plant. Now we’re seeing Kava Bars popping up all around the US where you can take a Kava Shot. In high amounts, Kava induces a mild euphoric effect and can help with people who have depression, anxiety, and most notably, sleep issues.
5-HTP is a precursor to Melatonin. That basically means it causes your body to naturally produce its own Melatonin instead of simply implanting artificial Melatonin substitutes. Taking precursors have benefits in that you’re less likely to experience side effects and less likely to become addicted since there is some level of control your body maintains in determining how much it wants to produce. 5-HTP has different effects for everybody, so it’s something to try and see how it affects you. Also, 5-HTP is a widely popular alternative to depression medication and has a few other benefits.
Good ol’ Trytophan. Available since the 70s, this was widely popular until a company made a bad batch in the late 90s and a few people died. The company never fully regained their reputation. Nonetheless, Tryptophan has been shown to be safe for depression, sleep, and mood alteration.
Trytophan is present in turkey, which is why we tend to get really sleepy after eating it. L-Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin and has effects on our mood and appetite. Something else to consider, Tryptophan gets metabolized into 5-HTP before becoming Serotonin. These drugs are therefore very similar but work differently to cross the blood-brain barrier. The closer you get to Serotonin (Melatonin), the more potent it will be and the more likely it is to cause problems.
This is present in a huge assortment of foods, and our body needs it to regulate several functions such as heart rhythm, immune system, and bone density. It’s an important part of our food intake and also has an added benefit of helping to calm and relax. This is my favorite form of magnesium, and you simply put it into a glass of water and it tastes like tea.
So this is the only real pharmaceutical on the list. It is the most popular over-the-counter sleep-aid. It is quite effective at helping to induce drowsiness, but recognize it does not keep you asleep since it wears off within a few hours. I will say, do recognize that most sleep-aids are simply Benadryl. You can save yourself some money by simply buying store-brand Diphenhydramine, which is the active ingredient in Benadryl.
This is one of the most potent things for sleep, really. Melatonin exists naturally; however, the production of it can be halted by things such as—you guessed it—computers and phones. So we have the option of supplementing it to help us get to sleep and stay asleep.
This can be a very effective way to get to sleep but realize you’re going to be super groggy when you wake up in the morning, and this is one of the most abused supplements for sleep.
I remember going to Costco and seeing an older woman who was buying 4 whole bottles of 20mg Melatonin pills. That is crazy! Don’t take this stuff every–night or else you’ll become addicted to it, and it will have a domino effect on other hormones in your body. When it comes to Melatonin you should take the minimally effective dose. Some brands of Melatonin come in 20mg per pill which is really sort of a mega-dose when it comes to this stuff really.
If none of this works, and you still find yourself awake sometimes, don’t sweat it. I’m not perfect and there are nights when I don’t get an adequate sleep either. If I find myself in that situation,—and I’ve already taken Benadryl or Melatonin, but it didn’t help—I’ll go to the gym, or read a book. The worst thing you can do is simply try to lie in bed and try to force yourself to go to sleep, or take a handful of Melatonin pills (seriously, don’t do that).
Relentlessly telling yourself that life sucks because you can’t sleep is a negative mindset that has absolutely zero benefits to our intended goals or outcome.
I still have friends who tell me they can’t fall asleep and have tried every drug I mentioned; however, having a consistent sleep relies less on what drugs you’re going to take and more on what your daily routine is and remaining consistent with that.
Are you consuming b-vitamins late at night and don’t even know it?
Are you having Green Tea and don’t realize it has caffeine in it?
I hope this article has given you some new ideas to help you have a better quality of sleep and help you fall asleep. Understanding the neurochemical effects of light, temperature, drugs, and technology are essential in improving the quality of our sleepover our lifespans. So much time is spent trying to optimize productivity itself, but so little attention is given to the efficiency of our sleep
This post has not been revised since publication.