I Haven't Slept Well in 7 Months—Here's How I Fixed My Sleep Schedule
Like many Americans (one-third of the population, to be exact), I don't sleep well. Especially in the last few months, with the stress and anxiety brought on by both the pandemic and the upcoming election, I find myself restless at night and downright groggy in the morning. Not only that, but my sleep schedule has been completely out of whack since I started working from home in March and lacking a routine commute. I go to bed late, wake up late, and constantly feel like there aren't enough hours in the day. At times, it seems like the only cure for my eternal exhaustion is to wait for the weekends, when I can sleep in as long as I want.
I'm not alone in my sleep struggles. An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans of all ages and socioeconomic classes are affected by sleep-related problems, according to Sleephealth.org, and 45% of Americans say that poor or insufficient sleep affects their daily activities, according to the National Sleep Foundation's 2014 Sleep Health Index.
So while my problem is not unique, I knew that my current tactic of "just winging it" when it came to my sleep schedule wasn't sustainable or healthy. That's why I enlisted the help of a sleep coach, which, TBH, I did not know existed for adults.
What is a licensed sleep coach, exactly? They're trained health coaches who specialize in the complex science of sleep. My personal sleep expert first helped me examine my lifestyle habits and home environment, then worked to create a personalized plan to help me fix my sleep schedule and finally get some much-needed z's. One important note is that while sleep coaching can certainly be helpful and effective, anyone experiencing insomnia for more than three months should first see a doctor in order to rule out any potential medical issues. Now without further ado, here's how my session went.
How to fix your sleep schedule:
I met with Olivia, my certified sleep coach, through a company called Proper, which combines evidence-backed formulations and personalized coaching for holistic, long-term sleep health solutions. Through the company, I scheduled a virtual meetup with Olivia to address the main issue at hand: not having a consistent sleep schedule and not waking up feeling refreshed in the morning.
Olivia asked me questions about my environment, whether or not I had a wind-down routine (I did not), if I engaged with work before bed (I did), and how I felt about my current sleep schedule (not good, clearly). We then developed a plan that I could start to incorporate into my day and night that would help me fix my sleep schedule and achieve some more restful shut-eye. After sticking to these routines for three full weeks (after not getting proper sleep for the last seven months), here's what worked.
1. Stick to a consistent bedtime.
Studies have shown the benefits of going to bed at the same time every night, but as we all know, it can be tricky to stick to one set time. I relayed to my sleep coach that a goal of mine was to shift my schedule to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, but after going to bed at odd hours for the last several months, making the switch to an earlier bedtime was initially a challenge. According to the sleep experts at Proper, "The physiological part of our bodies thrive off of routine because there are hundreds of processes based on the consistency of the 24-hour day. If the schedule of when we are awake and asleep varies considerably, it can cause confusion for the body and throw off these physiological processes, resulting in feelings of perpetual jet lag." Ah, yes, my chronic grogginess.
With a target bedtime of 10:30 p.m. in mind (instead of my usual midnight), I mapped out my evenings accordingly: dinner at 7 p.m., shower at 7:30 p.m., TV time from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Oh, and no work after 6:30 p.m. Hitting my target bedtime was more of a gradual process than an overnight one, but after about a week and a half, I started to get the hang of it and trained my body to ease into sleep a bit earlier.
2. Set boundaries for yourself when it comes to work.
If you're like me and working from home has made you more inclined to open your work computer during the evening hours, here's some advice: Just don't do it. I get it, it's super tempting, but the studies have shown that a lack of separation between work life and home life can be detrimental to both your mental and physical health. I learned this the hard way when my sleep coach informed me that opening my computer before bed to do some last-minute work tasks was a total sleep schedule no-no.
"Closing down your workday can be a really big deal when it comes to sleep," Olivia tells me. "If you have a stressful job or one with a lot of mental stimulation, try to end the day earlier so you can give yourself the 'in-between' time to separate work time from relaxing at home time." She explains that our 24-hour natural circadian rhythm is like a subtle pressure that, throughout the day, builds up in our bodies. As the day wears on, that pressure becomes more intense, and we feel sleepier or more inclined to engage in sleep. However, if you push past that pressure (by, say, opening up your work computer at 9 p.m. like I had been doing), you get a "second wind" and essentially reset that important biological clock into a state of wakefulness.
Because of this, Olivia tells me that "setting boundaries for work is powerful." She suggested aiming for a reasonable hard log-off time and keeping my laptop out of bed so that work tasks could only be completed in the living room or at my desk. This way, she told me, work will have less of a chance of disrupting both my home life and my sleep. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard backs this up, noting that "keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will only strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep."
3. Establish a wind-down routine—and actually do it.
I'll admit it: Lately, I've been doing a lot of doom-scrolling right before bed. It is a habit I knew I needed to kick in order to feel more refreshed in the morning, but I needed some help to find other activities that could fill my time right before bed. That's where a good wind-down routine comes in handy. My sleep coach tells me that "avoiding engaging in too much stimulation prior to bedtime is a way to lower sympathetic activation (the body's fight-or-flight system). Activities that are too stimulating can engage this system and run interference with the onset and maintenance of sleep, which is why wind-down activities are preferred."
Because different activities can be stimulating for different people, my sleep coached worked with me to find out what I found to be relaxing. We settled on five to 10 minutes of light yoga/stretching before bed, followed by 20 minutes of reading. Some other wind-down activities include taking a bath, practicing a lengthy skincare routine, meditating, doing breathing exercises, or listening to some calming music. Whatever it is, the goal is to find something (preferably that does not involve a screen) that makes you feel relaxed and signals to your body that you are going to power down soon.
4. Create an incentive for yourself to get up.
Here's one you may not have thought of: "Give yourself a reason to rise," says Olivia. Instead of dreading wake-up time (as many of us do), my sleep coach suggests finding—or creating—something to look forward to each morning upon waking up. This can be something like doing exercise before work, reading, or simply having a yummy cup of coffee.
"Adjusting your mindset to find enjoyment in going to bed and looking forward to the next day as well as having something (however small) that makes you excited to get up can be really helpful," she says.
5. Don't slack on the weekends.
My final question for my sleep coach was a simple one: Can I sleep in on the weekends? Turns out, "catching up on sleep" is a total myth. One 2010 Harvard Medical School study found that even when you sleep an extra 10 hours to compensate for sleeping only six hours a night for up to two weeks, your reaction time and ability to focus are worse than if you had pulled an all-nighter. So no, it's not necessarily a good idea to sleep all day on the weekends to make up for being tired during the week. Plus, as my sleep coach tells me, "It's not bad to sleep in, but you can undo all the work you did to fix your sleep schedule during the week if you [sleep for] too many hours." For example, if you've trained your body to wake up at 7:30 a.m. and sleep on the weekend until 11 a.m., that's going to make it difficult to return to your routine. However, if it's just an hour or so, it's okay to indulge.