A friend asked me yesterday how to switch off his mind so that he could fall asleep at night. It’s an affliction we all suffer from at times: lying awake for hours thinking about all the things we need to do and worrying about what might be. Replaying conversations in our heads. Then worrying that we might forget what we’ve resolved that we need to do.
Several people have told me they wake up in the middle of the night and check their emails, so addicted they are to rapid response.
We all know what the results feel like: low energy, caffeine craving, poor concentration and memory, low mood, low empathy and a general sense of just wanting to get through the day.
In fact, people who don’t get enough sleep might actually be cutting their lives short. Studies have linked sleep deprivation to increased risk of car crashes, poor work performance, a weaker immune system, heightened risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression.
So what to do?
Rather than expect your hyper-stimulated mind to switch off the moment you close your eyes, wind down towards the end of the day. Turn off your devices after 9pm. Read a book, have a bath, listen to some music… signal to your mind that the time for resolving problems is over and you want it to relax.
Focus on your body
When I want to go to sleep, I start by focusing on each part of my body in turn and telling it to relax. I then start counting my breaths up to ten and back again. If I start thinking about something, as soon as I realise, I come back to my breathing. Soon enough my mind loses interest and switches off.
Put the hours in
I used to think I only needed 6.5 hours sleep a night. My attitude was that I wanted to be maximise awake time in order to get more out of each day. I did a little experiment though, when I read that athletes, even when they thought they felt fine after six or seven hours sleep, dramatically improved their performance when they went up to eight or nine. I increased my sleep time by an hour each night and realised I was waking up feeling much more refreshed, had more energy during the day and wasn’t suffering from an afternoon slump.
Getting the eight hours in requires discipline. You’ve got say no to the short term rewards of the conversation, the box-set, Facebook or whatever and prioritise the longer term reward of feeling better all of the next day. When you look at it like that, it’s a no brainer, but I still find it hard sometimes to remember!
The Dalai Lama once said that sleep is the best form of meditation. It’s probably the simplest and surest thing you can do to improve your life.