A high school classmate of mine recently asked me about how to find time for sleeping. This is a vitally important question that bears discussion.
You probably have heard phrases like “sleep is for sissies” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Well, regardless of the motivations one may have for saying such things, the fact is that sleep is essential, and you function best if you get as much sleep as your body and brain need. An important concept is that your body will somehow, eventually, force you to find the time to sleep. To those who do not believe this (take it from me, there are some people who honestly do not), a simple experiment would be to stay awake, day and night, for as long as you can. See how long you can stay awake before you eventually fall asleep. There comes a point in which the urge to sleep becomes overwhelming and completely irresistible, forcing even the most sleep-deprived people and the most hardcore insomniacs to yield to its power.
A less dramatic example from everyday life is the concept of “sleeping in.” Most everybody has slept in, such as on weekends, on occasion during their lives. Unless there is some complicating circumstance like certain medical illnesses, medications, or substances (like alcohol or drugs), your body won’t let you sleep more than what it needs, so sleeping in is your body’s way of telling you that it’s needing more sleep on other nights than what you’re granting it.
The vast majority of adults require around 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep per night regularly to feel fully rested and awake during the day. However, today’s American society often makes it difficult to get that much sleep every night. Think about the challenges we face. Many of us work hard, spending long hours working, networking, and commuting. We play hard too, engaging in numerous activities that make us happy and fulfilled. Our lifestyle has evolved based on a combination of individual drive and capabilities and the culture and expectations of the society in which we live. There are many additional factors that also play roles, of course. If you have children, for example, you know well the challenges of coordinating your life with your kids’ schooling and activities. The availability of different activities and entertainment has also grown exponentially in the past several decades; choices of things to do to occupy your time have now become virtually limitless. Finally, there is technology, that ubiquitous fun, instructive, helpful, time-sucking presence that virtually defines our modern lifestyle.
These components are inevitable and inescapable in our collective lives. There are still only 24 hours in a day. But because there is always so much going on and because we’re always so busy, there are times in which something’s gotta give, and often that thing is sleep. As a result, many of us sacrifice sleep, getting 4, 5, 6 hours per night for nights on end. The problem is, there are well-known shortterm and longterm consequences of missing out on sleep, ranging from depression to fall-asleep car crashes.
Most of us have the common-sense knowledge that daytime fatigue and sleepiness result from missing out on proper amounts of sleep. The clinical consequences of chronic sleep deprivation and the concept of sleep debt will be topics of future blog entries. The purpose of today’s entry, however, is to outline a program to help a chronically sleepy, sleep-deprived person make more time for sleep. Here are some simple but important steps.
1. Buy into the notion that you need your sleep. You need to own this one to get more sleep; as with anything else in life, fixing a problem starts with understanding the problem and acknowledging the need to change. This concept will be a recurring theme here at the Sleep Help Desk. There’s nothing you can do about your intrinsic sleep needs: you need sleep, and without enough of it inevitable consequences arise, such as daytime sleepiness, health problems, and decreased work productivity. You’re human; it’s not macho to sacrifice your sleep to prove to everybody that you can go longer and further than everybody else. A pot of coffee per day may make you feel more alert temporarily, but it doesn’t address the underlying cause of chronic sleepiness.
2. Regulate your sleep schedules. I recommend awakening around the same time every day, regardless of whether or not you need to awaken for work or some other activity. This helps you obey your body clock’s hardwired need for regularity, allows you to get more consistent, predictable amounts of sleep at night, and ultimately increases your levels of wakefulness and alertness during the day. If you have frequently irregular sleep schedules, you can still experience daytime sleepiness even if you get proper total amounts of sleep most nights.
3. Change your bedtime scheduling little by little. My recommendation is to slowly, gradually go to bed earlier, such as by 10-15 minute increments every 2-3 days. If you know you’re sleep-deprived, tonight go to bed 15 minutes earlier than your usual. Continue to go to bed around that time for several days. Then, go to bed 15 minutes earlier than that. Repeat this until you eventually get your 8 hours of bedtime per night. This way, your body clock will easily absorb the changes you’re making in your sleep scheduling (thus avoiding a “jet-lagging” effect); if you suddenly go to bed two hours earlier than you usually do, for example, insomnia may well result, even if you’re sleep-deprived. More importantly, however, you are more likely to be able to adhere easily to the changes you’re making for yourself if the changes are slow, deliberate, and gradual. Why is this important? Because we humans are creatures of habit. If you’re used to staying up until midnight watching the late-night talk shows, for example, when you know you need to awaken early for work, though you know you will be sleep-deprived, the tendency to still stay up late watching TV remains, simply out of habit. It’s what feels familiar and normal to you. Successfully making something new familiar takes time.
4. Reprioritize your and your family’s evening activities. I know this is hard. It took me some time to achieve this myself. But if you really scrutinize what you and your loved ones do after work or school, it often becomes apparent that there are periods of time that could be either spent doing more essential activities or resheduled to another time of the day or week to allow for more sleep. Try sitting down with your family and drawing out a weekly activity chart to determine what activities are most important in the evening, what activities can be stopped or rescheduled, and what down time there really is for you and your family to wind down from your day and prepare for adequate sleep.
5. Stick with it. Like restarting smoking, falling off the wagon and regularly getting less sleep than your body needs can eventually feel “normal” again because it returns to your daily routine. Avoid the temptation. Keeping striving to allow yourself proper amounts of sleep. Often the tiredness you feel when you are now used to feeling more awake and alert during the day may be incentive enough to keep getting proper amounts of sleep each night.
Our crazy modern world doesn’t allow us to get our 8 hours every single night. I recognize that, being a fellow member of our society, there are times in which there is no choice but to be sleep deprived from time to time. March Madness is usually such a time for me, depending on how deep the Jayhawks get in the NCAA tournament (hopefully going all the way this year!). Your body is usually able to handle a night or two of sleep deprivation from time to time, and make up for the sleep at a later time with minimal consequence. Chronic sleep deprivation is an entirely different matter, however.
So the pearl for today: be good to yourself and give your body the sleep it needs and deserves. You eat and drink to provide your body with nutrition; don’t deny yourself the amount of sleep your body needs.