Author’s note: This is the third in my series of blog posts dealing with post-production burnout. If you enjoy this article, click here to download your FREE 33 page E-book “How to Overcome (And Avoid) Burnout.“
If you’ve come to this article looking for a few quick fixes on how to get better quality sleep, this isn’t the place for you. There are literally millions of search results when you enter “The Top 5 Ways to Hack Your Sleep,” you’re more than welcome to check them out (Here, let me Google that for you). What I want to share is the personal process I went through not using quick fixes to hack my sleep overnight, but instead the long-term process of changing my circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, and improving my sleep quality and duration for the long term.
After my most recent case of burnout, I realized I needed to start from scratch with my health, and sleep was ground zero for change. After previously working myself to the bone for 18-20 hours per day for several months in a row, I had come to the conclusion that perhaps working more hours in the day did not necessarily lead to more productivity. Furthermore, the science is pretty clear at this point that chronic lack of sleep will shorten your lifespan.
For years I have done a lot of research on how sleep works, but I always thought of sleep as one of the many items down the line to focus on once I was exercising properly, eating well, and managing stress. Sleep was like an optional bonus prize.
What I’ve learned is that without proper sleep your mind and body will simply break down, and no amount of exercise or proper diet can save you.
The list of side effects that come from lack of sleep is downright terrifying. So after hitting rock bottom earlier this year, I decided I would focus intensely on nothing else until I mastered getting high quality sleep every night. And mastering sleep has paid massive dividends in every facet of my life.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Until two years ago, like many people in our industry I wore sleep deprivation as a badge of courage (Side note: Please stop doing that). I knew that I should be getting more sleep, but I was still working at a high level on 4-5 hours a night. I simply had no reason to get better sleep because I was “doing just fine.” Or so I thought…
A typical morning would look like this: My “alarm clock” would start crying into the baby monitor anytime between 5 and 6:30 am, I would wake up and zombie-walk to change diapers, make bottles and breakfast, etc. When my kids were old enough to sit and watch TV I would plop them in front of the boob tube and pass out on the couch next to them for another 1-2 hours until the last possible second when the nanny would come and I would get ready for work (ps I’m not proud of this). Driving to work I would often nod off when stuck in traffic at a standstill (which on the 101 was pretty much every day). And rarely would a day go by where I wouldn’t have to lock my office door in the afternoon and take a 30-60 minute nap. If anyone knocked and later asked why I didn’t answer, I would lie and say I was on an important phone call. (I’m still a big believer in quick power naps to maximize afternoon productivity, but if you literally can’t make it through the day without sleeping, there’s something wrong)
The last month before my latest experience with burnout, I was routinely working on one thing or another until 2 am, and then I would wake up at 6am like a bolt of lighting and get right back to work. I was permanently attached to either my laptop or my workstation. For a while I thought I had really “hacked” my sleep and all the cool tips and tricks really did make the “quantity” irrelevant as long as the “quality” was high…until everything went to shit.
STOP “HACKING” YOUR SLEEP
My longtime readers and podcast listeners know that I am a fan of Dave Asprey, the “Bulletproof Executive” and inventor of Bulletproof Coffee. I credit him with teaching me a lot of the sleep hacks to get higher quality sleep. But Dave also teaches that the quantity of sleep is irrelevant as long as your sleep is high quality, and I could not disagree with this more. And the majority of scientific literature on sleep disagrees with this as well. I used every one of his sleep hacks and supplements to get down to 4 hours per night so I could maximize output, but I will never let that happen again. Therefore…
STEP #1: COMMIT TO A MINIMUM OF SEVEN HOURS PER NIGHT
Quantity matters. It’s that simple. You may be able to go a few weeks or even a few months on much less than 7-8 hours per night, but in the end you will pay handsomely for it. There is no simple magic number you should get every night as every person is different, but the science is pretty clear that 7 hours is the minimum if you want to perform at a moderate to high level. This may lessen naturally as you age, but 7 hours is a good place to start.
For those die-hards still not convinced, chronic lack of sleep can affect your short and long-term memory (my short term memory is all but gone after years of sleep deprivation), it will impair your cognitive function, and it will raise the level of cortisol in your body which can in turn lead to weight gain and loss of willpower.
Having trouble avoiding soda and sugary snacks after 3pm?
Most likely that’s because you’re not getting enough sleep.
One of the great things about sleep is that the effects of getting enough are so profound that you will quickly be convinced how important it really is. One of the reasons that over 95% of people quit diet & exercise programs is because they don’t get immediate results. If all you had to do was eat clean food and exercise for 3 days to lose 20 pounds and feel great, everyone would succeed! On the contrary, sometimes it takes 4 weeks or more before seeing any real changes at all, so nobody sticks with diet & exercise. Sleep is different, however.
If you are chronically sleep deprived and you commit to getting 7-9 hours for just three days straight, you’ll see what a difference it can make, you’ll get the “easy win,” and you’ll be hungry for more.
Getting at least seven hours per night sounds all well and good, but I’m guessing you are saying the same thing as everyone else reading this right now: “How is seven hours even possible?!”
STEP #2: DEFINE YOUR ‘WHY’ AND SET YOUR INTENTION
The most powerful sleep trick I discovered has nothing to do with supplements, red lights, or the sound of crashing ocean waves – it had to do with changing my psychology. If you tell yourself you don’t need a lot of sleep because you’re a “night person,” it’s that limiting belief holding you back from getting restful sleep. If you constantly tell yourself and others, “I hate mornings,” then guess what…you will hate mornings. While it’s true that different people have different circadian rhythms and some people are morning people while others aren’t, it’s also true these are not innate genetic traits you were born with that cannot be changed. They are behaviors shaped by your intentions, habits, and past behaviors. If you believe that you simply cannot go to sleep at a decent hour because you are a unique snowflake that always gets your best work done at night, you’ll need to change that mindset if you want to get high quality sleep from now on.
There are two factors that allow me to get at least seven hours every single night no matter how busy I am. The first factor is that I have clearly defined my “why.” This is deeper than just setting a generic goal like “I’m going to get more sleep.” Once I realized how vitally important it was to my cognitive function that I get seven hours per night, I needed something to motivate me to stick with it no matter how much I wanted to stay up late working or watching TV. My personal ‘why’ is that my son leaves with my wife for school at 6am every morning, and I’ve looked him in the eyes and promised him I would be awake to give him a hug before he leaves. So now I’ve given myself a bedtime every night of 10:45 pm, seven hours before I have to wake up to hug my son good-bye at 5:45 am.
Once I clearly defined my ‘why,’ I needed to transform that into a clear intention that I could act on every evening. And that clear intention is a core component of my new evening ritual. So on that note…
STEP #3: DEVELOP AN EVENING RITUAL
Getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep on any given night is a challenge in this industry by itself, but making it habitual is a challenge on a whole new level. And the way I’m able to make it happen like clockwork is my evening ritual. This is a series of steps that I follow like a robot every single night without fail, even if I get home later than planned or I’m exhausted.
Habits are built from three basic steps: A trigger, a behavior, and a reward. My trigger is an alarm I set on my Fitbit Charge that goes off every night at 10pm to begin my evening ritual. I have outlined my ritualized behaviors below. And the immediate reward of my habit loop, as trivial as it sounds, is checking every single item off in my Trello checklist. The more substantial reward is sleeping like a rock and waking up refreshed with a ton of energy. And the triple-bonus reward is successfully waking up at 5:45 am to hug my son goodbye before he leaves for school.
This routine almost sounds too simple to possibly work, but it’s more powerful than any sleep medication on the market (unfortunately I know from experience). If you want to learn more about developing habits and rituals, I highly recommend everything at Asian Efficiency.
Here is a breakdown of my evening ritual which usually takes 30-45 minutes:
1) I prepare the following items so I don’t have to worry about them the next morning:
- I select my clothes for the next day and have them ready in the bathroom
- I get a water bottle ready with 16 oz of water plus my morning dose of Qualia
- I place my exercise clothes in the bathroom so I can put them on as soon as I wake up
- I prepare the area for my evening meditation (the specifics items are listed below)
2) I take evening supplements which do not consist of any type of sleep medication. Instead the only two supplements I take at night are EPA/DHA Fish Oil which is essentially brain food, and Muscle-Ease PM, a 100% natural, herbal muscle relaxant. If I’m having digestive issues I will take a probiotic as well.
3) I spend 5-10 minutes doing a daily review of my completed tasks in OmniFocus, the most important tasks I need to do the next day, and I also review my calendar. This eliminates all of the racing thoughts that used to keep me up at night about the things I needed to do, things I couldn’t forget, ideas, problems, etc.
Because of my nightly review my brain is essentially an empty attic full of cobwebs and tumbleweeds by the time my head hits the pillow. I’m out in 90 seconds.
4) I take an additional 2-3 minutes to complete a nightly journal entry after completing my nightly review using the app Day One that includes a gratitude practice, an outline of my short and long-term goals, and a series of other simple prompts that I have written. It also includes a nightly reminder of the intention I set for getting better sleep and my ‘why.’ So I don’t have to constantly re-write the same questions day after day into new journal entries, I have created a template using Text Expander.
5) I get my phone ready for my nightly meditation. I make sure that my Fitbit morning alarm is set, I have set iTunes to the proper playlist for the evening (more on that below), and I also set my Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock to the same time as my Fitbit. Upon completing these tasks and making sure all of the previous tasks have been completed and checked off in Trello, my phone promptly goes into Airplane mode.
6) I take a cold shower. This is my favorite step of my entire evening ritual and no matter what other steps I may skip, I do this every night. I know it sounds counter-intuitive because most people would love to end the day with a relaxing hot shower, but taking a cold shower helps to lower your core body temperature which in turns allows you to sleep deeper. Here are a ton of additional benefits to a process called ‘Cold Thermogenesis’ from my favorite health resource on the planet Ben Greenfield.
7) I spend fifteen minutes doing a nightly visualization meditation. I use a technology called Holosync to get my brain waves into the proper state for deep sleep (click here for my podcast with the creator of Holosync technology), and I do this nightly meditation while lying on an acupuncture mat called the Bulletproof Sleep Induction Mat. To make sure I can wear my headphones even after I fall asleep I wear SleepPhones which basically are a headband with earbuds inside. (Wearing traditional earbuds while sleeping is really uncomfortable and they almost always fall out) With the SleepPhones you won’t win any fashion awards, but you’ll sleep like a baby. And the final component is my Dream Essentials Sleep Mask to eliminate 100% of the light around me from entering my eyes. It’s always best to sleep in the darkest room possible, but if your specific environment won’t allow that to happen, a sleep mask is the next best option.
More often than not I will pass out while doing this evening meditation so I have created a customized audio track with bells that goes off after 15 minutes that wakes me up just enough to zombie-walk to bed. Once my head hits the pillow, I’m out until the next morning. Screaming children don’t wake me (which my wife doesn’t exactly love), even earthquakes haven’t waked me. And I used to sleep like a feather at night. Now I sleep like a rock.
It took me over a month to nail down all the actions required to build a habitual and effective evening routine, and it took even longer to get everything into the right order. Admittedly this list is overwhelming. You are probably thinking that if this is what it takes to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, it simply isn’t worth it. You are just too busy. There aren’t enough hours in the day. What I’ve actually found is that because I get restful sleep every night I am way more productive and get more done in less time. And believe me, my schedule is no joke.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” which essentially means if you set a strict bedtime and commit to sticking to it, you’re going to get the same amount done in the time allotted. It also means that you can’t fart around all day anymore on Facebook and Twitter if you want to get your work done and get to bed on time. I get just as much done in 16 hours as I used to in 20 hours per day, but now that I’ve prioritized sleep above anything else, I make sure that I have organized my life in such a way as to still accomplish all of my goals and tasks without having to go late into the night. And the quality of my life and my level of happiness have raised exponentially because I sleep soundly every single night.