It was fall of 2018. A usual work trip via Mumbai. Me and my car driver were cruising at about 80 KPH on the Mumbai – Pune expressway. The rumbling of tyres on the concrete pavement was fading into the pitter patter of the diesel engine. I was engrossed in reading my favourite book after a good nights sleep, as we passed the Khalapur toll. In about 20 minutes, I instinctively looked up. The car was strongly veering towards the right as we were about crash on to the divider. I literally shouted, “Watch-out!”. I had one hand on the driver’s shoulder, pinching him while bracing for impact.
Thankfully the driver regained control and said, sorry sir, “ek second ke liye aankh lag gaya tha”. Hindi for, sorry, “I fell asleep for a moment”. While counting my blessings, I somehow made it through the rest of the trip with a heightened sense of consciousness and a strongly caffeinated driver.
Inadequate sleep has caused major economic & productivity crisis!
The cost of inadequate sleep in Australia according to research is about $18 Billion. That is about 2-3% of Australia’s nominal GDP. In the US, the number is close to a whopping $400 Billion. Also, across many other large economies, it is close to 2% of their GDP. I estimate for India, it is to the tune of $60 Billion. The grim economics adds up quickly. The well-being issues caused my inadequate sleep makes it even worse. It is no secret that poor sleep affects health adversely. It does so in children and in adults. In fact, the effects are even worse in the elderly. It is a leading cause of cardio vascular diseases, and undoubtedly results in lots of untimely fatalities.
On a day to day basis, poor sleep results in cognitive issues. I am sure you have noticed that after a poor night’s sleep, we find it difficult to pay attention to our work schedules, or complex issues. We demonstrate reduced understanding of simple things. Also, we show delayed reaction time. “I am sorry, I missed that question could you repeat please?” – does this ring a bell? While this can result in some harmless fun at work, the collective cost is quite serious.
The delayed or impaired reaction time claims many lives on highways all over the world every single day. Not to add, it makes us perceive things excessively negatively and results in overall irritable behaviour. Leaders need to be especially aware as bad sleep will result in poor decisions. As a result, this can impact not only yourself but also the organisation and your teams.
Our bodies are amazing at regulating sleep, but…
Circadian Rhythm. Scientific term for our regular sleep-wake cycle literally means “about a day”. I have experienced this really strange phenomenon where I often wake up at precisely the same minute in the morning. Sometimes so precise, that I see the same number 7.03 on the watch few days in a row! Have you noticed this too? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks this is another proof that we live in a computer simulation. However, the realist in me knows it shows how good our body clocks are.
Our age plays a big role in determining the mix of sleep types and their duration. In simplest terms, older adults do not sleep as well as younger adults.
This applies to ease with which one can go to sleep, the amount of deep sleep, and the fragility of sleep. Everything gets worse as we become older. There is research that substantiates why this happens. So how do we react?
Hacking our way around common enemies of sleep
If we focus on these 15 hacks, we can substantially improve our ability to generate and regulate sleep. I have tried and tested these!
1. Pre-plan your day and prepare your morning!
Take a look at your calendar for next day and do a dry run in your mind. This should relax you about the next day. Some people even go to the extent of trying to pick what we want to wear the next morning, you may want to prepare breakfast menu or chop some vegetables ahead of time.
Any sort of prep relaxes you as you know you are better equipped for the day to come.
2. Express anxiety or residual emotions. Talk or Journal.
Anxiety & worry can affect sleep. We are just sat in bed, thinking about our unresolved emotions. We worry about how that challenging interview would turn out. Your amazon parcel is stuck somewhere! There is no end. Just using your friends, partners as a soundboard for this can massively alleviate the impact that worry has on your sleep.
I have observed that writing what is on your mind, or listing down tasks, has an overall relaxing effect before you go to bed.
3. Tweak lighting. Not only in your bedroom but also during the day.
Melatonin secretion is photo-sensitive. In other words, it is affected by exposure to light. This means you should be exposed to as much natural light as possible during the day. As the day wanes, artificial lighting should be controlled depending on your tasks or sleep routine. In our house, we start early evenings with bright whites, and slowly dim them and switch to soft yellows as we approach bedtime. I have observed that this has a nice transition effect. The bedroom lighting has to be soft. I have a combination of yellow spot task-lighting for reading etc. and overall soft yellow hues.
Although not compulsory, consider automating lighting. I have this automated in our bedroom. An Alexa command can switch from bright to yellow. We can also control dimming which is very useful if you don’t have specific lights installed for reading etc. It helps you ease you into the night.
4. Do not forget the lighting for bathroom breaks.
It is not routine but sometimes we have to wake up to go to the restroom. Most of our bathrooms are either inadequately lit up, or they are super bright. I have installed an IR based motion sensing dim lighting in my bathroom. This is in addition to all the other kinds of lighting that I can control manually.
This ensures, when I am a sleepy head, and I am going into the restroom, I don’t have to manually turn the lights on or off. You can also install dim motion sensing lights under your bed. This way, when you step out of bed, it lights up a soft hue. Such lighting ensures my eyes don’t have to endure sudden exposure to bright lights. It also makes sure I don’t trip over! 😄
5. If you can, allow natural light to enter your room in the morning.
Keeping some parts of blinds open allows natural light to filter through gradually as it dawns. This ensures Melatonin can ebb, allowing our natural circadian rhythms to take over and gently wake us up. This is so much better than the jarring sound of an alarm.
Your smart home can help. You can get smart bed lamps, although I am not sure how good they are. They get brighter as it dawns and they claim to gently wake you up. Have you tried one? Let me know in the comments section whether it works!
I ran out of budget 😁, but one thing I would like to DIY one day, is to automate opening of blinds in the morning. I will keep you posted on the effort. For now, partially open blinds do a good job of letting the natural light in easing us from sleep to wakefulness.
6. Please invest in a good mattress
When was the last time you bought a new mattress? Majority of us would say a long time ago. Speaking for India, there are many start-ups that have really changed the game on the whole mattress experience! There is so much choice available. After doing months of research, we settled on a moderately layered memory foam + a composite base. This is our choice, and you will probably prefer something else. However, the key takeaway here is the value of experimentation. Good mattresses need not be expensive, but if you like one that is expensive, please invest. It is one of the best ways of spending your money. 🙌🏻
7. Experiment with pillows!
On a related topic let me share some science on pillows. Pillows determine spinal alignment. They can give you chronic neck and back pain. Choose a pillow that keeps your head aligned to your sternum and collar bone. If you sleep flat on your back, also ensure head is not too high or too low but properly aligned to your body. Experiment until you fight the right fit.
8. Fresh or dedicated bedding every night can work wonders
It is a bit of work, but changing your bedsheet can do wonders to your sleep. Who does not like the smell and feel of a fresh bedsheet as you prepare to snuggle? Apart from all the health benefits such as reduced allergens, etc. there is a discrete brain signalling that occurs when you change your bedsheet before hitting the bed. Your brain knows that now you are entering a relaxed state. Your favourite PJ’s can have the same effect. So please take the extra effort.
9. Mosquito nets for my friends in India or tropical countries
I grew up sleeping on beds with full sized manual mosquito nets. It was a chore, but a worthwhile one. Firstly, it allowed us to keep the room fully ventilated, which was awesome. Secondly, with a tent like effect, it immediately made the sleeping environment a bit cosier. This may not work for you or some may feel claustrophobic, but it certainly worked for me.
10. Mess stress is real 😃 keep your bedroom tidy!
You may have a gift, and you can sleep in a dumping ground. However, for most people, mess is a major cause of stress. Just keeping your room clean and tidy can control the hormone cortisol which is a major miscreant towards your sleep.
11. Snore, but don’t roar! 🦁
Can you really control snoring? It is certainly possible. Some exercises, elevated position (pillows), nasal pressure equalizer devices all can be done without visiting a sleep clinic. These do help. If you do not get relief, please do visit a doctor.
12. It’s worth investing in an air purifier
Unless you live in Swiss Alps, or remote countryside, you are likely to have urban pollutants in your bedroom. This causes congestion, allergic reaction, hoarseness of voice, and a few other issues. A HEPA filter based air purifier can really make you feel less stuffy in the morning. Personal experience, and I 100% recommend it.
If you use a room heater, consider getting a humidifier. The heat radiators will suck moisture out of the air and make your airways dry and itchy. This cannot be good for your upper respiratory tract. A humidifier works wonders. Similarly, in tropical climates, an air conditioner can regulate humidity well. This will really improve quality of your sleep. Ceiling fans are a strict no for me they also dry out your airways, and often result in poor sleep. This may be different for you.
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13. Try white noise. It didn’t work for me.
There are various white noise apps, and devices available on the market. They are supposed to make you sleep better or faster. It didn’t work for me, but hey give it a shot, what do you have to lose? Let me know if it works for you.
14. Exercise more during the day, keep it light in the evening
Vigorous exercises in the night contribute to heightened alert state and loss of sleep. Regular exercise will definitely improve your deep sleep. Also avoid too many liquids in the night so as to avoid completely unnecessary trip to the loo! Avoid big meals after sunset can also help you regulate blood sugar and positively affects quality of sleep.
15. Desirable sleep routine
Start your bedtime routine with something you love. A book, some soft music, perhaps? A cup of chamomile tea, or simply some fun chat with your little ones! This can truly be the best time to connect with yourself and your loved ones. Once you have a set and desirable routine, you won’t let anything else distract you!
Use habit forming methods to do this effectively. Meditation can be amazing too! This will help you win over all the other distractions.
Pro-technique to sleep faster
US Army uses this technique. It involves relaxing muscles of your body one by one and visualising a pre-determined scene. I have tried this once, and due to sheer curiosity of whether it will work, it didn’t work for me 😄. It may work for you! Let me know if you manage to try it.
Is it ironic that I was writing this article at 1am Saturday night? Ethical dilemma wasn’t over until I bought it, and slept for a good 7 hours before finishing up on Sunday. If this article doesn’t give you some insight, at least its length can help you snooze better. 🤣 Either way, it is a win-win.
Oh and by the way, did I mention that you should keep away from screens a couple of hours before bed? Easier said than done, right?