Health – Sleep science made simple

Sleep science has been taking Social Media by storm in the recent years. The new school of thoughts praises hustlers who clock-in 8 hours and still enjoy their power naps, far from the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality that prevailed not that long ago. Abundance of sleep related publications led however to a new source of stress linked to “sleep optimisation”. My conviction is that sleep does not have to be an over-engineered process. While marginal gains are interesting, they remain second order priorities and they can cloud the process toward restful sleep. After few years of experimentations, I believe the key to restful sleep lies with those four simple factors:

1 – Find your wake-up timing and stick to it

We often read that waking up as early as 4 or 5 am is the ultimate key to performance. That might be case, provided you get enough rest by this early time of the morning. In my experience, the most efficient decision I ever took was to work on finding the wake-up timing that works for me and sticking to it as much as possible. Finding your own timing is simply a try-and-error game. I found mine by observing the earliest time in the week I needed to be at work, then factoring in the time I need to prepare for a normal morning. That becomes your fixed wake-up timing. As for bedtime, simply reverse engineer  your estimated sleep need, this will give you a daily target bedtime. I encourage you to stick as much as possible to your wake-up timing: even if you don’t need to wake up early some days of the week, try to set your alarm clock at the same wake-up timing. Shall you need to increase your sleep duration to recover from any lack of sleep, I found it more efficient to incorporate variability in the bedtime

2 – Count cycles

Our body does not count hours, so we need to learn how our body-clock works. Sleep science established that average sleep-cycle takes around 90 minutes. During one cycle, different phases will come after another, and thanks to these phases the body finds some rest. Why is it important to follow such cycles? Because the cycle timing during which you wake up determines how rested you may feel. This means a longer rest is not necessary what you need.
I am not qualified to advise you on how many cycles your own body needs, but I found that 5 is my peak performance and 4 is usually enough to function normally the following day. Unless I accumulated some sleep debt, I don’t observe marginal improvements from 5 to 6 cycles. This is how I determine my bedtime: factoring the number of sleep cycles I target, based on my fixed waking-up timing.

3 – Get ready to sleep

Setting up a sleep routine significantly helped me to increase sleep quality. I did not develop an esoteric routine around  intense meditative practice or ice bath. Instead I rely on 5 simple steps:
  1. Dim the lights – use reduced lights with warmer tones. You don’t need to redecorate your place, simply use bedside lighting with warm colours bulbs and avoid direct lighting. Be mindful of the lights in the bathroom and kitchen that are usually cold. I added candles and small warmer light to the bathroom to avoid relying on the bright lighting before going to bed
  2. Switch off Tech – conscious effort to remove screens in the 90 minutes prior to target sleep time
  3. Read – few pages of a good book help my mind to shift away from work-related stress
  4. Drink – making and enjoying a hot drink sets the mood. The range of caffeine-free drinks is wide, simple chamomile works for me.
  5. Smell something familiar – especially while traveling, lavender essential oil proves an efficient way to put my brain into sleep mode
These steps evolved over time, with different experimentations.

4 – See the big picture

In the early stages of my sleep journey I was obsessed with achieving a “perfect” sleep every night. I was tracking and analysing each night, looking for the rational beyond non-standard patterns. This created an anxious mindset that disturbed my ability to rest and which forced me to drop all experimentations. As I kept reading more about sleep, I shifted my approach to an overall improved sleep quality. I focussed on building healthier routines and more pragmatic framework, accepting that my sleep-spreadsheets did not stand a chance versus real life. I now believe that quality sleep lies in understanding the 3 principles we discussed above and in my ability to stick to them over the longer run. My current target is to achieve 4 nights a week of 5-cycles.

If you wish to read more about sleep, I would advise to start with The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington, and Sleep by Nick Littlehales.

Book references here.

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