Get more sleep

I’m a night owl, by default. Always have been. When I was at high school I would lie awake late into the night watching whatever was on TV, surfing back and forth between the channels. That took a certain commitment back in the 90s in the UK, when there were only four channels, and at least one of them would go dark at a surprisingly early hour. I wasn’t choosy; I would watch a documentary on Channel 4 about the industrialization of the loom industry in the Cotswolds, then whatever imported comedy was on (Friends or Kids In The Hall were highlights) then enjoy Open University geology programming that was intended for people to tape on VHS recorders rather than watch live. Actually I think this might explain my later fascination with sketch comedy, varied academic subjects and weaving. But the point is I would regularly stay up late, sometimes beyond 2am, then get up in the morning for an early paper-round before school. I once played Fantastic Dizzy on the Amiga CD32 until 3am, because back then you couldn’t save your game, before hitting the rounds with bleary eyes at 6am. I’d like to say that this was cool, and I could handle it, but I was tired all the time at school, and I’m sure my educasions suffered.

When I got to University that pretty much continued, except that everyone else was doing it too and, ironically enough, we were much less likely to be watching university programming. There was definitely more late night drinking. I find it hard to imagine student parties here in the US, where you don’t get to drink until you’re 21. What do you do, soberly enjoy the company of friends? Play board games? Study?! Ridiculous.

When I graduated I worked for a while as both a waiter in a nice restaurant and behind a hotel bar, which pretty much suited my schedule perfectly. I’d be wiping tables on Saturday nights in the restaurant until around midnight, and mid-week in the hotel you were at the mercy of the current residents. If there were people in town for a work conference they didn’t care about, who wanted to drink until 2am, then you were working until 2:15am. Not that I’m complaining; it enabled my late night habit.

Jump forward to my first “proper” job, and I’m working in the City of London as a high-flying, pin-stripe-suit-wearing, professional executive temp (junior). I’ve finally made it. I did pretty well at re-orienting my sleep habits at first, partly because I was living with a teacher with a long commute. But then we got broadband internet, the great absorber of time. Where do all the productive hours, sucked into aimless surfing, go? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg will live on in indefinite youth, while an old computer clunks and whirs in his attic, LEDs blinking as it feeds him the minutes stolen from people like me, who lost them tending to virtual crops or reading about insomnia on Wikipedia at 2am. The web-server of Dorian Gray. (For any Millennials reading, that’s the guy from the philosophical literary novel by Oscar Wilde, not the Twilight fan fiction 50 Shades of Grey. Which has probably sold many more copies. Mankind is doomed.)

I fixed my habits eventually. Four years ago I took a job working with people spread all around the world, and simultaneously moved to Southern California. That meant being available early in the morning to speak to Western Europe (9 hours ahead) and sometimes in the evening for Oceania (who are basically already previewing tomorrow, I think; I still get confused about it, and to make matters worse they refuse to tell me what lottery numbers are coming up). Quite a few people in LA timezones work early to sync up with the East Coast (3 hours ahead), so I’m not unique, though I probably do it more than most. Once or twice I’ve done a 4am meeting, and I regularly do 6am. So the really late nights inevitably stopped pretty quickly.

All the same, I’ll still push it. After 10pm the house becomes pretty much mine, so it’s precious video game time. As anyone with a Playstation or Xbox knows, an hour is really the bare minimum time to play real games.  It would be common for me to turn in somewhere between 11:30pm and midnight, and later on weekends.

I’m not blaming video games though. This might be scientifically naive, but I’m suspicious that my natural body-clock actually runs to roughly 25hours. I always want the day to last a little longer than it does, but still want the same amount of sleep (a conflict that sleep loses). I’ve come close to testing the theory, by which I mean I went to University, but who knows for sure.

So this week’s challenge, the third mini-resolution in my series of 52, is simple: go to bed by 10pm. That means in bed, lights off. Not slyly looking at Flipboard or Twitter on my phone with the screen brightness turned down, but lying there, marinading in my own sleepless thoughts. 10pm probably doesn’t seem particularly late to a lot of people, but it’s an extra 1:30hrs per night for me. If I can actually get to sleep.

A couple of years ago my wife bought me a Lark for Christmas. It’s an alarm clock you put around your wrist like a watch, set via your phone, and which wakes you with a quiet vibration. The idea is that I could get up for my early calls without disturbing the rest of the household. It’s supposed to be a nicer way to wake up, but I find my wrist being shaken to be more alarming than a noise. My instant reaction is some variation on “HOW LONG HAS THE FIRE BEEN BURNING?” On the other hand, a cool benefit is that the Lark tracks your movement throughout the night, then syncs with your phone to give you a view of how well you actually slept. Whether you tossed and turned all night, or slept deeply. It has a weird effect on me: sometimes I find myself checking the stats to decide how I feel on a given day. Like, “oh good, I slept well last night, then I must not be feeling tired”. It tracks you throughout the week, then gives you a scorecard. So I can see how well this week has gone.

I set the alarm on the Lark on night 1, which informed me it would wake me in 9 hours, surely enough sleep to develop some kind of super-power. Of course falling asleep isn’t quite so easy in practice, and going to bed that much earlier than normal was like the first night on a trip to a different timezone. I obviously wasn’t tired, so I took a sleeping tablet. I have a pack in the drawer by my bed for those frustrating times when you’re lying awake, and the knowledge that you should be asleep, and that you’re running out of potential sleep hours, wakes you up more and more with each passing minute. The effect is particularly acute when you have an important early start the next day, I find. It only happens when my mind is highly occupied, perhaps once a month on average; hardly a problem, but nice to be able to take a capsule and break the anxiety/sleeplessness cycle. It might even be a placebo, or some kind of attribution effect, but I’m not going to dwell on that in case it stops it working. Ignorance is blissful sleep.

I took three sleeping pills during this week of, as is convention, 7 nights. I don’t really mind that. The net result was that I got probably an extra hour of sleep, on average. I think, despite the sleeping tablets, that it was better quality sleep too. On a normal night, if not tired, I might break out my phone and look at Twitter or Facebook. It’s well documented that the blue light emitted by just about everything these days inhibits the production of melatonin, or otherwise messes with circadian rhythm. By forcing myself to lie awake in the dark I avoided those ill-effects and when I did eventually fall asleep, according to the Lark, I slept a little more deeply.

But mainly I slept longer, averaging about 7:30hrs of real sleep per night (disregarding the time the Lark decided I was merely dozing lightly) and felt better the next day. Not super-powered better, and I’m pretty functional on 6-7hrs, but it made a difference. Easier to wake up, obviously, and perhaps a little sharper during the day. I felt like I got more done.

Actually, the biggest benefit was unrelated to sleep. By going to bed earlier, I gave myself time to talk to my wife. Normally I’d either slide under the duvet in the dark, trying not to disturb her, or we’d immediately turn the lights off so as to not waste precious sleep time. Suddenly we could comfortable talk for 10mins without feeling like we were spending tomorrow’s time.

By the end of the week, I noticed that I was getting drowsy around 10pm. The week had definitely reset my body clock, in a helpful way. I missed the extra time in the evenings to watch a TV show or play a game, maybe even read a book, so I plan to move it back to 10:30pm, when I can go to bed feeling tired and ready for sleep. That’s a big benefit. The extra 30mins sleep per night is a keeper.

  • Difficulty: Low-Moderate
    (easy to turn the lights out, but not so simple to fall asleep)
  • Worthwhiliness: High

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