How much sleep did you get last night?
7 to 9 hours like the CDC and National Sleep Foundation recommends?
Or was it MUCH less?
If you’re anything like the average person, statistics say you only sleep between 5 and 7 hours per night.
Would it surprise you to learn that an individual dies every hour in the U.S. due to drowsy driving? Or how “routinely sleeping less 6 to 7 hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer”?
The list of increased chronic illnesses you’re likely to pick up on a prolonged sleep diet is long and distinguished: Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes to name a few.
Please be alarmed when I tell you that poor sleep impairs everything from your memory, creativity, physical performance and even emotional balance.
Deep down, you already know that sleep is the foundation of high quality health, but maybe you’re just not sure how to get started correcting your chronically poor sleep habits.
If you're struggling to achieve your nonnegotiable 8+ hour sleep requirement each night, read on to learn exactly how you can go about fixing that...
You. Me. Everybody’s a Tech Addict.
I may be stepping out on a speculative limb here, but understanding the cause of our modern day, chronic sleep deprivation epidemic isn't that hard.
Societies have electrified the night and created a plethora of technological devices that disrupt and destroy our natural sleep rhythms.
Don’t believe me? Just ask the big tech firms.
Whistleblowers from companies like Google have said their designers and programmers are in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem” trying to hack your unconscious behaviors to boost their bottom line.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings even said so much at the Summit LA17 festival where he told an audience that sleep is his number 1 competitor…”and we’re winning!”
Something's Gotta Give
If you ask me, business priorities like that aren't just scary from personal health perspective, but ethically bankrupt on a societal level too. Isn’t technology supposed to empower us? Instead, it's just morphing the masses into unhealthy, unproductive and sleepless zombies.
I’ll admit that these publicly traded companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, but maybe that’s all the more reason to fundamentally change the way we let corporations do business going forward.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m pro technology and bullish on all the positive ways it can change our world, but I gut check that hopefulness with a prudence towards counteracting the unintended consequences of new innovations.
But whether or not the current system is right or wrong, the reality is that we now live in a sleepless world. If you want to take back your health at the most basic level, addressing addictive technology behaviors that disrupt your natural sleep patterns is a great place to start.
What Healthy Sleep Looks Like
If you want to do your current and future self a favor, read neuroscience and sleep expert Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams as soon as possible.
Really, don’t put this essential reading off.
Let me briefly summarize my big takeaways from the book to give you a head start here:
- Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Deep Sleep is essential for your memory.
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep is essential for brain regeneration and learning.
- Dreaming (an REM sleep phenomenon) plays a crucial role in problem solving, creative thinking and trauma healing...dreaming is not just a byproduct of sleep.
- Natural sleep includes getting both NREM and REM sleep in copious quantities...they’re both necessary for optimal health and daily performance!
- Drowsy driving is one of the largest causes of both driving accidents (often fatal) and medical treatment errors (also often fatal).
- Even one hour of sleep deprivation — for just one night — has a measurable negative impact of your memory, mental, emotional and physical aptitudes.
- The body has no mechanism to overcome prolonged sleep deprivation. This means binge sleeping on the weekends to make up for weekday sleep debts never leads to 100% recovery of the damage poor sleep causes.
- Even small amounts of alcohol significantly disrupt your sleep quality and should be avoided up to 8 hours before bed. One night of poor sleep from alcohol consumption can lead to measurable memory impairment up to several days later.
What I want this list of bullet points to slap you in the face with is a sense of urgency about how important healthy sleep is to your well being. If you’re not getting it, you’re doing long term damage to both your brain and body.
Here’s how to start fixing that...
Step 1: Establish a Morning & Nightly Routine
By far, the number one way to lock in a solid 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night is to establish a solid morning and nightly routine.
That means waking up at the same time each day and going to bed at the same time each night.
And even though a strong routine yields awesome sleep improvement results, you’ll probably find sticking to a strict bedtime is the toughest habit to follow through on. It’s just too easy to stay out with friends an extra hour or start binging on an unending chain of YouTube or Netflix videos that take you past your aspirational bedtime.
By the end of a long day, your ability to make healthy sleep choices for yourself is at its low point. Acknowledge that reality ahead of time so you can prepare for this bedtime battle before it gets dark.
To help set yourself up for nightly routine success each night, I give you Step 2…
Step 2: Establish a Digital Sunset
What’s a digital sunset you ask?
It’s a cut-off time each day where you turn off your technology to help prep your mind and body for rest and relaxation each night.
6:30 PM is my digital sunset. I learned about this concept from Brian Johnson in his Conquering Digital Addiction 101 Masterclass.
Once my digital sunset time hits, I cut myself off from work, emails, phone calls, apps, digital writing and screen based reading (paper books and paper journal writing is still okay!).
The digital sunset strategy not only keeps your eyes away from blue light that disrupts your body’s melatonin production, but also unplugs you from dealing with any mental overwhelm that can wait until tomorrow.
If you’re a YouTube, Netflix or Hulu addict, a digital sunset instantly eliminates those habits from your nightly routine too.
Step 3: Temperature Control
or showers and cold bedrooms are your friends when it comes to falling asleep on time.
I wasn’t aware of this until I read Why We Sleep, but temperature seems to have just as much of an impact on your sleep rhythms as light does...maybe more!
It turns out that your core body temperature must drop by a few degrees before sleep can be initiated. With this in mind, you can help yourself get to sleep quicker and stay asleep longer by applying a few little environmental hacks to your bedroom each night:
- Don’t elevate your body temperature by exercising within 2 to 3 hours of your desired bedtime.
- Take a warm bath or shower before bed. Counterintuitively, warm baths cause your blood vessels to vasodilate and radiate core heat to the surface of your skin. This is a great way to lower your body temperature before bed.
- Cool your bedroom down with an air conditioner before bed and while you’re sleeping. If you use standard bedding and pajamas, 65° F (18.3° C) is an ideal sleeping temperature.
- Sleep with less clothing on to radiate more heat while you sleep.
Step 4: Harness the Power of Light
I’ve already written an extensive blog post on light and its impact on our biological rhythms, but here’s a recap:
The hormone melatonin plays a crucial role in helping you get to sleep and stay asleep each night.
Artificial lighting (especially blue wavelength light from smartphones, computer screens and televisions) shuts down your normal melatonin production and effectively shifts the body’s natural sleep rhythms backwards a few time zones.
In order to sidestep the impacts of artificially illuminated nights, you can implement a mix of new habits and smart modifications to your living environments to get better sleep:
- Set your home up with evening lighting alternatives. Use dimmer lights or even better, dedicated red LED lights.
To do this, set up red LED lamps in strategic spots around your home: evening spots like your kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom (just in case you need some light for a late night tinkle).
Once the sun goes down, switch to using those red LED lights and then notice how much easier it becomes for you to go to sleep each night.
You can order specialty red LED light bulbs online or in most specialty lighting stores.
- As I mentioned earlier, banish tech from your nighttime activities by using the digital sunset strategy. Eliminating smartphones, laptops and televisions from your bedroom is an absolute necessity.
- Install desktop and smartphone programs like F.lux or use Apple’s Night Shift feature to eliminate blue spectrum wavelengths from your devices once the sun sets.
If you can't avoid using technology after dark, at least implement these new software tools as a type of blue light prophylactics.
Step 5: Reduce or Eliminate Your Caffeine Intake
One reason you become increasingly tired from the moment you wake each morning to the moment you fall back asleep each night is because a chemical called adenosine builds up in your brain while you're awake.
It turns out that caffeine's brain stimulating properties work by blocking adenosine brain receptors to temporarily suppress its growing sleep pressure.
Caffeine's half-life ranges from 5 to 7 hours (the time it takes the body to reduce a particular chemical by 50%) so large doses of caffeine or consumption late in the day will definitely impair your ability to fall asleep on time.
One of the best ways to help support your nightly routine and improve your sleep quality each night is to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.
This means avoiding coffee, sodas, some teas and foods like dark chocolate.
If you can't give up your morning cup of joe — myself included — try switching to decaf (it contains 15% to 30% the amount of caffeine that a normal cup of coffee has) and drink non-caffeinated beverages after 12 PM (noon).
If you want to read more about the massive impact caffeine has on your sleep quality, read Chapter 2 of Why We Sleep.
Step 6: Exercise Daily
Daily exercise — as long as it’s not too close to bed — is great for improving sleep. It not only keeps your body moving each day, but helps prep the body for recovery mode each night.
7-9 hours of sleep not only allows you to perform at your physical peak the following day, but improves your ability to recover and learn new motor skills.
In fact, Dr. Matthew Walker shows in Why We Sleep that it's not physical skills practice that makes perfect, but practice with sleep that makes perfect for any new motor skill you want to become great at.
That means 8+ hours of sleep per night has become my primary goal when it comes to improving my movement skills like weight lifting, Aikido training, and clarinet practice! Thanks sleep!
What About Sleep Aids?
Whatever you do, avoid prescription sleeping pills to help get to sleep. They are definitely not what I’m referring to as sleep aids.
If there was one message that came through loud and clear from reading Why We Sleep, it’s that prescription sleeping pills do much more harm than good. That’s because sleeping pills don’t actually help people achieve natural, restorative sleep... they just sedate people which is not sleep!
That being said, here are some simple non-sleeping pill sleep aids that can help you achieve better sleep each night:
1. High Quality Sleep Masks
The Sleep Master Deluxe is a literal dream. Its silk fabric rests comfortably on your skin and has a velcro strap that allows you to set the tightness around your head.
Personally, I hate tight, elastic strap style sleep masks so this feature is key for my own comfort.
If you don’t want to invest in a sleep mask, you can also just bunch a t-shirt up on you face each night. It usually falls off by morning, but I did that for a long time until I finally ordered my Sleep Master.
2. Blackout Curtains
Investing in blackout curtains for your bedroom will help you cut external lighting from leaking into your bedroom.
You can pick up a curtain style that fits your tastes at most home decor stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond or order them online.
3. Red LED Light Bulbs
I can’t live without my red LED light bulbs now. In fact, I travel with a set wherever I go.
Although their red light makes your bedroom look like a demon cave at night, they provide evening lighting that doesn’t appear to interrupt the body’s melatonin cycle.
It’s not the best light for doing nighttime activities like cooking dinner, but awesome for reading, chilling and taking a middle of the night trip to the toilet.
You can pick up a set of red LED light bulbs or LED strip lighting at your local specialty lighting store or order them online.
You can even use the LED strip lighting to pimp out your furniture at night like I did to my old IKEA dresser as shown here.
4. Nighttime A/C or Mattress Cooling Pads
If you have access to an A/C unit at night, use it to help boost your sleep quality and get to sleep earlier. If you can afford it, 65° F (18.3° C) is recommended, but I experience benefits even when I get the temperature down to 72° - 75° F (22° - 24° C) — it's good to be energy conscious and all...
If you don't have A/C or want to use less electricity, try using a mattress cooling pad instead.
I can't recommend a specific product yet since I've never used one myself, but I’ve heard anecdotally that they work really well for better sleep.
The product I've seen recommended by health-nuts like Tim Ferriss is the ChiliPad if you want to get one yourself.
5. Desktop and Smartphone Blue Light Screen Filter Apps
If you don’t have this set up on your tech devices, take the time to do it right now.
The Digital Sun Is Setting... It's Time To Win Your Sleep Back
Just like you, I love technology and its ability to help me live life on my own terms. I mean, that’s what empowered me to quit my job in the oil industry, travel the world and start a new online writing career in the first place.
However, it's important to know that technology is also designed to take advantage of you in ways that aren’t aligned with your best health interests.
In order to take control of this dynamic, you must cultivate a positive relationship with cutting-edge tech that empowers you while still giving your animal body what it needs to thrive. To do that, it’s crucial to make high quality, natural sleep a cornerstone of your daily life.
Get started by experimenting with some or all of the strategies discussed in this post and let me know how they work for you in the comments below!
P.S. I’ve personally struggled with poor sleep since I was a teenager.
I was only able to restore my sleep health by establishing a solid morning and nightly routine.
Once my sleep was prioritized, I experienced significant boosts to my daily creativity, productivity, physicality and emotional happiness.
If you want to see the detailed description of my morning and evening routines that help me hit 8 to 9 hours of awesome sleep each night, sign up to my Modern Manimal newsletter below!
Wild Sleep Habits for High-Tech Humans