Like many people, I've had my fair share of difficulty sleeping. But, along with breathing and eating, sleep is one of the most important pillars of physical health. If you track your mood, you will find that like a child, when you lack sleep you are more irritable and more vulnerable to stressors. As adults, we learn to cover up and ignore the effects of sleep deprivation, much to our own detriment.
Recently, I have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. How do I do it? Aside from all the usual advice -- like avoiding caffeine and alcohol, exercising daily, managing stress and establishing a bedtime ritual and a distraction-free sleep environment -- there are three specific techniques I find particularly useful.
1. Establish a Sleep Baseline
How much sleep do you need? As much as your body tells you it needs. You need to listen to your body, establish a "sleep baseline" and then prioritize sleep above other less important activities -- like watching TV, checking your phone and playing video games.
To establish a baseline, take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want (while avoiding caffeine). This is best done during a vacation or over the holidays. Track exactly how many hours of sleep you get per night, disregarding days when you may still be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. After establishing a steady pattern and zeroing in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline and your target. Typically, this will be somewhere around seven to nine hours. If it is a lot less, there is a very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly needs less sleep, but chances are better that you didn't really let yourself sleep.
2. Track Your Sleep, but Don't Lose Sleep Over It
To prioritize sleep over other activities, you just need to track it. Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. This is the easiest form of tracking -- you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this counts as a fail.
It will be hard to hit your target at first, but you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook, sticky note or calendar entry to act as a gentle reminder. Don't beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.
3. Iterative Visualization -- Building Colorful Cubes in Your Mind
Invariably, there will be nights when you find it difficult to sleep. Here's a particular technique I've developed that always lulls me to sleep.
The technique is based roughly on the classic "counting sheep," but counting is not challenging enough to engage your brain in ways that will keep you from thinking and worrying. This technique addresses these shortcomings in several ways. Here are the steps:
- Establish your breath. After getting comfortable in bed, establish your breathing rate by simply counting to 100 in your head. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.
- Build a cube. While maintaining your breath, in your mind you will build a 6-by-6-by-6 cube of blocks. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik's cube, only bigger. Each of the six horizontal layers of the cube are built from cubical blocks, all the same color, which follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue and purple. All in all, you will only place 216 blocks, but you will do it in such a way that you will likely fall asleep before you finish. Here's how:
- - Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.
- - You can place the blocks in whatever order you like, but it's good to establish the order ahead of time. For example, you might finish one layer before moving on to the next.
- - If you ever lose your place, don't get frustrated, rejoice! This means you're starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.
- - If you manage to build the whole cube, just start again and build another one.
At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. It works by engaging the visual, spatial, auditory, language and somatosensory portions of the brain, all at the same time. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. It also provides milestones of progress to keep you focused, and it replaces the boring elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun.
With these three tools, your chances of getting a good night's rest will be greatly increased, and all of the ensuing benefits will be yours.