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Getting More Sleep, and Sticking With It

I had been talking about how to get more sleep for a long time -- but really I was just complaining about being tired. I like being awake; my work, friends and family are compelling, and I've always been willing to trade sleep for exercise.
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Smiling blonde woman resting in bed at home in the bedroom
Smiling blonde woman resting in bed at home in the bedroom

Life's better with a little more sleep. We know this from research, popular press, and our own experience (if we're paying attention). It seems every day we're hearing the role sleep plays in disease, aging, cognitive functioning... yet, knowing we need more sleep isn't the same as actually getting it. As always, knowing isn't doing; if we want to make a change, we have to get serious.

I had been talking about how to get more sleep for a long time -- but really I was just complaining about being tired. I like being awake; my work, friends and family are compelling, and I've always been willing to trade sleep for exercise.

But in the last 18 months (yep, this takes a while!) I've made some progress. The turning point for me was hearing Arianna Huffington talk about her own journey to get more sleep. As I listened to her, I realized that I hadn't been taking it seriously enough. I wanted to be more rested, but I wasn't willing to give anything up to make it happen. After talking with Arianna I realized I had to decide if I was serious, figure out what I was willing to change, and then throw myself at it. If this was important I had to act like it was important.

Change is hard. You have to want to change -- really want to change -- to make it "worth it" to go through the trouble of unsticking an old habit and learning something new. You have to want the new behavior MORE than you want the old one. And usually, your old habits make some sense -- or at least they did at some point. Not getting enough sleep allowed me to get more work done, say yes more often, and meant that I didn't have to make some of the tough choices between different, important parts of my life. But it stopped being worth it -- when I'm tired I'm grumpy, resentful and reactive -- and that's not how I want to live.

The hardest part is sticking to it, of course. Here are some of the things that made a difference:

  • Focus on quantity. You've got to get the basics first. If you're not in bed longer, you can't get more sleep. Most people can't change when they get up, so it means an earlier bedtime. For me that meant getting to bed 10 minutes earlier, then another 10, and so on until I got to a reasonable time.

  • Focus on quality. Once getting a bit more sleep is possible, there's no guarantee you won't spend half the night staring at the ceiling. Lots of people have written about how to sleep better -- I found two things made a difference: paying more attention to what I eat and drink in the afternoon and evening (no more afternoon lattes!) and doing something other than work, like sudoku or a crossword puzzle, right before falling asleep.
  • Be accountable. It helps to have help. In my case, I was super lucky to have Arianna as my sleep coach. I can picture her talking about the tough choices she's made to get enough sleep and I'm motivated to do the same. And on the delicious mornings when I wake up more rested (ok, not every day) I imagine her smiling and saying, "oh good, darling, you've slept!"
  • Play the long game. Change is never a straight line, and trying to get more sleep has been no exception. Stuff comes up at work that I want to tackle. I'm with my family and friends and I don't want to leave the party. Some nights I just don't sleep well -- but I remind myself that this is a long game, and little incremental changes add up, and "backsliding" is part of how change happens.
  • In the past 18 months I've increased my sleep by about 30-60 minutes a night on average. Still plenty of room for improvement, but I'm excited about the progress. I'm a better version of me when I'm not totally sleep deprived -- just ask the people around me :)