“So if you’ve been blogging about sleep for years, does that mean you’re really good at sleeping now?”
That’s the first question most people ask me when I tell them what I do. Here’s the kind of answer I usually give them:
“Not exactly. I mean, I started the website because I had such bad sleep problems. But over the years I’ve definitely learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.
Those who have no problem sleeping usually then ask me how I make money, while fellow insomniacs are keen to hear what advice I might have for them.
And the tips I generally share with them are all in this article. Below, you’ll find what I’d tell people over a coffee or a beer, assuming they just had occasional trouble sleeping and nothing more serious going on.
Please bear in mind that this is what works well for me personally. And while some of the tips are fairly generic that you’ll find repeated all over the internet and by medical professionals, they aren’t guaranteed to help you sleep better.
But hopefully, something below might be a lightbulb moment for you and make a difference.
1. Tired body + tired mind = better sleep
My insomnia was at its worst in my early
In my later 20s, I started a mentally challenging job and got into weight training and swimming. What I found was that on the days when my brain and body were both tired, I would usually sleep well.
So to this day I try to tire out both my brain and body every day. Even if I’m having a rest day from more strenuous exercise, I’ll at least go for a long walk and spend plenty of time outside. It makes a huge difference.
2. Less lazy Sundays
A key sleep hygiene technique is to maintain a regular sleep pattern. For many years, I’d get up at a regular time during the week to go to work. However, I had no set bedtime – it could be anything between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
And at the weekend, like many young people, I’d often stay out late on a Friday, Saturday or both. And then have a long lie-in on Saturday, Sunday or both.
It wasn’t unusual to wake up on a Sunday with a hangover, watch movies and eat pizza like a normal person. But then I wouldn’t be tired enough to sleep well on Sunday night, which in turn would knock my whole week out of sync.
The answer? Unless I’m seriously sleep deprived and need to recharge my batteries, I go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day of the week.
And if I do stay up later at the weekend one night, I still set my alarm for a reasonable time the next day, making do with a bit less sleep but keeping my schedule on track.
3. Read yourself to sleep
It’s simple, but this is one of my favorite techniques. Every night, I read until either I can’t even focus on the words, or I wake myself up with the book dropping out of my hand.
It’s important to note that whilst in an ideal world you’d go to bed at the same time every night and fall asleep instantly, it doesn’t usually work that way.
Instead, it’s better to do one of two things:
- Only go to bed when you feel tired, or
- Go to bed at a regular time and read until you feel tired enough to sleep.
The first method can work well if you have bad insomnia, and are fed up of lying in bed tossing and turning. However, I personally prefer the second method. At least you’re in bed relaxing, and letting your body and mind know that it’s bedtime.
If you’re not a fan of reading books, there are a couple of other options you could try:
- Do a relaxation exercise in bed until you feel sleepy.
- Play a simple game on the phone or tablet until you literally can’t focus on the screen. My dad swears by this, playing a simple puzzle game until he’s sleepy. It does go against the standard advice of not using electronic devices in bed. However, if you have the screen dimmed and use a blue light filter, it might work well for you.
4. Keep calm and carry on
For many years I was my own worst enemy when it came to dealing with insomnia – and I didn’t even know it.
I used to think I should be able to fall asleep immediately (20 to 30 minutes is actually quite normal). And when it didn’t happen within a few minutes, I’d start stressing about being awake.
Even if I did fall asleep, I’d often wake up in the night or long before my alarm was due to go off. This would then trigger anxiety that the next day would be awful because of a lack of sleep.
My self-defeating stressing was pointed out to me one night by my partner. She was fed up with being woken by my constant position changing and random grumbling noises.
I eventually decided to try what she suggested – stay calm. And just by making the decision to change my attitude, the miraculous happened. I started falling asleep quicker, no matter what time of the night it was.
By accepting the fact that sometimes I won’t sleep right through the night, and by understanding that the next day won’t be as painful as I feared, it’s much easier to keep the late night anxiety at bay.
5. Eat and drink wisely
I don’t think anybody really knows what the perfect diet for sleep looks like, despite ongoing research into what does or doesn’t affect our sleep.
Nevertheless, there are a few key factors which seem to help me:
- I don’t drink caffeine after lunch.
- I try not to drink alcohol on weeknights or on Sundays as it affects my sleep even more than caffeine. That leaves Friday and Saturday for a cold one (or two).
- I try to eat a big lunch and a lighter dinner.
- I try not to eat chocolate, sweets or cake late at night (try being the operative word – nobody’s perfect, right?)
6. Don’t take stress to bed
Stress, anxiety, worry, thinking. Whatever you want to call it, switching your mind off at night isn’t always easy. But it’s kind of essential to find a (healthy) way to do so.
It’s important not to allow your bed time to be your thinking time, especially if you have major worries at the moment.
Here are a few of the things I do to keep this in check:
- If I have lots on my mind, I write a list of things I need to do, plan or even think about on paper before getting into bed. Then I can relax knowing that nothing will be forgotten.
- When my mind is overactive, I do simple breathing exercises in bed to distract myself.
- My partner and I have a rule – the bedroom isn’t called the bedroom, it’s called the temple (no, we didn’t just get back from a Yoga retreat in Goa). In the temple, you are only allowed to think, say and do positive things. That means no heavy conversations about personal problems just as you’re about to turn the light out. You can call it the bedroom, temple, cave, love palace or whatever you like. Just don’t argue in there – either with your partner or your own mind!
7. Allow enough time for sleep
Sleep is crucial to our physical and mental well-being, yet we so often sacrifice it for other activities.
I used to push my bedtime right up until the start time of what would be my ideal amount of sleep. So if I felt I needed eight hours to be at my best and had to get up at 8 a.m. for work, I’d go to bed at 12 a.m.
The problem, however, is that this can then trigger that feeling of stress if you get into bed and don’t fall asleep straight away. You’re setting yourself up to fail.
Nowadays, if I want eight hours sleep, I go to bed at least eight and a half hours before my wake up time. If I’m watching a film, I pause it. If I’ve got work to do, I leave it until the morning.
Don’t allow unnecessary things to erode your precious sleep time. Give yourself a chance to go to bed feeling relaxed about how long you have to sleep.
8. Get an amazing bed or sleep separately if you keep each other awake
Three years ago, my partner and I did a year long experiment where we slept in separate beds.
And it made a significant difference to our quality of sleep. We both had enough space now, we didn’t disturb each other when we had a bad night’s sleep, and we could have the room temperature and covers exactly how we wanted.
After a year, we decided that it was a bit sad to sleep apart. So we decided to buy the biggest, baddest king-sized bed we could imagine. And lo and behold, it worked almost as well as sleeping apart.
So my theory now is that if you have any suspicion that you and your partner are incompatible in bed (and not in that way), at least get a big enough bed. If that doesn’t work, have a backup spare bed you can slink off to if their snoring is doing your head in.
And failing all that, just have separate beds. You won’t be the only couple saving your sleep that way.
9. Control your body and room temperature
For me, I like it cold at night. My partner likes it semi-tropical. So that’s clearly an issue we have to compromise on. But again, having a big bed means it’s easier for us to have extra blankets on one side, while the other feels the breeze through an open window.
My opinion is that a bedroom should be like a cave – dark, cool and quiet. So I pay particular attention to how the bedroom and bedding is set up as the seasons change, and even on a day to day basis.
If I feel too hot when I go to bed, I don’t just lie there and try to sleep anyway – I do something about it. The same if it’s noisy or there’s light coming in. It’s almost like a mini-assessment of the sleep conditions, and I find it really helpful to have the habit of being willing to get out of bed and make an adjustment or two if needed.
I also like to have a very quick shower before going to bed. It feels good to freshen up, and the resulting fall in body temperature when you get out of the shower is good for sleep.
10. Stay positive
It’s easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of worrying about not sleeping well. So often we go to bed dreading that our sleep problems will happen again.
I think it’s important to recognize that vicious cycle and do your best to stay out of it. Try to see every night as a fresh start and tell yourself that you’ll sleep fine. Even if you do sleep badly again, don’t give up. Keep that positive thought in your head every time you go to bed.
If you have problems sleeping night after night, it can be good to shift your focus. For me, if I’m not feeling that tired when I go to bed, I just read my book and try to think about how cozy, warm and relaxing in bed it is.
By thinking about the pleasant things rather than worrying about what may or may not happen when I turn the light off, it helps keep me calm and positive.
It’s important to get a professional opinion if you have ongoing problems with your sleep. If, for example, you snore or have any kind of breathing irregularities in your sleep, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it.
If your sleep problems are impacting on you or your family’s well being, it’s worth seeking a medical opinion and advice. There could be an underlying health condition that needs treating, and there could be a sleep disorder that can be managed.
Do you have any experience of the tips in this article? Do you have any techniques of your own that you’d like to share?
Feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.