“You need to improve your sleep hygiene?” my counselor admonished me in her straightforward tone.
“Sure, I probably need to floss more frequently. But I brush my teeth a couple of times a day and always — always — before bed,” I cheekily responded.
She was too diplomatic to say what she was truly thinking. I knew.
She furrowed her brow and continued. “Matt, you need to sleep. You can’t function on your current schedule.” I hemmed and hawed. Slumping my shoulders ever so slightly, I conceded. I needed a sleep doctor.
Sleep is a nightmare — except when I am painfully awake reliving my day, reviewing the past, and contemplating my responsibilities. I toss, turn, and grimace. Occasionally, I moan — a low guttural sound that evokes pity, not sex.
Counting sheep? No, my mind would prefer to count the excruciating seconds, minutes, and hours before I blissfully fall asleep.
For millions, sleep is fitful. How many of us have — through our bleary, sleep-deprived eyes — cursed that mocking, sneering alarm clock? Or begged the sleep goddess for another 15 minutes of peaceful shut-eye? I have been there — staring blankly as the alarm clock churns from 2:30 AM to 6:30 AM.
At 6:30 AM, the alarm jolts me. I wipe my bloodshot eyes and stumble to the restroom, shielding myself from the reflection. My goal: Transforming this weary, bumbling carcass of a human being into a bright-eyed positive bundle of energy ready to embrace the day. If not a full-fledged embrace, well, at least a man hug. Ready, set, one hour. I wince as I gingerly step into the shower.
Much to my chagrin, the working world is more responsive to 3:45 PM, than 3:45 AM emails. As steam rises from the scalding water, I make a biting comment about morning people and their soccer mom cheerfulness (Note: there is a standing reservation for my alter ego, Matt McBitter, at 7:00 AM on weekdays). I hurriedly rinse and dress, glancing at the clock tick-tocking away. Yes, we have charted this one-hour marathon before.
For the somnolent set, give me a half-hearted nod if the morning routine of listlessness and cringe-inducing panic is familiar. Stemming from late-nights in college and professional school, my sleeping habits deteriorated from the equivalent of academic probation to failing. My trusted counselor insists on a course correction. I agree — between yawns.
We discuss circadian cues, sleep fragmentation, and avoidance. I agree to maintain a log to chronicle shut-eye. Or open-eye for this sleep cynic. Starting two weeks ago, my sleep log has been a 5:30 AM wake-up call.
In addition to a sleep log, here are six strategies to improve your zzzz’s. The ultimate goal — to paraphrase ESPN anchor Stu Scott: Turning over for the night, I am as cool as the other side of the pillow.
- The alarm clock tormenting you? Hide it. A casual glance at 1:00 AM is one thing. Repeated glances — culminating in an alarm clock staredown — is a different story. Foralarmaholics — you know who you are, strategically place the alarm clock in a different room.
- After twenty minutes of endless tossing and turning, you are sleep-deprived and on the verge of a Chernobyl-like meltdown. Get out of bed. When you stammer out of bed, resist the temptation to binge watch Law & Order or the latest Netflix marathon. Instead, cozy up on the couch, turn on a reading light, and find that coma-inducing English Literature book.
- Take a warm shower. Or sprinkle Epsom salt in a warm, soothing bath. Sleep, at least for me, is more anxiety-inducing than a pressurized exam. I am developing a routine to maximize a sense of stillness. And if that includes ’90s pop, so be it.
- Limit blue light and television. If you have to ask why (hint blue light suppresses melatonin secretion), perhaps you should skim an article about electronic’s dark side before crawling into bed.
- Set a schedule. Admittedly, this strategy requires discipline. From social media to Netflix, temptations beckon. Mad Men is in the process of overtaking my life; the urge to watch one more episode is overpowering. When the magic hour hit, disable the addicting website. Don Draper — and his sex-fueled fantasies — can wait … until tomorrow night.
- Postpone emotional conversations. Your father is droning on about workplace slights or your friend is disparaging a mutual acquaintance. You can listen to either prattle on, disrupting your sleep schedule. A better solution: return the phone calls when you are well-rested and fully engaged. Procrastination has its virtues. Just not when it comes to sleep.
Sleepless guy photo available from Shutterstock