A little over a year ago I became curious about how to hack my sleep.
Not in the sense of “How can I cram eight hours into four?” or one of those medieval schedules where you wake up at 2am for a meal and two hours of merriment before returning to bed until 7.
No, I just wanted to learn more about my sleep and what affects it. The more I knew about those effects, the more I could improve.
Here’s what I did:
I started with a simple $.99 app, Sleep Cycle (of course the thing is free now). I bought it on a whim a few years back and primarily used it for its wake-up method: your phone stays in bed with you, monitoring your movements. You give it a range when you want to wake up, say 5:30am to 6am. When that range opens, the app waits until you exit deep sleep (based on your movements) and plays some nice, soothing music. Harps, flutes, crap like that.
It was nice, but hard to do when sharing a full size bed with a wife and cat. It woke me up anytime someone moved, and the two beings in the bed with me move frequently.
Armed with a king size bed, two years ago I began using the app again. And more than just being awoken by an alarm at an optimal time, I wanted to use the app to know what was going on the rest of the time I was in bed.
I had always heard people sleep in stages. 90 minute cycles seems to be the most common idea – every 90 minutes, we cycle through four stages of light sleep and one deep, REM phase.
Was that the case for me?
I’m particularly interested in this, because I can sleep eight hours blissfully, but if I’m pulled out of REM into the wake state then I feel hungover and groggy for hours.
And is there anything I can do to get more REM sleep?
The app is really helpful. It makes sleep journaling quite easy. You can enter factors (or notes) each night before you go to sleep – things like you drank coffee, worked out, had a stressful day, had sex, whatever you think may be affecting your sleep. You can note whatever you want to, and the app will give you insights around how those affect your sleep.
By using the app and those notes nightly, it stands to reason over time that you could learn a great deal about your sleep and what skews it.
Here’s what I learned over the last 650+ days using the app:
- I deep sleep for 20 minutes out of every two hours
That’s not quite the 90 minute cycle, but it is longer in the sustained deep state than the typical person. The only problem is…
- I have a lot of nights when I don’t hit deep at all
I have at least one night a week when I don’t get a single second of REM sleep. I have no idea if that’s a lot or completely normal, but I think it’s alcohol that triggers those lighter nights. (See below for more on that.)
- I actually sleep better when I eat late
This goes against some common (but unproven) wisdom, but when I have a snack after 9pm, I tend to sleep better. I’m also less likely to crave some massive breakfast when I awake.
- I sleep worse after drinking
This confirms, for me at least, a long-time assumption: alcohol can help you get to sleep, but it will actually prevent deeper states. Since I drink primarily on weekends, it’s pretty easy for me to isolate those days and see that I get very little REM patterns, if any.
- I sleep great in rainy weather
Yeah, the app automatically keeps track of weather. I sleep worse on sunny days. By the way, the optimal room temperature for sleeping is 65. Good luck convincing your spouse to turn it down the thermostat low.
- Working out is the best sleep hack
It sounds obvious, but even small workouts help me reach deeper levels of sleep. I also go to sleep faster than I do on non-workout days. Even going for a brisk walk helps quite a bit. It’s hard to reach, but my deep sleep triples on days when I hit 30,000 or more steps. That’s like Disney World walking, but the sleep is sooo nice.
- Reading before bed is another great hack
Not on the tablet or phone. Laying in bed, actual book, but not something too deep or intellectual and it only takes like 30 minutes before I’m slobbering on myself and headbutting the pages.
- One night of 7+ hours doesn’t do much for me, but compound three or four of those together, and everything changes
It’s like life on easy mode. My energy is high, workouts are good, attitude is far easier to maintain…shit it’s like sunshine and rainbows all around.
So why don’t I do these hacks every day?
Why do I still wake up every morning thinking how nice it’d be if I could get into bed earlier? And why do I still sit around at midnight thinking things like “Should I cuss in this blog post or not?”
I don’t know. I’m working on that part. Getting to bed early has played a role in why I’m not blogging as frequently as I had planned.
But hopefully there’s something in here you can work with. Definitely grab the app. Or, if that free app isn’t your thing, journal it out. Write down your routine before bed and after waking up. What you ate, when you went to bed, how long you slept, how you felt waking up, then four hours after waking up. And so on.
Do it for a few weeks, see if there are any patterns or obvious causes.
At least do what most of the smart people suggest: turn off your electronics 30 minutes before bed, make your room darrrrrrk and cool, spend some time doing the gratitude thing before you doze off, and you’ll probably notice an improvement during the day.
Find what works, and put in on repeat, hopefully better than I’ve been able to.