Better sleep on it 😴

My 2-year-old never falls asleep earlier than 9:30PM. He rarely wakes up after 7AM.

I can’t fall asleep earlier than 11PM. Then, around 5AM he comes to our bed. It’s very hard for me to sleep again.

Do the math. I am missing at least 1 hour of sleep, every night. Because it’s proven: we need 7-8 hours of sleep EACH night.

I’m a creator and a digital entrepreneur. I feel the effects of sleep deprivation on my creativity and decision making.

Some days just finding the words for a client email is an Herculean effort.

Thousands of studies proved that the quality of your life strictly depends on the quality and quantity of your sleep.

I tried many tips and habits in the last 10 years. They helped me improve work and life.

In this post, you’ll see why sleep is essential for creators. You’ll also find a huge collection of techniques to help you.

How sleep (or lack of it) affects your brain

Here’s a summary of how sleep affects memory, creativity and emotions. If you want to go very deep in the science, read Why we sleep. It’s the bible on the topic.

Two words on sleep phases

Every night, we go through 90-minute cycles. Each one has two phases:

  • NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement)
  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement).

The duration varies: longer NREM in the first cycles, longer REM later in the night.

Both phases have specific purposes we’ll see in a moment.

Sleep and memory

During the NREM phase, the brain organizes memory:

  • it store items into long-term storage,
  • it creates space for new learnings,
  • it removes bad memories (e.g., traumas).

So, NREM sleep is necessary before learning, to make space for new knowledge. But also after learning, because it allows recording new knowledge permanently.

And without learning, you can’t improve your thinking or take optimal decisions.

Sleep and creativity

During the REM phase, the brain makes new connections.

During my PhD in Computer Science, I often went to bed with some open problem and woke up with the solution. It happens thanks to REM sleep.

For the same reason, sleeping, or napping, can also spur new ideas. The main riff for Rolling Stones’ legendary (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was recorded on a tape during the night by Keith Richards.

He kept a tape recorder on his night stand. He didn’t even remember waking up and grabbing the guitar. But there was the recorded riff.

Sleep and emotions

Emotions are chemistry. When bad chemicals accumulate in our brain we feel sad, angry, aggressive… Adequate sleep clears up the brain and allows us a fresh start each morning.

Balanced emotions are necessary in our work. A negative frame of mind skews all our decisions. They become more conservative, defensive, reactionary. It also ruins relationships and communication, undermining our efforts

How to sleep better

Fortunately, years of research and peer-reviewed scientific studies have found many effective ways to improve our sleep. I tried many of them: they work!

Below you can find a list of everything I found. It seems too much. Sleep is natural, it should be easy, right?

It’s true. But we made it harder with technology. You probably know how damaging are screens late in the day. But sleep disruption started much earlier: with the invention of the lightbulb.

Artificial light allowed the acceleration of progress. But it ruins our circadian rhythm. It’s the natural cycle, regulated by daylight, that determines when we should rest or be awake.

As often happens, we didn’t consider all the consequences of the new technology on hour fine-tuned organism. Many of the following tips help restoring he natural conditions that support good sleep.

Setting up the environment for sleep

The easier interventions are on your environment. Here are the conditions most conducive to sleep:

  • complete darkness, using blackout windows or sleep masks,
  • no light emitting devices, the faintest light weakens sleep,
  • almost cold room, around 19°C,
  • complete silence, ear plugs can help.

Helping your body to sleep better

You can cultivate many habits that favor sleep. But changing yourself is far harder than changing the environment.

So, add one habit at a time. Start from the easiest one, then scale up.

Here are the most powerful habits:

  • eat at least two hours before bed, not too much, possibly carbs,
  • don’t do strenuous exercise later than 3 hours before bed,
  • avoid caffeine and nicotine in the afternoon (caffeine interferes with sleep and it can stay in your system for up to 8 hours),
  • avoid alcohol before bed, it robs you of REM sleep,
  • avoid sleep medicines, for the same reason,
  • try these supplements: magnesium threonate, l-theanine, 200-400mg, 30 minutes before bed.

Priming your mind to sleep better

Often we require our brain to go immediately from full on to switched off. We work until one minute before bed (or even in bed!). We engage in stressful activities late in the evening. Then we jump into bed and… “Surprise!” no sign of sleep.

We have to slow down, one to two hours before bed.

There are several things you can do, try them all. Choose what you like and helps you fall asleep faster:

  • meditation
  • breathing exercises
  • journaling (to deload your mind)
  • conversations with friends and loved ones
  • reading fiction
  • very light, relaxing exercise, such as yoga or walking.

Bonus tip: leave an open problem when you stop working at night. Ernest Hemingway for example “stopped in the middle”. He closed the writing day mid-sentence. This way his brain kept working on the chapter during the night.

Scheduling your day to make the most of the night

An healthy, natural circadian rhythm is regulated through the actions you perform since you wake up. There are several habits to build. Some of them are very hard. There are probably external constraints and long term bad habits to dismantle.

As I said before, try building one at a time and start from the easier one. Results will build momentum.

Daylight exposure

The circadian rhythm is reset by direct exposure to sunlight. Go outside (or face an open window) for at least 10 minutes as soon as you wake up.

If you can’t, buy a light therapy device. Anyone will do.

You probably aren’t a night owl

The majority of the population needs to fall asleep earlier than 11PM. But many people get used to go to bed very late.

This way, they form a habit that prevents them to fall asleep earlier, when they try. So they convince themselves they’re night owls.

You should go to sleep when you feel sleepy or tired. Provided you are moderating your caffeine (and other substances) intake.

If you start the day with sunlight exposure, you will probably feel the need to sleep earlier. Try 15 minutes earlier, get used to it. Repeat until you regularly wake up well rested.

Your body needs regularity

12-hour nights in the weekend can’t recover the damage of regular 6-hour (or less) nights during the week.

There’s a right sleeping schedule for you that makes you wake up refreshed, without an alarm. But until you rediscover it, set an alarm both in the morning and in the evening, to guarantee about 8 hours of sleep.

We are made for biphasic sleep

The rare tribes still leaving like our ancestors usually practice biphasic sleep. In layman’s terms: they nap in the afternoon.

I religiously take a nap after lunch every day. It helps me partially recover from lack of sleep or simply reset after the intense work of the morning.

Twenty minutes already help to refresh your brain. If you need a longer nap, aim at a full sleep cycle. Interrupting it in the middle could neutralize the benefits.

Since I work for myself, I can schedule my day as I wish. If I’m tired, I lay down without setting an alarm. Usually after 60 minutes I wake up. If I feel too sleepy, I jump rope or do some jumping jacks and I am back online.

If I’m not particularly tired, I lay down and listen to about 30 minutes of binaural beats. I usually don’t fall asleep but my brain feels refreshed.

How are you gonna improve your sleep?

There’s even too much advice in this post. I repeat: you can start anywhere. If you improve just one thing, you should get immediate results.

What are you gonna try?

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