let's get some sleep

Everyone: I got a fitbit. This development came about for various reasons: I’m leading a course in habit-making, and wanted to see the difference Monitoring would make; a couple of my friends were having fitbit competitions and I wanted in on the action; Costco presented them to me in a towering pyramid. Sold.

I like my fitbit, and I love the cold, hard information it gives me. (After the first couple of days, I wrote to my fitbitty friends: “WTF? Am I leading a secretly sedentary life?” and the flintiest of them answered, “Yes.”)

But of all the things fitbit counts - steps, active minutes, calories burned, etc. - I find I am most interested in what it tells me about my sleep.

Because it turns out that I’m not sleeping as much as I want and need. What I think of as "oh, about 7 hours" is more like barely over 6. This matters because - hold on to your hats, people - it turns out that the more and better I sleep, the more active (and focused and productive and happy and patient and mindful and joie de vivre-y) I am the next day.

Shocking, right?

This is a realization I seem destined to have again and again in my adult life. Happily, though, I learn as I go along, so each time I get this realization, it’s from a bit further down the road. As I've ambled along, I have learned a bunch of ways to make sleep happen, as well as things that make me fall off the sleep wagon. I’m assembling them here, for you and for me both.

Ways to Encourage More and Better Sleep


1. Treat yourself to plenty of free time throughout the day.

At the end of a long day of work and parenting and householding, I am so tired. And yet, as I  f i n a l l y  get the kids put away for the night, I feel a little burst of energy. Now, finally, I can do whatever the hell I want, uninterrupted! I can watch television with the husband. Sit and knit. Click around the interwebs. Eat nachos.

instant bestseller for a reason.  

instant bestseller for a reason.  

I find that the less time I’ve taken for myself that day, the more desperate I am for these late-night scraps of leisure, and the later I stay up. But when I take care to take breaks and treat myself throughout the day, I feel less compelled to hoard the late-night time.

2. Know the power of screens.

Screens - especially computer and tablet and phone screens - are designed to be sun-like. They use bluer wavelengths to give us clearer pictures. Bluer light is attention-boosting and mood-elevating; it buoys us. No wonder it’s so hard to put those damn phones away.

So, screentime - including time in front of our LED-lit televisions - lures us in with more than stories. And it holds us there, as the mimicked daylight tells our eyes and brains that it's nowhere near bedtime.

By far my most effective - but admittedly toughest to implement - sleep-promoting strategy is a screen curfew. No screens after 10pm. This usually means prying myself away from TiVo and leaving my phone downstairs. It helps to have novels and magazines at the ready.

3. Use your light-sensitivity to your advantage.

Another way to deal with this screens issue is to use software like f.lux.  f.lux adjusts the color of your screen (computer or tablet or phone) to suit the time of day, based on your location and your bedtime. So as the sun sets, f.lux tints my screen less and less blue. When daylight is long gone, it's a barely readable orangey-pink, and my eyes feel as weary as my body and brain are.

Plus it is very hard to sustain online shopping when you have no idea what color that swimsuit is, anyway.

Also very helpful, for me, is this bedside light clock:

it also has nature sounds, which are thankfully mutable.

it also has nature sounds, which are thankfully mutable.

It has a slow-dimming "sunset" function I use when I read in bed at night - over the course of 30 minutes, the light gradually dims and reddens, and it is majorly sleepifying. (For wake-up, there’s a slow-rising sunrise function, too).

4. Bedtime routines really work.

I think I underestimated the power of the bedtime routine until I became a parent. Now, I know that the more elaborate the bedtime routine is, and the earlier it begins, the easier bedtime will go. Here is my basic bedtime routine:

  • disengage from all screens
  • take a bath and read
  • wash face, brush teeth
  • make sure sunrise alarm is set; turn on sunset light if I’m extra peppy
  • get in bed and keep reading
  • right before lights-out: put oil on feet, balm on lips
  • do one of my going-to-sleep practices (below)

After all that, according to my fitbit anyway, it takes me 6 to 7 minutes to fall asleep. Seems about right.

4a. FEET!

There's one part of that routine I want to make sure you saw: put oil on feet. There are 800 reasons to do this, the top three being: it's a time-honored ayurvedic technique that is grounding and calming; it's a meaningful act of self-care; soft, warm, moisturized feet are so nice.

happy, shiny feet

happy, shiny feet

What kind of oil? My favorite is Sleep Easy oil from Banyan Botanicals, but you could use any medium-weight, good-quality oil, really. Another favorite of mine is avocado oil (Costco!); I also like to add lavender and/or patchouli / jasmine / sandalwood / rose essential oils.

Do your sheets and blankets get oily? Not that I notice. If you're really worried about that, wear socks for 10 minutes while the oil soaks in.

5. With the right practice, your mind can help you fall asleep.

Especially if my mind has been busy all day, I can find it difficult to turn off the worries and to-dos late at night. This happens enough that I have learned a bunch of different ways to give my mind something to do that’s more productive of rest. Here are my three favorites:

Breathe Body to Sleep

This is my trustiest, longest-lived sleep practice; I think I came up with it when I was a little girl. Breath by breath, I invite my body to fall asleep from the feet up. I begin by lying down on my back with a pillow under my knees, and arranging my limbs into a comfortable symmetry. From there, it goes like this:

Inhale and sense the soles of my feet; exhale and allow the soles of my feet to go to sleep.

Inhale and sense the tops of my feet; exhale and allow the tops of my feet to go to sleep.

Inhale and sense my ankles; exhale and allow my ankles to go to sleep.

Inhale and sense my calves; exhale and allow my calves to go to sleep.

And so on.

I almost never am awake past my belly.

Sometimes it takes more than one breath into my foot or knee to feel it really settle. Sometimes, if I’m extra wound up, I move in smaller increments. I always start with feet, though.

Gratitude Practice

So easy. As you’re falling asleep, invite the things for which you’re grateful to move through your mind. For me, this is a very capacious slideshow of loveliness: included are things like the pillow my head is resting on, the coffee I’ll have in the morning, the running water I used for my bath.  I don’t dwell on any one thing or think about WHY I’m grateful for it, I just let the appreciation for it arise and then fall away.

Some extra-special items come up more than once. For instance, those very same children I so gleefully, gratefully put away for the night.

Everything's Okay Practice

This one is new for me, and is currently my go-to. I adapted it from an exercise in Martha Beck’s book, The Four Day Win, and I find it especially helpful when anxiety or stress are keeping me awake.

I repeat as many of the following phrases as I can remember, again and again. Don’t worry if some of the phrases are easier to recall than others and you repeat them more; they’re all good to etch into our heads. Also, I think struggling to remember them all is part of the magic of getting my mind to begin to settle.

Everything is okay.

Everything is always changing, including me.

The planet will keep revolving, no matter what I choose to do.

I can handle this moment, and I don’t have to handle anything else.

There’s not a single thing I have to do right now.

My body and mind have been through a lot. They deserve kindness and sleep, not cruelty and criticism.

I am always changing, and so is everything else.

It’s all right to rest.

6. So important: make more sleep a Want, not a Should.

I have written before about how Shoulds are a tyranny we do well to overthrow. Implicit in a Should is a sneaking suspicion that this is not exactly my idea: it's a nebulous "what's best." In my experience, this kind of thinking invites rebellion. It is way more effective - and less evocative of self-sabotage - to think in terms of Wants.

Do I WANT to watch the Republican debate at 10pm? Well, no, no not at all and yet of course yes, yes I absolutely do. Do I WANT to sleep longer and more soundly than I want to watch the debate? Only sometimes. And sometimes is okay - especially when I notice, without judgment, the effects of my choice.

For me, it's when I'm clearest about the benefits of plentiful sleep - and especially when I experience them firsthand in a day-after-plentiful-sleep (thank you for helping me notice, fitbit) - that I'm most motivated to put myself to bed. 

I also consulted these experts. Their only obstacle to sleep is meddling humans.

I also consulted these experts. Their only obstacle to sleep is meddling humans.

Pretty please: if you try any of these sleep preparations, let me know how it goes! And share your own favorite bedtime rituals in the comments below.