Being a remote employee has its benefits — like being able to move your family clear across the country and still keep your job. Having just done that myself, I can vouch that this flexibility is a wonderful perk of being a roaming worker. But the ability to make big changes like this also comes with downsides. Resituating your entire life takes a toll, and one of the main ways is through sleep disruption.
Perhaps you, my friend, are in the same boat, or at least a similar boat in the same ocean. Maybe you’re wandering your waking hours haphazardly from day to day with no established working schedule. Or, maybe you’re on the road a lot representing your agency or brand in new markets. Whatever your personal situation may be, I bet that improving your ZZZs might just elevate your productivity, revitalize your career, and galvanize more success.
So, ready to learn how to get a better night’s sleep? You’re in the right place. What I’m after in this article is twofold:
- To give you some basic principles and a framework you can experiment with to find your own version of a better night’s sleep, and
- To cover a little uncommon ground when it comes to getting awesome sleep.
Let’s get to it.
First, a word about stress
Before we can talk about sleep, we need to talk about cortisol, which you probably also know as your “stress hormone.” Cortisol is crucial for maintaining homeostasis and helping deal with stressors, to keep you going through the grind. The production of cortisol is highly light dependent (a topic we’ll explore next), meaning it’s produced largely during the daytime. Simply put, we want cortisol working for us during the day, and taking the night off.
Why the concern over regulating cortisol? Because too much cortisol at the wrong time of day can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythms has a natural ebb and flow, which produces the delightful benefits of quality sleep. Too much cortisol at the wrong time can be a bully that obstructures the natural fluidity of that rhythm. That bully needs to be put in its place. To do so, we need to start by unseeing the light.
Unseeing the light
So how exactly do we make cortisol our friend, optimize our circadian rhythm, and get right with Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep? I’m a huge fan of the insights of Paul Jaminet — a leading researcher in the ancestral health field — when it comes to circadian alignment. According to Jaminet (from his comments to a reader in this blog post), the main inputs to circadian optimization and solid sleep include:
– Getting at least 2 hours per day of sunlight or very bright blue light distributed over a 10-12 hour period.
- Maintain lights as bright as possible over the rest of the period.
– Getting 10-12 hours of essentially no blue light exposure; ie use amber light bulbs and f.lux on the computer, or wear blue-blocking amber goggles.
– Eating meals within or close to the period of bright light exposure.
– Sleeping at a consistent time and to a natural waking during the period of darkness.
– Physical activity within the bright day period — preferably 30-40 minutes every day.
– Social interaction and engagement during the day.
You can probably see the main idea here: stack your “action and stimulation” (eating, efforting, blue light exposure) during daylight hours, and take a big old break from these stimuli at night.
Some of these recommendations may be familiar to you already. But how exactly does a stressed-out, sleep-deprived, burning-it-at-both-ends ecommerce entrepreneur like yourself put them to good use?
The entrepreneur’s dilemma
My first suggestion might make you roll your eyes, or even wonder what the hell I’m smoking: Try to get your s*** done while the sun is out. Generally speaking, the less you’re doing at night, the better. And we’re not just talking about work — this includes strenuous physical activity and eating.
For example, let’s say you just can’t stop working as soon as dusk turns to darkness. You’ve got an A/B test to keep tabs on, payroll to run, and seventeen disgruntled customer emails to respond to. (Just kidding. You’re amazing, and you don’t even know what one of those would look like.) Now what? Here are a few things to try.
1. You can adjust how you move during the day.
If your work schedule has you glued to a computer screen, you may find it difficult to get much movement and exercise in during daylight hours. But you can still make a difference by incorporating even small levels of physical activity into your screen time. In terms of quality of activity, there’s a lot to improve on the default working position for most of us — sitting. Try a standing desk and get up for frequent breaks. Seth Roberts found that just spending time standing on one leg each day had a beneficial effect on his sleep. And if you’re used to going to the gym after work, try shifting your schedule so you’re hitting the iron closer to midday.
2. You can become a hardcore blue-light blocker and still get your work done.
If I need to work on the computer really late at night (like after 11 PM), I’ll double up the amber action with f.lux on the highest setting and some blue-blocking sunglasses. As a bonus, you’ll look completely ridiculous in front of your significant other, your cat, or whoever else shares your late-night space. Just remember that blocking out all that blue light is going to make you sleepy eventually.
3. You can tweak your wind-down routine.
Question the things you take for granted about finding relaxation at the end of a hard day: the Netflix you stream in bed as you fall asleep, or the shot (or three) of tequila you use to take the edge off. What’s your pattern here? Instead of going hard then dropping off a cliff, be open to a softer approach. Find ways to unwind the energy pattern of your day a little more slowly and gently. Taper down your activity load and light exposure, so your monkey-brain can truly take a break. And try not to rely on sleeping pills, at least not every night.
Even if you can’t stop working after the sun goes down, you can still create a sleep buffer, a protective barrier of quietness that’ll help you transition to sleep and maximize sleep quality. I find that even if I have to work late, sleep comes readily if I’m intentional about setting up a guardrail between activity time and slumber time. This means a period — of ideally one to two hours — with as little input or stimulation (lights, noises, food) as possible. Maybe some meditation and herbal tea.
4. You can watch the Today show every morning.
Wait, what? This ties into Jaminet’s point about social interaction during the day. We evolved to be social creatures, and we get energy from engaging with others. Roberts is another person who’s done a lot of experimentation and research here, and he found that just looking at human faces — even on TV! — early in the day helped alleviate his depression, which also helped him sleep better.
Sleep snacks or needless hacks?
What about trying something out novel — such as breaking up your sleep into shorter chunks spread across the day and night? This trend of “polyphasic” (or “Uberman”) sleep started to gain popularity a few years back, and proponents claim that once you adapt, it lets you function on less sleep and “reclaim” more waking hours for greater productivity.
I’m wary of Uberman sleep. If you’re willing to dedicate the significant time it can take to adapt to a polyphasic sleep schedule, you might see some benefits, or at least learn some interesting things about yourself and your sleep needs. But sleeping in short shifts seems more like a fad that doesn’t jibe with our basic biological disposition, in which light-time is for activity and night-time is for rest. It just seems like a lot of trouble, especially for someone as busy as you are.
The polyphasic approach may have some roots in a bimodal sleep pattern — of two distinct nighttime sleep phases — that was prevalent before industrialization turned most of us into drones. In 2012, the BBC reported on a study that investigated how well modern humans could adapt to this kind of sleep pattern, and found that the answer was “pretty well”:
In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.
Bimodal sleep sounds a lot gentler than Uberman, and there’s even evidence to suggest that it’s how humans are wired to sleep. But here’s the thing: as easy as it seems to achieve bimodal sleep given the right conditions, it still requires the right conditions — i.e., a 14-hour period of darkness. And this is, sadly, something that may just not be attainable for most folks trying to run an ecommerce startup, or service them.
So please don’t stress out if you can’t rearrange your life to stay in bed in the dark for 14 hours. Here’s a better plan: Maximize your nighttime sleep quality using the multi-pronged approach we talked about earlier, and take a single daytime nap whenever you feel the need. There’s a good reason huge portions of the human race outside of North America indulge in a daily siesta, a little forty winks.
Want to hack your little corner of the ecommerce world into something awesome? Cool. Want to hack your night’s sleep into seven mini-naps because all the other cool kids are trying it? Probably not necessary.
So now you know the basics: Daytime is for activity, movement, sunlight, eating. Nighttime is for darkness, rest, slowness, digestion. And you also have some strategies for applying these guidelines in your hectic life.
In the end, though, remember that getting good sleep is about more than just good sleep. The ideas and methods I’ve shared are part and parcel of a strategy to improve your overall health and well-being. They get at the central questions of how you structure your day, what your priorities are, what work means to you, and how you find balance in your life.
Also remember that “optimal” isn’t always optimal. Use these recommendations within reason, based on how much help you need to get better sleep. If you’re struggling to get any sleep at all, then you might want to be strict about applying these changes. If you’re just looking to tweak your sleep to get that extra half-hour, or waking up in the middle of the night a little more often than you like, you can probably be a little less hard and fast.
It’s important to balance what you “should” do, at least according to the experts or some article (including this one) you read online, with what’s reasonable and manageable for you. There’s a necessary measure of intuition involved in determining what’s right for you, especially if the demands of your work life won’t let you just drop everything when the sun goes down. The key is to find a sleep pattern that works for you and your lifestyle — whether it involves a solid eight hours of night sleep or — hey, why not — multiple shorter sleep phases throughout the day and night.
You might have also noticed that I didn’t go all gadget-man in this piece. The sleep-tech space is exploding, and with just a little digging you can find a wealth of tools to aid in your quest for a better night’s sleep. If you come across a device or two that helps you get more rest, power to you.
Finally, the advice in this article shouldn’t be taken in lieu of the recommendations of a medical professional. Sleep is incredibly important, and sleep problems can be complex, so you shouldn’t always try to solve them on your own.
As for me, sleep is still erratic and a little elusive lately. Let’s just say toddlers have a way of keeping things interesting once the sun goes down. But despite the mayhem of the past couple weeks, the strategies I covered in this article have helped me fall asleep more easily and maximize the quality of the sleep I get — basically, they’ve helped take the edge off a little bit.
Now, I just need to hold tight until the blissful days of eight uninterrupted hours return next week, right on cue. That’s how it works, right?