Making changes to your day is the quickest way to improve your sleep tonight.
Through powerful personal stories, influencers like Arianna Huffington have been encouraging professionals to prioritize their sleep for many years. Sleep scientists like Matthew Walker creatively explain the benefits of getting refreshing sleep as well as the dangers of sleep deprivation.
With this increase in education and de-stigmatization of sleep challenges, more professionals are waking up to the fact that getting better sleep doesn’t just improve their work performance, but is also a necessary human function.
Thus, the sleep market is booming. According to Infinium Global Research, the market for sleep aids will reach over $114 billion in less than five years. Gadgets that track sleep are ubiquitous. Companies designing sleep products like weighted blankets and blue-light blocking glasses continue to grow. Articles about sleep hygiene and relaxing bedtime rituals abound.
Yet despite all the education, techniques and tools, the percentage of adults who have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or with sleep quality lies somewhere between 33-50%. What we’re doing with sleep aids (ingested or otherwise) isn’t successfully solving our stubborn sleep challenges.
The question to help you unlock your sleeping power
When I speak to audiences seeking better sleep, I ask the following question:
Have you ever woken up around 3 a.m. and thought to yourself, “how am I ever going to make it through the day?” A resounding “yes” comes back.
Then I ask: have you ever looked at the clock around 3 p.m. and thought to yourself, “how have I prioritized my rest and self-care so I’ll sleep through tonight?” Puzzled looks and “no’s” return.
Hyper-arousal of the nervous system is an underlying root cause of sleep disturbances. What most people fail to recognize is that slowing down to rest–ideally several times throughout the day–is a prerequisite for getting consistently refreshing sleep.
When we focus on “unwinding” at night, it means we ignore a whole other half of the day-night cycle. Attention to how we’re living our days is just as important (if not more) to our sleep as the couple hours just before we climb into bed. For most busy professionals, lifestyle awareness needs to go far beyond what we eat and drink.
As entrepreneurs, we may be laser-focused on building, sustaining, and growing our businesses. We see each day filled with opportunities, with people to meet, with tasks to do. Yet to realize a thriving business, we must also excel in our physical, mental, and emotional health.
If you have solid sleep hygiene practices but are still not getting consistently refreshing sleep, here are 4 ways you can use your day to sleep more productively.
Related: What to Do Before Bed Tonight to Improve Tomorrow
1. Hit the ground softly.
If you want more consistent energy throughout the day and to better sleep tonight, “hitting the ground running” when the alarm goes off is actually an undesirable start.
Think of it like an exhalation: if you push the breath out all at once, it won’t last long. But if you release your breath in a slow, controlled fashion—much like releasing air from a tire—it would last much longer.
Instead of leaping into your day by checking emails or starting work to get a jump on things, ease into your morning. Start with self-care. I find it helpful to read a hardcopy book while savoring my first cup of coffee, occasionally glancing out the window to see neighbors walking their pups. You may also choose to meditate or set value-honoring, big-picture intentions for your day (versus diving into goals or task lists).
2. Reduce schedule congestion.
Most tasks and appointments take more time or energy than we typically allocate. This results in “schedule congestion,” meaning there’s little to no space between our commitments. Schedule congestion often leads us to feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. It eats away at our ability to focus, reduces available self-care time, and leaves us feeling depleted yet wound up at night.
The antidote? Expect to get less done than you want to. Set 1-3 priorities and respect the reality that surprises happen and plans change. Whenever you accept a task or meeting, automatically block 30 minutes afterward. Initially, you may feel this is excessive, but I encourage you to try it. Adding something in is a lot easier than taking something away.
Related: How a Better Night’s Sleep Can Help Entrepreneurs Stay Calm and Focused at Work
3. Honor and support natural lulls in energy.
Leaving space in one’s schedule has an effect beyond reducing stress and preventing the “winding up,” we try to undo just before bed. It helps us honor and support natural lulls in our energy. For most people, it’s common to power through such lulls because it can seem ridiculous to be tired at 11 a.m. But these are signals from your mind-body that it’s time for a break.
Those who power through ignore their natural craving for rest. As a result, they often train themselves out of being able to downshift their energy, such that when they truly want to rest at night, it becomes impossible. I call this the “popping up syndrome”–one sits down to relax only to remember that one last thing that gets them doing again.
You need just 5-15 minutes for a restorative and rejuvenating daytime break. Resting more frequently doesn’t just prevent us from “hitting a wall” and feeling completely depleted. It also helps us get into the habit of surrendering to energy lulls: which is something we must do at night when we want to sleep.
Related: Didn’t Sleep Much Last Night? 10 Ways to Function Today
4. Set and hold your boundaries.
Each of the previous suggestions requires us to set and hold boundaries with ourselves as well as others. Leaky boundaries are not just an energy drain on us during the day but also eat into available time for self-care. If there aren’t at least three 5-15 minute windows for a rest break during your days, you may be prioritizing others’ needs over your desire for refreshing sleep. Or, you may be putting undue pressure on yourself.
The simplest–but not necessarily easiest–boundary to set is “no.” Examples include refusing to check or respond to emails or spending time away from those who depend on you within designated time windows. By taking time for yourself, you’ll have more capacity to help others when you return.
Boundaries can be difficult to maintain because of guilt, fear of missing out, or misplaced expectations. Yet when we set and hold healthy boundaries that prioritize our rest and sleep, we perform at a higher level and are generally much nicer to be around.
Related: You’re Too Busy? No, You’re Not. Here’s Why
If you reframe how you live your day in a way that honors your rest rhythms and prioritizes your self-care, you’ll start to experience more refreshing sleep at night.
Originally published January 2021 in Entrepreneur Magazine*.