How’s your sleep lately?
Sleep isn’t just about being a functioning human being; it also has a lot to do with writing. That’s because sleep affects executive function: the area of the brain responsible for creative thinking, decision-making, memory and reaction time.
The first factor is crucial for writing, the latter three for editing. Writing coaches often recommend that people get up early to write before their regular day begins. I never recommend this until I can be assured the person is already getting enough sleep.
Here is my 13-step primer on how to catch better ZZZZZs:
1. Understand how much sleep you need. Everyone is different, but the typical minimum recommendation is seven hours; some people need as much as nine. The current U.S. average is just six hours and 27 minutes. (It’s even worse in Belgium, the U.K., Canada, Italy, Norway and Japan, and it’s slightly better in Australia, Spain, New Zealand and China.) A study released in 2015 suggests that researchers may have overestimated the amount of time we need for sleeping, but here’s what I say: You know when you’re tired. If you’re dragging yourself through each day, you need more sleep.
2. Set a regular bedtime and, more important, a regular wakeup time . This time should be consistent seven days a week, which flies against the societal norm of “sleeping in” on weekends. It also makes it difficult to go to parties or special events. I don’t want to ruin your social life, so let me share a tip that a sleep doctor once gave me: If you have to change your bedtime, so be it, but don’t change your wakeup time. Force yourself to get out of bed at the same time every day, no matter how little sleep you’ve had. “This is the single most important tip for improving your sleep,” the doctor said.
Free guide: 10 ways to improve your writing today.
3. If you need to make up for lost sleep, have a daytime nap instead. There’s as much science associated with napping as with nighttime sleeping. Napping is easier if you’re in the dark, if you’re warm and if you’re lying down. The best time to nap is midafternoon (between 2 and 4 p.m., when many of us are naturally sleepy) and timing is important, so set yourself an alarm. A short nap of 10 to 20 minutes can make you more alert and improve your concentration. A nap of 45 to 90 minutes will get you into slow wave and REM sleep, which enhances creativity. Don’t expect that you’ll always fall asleep; relaxing and lying there in the dark are often just as helpful.
4. Turn off all backlit screens at least one hour before bedtime. This means TVs, computers, smartphones and e-readers (unless, like the Kindle, they’re not backlit). The “blue light” emitted by screens disrupts our bodies’ ability to produce melatonin, a sleep hormone. Here’s my cheat: I’ve bought myself a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. Now, if I ever have to work at my computer close to bedtime, I wear these glasses and have no difficulty sleeping. They’re cheap. Get yourself a pair. (You can see a picture here.) This is particularly important if you’re obliged to check your cellphone just before going to sleep.
5. Make sure you’re warm—wear socks if necessary—but that your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet. The ideal temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees F. (18 C.), which you can often control—in fall and winter at least—by the degree to which you open your windows. New research suggests that our penchant for controlled temperatures (with central heating and air conditioning) may actually disrupt our sleep. As it turns out, our bodies may be programmed to become sleepy when the temperature drops. Getting rid of unnecessary light is another issue. Even the light from a clock radio can disrupt your sleep. I pile books in front of mine, and I have tinfoil on top of the security box in our room. Even the light from a smoke alarm can be disruptive, so put tinfoil over that, as well. If you can’t make your room utterly dark, then buy an inexpensive mask to wear over your eyes.
6. Don’t allow your sleeping time to be taken over by worrying. Somehow, when we lie down in a dark room, it’s easy to let our brains gyre and gimble on problems, disagreements and everything else that’s going wrong in our lives, but sleep time is not the right time for this. Instead, schedule other times when you can do that sort of reflecting. Go for a walk or run, talk to a friend, or keep a journal in which you can document your concerns and get them off your mind.
7. Eliminate caffeine shortly after lunch. Don’t drink coffee, tea or colas after 2 p.m. Caffeine can mess with your metabolism long after you’ve taken it. Also be aware of some unexpected sources of caffeine: chocolate and some over-the-counter cold medications.
8. Avoid alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. I know some people think a nightcap helps them fall asleep more easily. It does, but it wrecks the quality of your sleep. If you’re at a party, keep your drinking modest and front-end load it, doing it early in the evening to give yourself a chance to sober up before you go to bed.
9. Avoid sugar before bedtime. Sugar also messes with your metabolism. Try to keep desserts modest at dinnertime, and, if you need a snack before bed, make it something like low-sugar cereal with milk, cheese and crackers or a piece of toast.
10. Get exercise. Some studies suggest that moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, significantly reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the length of sleep in people with chronic insomnia. Experts don’t fully understand the reasons for this but they suppose that exercise releases serotonin and dopamine—neurotransmitters involved in the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Just note that you shouldn’t do vigorous exercise close to bedtime—that’s more likely to rev you up than relax you.
11. Avoid drinking too many liquids in the evening. The more you drink, the more you’ll need the bathroom. My husband likes to call me a “camel,” because I can hold a lot of liquid, but if I’m more careful about how much water I drink at dinnertime (and thereafter), I’m less likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
12. Quit smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant. If you’re a smoker, it’s going to be harder for you to sleep. Yet another reason to think about butting out.
13. Wake up to light. If I didn’t share a bedroom with my husband, I’d invest in one of those fancy lights that awakens you by turning itself on at the time you’ve set it for. (That won’t work for us, because my husband usually goes to bed later and sleeps later than I do.) To wake up, expose your body to light. This is what resets your circadian rhythm. In winter, turn on lots of bright lights. (If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, as I do, invest in an inexpensive SAD light .) In summer, open your blinds and go for a morning walk if you can.
All these tips should improve your sleep, perhaps dramatically. Know, however, that if you snore loudly, with frequent pauses in breathing or if you have frequent morning headaches, you might suffer from sleep apnea. If so, see a doctor. Sleep apnea can shorten your life.
Any sleep problems can interfere with your writing life.
This post first appeared on LinkedIn.