I remember reading about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in one of my introductory psychology courses. It’s essentially a five-tier model of human needs, wherein the top levels can only be addressed after the lower levels have been satisfied. From bottom to top the levels are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. At the time, I was not at all interested in the concept, in fact, I’m surprised I still remember learning about it.
The reason I bring this up is because a few months ago, I realized that I could form a similar model more specifically tailored to my own habits. I noticed that if I failed to keep up certain habits everything else would fall behind, similar to the lower levels of Maslow’s triangle. I’ll save the details of my model for another post because here I want to talk about my “base level” need: sleep. I noticed that if my sleep habits are faltering, then everything else I’m working on quickly slides away.
This was rather unfortunate for me as I am a notoriously bad sleeper. My freshman year of college I was lucky if I was getting four hours a night. Even when I had mono, I struggled to fall asleep, despite feeling overwhelmingly tired. And to be honest, back then I would have simply told you that I was “one of those people who doesn’t need a lot of sleep”. Since then, I’ve come to believe that those people pretty much do not exist and are probably just adapted to chronic sleep-deprivation.
So, I decided to make it my mission to rectify my sleeping habits. I tried everything: no caffeine, no evening exercise, bedtime meditation, no electronics, melatonin, Tylenol PM… nothing worked. This was extremely frustrating to me because I felt like not sleeping was holding me back from getting my life together. Without a regular sleep schedule, it was hard to stick to any kind of routine and I LOVE my routines. Without any routines, it was really hard for me to get anything done. So I did some more research and decided to dedicate a 30 day challenge specifically to improving my sleep habits. My plan was to wake up at the same time every single day, no matter when I went to sleep. Since I was working, I chose my wakeup time to be 6am. That meant that even if I went to bed at 4am on Saturday, I’d still be waking up at 6am. The goal was that my body would “learn” that I was going to wake up at 6am no matter what and so would start “feeling tired” at the appropriate time, enabling me to actually fall asleep. (I’ve since learned a lot more about the science behind sleep cycles and sleep habits, but I’m not going to pretend like I can teach you anything. If you’re interested I suggest you do your own research or check out the book Why We Sleep for more information.)
This 30 day challenge was by far the most life-changing challenge to date. It seriously revolutionized my sleep. The first week or so it absolutely sucked. I was running on fumes and tired constantly. But then something magical happened, I started feeling really tired in the evenings. And not the dreadful, life-sucked out of you tiredness, but the “I actually might be able to fall asleep tiredness”. And what do you know, I ended up being able to fall asleep in less than 30 minutes. Every single night. This was huge for me because I was used to spending hours and hours lying in bed, annoyed and wondering why, for the life of me, I could not fall asleep. I also started performing so much better at work. I could think clearly and felt way more awake than I could remember feeling in a long time. It was only at this point that I accepted the fact that I probably wasn’t one of those people who could survive on very little sleep and instead had just been… really tired… for a long time.
I wish I could say that after this 30 day challenge I never had problems with sleep again, but that would be lying. What I can say though is that this month changed my relationship with sleep forever. I did not have trouble falling asleep a single night that month. And while I did not continue my 6am wake up calls into July I did take that principle with me by trying to form more regular sleeping habits.
It has been about a year and a half now since I did that challenge, and while I have significantly less problems with sleep than I had before, I definitely lost focus on the routine aspect of sleep. Since I have been so preoccupied with getting “enough” sleep and maximizing my sleep, it’s like I forgot that it was routine not duration that healed my relationship with sleep in the first place.
The past few months have been especially interesting with respect to sleep because it has been the first time in probably 8 years that I stopped drinking caffeine. Now, I’m not giving up caffeine completely, and to be honest it started out as just an easy way to save a couple bucks every day, but seeing how I feel and sleep on no caffeine has been especially interesting. The number one thing I noticed is that my tolerance for sleep deprivation goes WAY down. I feel right away if I didn’t sleep enough and want to fix it right away. Now the desire to “fix it”, I have learned, is dangerous. It’s super easy to feel super tired and go overboard and sleep too much the next day. People always say you can sleep too much and feel tired, but I never really believed them until now. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that your sleep “routine” is messed up, which for me usually leads to a mess of all-over-the-place sleep for the next week or so, while things settle back to normal.
Now what exactly do I mean by “routine” here. When talking about my sleep routine, I am referring to when I go to sleep and wake up, and inherently how long I am sleeping for. Usually when I refer to a routine it’s some series of events that takes place at some point during the day, but in this case I’m focusing on the actual cycle of sleep itself. I’ll save my night and morning routines as a discussion for another day.
So, my last month in Paris I was drinking practically no caffeine and never really slept in past 9AM because I was regularly going to a workout class or actual class most mornings. This did wonders for my sleep. I fell asleep so easily and had so much stable energy throughout the entire day. I no longer needed caffeine to feel awake. And then finals week hit and my anxiety levels went through the roof. I make it a conscious effort not to sleep-deprive myself during finals, but anxiety won this round and I spent a few nights lying in bed not able to sleep. So, when I got home for vacation, I was on a mission to get as much sleep as possible to “catch up” on sleep. This is where it all went downhill. I slept 14 hours one night, 12 hours another. While it was nice to catch up on sleep debt, I totally ruined my sleep cycles. I work best when I wake up early and go to sleep early and my weird sleep habits had completely messed this up. I was going to bed around 3 or 4am and felt way worse, more tired, and less productive than I had when I was super busy in Paris.
So what gives? I went back and looked at my sleep schedule from when I was in Paris and realized that during my last month there, I almost never slept in past 10am. I also never got more than 9 hours of sleep or less than 6 hours of sleep. I think this was key. I’ve learned that I need around 7.5-8 hours of sleep every single day to feel my best, but rarely do I get that exact amount every single day. Where I mess up is when I try to recover from undersleeping. I usually try to make up all of the lost sleep as soon as possible, so the very next night. But this means I sleep in, stay up later the next night, and mess up my sleep cycle and ability to stay consistent. When I was in Paris, if I underslept, I would just focus on getting 9 hours of sleep for a few days instead of trying to make it all up at once.
I now believe that the following guidelines work best for me.
- Try to sleep 7.5 hours every day, but realistically just stay between 6-9hrs.
- Make up sleep debt by repeated days of 9 to keep routine/wake up time as consistent as possible.
So for me, the answer to the great, big question of sleep is routine.