How much sleep you get is important, but here’s how to set yourself up for the best sleep.
6 min read
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We’re obsessed with acceleration. How much time does it take a car to go from zero to sixty? How fast can we hit a million users? How quickly can we finish this project so we can fit more stuff into our day?
Acceleration is forward movement. It’s building momentum to get you where you need to go. The faster you’re going, though, the harder it is to slow down. Slamming on the brakes when you’re going eighty on the highway can give you whiplash.
And so can settling down after a long, hectic day. At the beginning of building JotForm, I felt like all I did was work and sleep. But going straight from working on a deck to falling asleep was nearly impossible. I tossed and turned for hours until my mind quieted. And not getting enough rest made everything else harder.
As the company has grown to one hundred employees, I’ve learned how to rest. I’ve emphasized making the most out of fewer hours at work. And I’ve become more mindful about the transition from work to rest. By being deliberate about the first and last hour of my day, I’ve made everything in between a little easier.
Set aside an hour before lights out
Sleep is when our body recovers. People who get more sleep report being less stressed and have better health outcomes than those who get less. Sleepiness affects what you eat, how you drive, your resilience against disease, and more. Being well-rested leads to better performance, something athletes know well, but tech leaders seem to forget.
Work backwards to figure out when to start your pre-bed routine. If you need to wake up at 6 a.m. to get in a workout before a 9 a.m. meeting, you should aim for lights out by 10 a.m. Though everyone’s sleep needs are slightly different, experts say that almost everyone falls somewhere between seven and nine hours, and that anyone who says they can function on six or less is typically chronically sleep-deprived.
The CDC recommends going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends. If you find yourself sleeping in on the weekends, it may be because you’re accumulating sleep debt during the week. Consistency helps your body know when it’s time to relax and when it’s time to wake up.
Just like you set an alarm to wake up in the morning, set a recurring alarm for an hour before bed so you can intentionally start to wind down. Scheduling it makes you more likely to stick to it. If you’re thinking about staying up for one more episode on Netflix, remind yourself how good it feels to be well-rested.
Read… but not on your phone.
Putting away our phones at night is critical to sleeping well. Exposure to blue light affects how our bodies regulate sleep, including our ability to produce melatonin. Research suggests that even for people who stick to a reasonable bedtime, using a tablet before bed impacts their alertness the following morning. Experts recommend stepping away from screens two to three hours before bed in order to lessen the effects on our circadian rhythms.
I put my phone down after dinner and turn to books. Sometimes, I read nonfiction by people who inspire me or on a topic I want to learn more about, but reading simply for pleasure comes with its own benefits, too. Reading can help reduce stress. Reading fiction specifically can make you more empathetic, a “superpower” for leaders.
As convenient as reading on my iPad is, I prefer to read actual books before bed. Apart from keeping you away from screens, you’ll remember more from a physical book than you will from an ebook. Plus, you can’t forget to turn it off and drain the battery if you nod off mid-chapter.
Keep a gratitude journal
I’ve written about the power of reflection and journaling to clarify thoughts and generate creative ideas. More than that, writing down what you’re grateful for can lead to better sleep, higher resistance to illness, and greater happiness. Gratitude is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. A gratitude practice can make you kinder and more appreciative of your life and the people around you. Though a journal is a private practice, people who practice internal gratitude often turn it outward over time, expressing their appreciation for friends and family. While it doesn’t fix everything, it does increase life satisfaction and reduce worry.
Gratitude journaling doesn’t have to be a particularly lengthy practice, just five or ten minutes before bed to write down five things you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be big or life changing — in fact, it’s better if they’re not. Choosing to focus on the small, run-of-the-mill, positive parts of your life makes them more visible to you every day, whether it’s the health of your family or the crisp air on a winter day.
Incorporating gratitude journaling into the last hour of your day will make it easier for you to fall asleep in a positive headspace, which in turn is likely to make your sleep more peaceful and rejuvinating. By creating a ritual around relaxing, your body will respond to cues that you’re preparing to fall asleep. Guided meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are also great tools if you have trouble quieting your mind after a long day.
Being intentional about how you spend your time at work and at home makes the time more meaningful. You can be just as present during relaxation as you are during your productive hours. Rest and recovery are critical for growth, so you’ll see the benefits of the last hour of your day well into the next.