How to improve your sleep habits for better mental performance

Five tips for better sleep from a sleep scientist

Today's expression: Swing it
Explore more: Lesson #293
September 10, 2020:

In episode 292, we discussed why sleep boosts brain function. Today, we’re discussing five expert tips for improving your sleep habits based off sleep scientist Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep.” It’s not as simple as going to bed at 10 and waking up at 6 each day. Plus, learn the English phrase ‘swing it.’

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How to get the sleep your brain needs to do its best

Lesson summary

Hi there, welcome to part two of our series on sleep. I’m Jeff—well-rested, ready for another English adventure with all of you. JR is the producer and, as producer, he posted this full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/293.

On Monday’s lesson, we talked about why your brain needs good sleep—how it helps you perform mentally. Today, we’re going to continue that theme and discuss what you need to do to give your body the sleep it needs. You’ll remember that these lessons are based on a book I recently read called “Why We Sleep” by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.

Get the sleep your body needs

On today’s lesson, I’ll give you five tips for getting the right sleep for your body. And here are the five I’ll tell you. Number one: sleep enough. Next, sleep the same hours every night. Which hours? That’s tip number three: sleep the hours that are right for your body. Fourth, don’t be afraid to take naps. And finally, prepare yourself to sleep when the time comes to go to bed.

Start off with the obvious advice: sleep enough. How much is enough? I think we all know it’s between seven and nine hours per night, with an average of eight. Many people think they just don’t have the time to do this, so they sleep less. But that comes at a cost, too. Sleeping just six hours per night on average damages your immune system and puts you at double the risk of developing cancer. Too little sleep is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, high blood sugar and diabetes, clogged arteries, stroke, and heart disease. It makes it harder to maintain your weight at an appropriate level and is linked to depression and anxiety.

Dr. Walker says in his book that he thinks medical doctors should “prescribe” sleep—tell their patients they must sleep more, just like they tell them to take prescription drugs. That sounds like the most pleasurable prescription imaginable—and it would have benefits far beyond what any pill offers. But many doctors just pay lip service to adequate sleep, knowing, in many cases, that their patients would not adjust their lifestyles anyway.

The second piece of advice is to sleep the same hours every night. This is not possible with many jobs; in fact, with my job pre-COVID, it was very difficult. This tip relates to something called the “circadian rhythm.” This is the idea that your body moves in cycles of sleep and wakefulness, and it’s roughly correlated to the rising and setting of the sun—the coming and going of daylight. Your body does have an internal clock that tells it when to sleep. The quality of your sleep is best when your body tells you that you need to be sleeping. Imagine your body tells you to sleep from 10 pm to 6 am every day. If you go to sleep at 1 am, you’ll sleep less—and you’ll get lower quality sleep—than if you had gone to bed earlier. And no, sleeping late on the weekends doesn’t “make up for” a lack of sleep during the week.

Your body knows when it wants to sleep; by varying the times of your sleep, you’re working against your body’s desires and you get worse sleep. The interesting thing, though, is that everyone’s body is a little different. You should try to discover when you naturally get tired and when you naturally—this means without an alarm—when you naturally wake up. Take a few weeks where you clear your evening schedule and your morning schedule to allow yourself the flexibility to figure this out. What works for one person might not work for another.

There is an interesting evolutionary reason for this. Humans, like all mammals, traveled in groups and needed protection from external dangers. Early humans—like other mammals—got their required hours of sleep per night—but not all at the same time. If all members of the group sleep at the same time, then then whole group is vulnerable for a full eight hours. But if some members of the group sleep early and rise early, and if other members sleep later and rise later, then the whole tribe is vulnerable for a much shorter period—four hours, for example.

The advice is, then, to find out when your body is telling you to sleep—and try to sleep those hours. It’s easier said than done in the modern world, but it is important to at least try to arrange your schedule around your body’s ideal time for sleeping.

Speaking of things difficult to do in the modern world: don’t be afraid to take naps. The way we all sleep now—sleeping just once, for a long period of time—goes against nature. Prior to modern times, humans slept in two phases: a long, seven- to eight-hour slumber at night and a short time asleep mid-day. Then came modern times, and humans stopped doing that. But even today, some isolated tribes that don’t use electricity even today—these tribes show the same biphasic sleep patterns, taking short naps mid-day.

A nap mid-day, as we learned on Monday, sharpens your focus, improves your concentration, improves your memory, and improves your ability to learn and retain what you’ve learned. A nap is good for your mental health and your performance at any activity involving your physical body or your brain—in other words, at just about every job. But taking a nap during a workday is still a taboo in modern times. If you can swing it, you should take a 30- to 60-minute nap if at all possible. Even just a 15-minute rest can help.

The final tip is to prepare yourself for sleep. Try to minimize the harsh light—including television light—that you see when you’re preparing to sleep. Take care of your chores well before you get too tired and use the last hour of the day to relax and clear your mind of complicated things. Alcohol impairs your sleep. If you’re going to have one or two drinks during the day, make it earlier in the evening. Alcohol does help you relax, and it may help you fall asleep, but it makes your sleep less productive. Finally, if you can’t sleep, get up and do something. Often, lying in bed trying to sleep is counterproductive. It just worries you more, prolonging your time awake.

A new perspective on sleep

I can’t tell you how much better I feel now that I’m controlling the hours I sleep. Prior to COVID, I was not prioritizing sleep. I can blame my job for some of that, but not all of it. Yes, I had a lot of 4:00 a.m. alarms to catch early flights. Yes, there were late nights at the office. Yes, there were nights out with colleagues. But mostly I was managing my life as if sleep didn’t matter. It was, in my mind, a necessary evil, something I had to do at night. And I never had great sleep. I woke up to a shrill alarm. I hit the snooze button. I never woke up refreshed. I always struggled to get out of bed. I never knew what it was like to open my eyes on a work day and naturally feel great.

With COVID, and with this book I read, that all changed. I had the same amount of work during the pandemic as before. But without anything to do in the evenings, I went to sleep when I was tired and I woke up when my eyes opened in the morning. And to me, that meant 10:00 or 10:30 at night, waking up between 5:30 and 6:30 with the light of day, and a 30 minute nap in the afternoon. And now I know what my body wants, and I comply. I probably haven’t stayed up past 11:30 nor woken up after 7:30 in four months, and it feels amazing. My attitude now is totally different. I consider sleep an investment in my health: in my body and in my ability to do great work. Before, if I went to sleep at 10:00, I would always think, I could or should be doing something else for an hour or two. Now I think, this is an investment so that I can be my best tomorrow.

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Expression: Swing it