Four Ideas To Improve Your Sleep

Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top.
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

 ⸻Nursery Rhyme - Rock-a-bye Baby

From the time we are born, sleep is a critical part of our life. As a baby, our parents gave up their sleep to tend to us and to help us sleep. Somewhere between a few months to a year old we learnt to sleep through the night. Sleep is often easy through our childhood years then, as we age, sleep once again becomes elusive.

Sleep is critical to our health. When we don’t get enough sleep our immune systems’ effectiveness declines, life expectancy drops, as well as there are numerous other health impacts. Sleep is critical to our ability to learn. Sufficient sleep enables our brain to form new memories, to process our thoughts and emotions from the day, and helps re-calibrate our brains so we can move through the next day with a cool head. The more sleep we get, the better we function. Sleep is critical to almost every piece of our life. Yet "more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis (CDC)."

Most of us already know the benefits of sleep; that isn’t the issue. The real problem is that most of us don’t know how to get a good night’s sleep: we struggle to fall asleep, we don’t sleep well once we do, and our lives are so busy that we don’t have enough time to sleep anyway.

We don’t have all the answers on how to fix this, but we thought we would share some of the things that have helped improve our sleep:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. Our bodies have an internal clock, or maybe more accurately we have multiple internal clocks. If the time we go to bed and wake up changes each day we make it difficult for those clocks to stay in sync. This can affect our ability to fall asleep and our ability to sleep well. Basically, you end up suffering from mild, perpetual jetlag.

    As a result we created a bedtime for ourselves, 9 pm, every night. We also wake up every day at 5 am, or earlier if our bodies decide they are done sleeping. At first it was really hard to be consistent. We would get distracted with other things we were doing, or we simply wouldn’t feel tired. It was hard to feel like a bedtime was actually important. “If I’m not tired, why should I go to bed?” We needed to make a shift in our thinking. Over time we noticed it became easier to fall asleep, and we got a better quality sleep, by sticking to our bedtime instead of simply waiting until we were tired.

  • Dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom. There are a number of things we do to prepare our room and our bodies for a solid night’s sleep. About an hour before bed we put away our laptops and phones, we turn off as many lights as we can, and close the curtains or blinds in our bedroom. We do this because light, especially blue or cool light, can inhibit melatonin production which signals to our body that it is time to sleep. We also turn down the temperature in the house (programmable thermostats are helpful), open some windows, or turn on a fan in the bedroom. Darkness and cooler temperatures help to signal our brain that it is time to sleep.

  • Prepare your mind. We all have challenging lives. Those challenges may come from a full day at work, being at home with children, or a million other things. In order to have a good, peaceful sleep, thoughts and feelings from the day can’t still be swimming around in our heads. A few ways we have found to clear our heads is to plan for tomorrow and relax from today. Each evening, before we put our devices away, we spend a few minutes reviewing our plans for the next day: what we are planning to eat, any appointments we need to remember, what we need to accomplish, etc. The other thing we do is take some time for ourselves. This can be as little as 5 minutes or it could be a couple of hours. The amount of time isn’t the important part, the purpose is to have some time to disconnect from the day and reset your brain. For us this is often as simple as chatting with our children, reading a book, or meditating and praying.

  • Create a trigger for sleep. Now that our minds and bodies are prepared to sleep we have found it is also useful to create a trigger for falling asleep. Think of Pavlov’s dogs being trained to drool when a bell was wrung. For us that is a bath, snuggling, and sex. Your trigger could be light yoga, prayer, meditation, or other calming activities that have a defined end point. TV, movies, or reading can work but be careful since they can cause “one more chapter” syndrome, as well as they involve light which can affect melatonin production. By being consistent with this trigger and with going to bed fairly quickly after, we can teach our bodies to sleep following this trigger.

These four habits have been tremendously helpful for us as we have tried to create a life where sleep is relaxing and rejuvenating for us. We have gone from sleeping 5 to 7 hours a night to consistently getting between 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

Realize that these habits aren’t easy. It takes a lot of effort to create consistency. There will be times when your body is just out of sync with when you want to be asleep. Don’t overthink these problems, the only thing worse than a bad night’s sleep, is a bad night’s sleep plus a stressed mind worrying about the bad night. Instead, here are some further ideas for when the ideas above aren’t enough.

  • Don’t lie awake in bed. If you do happen to wake up in the middle of the night don’t reach for your phone or look at the time immediately. Try to get back to sleep. If you can’t fall asleep in 15 minutes, get up and try to do something without a screen until you feel sleepy again.

    The system we use is:

    • Try to get back to sleep. (This is usually successful.)
    • Get out of bed and write down our thoughts or worries.
    • Try to sleep again.
    • Wake each other up to talk through our thoughts.
  • Avoid eating before bed. We try to eat dinner around 4:30 pm. This gives us ample time to have started to digest food before bedtime. We have also stopped watching TV and eating popcorn in the evening.

  • Don't take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can help increase your productivity, but if you take one too late in the day it can affect your sleep for that night. Nathan, when he struggled with sleep, often fell asleep after work and then would end up not being tired at bedtime. This perpetuated the cycle of not getting a good night’s sleep.

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Your biggest asset is yourself and if you aren’t getting the sleep you need you can hamper your ability to perform at your best. “If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people—especially ambitious, successful people—damage this asset is through a lack of sleep” (Essentialism by Greg McKeown).

Are you willing to put in the work needed to create a sufficient quantity of high quality sleep? It’s not complicated but it does take considerable effort.

ps. If you are interested in learning more, one of our favorite books on this subject is (Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

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The purpose of “The Couple Project” is to learn more about what makes a strong marriage or relationship. We share what we are learning, which ideas we are trying, and which ideas helped improve our relationship. We realize not everything that works for us will work for you, but we still hope you will find our journey valuable.

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