College Prep: Going to Sleep

The Importance of Sleep

The amount of sleep that you get directly impacts your physical and mental health. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), American Psychological Association (APA), Harvard Medical School, New York Times, and Harvard Business Review, for some examples, all tout the importance of getting enough sleep. Yet, so few people make sleep a high priority in their lives. Sleep helps you focus, helps you learn, improves your reaction time, decreases your likelihood of depression or other psychological disorders, and will probably reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep is when your brain sorts out your day, moving some things to long term memory and discarding others, and it is when your brain gets cleaned out of the accumulated detritus created by the day’s thinking (which accounts for 20% of your daily energy expenditure). Hopefully you’re convinced that getting enough sleep (likely 8 hours per day) is a priority, let’s talk about how to make enough sleep a reality.

Make a Routine

Going to sleep can be hard, especially if you go to sleep at erratic times. To the extent that you can, pick a bedtime for yourself and stick with it. If you need to, pick one night per week that you’ll stay out “past your bedtime” but make an effort to be in bed on time every other night. Your body (and mind) like routines, so if your body knows when you’ll be falling asleep it’s less likely to put up a fight when you turn out the light. Figure out what time you’ll need to wake up in order to make it to classes (and to be productive) and then count backwards 8 (or more!) hours to set your bedtime.

For me, going to bed at a reasonable time when I was in school was incredibly difficult because I was afraid to miss something amazing, since amazing things seemed to happen at all hours in my dorm. While I missed fewer exciting events (late night guitar sing-alongs, potato cannons, philosophical discussions, multiple viewings of The Matrix), I also remember so little of what I was technically at school to learn. The sleep I got was not enough for me to understand my classes at a deep level. I made it through, but the knowledge I built during that semester would be a shaky foundation to build upon in future classes. If you’re really concerned about missing something awesome, task a friend with waking you up if amazingness is afoot; you’ll still get to participate in great late-night shenanigans but you won’t lose sleep over the uneventful nights.

Make it Stick

It’s one thing to say you’ll be in bed by 11 or 12 each night, it’s another to actually do it. If you keep a calendar, literally block off your sleeping time so that you don’t schedule other activities during your sleep time. Find that friend who will wake you up if something exciting springs up if that will make sleeping earlier easier for you. Make sure your friends know that you always go to sleep at whatever time, and that it’s non-negotiable. Make sure your phone is in do-not-disturb mode every night, automatically, during your sleep hours. Do your best to treat your sleep time like a class you absolutely can’t miss.

Making the Transition Easier

You can make it easier to fall asleep so that you don’t go to bed and lay awake for hours.

  • Reduce Your Blue Light: Make sure that all of your screens have less blue light shining at you in the hours leading up to your bedtime. Ideally, your screens would start to shift red as soon as the sun went down. 
  • Turn off your devices. At least a half hour before bed, preferably earlier, cut yourself off from your computer, your phone, and any TV. Even if they are red-shifted, you are still shining light directly into your eyes, which will cue your body stay awake.
  • Dim the lights where you are, to the extent you can. Most dorms have fluorescent overhead lights, which you can’t really dim. If you can get a dim-able torch lamp or another not-too-bright lamp to add to your room, that’s a great option for when you’re starting to wind down.
  • If you need to work on homework right up until you go to bed, save textbook work and book reading for pre-bed work. You can get this work done without looking at a computer or phone screen.
  • If you lay down and your mind is filled with ideas and things you need to do, keep a notebook by your bed so that you can write them down. You free your brain up from worrying about remembering everything so it can relax into sleep.

Wind Down Routine

Have a nightly routine. If you pick your bedtime at 11:30, maybe your routine will be no screens after 10:30, cleaning up for bed at 11 (brushing teeth, washing your face, whatever), setting out stuff for tomorrow (an outfit, the books and supplies you will need), and then 10 minutes of journaling or light reading before getting into bed. The more regular you are in your routine, the easier falling asleep will be. Make sure you’re not drinking lots of caffeine in the hours before bed, and know that while alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, you usually won’t sleep as well, so if you drink, be sober and hydrated well before bedtime.

Waking up

The snooze button is your enemy. The rest you get after you alarm first goes off is fitful at best, and almost never restful. Better to get up and moving as soon as you wake up. You don’t need to hop into a shower or run out of the door, but you do need to get out of bed. A morning routine is a great thing to fall back on when you’re bleary and trying to wake up. Perhaps some internet browsing, catching up on email and messages, eating some breakfast, drinking lots of water, doing a set of burpees… whatever you enjoy doing in the morning – reward yourself for waking up on time. If you’re still tired later in the day, taking a nap is a much better option than hitting the snooze button. Your “future self” will thank you for waking up when your alarm first goes off (as will anyone in earshot of your alarm). If you’re getting enough sleep, waking up should be less painful than when you’re sleep deprived. 

What’s your bedtime or waking up routine? Do you prioritize sleep? I’d love for you to let me know in a comment below!

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