I didn’t truly think about sleep until, in August of 2016, I learned that I have obstructive sleep apnea. Every morning for a year, I had woken up feeling awful, and I couldn’t get through the day without taking a nap. My thoughts grew sluggish, my speech became slurred, and I started to forget things. Turns out I wasn’t getting enough oxygen as I slept. During the night, my brain would jolt my body awake an average of 44 times per hour (doctors consider anything above 30 to be severe). After I woke up from my first sleep study, the nurse surprised me by assuring me I had already woken up—almost 200 times throughout the night.
Importance of Sleep
Given what we know now about the importance of sleep for proper cognitive function, it’s no surprise that my restless nights had such a profound, detrimental effect on my life. It took a while, but I’m finally at a place where my condition is under control (I use a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure mask, to keep my airways open at night). But even with my apnea in check, my sleep habits still leave a lot to be desired. I sleep and wake at odd hours, I frequently use screens in bed, and I don’t wind down before bedtime. As a result, I’m not always as rested as I could be, and who knows what wider repercussions that could have for my health?
For the new year, I decided to set some sleep goals for myself. From the beginning, I had to be realistic. That meant setting achievable objectives, yes, but also never losing sight of the absolute importance of quality rest. I have many competing priorities, but sleep has to be among the first. The first step was listing the challenges in my environment:
- I’m an avid tech user, and so my room is filled with screens and blinking lights
- I sleep with a partner who is easily woken by even slight sounds or movement
- I have a dog who needs to be walked before work every morning
On top of this, I often stay up late in front of the computer, and neither my partner nor I enforces a strict bedtime for us. So we end up in getting into bed after midnight on some nights, and inevitably we wake up feeling cranky. Or, if she goes to bed before me, I will almost certainly disturb her when I arrive. And whereas in our younger days we could get by on less sleep, now we need a full eight hours to function at our best.
My Sleep Goals
With a clear sense of my challenges, I was now ready to establish realistic goals. I decided to focus on no more than three, in order to keep things manageable. Here they are, in order of importance:
Establish a Schedule
If I accomplish only one sleep goal this year, it will be this. Since our bodies rely heavily on internal clocks to regulate the release of hormones such as melatonin, doctors recommend a regular sleep schedule as one of the most important steps to getting more rest. While I can’t control entirely when I fall asleep, I can decide when to get in and out of bed. For this year I’ve set myself a bedtime of 11 p.m. on weeknights. That way even if I don’t drop off right away, I can get a full night’s sleep and wake up in time to walk the dog in the morning without being late for work.
Limit Screen Time at Night
As I begin to establish a set routine, I plan to shut down my screens by 10 p.m. (I’m hoping to wean myself off this kind of technology even earlier in the evening, but 10 p.m. seems like a good start.) I’ve already set up blue light filters on most of my devices, but that’s not enough. The frenetic pace of the news cycle and the unhinged mania of my Twitter feed regularly raise my pulse right when I need to calm down. My plan is to substitute books, which I find relaxing, for electronics. Who knows, maybe I’ll make more of a dent in my reading list!
Mind My Sleep Environment
Experts stress that our surroundings play a key role in promoting healthy sleep. The ideal bedroom is dark at night, bright in the morning, quiet, cool and comfortable. The goal is to create a space that’s designed for sleep above all else and to eliminate distractions and impediments on this front. Not everyone has access to the perfect space, but we can all take steps to improve what we have. For example, I’ve decided to be more mindful of clutter (clothes on the floor, trinkets on the nightstand), which studies have shown can hurt one’s ability to relax. If my bedroom is a little corner of calm, no matter how messy the rest of the house might be, then I will have created a more sleep-friendly environment.
These are modest goals, to be sure, but cumulatively, over the course of several months, they have the potential to make a huge difference. The important thing is to be realistic. Even if I meet only one or two of these objectives, my sleep could improve significantly. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of self-improvement, thinking we have to change a great number of our habits. In fact, as the experts at the Sleep Medicine Division of Harvard Medical School argue, it’s often more productive to identify a few things that are the most disruptive and focus just on tackling those.
For me, this is a heartening idea: I can get more value from changing one thing and succeeding than trying to change many things and faltering. I plan to check back in with an update on my progress later in the year. What are your sleep challenges, what will you do to overcome them? Share your sleep goals in the comments below.