Renowned sleep scientist Dr Aric Prather shares a week’s worth of strategies to help you get to sleep at night.
Day 1: Wake up at the same time every day
When people come into my clinic, the first thing I tell them is to pick a wake-up time and stick to it seven days a week. Consistency is key. If your routine is erratic, your body gets confused about how it should be using its resources.
So, choose a wake-up time you can maintain every day. Set your alarm for your chosen time now. Then reward yourself for waking up. Make a nice cup of coffee. Read a book. Put on some music. Pick something that you can look forward to so that you can teach your brain and body that getting up every day is more rewarding than sleeping in.
Day 2: Take stress-busting micro breaks
We put too much pressure on night-time strategies to undo the perils of the day. If you don’t get too wound up today, it will be a lot easier to wind down later tonight.
Your goal is to take five “micro breaks”. It could be a five-minute meditation; a 10-minute walk; listening to 15 minutes of your favourite podcast. You choose: this is for you.
Day 3: Stick your head in the freezer
When that afternoon slump hits, rather than turning to caffeine which can stay in your system for six hours, stick your head in the freezer (or, fill the kitchen sink with cold water and immerse your forearms).
Stay there for as long as you can. When you’re done, your system will be revved up: heart rate a little higher, nervous system engaged, alertness up.
Day 4: Worry on purpose
There’s no magical switch to completely turn off rumination at night, but today we’re going to swipe some of that rumination fodder off your plate before bedtime even hits. Try one of the following strategies:
Set aside a specific chunk of time that will be exclusively for worrying (I recommend the mid-to late- afternoon). Set a timer for 15 minutes. This is your daily, intentional worry time. You can write it down, dictate a recording onto your phone, or just think about it. When that timer goes off, though, you’re done.
On a piece of paper, create two columns, the first labelled “Problem” and the other “Solution.” Write a short list of current problems that you’re dealing with, on topics you’re likely to ruminate over tonight. Then, come up with the next steps you could take to tackle each issue. Now, fold up the paper and place it by your bed.
Day 5: Set a wind-down alarm
Your wind down for the night should begin at least two hours before going to sleep. Set an alarm to hold yourself accountable and when it goes off, wrap up whatever you’re doing. Your wind down could include dimming the lights, reading, watching TV, writing a gratitude journal – but there must be no more work, no social media and no alcohol. And importantly, don’t do your wind down in bed.
Day 6: Make your bed the sleep trigger
After feeling sleepy all day, some people describe feeling like “a switch had flipped” as soon as they climb into bed – suddenly, they are alert. This is called conditioned arousal: the bed itself has become a trigger for an active, restless mind.
So, the rules today are: don’t get into bed until you’re sleepy, and don’t do other things in your bed. No phone, no laptop, no book. Bed is for sleep and sex only.
If you don’t fall asleep at first, give it a chance! It often takes people between 15 and 20 minutes. But if you hit the 20- to 30- minute mark of lying in bed, it is time to get out and transition back to wind-down mode. If you wake up in the middle of the night then the same rules apply.
Day 7: Stay up late
The most effective weapon against sleep struggles is called sleep restriction, and it boils down to this: Stay up late.
To find out what exactly that looks like for you, take your average total time asleep and add a half hour. Then, start with the wake-up time you’ve been sticking to and go backward by that exact amount of time. You should not be getting into bed before then.
If you can, commit to this bedtime for one week. You’re going to start to feel tired, watching the clock at night, wanting the time until bedtime to go faster. Good. That means it’s working.
Edited extract of The Seven-Day Sleep Prescription by Dr Aric Prather (Penguin Life)
‘I’ve stopped having such restless nights’
iweekend writer and terrible sleeper Anna Bonet tests out the prescription
As a writer for this paper, I produce around 10 per cent of the ideas I have for articles during the working day. The other 90 per cent come to me after midnight, when I’m failing miserably to fall asleep. These ideas pop up among my to-do list (naturally), worries (“Could that headache be a brain tumour?”) and other complete non-sequiturs (“Why do penguins have wings if they can’t fly?”). All of which is despite the fact I’ve spent the entire day tired, due to the previous night’s restless mind chatter.
I’ve had sleep problems for as long as I can remember, and the alertness I feel when I’ve just got into bed is undoubtedly the core of my vicious circle of sleep deprivation.
Over the years, I’ve tried multiple ways to fix my sleep. Blue light filters, CBD oils, CBT courses. You name it, I’ve done it. Most haven’t made the slightest bit of difference. So as much as I try to approach The Seven-Day Sleep Prescription with an open mind, it is more with weary cynicism that I open the book.
I begin on a Sunday. Granted, my wake-up routine is erratic. During the week, the time I get up depends on whether I am going into the office or working from home, and what is the point of the weekend if not to lie in?
But the earliest time I ever get up is 7.15am, so on Saturday evening, I reluctantly set my alarm. The wake-up is pure, unadulterated hell and I spend the day exhausted and grumpy. (Once again, apologies to all those who interacted with me).
Day two and four both offer practical ways to de-stress. I like the accountability and I enjoy writing down problems/solutions on a piece of paper. Folding it up is deliciously satisfying and although I do still ruminate that night, it might just be a tiny bit less.
I’m fascinated by the idea of sticking my head in the freezer, as the afternoon slump is such an affliction for me that it has become part of my identity (I’m half Spanish: my DNA cries out for a siesta). The exercise falls on a day I’m in the (freezer-less) office, so I try putting my forearms in the bathroom sink. There is no plug, so letting the not-that-cold water run over my arms doesn’t quite have the desired effect. However, the following day I try the freezer method at home and must say it does give a remarkable boost.
I’m pleased to read about the wind-down – for once, it’s something I was already doing right. As for that alertness switch? Given that I’d always thought improving my sleep means getting into bed earlier, doing the opposite is revolutionary. It has probably been the single most transformative thing I’ve done for my sleep – I’ve since stopped having such restless nights.
Towards the end of the week, a new kind of tiredness begins to seep in. Staying up late, my final task, is difficult, despite being a Saturday night. But that’s the point. It’s not perfect, but that night I have the best sleep I can remember for a long time.