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In honor of the National Sleep Foundation’s National Sleep Awareness Week, this week’s weekend challenge is all about just that: sleep.

As we previously discussed, sleep is often hard to come by. Whether it’s lacking in quality or quantity, many of us do not get adequate sleep to leave us feeling rested and energized or protect and promote our physical and mental health as it’s intended to.

So, because “practice makes perfect” (as they say), this weekend, we’re going to practice sleep.

But not to perfection.

“Perfect” anything is a nonstarter for me.  Perfection is based on an unrealistic set of expectations about how something should or should not look or be, set by others, like society or the media or your judgmental Aunt Phyllis. But because we’re all different, there is no real one standard perfect anything. And because life is messy and we can’t control or account for everything, even a personalized “perfect” is unrealistic.  Nothing happens in a vacuum, including sleep.

I mean, come on; have you ever tried to sleep while there’s a vacuum running?  Or maybe you’re a sleep-vacuumer?  Wouldn’t be such a problem with one of those super quiet Dyson’s.  Maybe I should just get a Roomba.

Wait, what were we talking about again?  Oh right.  Back to my point.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. And sleep is no exception.

Like with most things in life, there are so many variables that differentiate your sleep from anyone else’s.  Some people are more efficient sleepers than others, meaning they reap the restorative and energizing aspects associated with 8 hours of sleep in just 6, and thus need less quantity of sleep.  Some people are more restless sleepers than others, which diminishes the quality of any given 1 hour of sleep to the quality of maybe only 45min. worth, thus requiring them to need a larger quantity of sleep.  Some people have longer sleep cycles than others, which can then interplay with the former two variables into a whole range of sleep qualities and quantities.  And some people are more sensitive to sleep deficits than others, or have sleep apnea, or depression, or anxiety, or insomnia, or allergies, or a cold, or a noisy neighbor, or a newborn, or a toddle,r or a sick toddler, or a sick toddler and a newborn and an early rising six year old.

Practice makes good enough.

And good enough sleep means getting the amount and quality of sleep that you personally need most of the time, according to you.  Not according to your neighbor, or the special executive council on perfect sleep, or even me.  These can be great sources for guidance and information on what role sleep plays in your overall well-being and health, as well as what we’ve learned so far about what that might look like, but at the end of the day, it’s all about you.

So this is where that practice comes in.

  1. Learn how much sleep you naturally need.

woman sleepingIn theory, aka: a vacuum, this can be as simple as going to sleep without setting an alarm, allowing yourself to just wake up when you wake up.  But if you are sleep deprived, your body may take the opportunity to catch up on sleep and sleep longer than you would regularly need. Or your habituated internal clock may wake you before you’ve fully rested.  Or your 4 year old may “gently” rouse you for breakfast.  Once you are getting your 7 or 8 hours each most nights over a 5-7 day period, revisit the waking without an alarm exercise: go to bed 30 min earlier than your newly adjusted bedtime and wake naturally without an alarm (or be woken by your 4 year old).  By this point, you are likely more rested enough sleep to consider however long you slept for to be your natural sleep need. 

Instead, use the 7 or 8 hour rule (your call) as a benchmark to get you started.  Keeping your wake time about the same each day, adjust your bedtime up by 15 or 30 min each night until you are getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep.  Research shows that standardizing wake time vs. bed time better improves sleep quality and quantity, because your internal clock will help naturally adjust when you get tired at night to allow for the amount of sleep you need.  Supporting this with the gradual adjustments to your bed time is also important; jumping into bed an hour and half earlier to ensure you get 7 hours may leave you struggling to fall asleep because your body isn’t used to being ready to relax yet.

2. Adjust for good enough sleep.

alarm clock waking up early

If your work or kids or neighbor requires you to be up at 5:00am, logging 8 hours means you had to adjust your bedtime up to 9:00pm, and this likely isn’t a realistic time for you to be calling it a day.  Adjust as needed, shooting to get about as much sleep as you naturally need most nights, with about an hour of variance above or below your target hours.  For example, my natural sleep need is 9 hours, so I shoot to get at least 7.5-8 hours and no more than 10.5 hours of sleep any given night of the week.  (Oversleeping is just as unhelpful when it comes to sleep maintenance, as you’ve likely noticed when the alarm rings Monday morning after a weekend of sleeping-in.)  This hour-ish increment is small enough that we can adjust down when life needs us up earlier or adjust up when it permits us to stay in bed longer without disrupting the internal clock we need most days.

Of course, there are nights when this all goes out the window and I barely clock 4 hours of shut-eye, or I sleep in many more than 1.5 hours past my usual wake time.  But because I have learned how much being sleep deprived impacts me personally, including my mood, productivity, energy, eating habits, etc., maintaining and protecting good enough sleep is one of the essential aspects of my self-care.  And, if it’s what you need, now it can be for you, too.