Sleep: fix the habit that makes the most difference

Exhausted man sleeping
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Bill needs to improve his sleep habits. Over the past year, fatigue has caused a cascade of problems in every area of his life. So if he tackles the one habit that makes the most difference, he’ll make lasting changes. But if he doesn’t solve this core problem, he’ll be stuck for years in the same vicious cycle.

Does this sound like you? Do you have one bad habit that sets off all your other bad habits? Fix that one habit and see the others improve too.

Learn how Bill identifies which issue he needs to work on first. Then continue reading to see how he tackles his core problem – sleep. Can you tweak the process he uses and apply it to your situation? You may not be a gamer like Bill, but you may spend hours on some other activity that keeps you up far too late. And we’ve all fallen into poor habits like drinking too much caffeine, not exercising, and ignoring relaxation strategies.

1 Tackle the key issue first

Bill knows improving his sleep will have flow-on effects in other areas of life. So to motivate himself, he lists all the benefits of good sleep. When he slips back into old habits (which he will), this list will remind him why he needs to persist with changes.

Better sleep will allow him to:

1 work efficiently on complex projects at work
2 focus on his studies and pass with good grades
3 be more present in the evenings with his wife Lisa
4 have more energy to pursue meaningful interests
5 increase his fitness and well-being so he can enjoy life fully
6 help reduce the risk of some preventable diseases.

Now he needs to work out what’s causing him to be so tired.

2 Brainstorm solutions

The obvious cause of Bill’s tiredness is going to bed too late. But he has to find out what’s causing this habit. Otherwise, he’ll only solve half the problem.

Bill realises he delays going to bed because he takes ages to fall asleep. But what’s causing this difficulty in getting to sleep? If he can work this out, he’s on the road to solving his sleep problems.

With the help of some brainstorming, he decides he has trouble falling asleep because:

1 Playing video games late at night gets his adrenalin going.
2 His heart’s already racing because he drinks so much caffeine late in the day.
3 He delays going to bed because he dreads tossing and turning for hours.
4 His body is tense because he’s worrying about his bad work performance.
5 He worries that Lisa is upset he doesn’t spend much time with her.
6 He’s angry that others keep dumping more work on him.
7 Worrying and getting angry fire him up, so he can’t relax.

So Bill now has some ideas about what he needs to work on to sleep better.

3 Uncover hidden beliefs

But before Bill does anything, he has to uncover what he believes about his gaming. If he doesn’t, he won’t really fix his sleep.

So he takes more notice of what he’s thinking when he’s gaming at night. He realises he barely takes any notice when Lisa says good night. And that for about 10 minutes afterwards, he ignores the reminders his brain sends him about going to bed.

So what enables him to flick these messages away?

After thinking about this more deeply, he learns when he’s gaming:

1 He’s on autopilot, fully immersed in his game, and resents any interruptions.

2 This suggests he believes he “should be left alone to enjoy his game.”

3 He also thinks he “shouldn’t miss out on his gaming even if he’s too tired,” because:

4 “He deserves this time as a reward for working hard all day.”

Now, Bill needs to come to grips with these beliefs. If he just shifts his gaming times without dealing with these beliefs, he’ll soon lapse back into old habits.

4 Modify beliefs and behaviours

So Bill needs to have a look at his behaviours and beliefs about gaming, to see if he can change them slightly.

Bill acknowledges he wants to keep gaming for hours in the evenings without interruption. But he can also see that Lisa is hurt he cuts himself off from her for so long. Stubbornly hanging on to his belief that he shouldn’t miss out on gaming in the late evenings is causing a range of problems with sleep, work and home.

So Bill decides to play for shorter times earlier in the evening. Rather than telling himself he’s missing out, he thinks of how this change will help both his relationship and well-being. He can use the extra time to reconnect with Lisa, and to do enjoyable activities that will help him relax before bedtime. And he can always play for short times over the weekends as well.

5 Control the environment

Before he starts playing in the evenings, Bill sets his phone alarm for a certain length of time. He then commits to stopping when the alarm goes off. That commitment primes his brain to change focus when it’s time to stop.

Secondly, he puts his phone on the other side of the room. By having to get up to turn the alarm off, he’s more likely to break out of autopilot mode. Then he can think more clearly about his choices, and move into doing other activities more easily.

Next to his phone, Bill puts photos of himself and Lisa enjoying a walk in a local forest. He also has a card with clear statements such as:

Shut your game down right now.
Lisa will be pleased if you do.
It’s time to wind down and relax.
Go and listen to some jazz right now.
You’ll focus better tomorrow if you’re not tired.
You can play again tomorrow.
You won’t miss out.

6 Change dread into acceptance

Without judging himself, Bill also acknowledges his dread of tossing and turning in bed. His GP informs him that relaxation, slow breathing and creative visualisation exercises will keep his mind occupied if he’s lying awake. That means he’ll be less likely to focus on the annoyance of not being able to sleep, or on various work issues that make him feel angry.

When he’s more relaxed and accepting of lying awake in bed, his heart rate will fall. Ironically, by calmly accepting being awake for a while, he’ll fall asleep more easily. If he were to continue getting agitated about not sleeping, his body would be in a state of arousal due to the extra adrenalin being produced. Then he’d really find it hard to fall asleep.

7 Add helpful behaviours

So Bill adds in a range of other lifestyle changes that will help with his sleep.

a) Relaxation strategies

As mentioned, he uses slow breathing and relaxation strategies at night. He also finds them useful to relax through the working day. By evening, he’s more relaxed and less wound up than previously.

b) Reward for working so hard

Bill still wants a reward for working so hard. So as mentioned above, mid-evening he listens to some laid-back jazz and looks through photography magazines.

c) Exercise

When Bill’s not studying, he and Lisa go walking after dinner. Exercise also helps him sleep more deeply, so he takes every chance he can through the day to walk round the office.

d) Strict bedtime routine

Bill and Lisa go to bed at the same time every night – even on weekends. They also get up at the same time every morning. His decision to stop gaming earlier in the evening has helped him develop a more helpful bedtime routine. Now his brain knows when it’s time to start winding down.

8 Other lifestyle changes

Bill knows there are plenty of other tweaks he can make to improve his energy levels through the day. Not sleeping well triggered a range of poor habits that, in turn, caused him to sleep even more badly. This then set up a vicious cycle that was hard to break.

So he reviews his daily routines, and decides on the following actions.

a) Lower caffeine intake from afternoon onwards

Firstly, he decides to lower his coffee consumption. He only has two coffees in the morning, but several in the afternoon. Over several weeks, he gradually cuts out one coffee at a time, starting with the latest one in the day.

It takes him several months to cut down to just his two morning coffees, but he notices his heart now beats more slowly in the evening. Whenever he craves caffeine after lunchtime, he goes for a quick walk round the office or does some exercises at home.

b) Eat healthy food regularly

Secondly, Bill sets an silent alarm on his phone to remind him to have lunch every day. Because he’s not so tired, he’s less tempted to eat sugary or fatty comfort foods, and makes healthier choices instead. In addition, he brings nuts, yogurt and fruit instead of chocolate for snacks.

c) Use mindfulness to track mood

Thirdly, Bill uses mindfulness to keep tabs on any unhelpful thoughts and emotions that pop up. This lets him notice immediately his motivation to keep up all these changes drops. Then he reminds himself how well he’s progressing and that he needs to keep going.

In addition, mindfulness helps him notice when he’s feeling angry or worried about issues at work. He can then take action to sort out what’s bothering him, instead of stewing and getting more and more agitated.

d) Learn assertiveness skills

Lastly, Bill realises he needs assertiveness skills to deal with staff who try to take advantage of his good nature. Assertiveness helps him state his concerns without getting angry or wound up. And anything that helps him stay calm during the day is going to help him sleep better at night.

9 Notice and act on lapses

Bill doesn’t make all of these changes at once. He brings in one new strategy at a time, so he’s not overwhelmed. But he soon sees some improvement in his sleep patterns after making only a few changes. Of course, sometimes he slips back into old habits. But he notices straight away and recommits to his plan as soon as possible.

However he doesn’t get annoyed with himself for slipping up. Everyone struggles to keep up new habits. Why should he be any different?

So he’s not surprised or upset when he forgets his new strategies for a few days. He doesn’t think he’s hopeless and that he’ll never change. Instead, he just picks up where he left off, without any fuss.

10 Tick the boxes

To make sure he does stay on track, Bill lists the new habits he’s added to his lifestyle. This makes it less likely he’ll forget his plan. Each day, he ticks off the strategies he’s done, which makes him feel good. And he can also see which ones seem harder to do. Then he works out what would make them easier in future.

Be patient; take small steps

It’s taken time and patience to pinpoint what was affecting Bills’ sleep and energy levels.

But he feels so much better, that now he’s determined to keep up these lifestyle changes. He also knows he’ll backslide at times. But that’s no excuse to give up. All he has to do is get back onto his plan. No big deal.

Tackle roadblocks

See if you can adapt the above strategies to your own situation. Brainstorm to find ways to tackle each roadblock you come across. Take small actions, one after another, to achieve your goals.

Tweak what you’re doing to make it more effective. Experiment with small changes until it works for you. That way, you’ll master that one habit that makes the most difference.

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