How to optimize your bedtime routine based on your work life
By Michael Breus
July 02, 2018
There’s a decent chance that your evenings typically go like this: You sit around on the couch until you can’t keep your eyes open in front of the TV or your laptop or tablet. Then you sit up, sigh deeply, and head to the bathroom to brush your teeth. Then you collapse into bed. About half the time, it’s easy to fall asleep pretty quickly. The other half, you lie there staring at the ceiling, swearing that you were just falling asleep a moment ago and trying in vain to slide back into that blissful slumber.
Here’s the thing to remember, though: Sleep is not an “on/off” switch. It’s more like slowly pulling your foot off the gas, and slowly applying pressure onto the brake instead. Ideally, that process should take about 15–20 minutes, but as a sleep specialist I’ve developed a 60-minute “power-down hour” that goes like this: An hour before your bedtime (if you don’t know what your bedtime should be, check out my bedtime calculator here), set an alarm on your phone–or better yet, in your bedroom itself–and crank the volume, so you really can hear it all over the house. It will force you to go into your bedroom to remind you it’s time for bed. Then split up that hour into three 20-minute stages:
Stage 1: Use the first 20 minutes to wrap up anything that must get done before tomorrow.
Stage 2: Use the next 20 minutes for your hygiene routine.
Stage 3: Use the last 20 min for some type of meditation or relaxation.
This technique has worked well for all my patients, but it’s possible to adapt each of these stages depending on your personality, work habits, and lifestyle. Here are four personalized power-down hours (or PPDH for short) optimized for a few common types of professional:
If you’re an athlete or health nut
Because you prioritize fitness, you generally sleep pretty well (unless you overtrain, which can lead to insomnia). Your PPDH might look something like this:
Stage 1: Get out your exercise gear for your early-morning run or workout. Lay out your supplements, water bottle, and any other workout accessories you’ll need so everything is ready to roll as soon as you wake up.
Stage 2: Do all your normal bathroom stuff, but add in a hot 15-minute bath, not a mildly warm one. Research suggests that raising your core temperature and then allowing it to naturally drop can aid falling asleep. Also consider adding some lavender Epsom salts to help relax those tired, aching muscles.
Stage 3: Get in bed and do a few stretches to loosen up your limbs. You might want to listen to a podcast in the dark, perhaps using a pillow speaker, while you drift off to sleep.
If you’re a busy traveler
Because you’re often on the go, your sleep is critical and can get messed up quickly. Try to avoid alcohol at your client dinner, or limit it to one drink early on, since alcohol will keep you out of deep, physically restorative sleep.
Stage 1: Fire off those last few emails (10 minutes max), and make a quick call home (10 minutes) to check in with loved ones. Double-check that the hotel alarm clock wasn’t left set by whoever had the room before you. If need be, request a wake-up call.
Stage 2: You’re probably used to getting ready for bed quickly no matter where you find yourself, but hopefully you’ve brought along a traveling sleep kit (which might include earplugs, eye mask, blue-blocking glasses, your own pillow) which should be on your bed by now. Use this extra time to review your day, and if there are any thoughts you want to get out of your head from your dinner, or ideas for next day work, write them down (otherwise you may have anxiety all night long thinking about them).
Stage 3: It’s time to chill, so watch TV. (Yes, it’s okay to watch TV to fall asleep! Just make sure to set the TV timer so it’ll eventually turn off.) But if that’s not your thing, try a downloading a meditation or guided-imagery app to listen to instead. Some light stretching before bed might also be helpful.
If you’re a multitasking parent
You are utterly exhausted. After you’ve finally gotten the kids down and maybe had a glass of wine, you can barely keep your eyes open. No worries! You’re at liberty to shorten you PPDH to 30 minutes altogether, made up of three 10-minute stages:
Mini-stage 1: Do one or two quick things that will make your life easier in the morning: Preassemble the kids’ lunches, find their shoes or sports equipment, or make sure their backpacks are ready to go and waiting by the door. Or maybe you can lay out cereal bowls for the morning, or just walk the dog.
Mini-stage 2: Dim the lights, including in the bathroom if possible, so you can avoid that sleep-disrupting blue light (you might even want to put on blue-blocking glasses). Then take a hot eight-minute shower, and leave a couple of minutes to change into your pajamas.
Mini-stage 3: You probably won’t need long to fall asleep, but these last 1o minutes are a nice chance to do some evening reflection or meditation, maybe give your partner a relaxing massage (or receive one!), or just do something that helps you really take a load off. But if you’re an anxious person, now is not the time for self-reflection, it’s time for distraction, like a half TV episode or catching a few scenes in a movie you like on Netflix (here, too, remember to set the TV turn-off timer). And once again, try wearing blue-blocking glasses if you do choose to squeeze in a bit of screen time.
If you’re a sedentary desk worker
You’ve been sitting or standing at your desk all day and not getting a ton of sunlight or physical activity. Now it’s time for bed–what can you do?
Stage 1: Plan your exercise for the next day, even if you can only take a walk for 20 minutes at lunchtime. Look up classes you can take at your gym tomorrow (or use this period to research gym memberships if you don’t already have one). Get everything ready for your morning so you can sleep in as late as possible. Maybe draw up your to-do list for tomorrow.
Stage 2: Dim the lights, and get ready for bed. If your hygiene routine doesn’t take the full 20 minutes, use the extra 10 in Stage 3.
Stage 3: Get comfy, cool, and relax. Listen to a funny podcast, read something fictional (nonfiction tends to keep us alert), play solitaire on your phone (you guessed it: with those blue-blockers on), meditate, pray, or do whatever helps settle your mind.