Sleep talk

This week I received a message from a friend who had watched Matt Walker’s TED talk, Sleep is your Superpower, which I shared in the Ideas Community a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen the talk, you’ll know that it focuses on the harmful effects of not getting enough sleep. However, as my friend pointed out, many people know they’re not getting enough sleep – but that doesn’t help them to fix the problem. In fact, the anxiety provoked by knowing you need more sleep but aren’t managing to get it can be yet another cause of insomnia.

So I offered to see what I could find out about practical ways we can help ourselves sleep better. What makes it easier to drift off in the first place – and how can we get back to sleep when we find ourselves unexpectedly awake, minds racing? Here’s what I found:


Doing moderate- or high-intensity aerobic or resistance exercise during the day can help to improve quality of sleep in people who are experiencing sleep problems. Even regular episodes of low-intensity exercise (such as walking) can make a significant difference to someone’s ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep they get. Exercise can also help us to feel better psychologically, meaning that we’re less likely to find ourselves awake as a result of anxiety.

The timing seems to be important. Exercising can elevate body temperature for up to 90 minutes afterwards, signalling to the brain that it’s time to be awake. The endorphin-release we get can also make some people feel livelier (and less sleepy) for a while afterwards too. So best to finish particularly vigorous workouts at least a couple of hours before heading off to bed. (Related info here and here)


We often focus on the amount of night-time sleep we’re getting and forget that daytime sleep counts too. Napping can be a great way to boost our sleep levels. Research findings suggest that 10-20 minutes during the early afternoon works best for most people. Some swear by the ‘nappuccino’ or ‘coffee nap’, which involves drinking coffee before taking a short nap, so that the caffeine is kicking in just as you wake. However, napping isn’t for everyone and can be counterproductive for some. (To find out more, here’s a great article on the subject, plus a blog post I wrote exploring the topic in more detail.)


Having regular times for going to bed and getting up not only makes it easier for our bodies to know what to expect and respond accordingly but also helps us to do better work when we’re awake. Occasional lie-ins to make up for lost sleep can be useful for some, but where possible it is best to get up at the same time each day, so as to avoid confusing our circadian rhythm (or internal clock).

Creating a pre-bedtime routine that helps us to wind down and adjust to sleep mode can be helpful. This might involve setting aside time for listening to music, reading, meditation, breathing exercises, physical relaxation techniques such as body scanning, or taking a bath or shower. Beforehand, it can help to make a note of anything on your mind that feels unfinished or worrying. By writing down everything you need to remember and reassuring yourself that you will look at what you’ve written first thing in the morning and take care of it then, you can help to bypass the Zeigarnik effect. I wrote a blog post on the subject here.


Our circadian rhythms are easily affected by light exposure – specifically, how much light we encounter, what kind and when. Living in an artifically-lit environment can affect our production of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and confuse our internal body clocks, which are still evolutionarily primed to work best in natural light. In order to sleep well, it helps to:

  • get plenty of bright daylight, especially during the morning and early afternoon (which can be supplemented by light from a light box during the darker months if necessary).
  • avoid anything that generates blue light (such as phones, TVs and computer screens) for a couple of hours before going to bed. Blue light is proven to stimulate brain activity and wakefulness -which is great during the day, but not so great when you’re wanting to switch off.
  • keep the bedroom dark (by using blackout blinds if necessary, or replacing digital alarm clocks with analogue ones).


Our behaviour is sensitive to environmental cues and we can help ourselves to sleep better by ‘nudging’ ourselves in the direction we want to go. For example, if we want to sleep when we’re in bed (rather than lying awake, thinking), we can help to form that association by keeping mentally stimulating activities out of the bedroom. Watching TV in bed may feel like a relaxing thing to do, but it can easily compromise the quality of the subsequent night’s sleep. If there’s a phone by the bed, we can find ourselves checking for messages out of habit when we stir during the night, and then finding ourselves wide awake, even though it’s still 3am. So keeping it in a different room overnight – or at the very least, putting it so far away from the bed that you can’t reach it without some considerable effort – can help.

Dim bedside lighting, a cool temperature (ideally around 65-70° F or 18-20° C), good ventilation, a comfortable mattress and pillows, and a quiet environment (or earplugs) can all help too. (More on how to create the optimum conditions for sleep here.)

Food and drink:

What we eat and drink, particularly in the hours before bed, can have a significant effect on how well we sleep. The general recommendations seem to be:

  • avoid going to bed hungry
  • don’t eat heavily immediately before bed
  • don’t drink so much that you’ll need to get up in the night
  • avoid caffeinated drinks in the six hours before bedtime
  • take care with alcohol, as it can help you to get to sleep but has a detrimental effect on overall sleep quality
  • try snacking on melatonin-containing foods such as almonds, walnuts and bananas or relaxing with warm milky drinks or herbal teas if you’re in need of a little something before bed

Night-time waking:

If you find yourself awake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the advice is to get up and go into another room for a little while. Keep the lighting low. Do something gentle and not-too-stimulating. Perhaps make a warm drink and cuddle up on the sofa with a blanket and a book or some relaxing music. If you have worries on your mind, write them down and reassure yourself that you’ll tackle them in the morning, when you’re fully awake again. If you find yourself starting to feel sleepy – go back to bed and let yourself focus simply on relaxing. Who knows, you might just get a little more sleep – but even if you don’t, you’ve taken good care of yourself and allowed your body to rest.

There are so many more ideas I could include. But for now, I’d love to know – what helps you to sleep? How do you cope with night-time waking? Do you have any tips to share? If so, it would be great to hear from you!

An afternoon ‘reboot’

Image ©Cardigan&Mac .

When I was growing up, my parents always napped after lunch. Each day at 1:30pm they were to be found fast asleep in their respective armchairs, rugs upon their knees and the television murmuring quietly in the background. At the time I didn’t realise that they were unusual in doing so – that most people didn’t work from home and couldn’t nap even if they wanted to – and it came as quite a surprise to discover that napping wasn’t a universal practice.

Like many people I went through a phase of wanting to do everything as differently from my parents as possible, so for a while I was a determined non-napper, using caffeine, sugar and sheer obstinacy to help me through the saggy bit of the afternoon. However, in recent years my behaviour has started to change – largely because I can’t help but notice that a brief period of sleep has the most extraordinarily restorative effect on me. It’s like an afternoon ‘reboot’. In just the same way I might try turning electronic devices off and on again when they start malfunctioning, I find that I think better, feel happier and am more creative and resourceful after just a few minutes of switched-off-ness. And it seems I’m not alone…

It seems that the length of nap is all important. In this study, researchers found that the optimum nap length is 10 minutes. Much shorter and the associated benefits (improved cognitive ability, increased vigour and reduced fatigue) don’t show up. Much longer and there’s a risk of experiencing ‘sleep inertia’ – waking in a state of confusion, mental fogginess and exhaustion. 

This study suggests that early afternoon is the best time for a nap and that napping regularly works better than occasionally.

It’s also worth knowing that very frequent or long-lasting daytime naps can be associated with reduced mental and physical health (more here).

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing he explores the subject in detail, including a description of how to take the perfect ‘nappuccino’ – a coffee/snooze combination that seems to bring the greatest benefits of any type of nap.

So, after all these years, I’m beginning to think that my parents were onto something with their little siesta. How amused they’d be to hear me say that…

A night-time anxiety trick

For many years I would wake up and worry at 4am pretty much every day.

If I was lucky I’d eventually get a bit more sleep before my alarm went off, although it was generally the kind of sleep that left me feeling fuzzier and more tired than if I’d just stayed awake.

As habits go, it wasn’t a great one. You can probably imagine.

Anyway, I hadn’t done it for a long time…until this week. It was a surprise to experience it again after a good couple of years of not doing it at all.

I was briefly worried about the worrying. “What if it’s back for good?”, I thought – compounding the anxiety I was already feeling. And then I remembered that worrying about worrying definitely doesn’t help.

Fortunately, I remembered something that can.

Scheduling a better time to think. 

The problem with night-time worrying is that it tends to be exhausting and unlikely to result in a creative solution. I don’t know about you, but lying in bed in the dark feeling anxious and miserable is not where I do my best thinking.

Things that are really important deserve a better quality of problem solving. And things that aren’t that important generally reveal themselves as such in the daylight. So either way, it doesn’t make sense to try and worry your way to a solution at 4am.

However if you’ve ever tried telling yourself to stop worrying because it ‘doesn’t make sense’, you may have found that it doesn’t help much.

That’s because our brains are cleverly set up to keep reminding us of unresolved tasks to make sure they don’t get overlooked. There’s even an impressive-sounding name for the phenomenon. Once upon a time, the Zeigarnik effect probably helped us to avoid getting eaten or suffering hypothermia, but these days its little reminders are less likely to be life-preserving.

Anyway, one thing you can do is trick your mind into believing that a task has been resolved, so that it lets you stop thinking about it. You can do this by scheduling a specific time to take care of it later.

So that’s what I did. I promised myself some dedicated worry time later on (which in the light of day actually feels more like ‘creative thinking time’) so that I could look at the situation in detail. And I’m not sure what happened next, because I must have fallen asleep.

As with everything, different things work for different people. But if you ever find yourself doing night-time worrying, you might like to give this a try:

  • Make an appointment with yourself to think at a time that suits you better
  • Reassure yourself that the issue will be addressed fully then
  • Give yourself permission to let it go for now

As ever, I’m curious…do you have ways of managing worry too?

If so, what works for you?