Of the more than 200 columns I wrote for Inc.com last year, by far the two top performers were about how to get better sleep. I wasn’t too surprised by this. My research revealed Americans in general have been struggling with sleep since the pandemic disrupted our lives, and entrepreneurs are clearly among those desperate to feel more rested. I took the success of those articles as a sign that a lot of you need more sleep advice.
But according to a fascinating article in the UK Guardian by sleep coach Camilla Stoddart maybe I shouldn’t pat myself on the back for spreading the word about tricks and techniques to beat your insomnia. According to Stoddart, pretty much all the advice out there suggesting things like avoiding screens and taking warm baths before bed isn’t just useless, it’s actually harmful to getting a good night’s sleep.
Nearly everything you’ve heard about how to sleep better is wrong.
Stoddart’s advice rests on a basic but counterintuitive truth about sleep. “Unlike almost every other area of life, effort is not rewarded,” she writes. “The more you try, the less you are likely to succeed.”
Sleep, she explains, is a passive process like digestion. You can’t force it. Sleep only comes when you are tired and relaxed. Which means that most active measures you take to sleep better will be counterproductive if they cause you to stress about how you’d really like to be asleep.
|Insomnia is like a Chinese finger trap which grips tighter the more you pull your finger away,” Stoddart warns. What works instead? Stoddart’s complete article is jam packed with refreshingly simple if unexpected advice, but here are her main points:
Think long term: “There are no quick fixes, so instead of worrying about the night ahead, make sleeping well a long-term goal and expect to see progress in a few weeks,” she writes. Sorry, that means tonight probably won’t be magically better than last night, but on the bright side, you also aren’t doomed to be insomniac forever.
Focus on your schedule. Stoddart claims that only two factors really matter when it comes to sleeping better: sleep drive (good for sleep) and hyperarousal (bad for sleep). You will not sleep unless you are sleepy, and the only reliable way to be sleepier at bedtime is to consistently get up reasonably early and then not go to bed until at least 16 hours after you wake up.
Enjoy the hours you are awake. Stressing about sleep leads straight to hyperarousal and even less sleep. So if you find yourself awake at an unexpected hour, no miserable tossing and turning allowed. “Do something that genuinely gives you pleasure like listening to a comedy podcast or an audiobook, watching old family videos or doing Wordle,” Stoddart advises.
Chill with the elaborate routines. If you like whatever elaborate pre-bedtime routine you currently have, continue. But if you are only journaling or doing deep breathing exercises out of a sense of responsibility, just stop. To the relief of many, Stoddart insists that the best way to sleep better is to make bedtime enjoyable again: “Reclaim your evenings and spend the time doing relaxing things you actually like doing, such as watching TV in bed or scrolling through Instagram reels. It isn’t the blue light from the screen that is keeping you awake, it is anxiety about whether you will sleep or not.”
Don’t read articles about sleep. It’s not in my self interest to pass this piece of advice along, but Stoddart says that reading endless sleep advice won’t actually help you sleep more.
All of this sounds straightforward and pleasant. So pleasant and straightforward in fact that I suspect many strivers out there will worry it can’t possibly be right. I’d point folks like this to studies showing that, in pre-modern societies without access to distracting Netflix shows or even electricity, people only get something like 6.5 hours of sleep a night on average. Just a few hundred years ago, sleep was largely bi-phasic, meaning it was routine for folks to get up for a few hours in the middle of the night and putter around their houses or even visit neighbors.
A solid eight hours a night is a modern invention, not a biological necessity. Yes, many people these days don’t get enough sleep (my alarm goes off at an ungodly hour each morning to get my kid to school on time, so I feel you), but the true mark of a sleep problem isn’t any particular sleep pattern, it’s feeling exhausted during the day.
So ease up on the guilt and sleep perfectionism. You are free to build a sleep routine that suits you. According to Stoddart the way to do that is to let go of your anxiety and a whole bunch of pop culture sleep advice. Just focus on your body and your happiness instead.
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