I’ve remarked before how strange it is that one of the conditions of being human is that we have to collapse into unconsciousness for a long stretch of each day.
This condition non-negotiable. If we try to ignore this basic requirement, we quickly become dull and irritable, and eventually start hallucinating and going mad. Even though we can’t opt-out of the need to sleep, we often shrink it, delay it, shave it down at either end, or complicate it with drugs and artificial light.
Everyone has their own private relationship with sleep. For some people, slipping into unconsciousness is the easiest and most gratifying part of everyday life. For others it’s a confoundingly difficult thing to do—stress keeps you awake too long, and staying awake too long makes you stressed. Some people go to sleep easily but wake up at 3:40am, alert as a hawk, and know that’s all the sleep they’re getting that day. Others espresso their way through the workweek on four or five hours a night, and sleep till 1pm on the weekends.
Our relationship with sleep is central to our lives, yet for many of us it’s a neglected or strained one. Unlike many other kinds of relationships, we can never walk away from it. Our only option is to improve it.
I just read Patricia Marx’s article “In Search of Forty Winks” in which she and several sleep-dysfunctional colleagues auditioned over a dozen increasingly ridiculous commercial sleep aids. They tried a FitBit-like device that’s supposed to mildly electro-shock you into a relaxed state; a set of earplugs meant to mask your partner’s snoring with a waterfall sound; an “ostrich pillow”—a stuffed, balloon-shaped garment which fits over your head like a swollen medieval cowl (with mouth holes of course); and a battery-powered face-vibrator that reduces the appearance of your dark circles when all of these sleep aids inevitably fail.
None of these inventions seemed to solve anyone’s sleep problems, but they did a good job of illustrating the desperate measures people will take in order to get a better sleep.
After reading about the experiences of others, I feel like my own relationship to sleep must not be that bad. I have never resorted to anything like an ostrich pillow. Recently I’ve been getting about 6-7 hours a night, which I think is a little less than optimal for me. Fortunately, I don’t usually have trouble falling asleep, and when I do, I can usually trace it to a foolish caffeine-related decision I made that day.
But my sleep quality does vary. Some weeks I have mostly fitful sleeps, waking up frequently, often in the middle of aggressive or stressful dreams, but I can always go back to sleep in a few seconds. Other times my sleep is deep and easy. I do always wake up several times though, and I am having trouble determining how normal that is. I almost never sleep for seven hours straight. (Does anyone? I really have no idea.)
It is remarkably difficult to find any reliable information on what an optimal sleep situation is like. But I know what I’d like my sleeps to be like: deeper, more restful, with fewer interruptions. I want to feel like I was gone for a while. I sometimes have those kinds of sleeps, I believe they are better for me, and I want to see what conditions allow for them.
So I’m going to do a fairly extensive sleep experiment. I know I need a bit more sleep than I’ve been getting, and I’ll aim for seven to seven and a half hours a night, tracking the actual amount every day. But what I’m really interested in are how other factors affect sleep, namely caffeine, darkness, sound, abstinence from electronic screens, and meditating before bed.
For five weeks, I’ll be tracking my sleep every day. I’ll record when I go to sleep, when I get up, approximately how many times I wake up during the night, and the general quality of the sleep (using a rating from 0 to 5). I’ll also record caffeine and alcohol intake, and any other complicating factors, such as unusual amounts of stress, or loud neighbors. I’ll be aiming for the better side of 7 hours a night.
I’ve got an app I can use to record all of this data. It also tracks how much you move during sleep, which is a useful-enough way of determining how restless the sleep was, as well as the number and length of your deep-sleep cycles. You can also rate the quality of your sleep subjectively. It can even track instances of snoring and auto-record any talking in your sleep. There’s going to be quite a bit of data.
Later I can enter this data in a spreadsheet and see if there are any obvious relationships. Maybe when I cut caffeine off at 2pm, I sleep longer and wake up less often. Maybe when I go to bed earlier, my sleep is more restful, even if it’s the same duration. I don’t know anything yet but I’m looking forward to finding some patterns. This isn’t going to be super-scientific, but it will be the most analytical of my experiments so far.
Throughout the five weeks, I’ll be adjusting different sleep-relevant variables in my routine.
Here’s the schedule, roughly:
Week 1: (Feb 29 to March 6)
- A few control days, where I only track everything and don’t change anything.
- A few days where I make my bedroom as dark as possible.
- A few days with earplugs
- A few days with earplugs and maximum darkness
- A few days with a short meditation session right before bed
- A few days with no electronic screens at least an hour before sleep
- A few days with no caffeine after 2pm
- A few days with no caffeine at all
- A few days with a longer overall sleeping time (8 hours instead of 7)
- A few days with some yet-to-be-determined difference
I’ll be reporting in diary form on the experiment log page here, and posting actual data periodically. At the end,I’ll report on what I’ve found with a lot of colorful charts and graphs, and maybe some genuine insight.
As always, if you want to do something similar alongside my experiment, I’d love to hear what you’re discovering. The app I’m using is called Sleep as Android but there are quite a few others out there. Sleep is such a private thing, and we rarely talk about it in detail with others, so I think we could learn a lot from each other.
Have a good sleep.