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Experiment Log no. 31 — No Screens at Bedtime

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In this experiment I attempt to improve my sleep by renouncing screen usage after 9pm. This would be a major improvement over using my phone a LOT in the last hours of the day.

[Original post]

The terms are simple: no significant phone usage after 9:00pm, for 30 days, starting August 26 and ending September 25. Afterward I will reassess as usual. By “significant” phone usage, I mean picking up my phone to do something with it other than to reply to a text message (which I don’t receive many of after 9). I will not answer text messages in bed. I’m usually in bed by 10:30.

In the mean time I’ll give updates here every few days, describing my experience and rating my sleep quality with a letter grade. A+ means I couldn’t have had a better sleep. F means I had a majorly bad time, possibly getting up to make grilled cheese and watch a movie at 2am.

The Log

Day 1

Sleep duration: 7h 35m (22:45-6:20)

Sleep quality: C+

I really enjoyed my phoneless evening, and was amazed to notice how prominent the reflex was to pick it up for no reason whatsoever. I left it on the kitchen table to charge while I read a book. Going to sleep felt different. I did feel calmer, as though I really had wound down a little more than usual. I even had a bit of a nostalgic feeling about it, as though this is what it used to feel like to go to bed: the world is darker, slower, quieter at this time. Getting into bed felt more natural and I loved that the whole experience happened without seeing a screen.

The early part of my sleep was still not great. I felt my usual slightly-agitated feeling, which may be related to my medication — I might go off it for at some point to test that. I fell asleep easily enough, as I usually do, but woke up four or five times during the first two hours. After that, I felt like my sleep was pretty good and restful. I gave it a C+ instead of the usual C or C minus.

I did notice my nose became congested shortly after getting into bed, and I’m now wondering if respiration is the biggest factor in my crappy sleep of late. I’m reading about sleep apnea and the detrimental effects of mouth breathing and it is very enlightening so far.

Looking forward to the rest of this experiment. I didn’t miss using my phone after 9pm and in fact it was a relief to be done with it for the evening.

Day 2

Sleep duration 6h45

Sleep quality C-

I don’t stay up late very often, and the one semi-regular exception is when I visit a friend of mine in the south end of the city. I got home close to midnight and I always need some time to wind down before sleep. The trouble is, by midnight, it’s been six hours since I ate, and my stomach is empty, which gives me weird low blood sugar symptoms, which makes my body agitated and my sleep fitful. I refrained completely from snack foods and alcohol, which helped.

It wasn’t a great sleep. An average bad sleep. I wish the timing of my last meal before bed wasn’t important to my sleep quality, but it seems to be.

Not using my phone was easy, as I was with people the whole time, and when I got home I just read until I couldn’t read anymore, and slept.

Day 3

Sleep duration 7h15

Sleep quality C

I enjoyed my screenless evening again. I love reading in the evenings. It’s been such a long time since I’ve even tried, because I expected I’d be too drowsy to do it. This is what evenings used to be like, and it feels healthier.

I’m continuing to explore the subject of breathing while sleeping. There’s no question about it now — over the past year or two, I’ve begun to breathe through my mouth during sleep because of nasal congestion, and it is making my sleep worse. It imparts a sense of “can’t breathe” to the subject matter of my dreams, both literally and metaphorically, which I assume are direct responses to what my body is experiencing. I’ve got a slate of interventions to try — nasal strips, air purifier, a thorough dusting of my bedroom.

As far as the renunciation of screens in the evening, so far I would say I feel better while I’m awake, and I enjoy my day more with less phone time, but my sleep is about the same.

Day 4

Sleep duration 7h35

Sleep quality D-

Terrible night, which can probably be attributed to an unplanned ice cream cone. In the middle of a fifteen-mile evening bike ride with friends, someone suggested ice cream and I did not handle the situation deftly. This was a lapse of my dietary regimen (Saturday was my no-restrictions day) but I didn’t have a plan for this situation.

All night my body was agitated. My dreams were all stressful — lost passports, late assignments, general life-out-of-control feelings. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure it was the ice cream. I mentioned before that my nose becomes congested around the time I get into bed at night. I was watching for it, and the congestion seemed to begin as soon as I entered my bedroom. It’s not a well-ventilated room and certainly needs to be dusted. I will do that today and see how it is.

I used my phone very little last night, even before 9 (because I was on my bike) and used it only to answer a text, which is permissible. I am now mostly convinced the bigger factor in my sleep is respiration, because I woke up repeatedly, breathing through my mouth. Regardless of what reduced screen time does, I’m going to get to the bottom of my nocturnal breathing issue.

Day 5

Sleep duration 7h15 (est.)

Sleep quality C

The pattern continues — my sleep is fitful for the first few hours and then becomes deeper and more restful. Last night I spent three hours on a Zoom event before bed. I forgot my blue-light glasses, for what it’s worth. My sleep was a little better, which I attribute to busting out my humidifier again, which I use every night in the winter.

At this point I’m starting to wonder whether the screen time is more of an effect than a cause of my crappy sleep. I’m certain I have a breathing issue, and that it is affecting my sleep. Being tired from poor sleep might be leading to excess screen time, because I don’t have the motivation or wherewithal to do more productive things. It could also be both.

In any case, I’m exploring every avenue to improve my sleep, and there are a lot of variables here. The humidifier seemed to help. My bedroom in this place is pretty terrible — a forced air furnace blasts the driest air on earth into my room, and there’s no air return, just an output. The ceiling is low so there isn’t a lot of circulation. I always have a fan on for the white noise, as well as my little window open, but it’s still probably a poor space to sleep in generally. I might try sleeping in a different room.

My goal is to reduce my mind fog, so I’m going to try all of my tricks to get a better sleep.

Day 6

Sleep duration 7h55

Sleep quality B-

A longer sleep than usual, because I thought I was hitting snooze (another bad habit I should try to address) but actually turned the alarm off. The fact that I felt better rested may just be from giving myself more time to sleep.

That sounds really obvious but for some reason I refuse to believe it’s the answer. Something in my mind is committed to the idea that seven hours of good sleep is enough for me. Sleeping slightly later wreaks havoc on my delicate morning routine, which is right now the only thing anchoring my day in any way. If I don’t start the day in a predictable manner it falls apart quickly. This is the toxic combination of ADHD and inexplicable mind fog. So I’m not ready to let that go — in the mean time I think it’s better to get 7-7.5 hours of restful sleep instead of a larger amount of shitty sleep.

Anyway, I’m determined play with all known sleep variables during this experiment, even though that makes it harder to discern what works and what doesn’t. As long as the outcome is better sleep and less mind fog, I’m happy. Things I’m going to try:

  • Complete cleaning/dusting of bedroom
  • Sleeping in a different room
  • Sleeping with head closer to window
  • Stretching
  • Buying new pillows (mine are old now)

I’m going to learn something by the end of this. It also occurred to me that my medication might be adversely affecting my sleep, as it is a stimulant. I didn’t suspect that, because when I first started taking it my sleep seemed to improve, but there are people whose sleep is disrupted by this medication. I might take a few days off if I can do it without simultaneously changing any other variables.

***

Day 7

Sleep duration 7h10

Sleep quality C-

Dusted and cleaned the bedroom. Did not notice an improvement.

At this point I think the screen time probably isn’t the biggest factor, at least on a day-to-day level. I have reduced my screen time and I feel better about it in several ways. I’m reading more and I like the quieter evenings. But my sleep seems unaffected. From here on in I’m going to try at least one variable-change per night, running through the interventions I listed yesterday. I’ll also take a few days off my medication before the end of the experiment.

Day 8

Sleep duration 7h

Sleep quality D-

Atrocious sleep. Fitful all night long. I did deviate from my diet yesterday — unexpected treats from friends — which could explain it, not that bad sleep is unusual at this point.

One factor seemed to be the dripping sound the humidifier makes. I’ll see what happens if I turn it down.

Tonight I’m going to sleep in the living room, on an air mattress. I tend to sleep well on air mattresses, but that could be because that means I’m camping or traveling, and everything is different (and perhaps quieter). I do suspect that the room I’ve chosen to be my bedroom is just a bad place to sleep.

Regardless of my continued terrible sleep, I find the no-phones-after-9 regimen to work for me in a variety of ways. I am getting more sleep time in because I never fall down an internet-based rabbit hole right before bed (or in bed). So that much already is a success.

Day 9 – Fri Sept 3

Sleep duration 7h29

Sleep quality C+

I have enlisted the help of a sleep tracker app, which I think uses the microphone and accelerometer to detect snoring and disturbances during sleep. Each morning it shows you a graph of how deep or disturbed your sleep was, based on the noise and movement.

The graph does seem to represent how my sleep goes. I fall asleep quickly, dream for about half an hour, then wake up and go to the bathroom. Then I go back to sleep, and on good days don’t wake up (that I notice) until about 4am, then maybe wake up one more time before my alarm goes at 6:00. On bad days I seem to wake repeatedly. It will be interesting to see how those bad days go. Last night was a decent one.

I also forgot to try sleeping in a different room. I will do that this week for sure.

Day 10 Sat Sept 4

Sleep duration 7h25

Sleep Quality C

Not a bad night of sleep for a day on which I had both pizza and ice cream (the normal day a week I let loose dietwise). I got a lot of exercise during the day (epic bike ride) which probably helped, and had a nutritious dinner. I have a race tomorrow so I didn’t mess around with sleep variables.

Day 11Sun Sept 5

Sleep duration 7h30

Sleep quality B (!)

My first decent sleep! It might have had something to do with running a 10k race in the Manitoba Marathon Sunday morning. I ran an unexpectedly good race and it was a wonderful day. This was the first major race in Canada since the pandemic began, and it felt amazing to attend an event again. I ran with one my my best friends, saw a few other friends, and my sister and her husband both ran the marathon. The weather was excellent and the day was pretty magical altogether.

It got me thinking again about a hypothesis I don’t know if I’ve mentioned yet: part of my pandemic mind-fog (and maybe yours) might be from a lack of in-person social time, particularly being in groups of people. I know I’ve felt great — physically and spiritually — after a lively get-together with other real-life humans, something that has been happening more and more since the third wave peaked. Throughout the pandemic I’ve had a ton of one-on-one social time, but 90% of it is with the same four or five people. When I get together with a group, in a backyard or indoor venue, I always feel great after.

This morning, during meditation, I realized that the fog has indeed lifted noticeably. I could sustain an intention to practice, and it felt fruitful. Even though I’m currently out of the habit of long meditation sittings right now, I feel as though nothing’s stopping me. I’m going to schedule a good one for tomorrow.

So that’s a good sign. But I don’t know the cause of the improvement. My guess is that it’s primarily diet, because this change has happened gradually, but I suspect serious exercise and the presence of a crowd are also factors.

Tonight I’m finally going to sleep in the living room, to test my suspicion that my bedroom isn’t great room for sleep.

***

Day 12 – Mon Sept 6

Sleep duration – 6h39

Sleep quality B-

I went to bed late because we had our NFL fantasy draft go a bit late. Less sleep overall but the quality was pretty good. I didn’t wake up much and felt like I slept deeply.

I also realize that I was looking at my phone past 9pm without realizing it. It was necessary for the draft, so I think I would have anyway, but it is alarming how it didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t have my silly glasses with me.

Unfortunately I could not test out sleeping in another room as my air mattress pump is missing — I lent it to someone a few months ago and I don’t think I received the pump back. My couch is not a good sleeping couch so I think I’m in the bedroom for good.

Again I wonder if the social time was a factor in my improved sleep (the draft was in-person, with eight good friends).

There are a lot of variables at play, but I feel like I’m gradually feeling out a picture of what’s important to my sleep. As the protagonist of the movie Pi, put it (repeatedly): When you graph any system, patterns emerge. Giving a letter grade to each night’s sleep has drawn my attention to the many choices I make each day that apparently affect its quality. So far here are my suspicions:

  • My medication is a major factor in my poor sleep.
  • Face-to-face social time, particularly with multiple people, aids sleep.
  • I have some kind of breathing issue that makes my sleep worse (as I understand it, most modern humans do)
  • Screens are worth avoiding but aren’t the biggest factor.

When it comes to screens, I don’t think it is the light exposure as much as the mental stimulation mobile phones give us. My evenings have been filled with quiet reading for the most part, and while it feels much healthier in many ways, I don’t think it is the biggest factor in sleep quality, at least for me.

I will say though that the extra reading time has been a blessing. I read better in the evenings than in the morning, which is when I usually do it. I’m reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and fully into it. I haven’t been this excited about reading in a long time, and this experiment has allowed that to happen.

Day 13 – Tue Sept 7

Sleep duration – 7h05

Sleep quality C

Not the worst sleep, but I did have stressful dreams — new-day-on-the-job / exam-coming-up-type dreams. It made me realize I’ve been having a lot of these in recent months, even though I’m not very stressed in daily life these days. I believe the culprit is my medication, which is a stimulant. I know it doesn’t wear off by bedtime, as it’s supposed to. I took it late on Tuesday morning, and I think it was still active as I slept.

I woke up with dry mouth too, which means my nasal breathing was obstructed. I’m listening to the audiobook of James Nestor’s Breath, and I’ve finally reached the part where he gives remedial breathing techniques, some of which are supposed to improve sleep respiration. I believe one of them is the extreme-sounding “mouth taping,” where you put a small square of band-aid to keep your lips together, which trains you to use your nose to breathe in situations where it is slightly less comfortable to do so. I have noticed myself mouth-breathing throughout the day. My nostrils seem small and often partly congested, and by all accounts it is better (some say far better) to breath through your nose, for many reasons.

The stressful dreams could be caused by either or both the medication and the hindered breathing. These sorts of dreams do have the character of not being able to breathe, in the metaphorical sense at least, and maybe the physical sense too. I feel physical uncomfortable during them and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a psychological response to my body struggling to get oxygen.

After testing mouth-taping, I will test the effect of medication by going off it for four or five days soon, with the idea of keeping other variables the same for that period.

Days 14-17 – Sept 8-11

I had three days with middling-but-okay sleeps (B-, C+, C+) and didn’t learn much because I didn’t change any variables. I still suspect my medication is a major culprit, but I’m not ready for a multi-day break yet. I also continue to enjoy my reading-filled evenings now that my phone is out of the picture.

Last night’s sleep was a marginal B, but I think it gave me a major clue about the whole reason for doing this experiment, which is the mind fog. I’ve mentioned previously that my mind fog has diminished somewhat since the experiment started, and perhaps before. The presumption from the beginning is that my mind fog is from poor sleep. Fix the sleep and fix the mind fog. It’s almost certainly a factor, but may not be the primary one.

Today in meditation, even though last night’s sleep was relatively deep and restful, it was clear that my mind fog was back. Yesterday, I also had an unplanned second “cheat day” in my diet. An impulse to eat ramen noodles let to rationalizing pizza by the slice and then ice cream, followed by a more reasonable dinner. This supports the possibility that diet is a major factor, and the mind-fog improvements recently can probably be attributed to it. I’m excited to get back to clean eating today, and tomorrow’s morning sit will tell me more about the diet and mind fog relationship.

I did get an unusual amount of exercise yesterday, which might explain why I slept well even though I didn’t eat well.

Day 18 – Sept 12

Sleep duration: 7h01

Sleep quality: B

Best sleep yet I think. Could have been longer though. Sleeping felt restful but I felt a bit groggy in the morning; I think 7.5 hours is optimal for me, or at least that half-hour is an important one. The mind fog has improved from its dip yesterday, judging by how much easier it was to both read and meditate.

I have a busy workweek but as of the weekend I am going to go off medication for 3 or 4 days to see if it makes a difference. I know it takes at least 48 hours for the medication to work its way out of my system. My dreams (and first few hours of sleep) often have a kind of stressful, caffeinated tone, and I suspect that’s from the medication.

In the mean time, I’m going to try to get 7.5 hours every night. Not using my phone at night helps with that, because often it’s some sort of app that keeps me up past bedtime.

Day 19 – Sept 13

Sleep duration: 7h24

Sleep quality C+

Did not take medication yesterday (I take a day off or two every week) and if it made a difference it was a subtle one. Sleep was slightly more fitful than yesterday, but I didn’t wake up as often as I have been during my worse sleeps.

I’m using the Sleep Cycle app, which gives me a graph of when I am awake/moving, when I’m sleeping, and when I’m in deep sleep. It also gives an overall “sleep quality” percentage for the night. I don’t know how reliable it is, but it seems to correlate reasonably with my subjective letter grade. Here’s the results so far. (Note I forgot to use it on Sept 10.)

DateMy Letter GradeApp’s “Sleep Score”
Sept 3C+74%
Sept 4C55%
Sept 5B79%
Sept 6B-66%
Sept 7C61%
Sept 8B-75%
Sept 9C+68%
Sept 11C+68%
Sept 12B78%
Sept 13C+78%

Not bad! I’m not sure which is more accurate. The app is just an app, and it’s going off sound and motion alone. However, my subjective sleep experience is subjective. Most nights in this experiment have only been bad for the first few hours of sleep, and that might be more memorable to me. Since my sleep is better in the latter half of my sleep time, sleeping longer is probably the best thing I can do to improve the overall sleep situation, which should improve the mind fog. I will be aiming for 7.5 for the rest of the experiment.

***

Days 20-23 – Sept 14-17

Three weeks is still a smallish sample size, but overall my sleep has improved. Here are the last four days’ stats:

DateSleep DurationSubjective letter gradeSleep app score
Sept 147h16B-72%
Sept 157h39B78%
Sept 165h43D53%
Sept 177h21B-74%

The D is easily explained — people came over and I had a few alcoholic beverages and lots of potato chips. Aside from that I’m looking at meaningfully improved sleep across the board. I haven’t played much with variables recently, because my focus is on replicating the conditions I know work (healthy dinner at the right time, go to bed a bit earlier, etc). I don’t think I will try earplugs or a sleep mask. I do intend to get new pillows but I haven’t had occasion to go down to IKEA yet (after many years I’ve found a pillow/pillow-cover combination that works for me from there).

I’m also still retraining myself to go to bed a bit earlier. I think the extra 15 minutes is some of the best sleep I get, but I want it on the night end and not the morning end. Not using my phone at night has helped tremendously, because I’m free of the most frequent reason to stay up another 15 or 30 minutes.

I’m also about to put behind me a MAJOR monkey-on-my-back type task that could be affecting my sleep. I’ve reasoned that it isn’t stress or anxiety preventing me from sleeping, because I don’t feel stressed out or anxious, but the subconscious is a sneaky thing. Also, I’m pretty sure that my sleep became suddenly worse about around the time I entered the horrible anxiety phase of my life, a little over two years ago. That phase is over, but my sleep has not returned to normal. It may be a coincidence, or there may be some complex connection (e.g. I learned bad sleeping habits then) but I can’t deny the timing.

One other thing happened — the app caught me snoring. If you snore, the app records it, and there was a short ten second clip of me snoring, which was kind of surreal to hear. It is the only recorded instance of snoring so far for me, and it lasted less than one minute.

***

Days 24-32 and final conclusions

Stats for the last 10 days:

DateSleep DurationSubjective Letter GradeSleep app score
9/187h28C73%
9/197h26B+83%
9/207h04B-79%
9/217h09C-74%
9/227h33D+68%
9/237h35C-71%
9/247h39B+83%
9/257h32B81%
9/267h23B86%

Overall my sleep has improved a notch or two. I never would have expected five out of my last ten sleeps to be B-grade. It’s hard to trace it to any particular cause, because there were so many variables, but I imagine the massive screen time reduction has positive effects on it. Even if screen time has no direct effect, spending my evenings reading instead of watching a screen undoubtedly makes for a healthier overall lifestyle.

Much of this experiment was done during a time-crunch at work, so I didn’t have a chance to test certain variables, particularly replacing my pillows and sleeping in another room.

A few things are clear though:

  • I definitely have a respiration issue with sleep. I get semi-congested almost every night and often wake up breathing through my mouth. I’m looking into interventions for this. This has not always been the case and I wouldn’t be surprised if the downgrade in sleep quality over the last couple of years is due primarily to this issue.
  • I am happier and healthier when I read books in the evening instead of look at my phone.
  • Eating a slower-carb diet is better for my sleep, no question. My poor sleep days were often days when I consumed grains, sugar, or alcohol.
  • Sleeping longer seems to increase the overall quality of sleep, which I assume means the sleep that happens at the end of my sleep period is more valuable sleep, minute-per-minute
  • My medication is probably interfering with my sleep. I feel less restless on days I don’t take it, and much less on the second day off it.

A Seemingly-Major Discovery

Just at the end of the experiment, I made another sleep-relevant discovery that may have blown the whole mystery wide open.

This whole experiment was about reducing the mind-fog I’ve been feeling for the last 18-24 months. I initially attributed this to the disruptive effects of COVID on my lifestyle, primarily as it resulted in more screen time and other sleep-destroying choices. Bad sleep created the grogginess, I assumed.

Last week I listened to the audiobook version of Michael Pollan’s Caffeine, a short history of caffeine’s effects on human civilization. During the book, Pollan described a break of several months he took from consuming caffeine, which led him to a surprising discovery. During the first days off caffeine, he felt a kind of mind-fog and lack of energy descend on him, which he assumed were the temporary withdrawal symptoms he’d been warned about. Days later, the headaches and crankiness subsided, but the mind fog and sluggishness did not. Only when he returned to caffeine did a familiar level of alertness, energy, and mental acuity return.

His surprising conclusion was that his “normal” levels of alertness and energy were actually the state of altered consciousness induced by the regular intake of caffeine. This familiar caffeinated state was not his cognitive baseline — he had rarely experienced his baseline because he drank coffee every day, and that this is true for everyone who has spent their adulthood drinking caffeine, which is a vast majority of people.

I’m not certain when my own drop in energy and rise in mind-fog began, but it might be about when I stopped consuming caffeine regularly. I quit sometime in 2019 because I had bad anxiety at the time, and caffeine apparently exacerbates anxiety, which is itself a chemically-induced state of hyper-arousal. By the time my anxiety subsided (around when COVID started), I was so sensitive to caffeine that even a half a cup of coffee in the morning negatively affected my sleep and made me feel gross, so I’ve been drinking decaf ever since.

The other day I decided to see what caffeine would do for (or to) me now, so I added about 25% caffeinated beans to my morning cup of decaf. Within ten minutes, mind fog went away. I could read like I used to, meditate like I used to, and my sluggishness was gone. It did come with a “stimulated” feeling in my body, but a milder one than I get when I take my prescription ADHD medication (which is a different kind of stimulant).

Today is the third day I’ve consumed a small amount of caffeine in the morning, and it really does seem like I’m free of the sluggishness and mind fog that has characterized the last two years or so. While the more obvious effects of caffeine receded throughout the day (the surge of energy you get when you drink a coffee), it kept me at a “normal” level of alertness all day long.

I’m not sure what this means. I’m still only three days into a caffeine consumption regimen after two years away from it, and its benefits may diminish, as is the way with consciousness-altering substances. But it really does seem like I’ve found my way back to a state of awareness and engagement that I used to spend almost all my time in, it’s just odd to think that this “normal” state requires regular infusions of a certain plant juice. Of course, it’s inevitable that being under the influence of a substance more often than you’re off it will change what normal is from what it would be without it.

I think that has been my miscalculation that had me underestimating what caffeine ever did for me — I assumed caffeine’s effects only lasted a few hours, then you return to normal. You drink caffeine at 8am to get yourself to your desk, and by 11 it’s gone. However, the half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours, which means it’s still very much in your system by 1pm, 6pm, and beyond, even though you don’t feel the more obvious, physically-apparent effects of the compound. That means even people who only have a single cup of coffee a day spend virtually their whole lives under the effects of this drug. (Despite the loaded word “drug,” that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, an idea Pollan explores in his book.)

There’s a reason this obscure cherry-seed from Ethiopia has managed become embedded in virtually every single culture on earth. Could it be that “normal” for me, and for the other 90% of adults on earth who consume caffeine daily, is actually a state of slightly drug-altered consciousness? That idea was a radical one to me a week ago, but it does make sense.

Because caffeine is a stimulant, I haven’t taken my stimulant medication since, and I feel better in some ways. I think the meds have been making me more prone to anger and reactivity. Among other differences, I feel kinder without it, even while hopped up on Arabica.

The big test remained: how did caffeine affect my sleep? I’ve only had two nights under it so far, so it’s too early to say. The quality seems better on the whole (and for what it’s worth, my sleep app concurs) but it has felt different. I fall asleep just as easily, and I wake up fewer times, but I do feel a little agitated, and I suspect it’s making deep sleep less accessible. I need a bigger sample size.

Anyway, the experiment is over officially, but I’m still tracking my sleep every night, and actively testing new things. I might occasionally provide updates here, and will tweet them when I do.

***

Photo by Matt Wojtas

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