Sort out your sleep first

June 2, 2020

It’s hard to walk the talk with sleep isn’t it. Sleep specialists and researchers agree that nearly all adults of working age need 7-9 hours sleep every night. A little less after your 65th birthday and more in your teen years. In Australia, 60% of people report at least one sleep disturbance symptom occurring 3 or more times per week, and this is consistent across age groups.1

Hillman et al estimated the cost of poor sleep in Australia was $66.3b2 Sleep disorders are associated with a number of psychiatric diseases particularly depression, they increase the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, impair glucose metabolism and diabetes and elevate inflammatory markers.1

To disrupt chronic insomnia or reset poor sleep patterns takes a concerted effort, a committed and disciplined program for several weeks and for some people, many months. In the years I worked as a counselling psychologist I learned that without significant support it was too hard for lots of people. If you have an established sleep disturbance like insomnia seek the help of your GP and a psychologist.

Like all lifestyle habits, sleep is about routines and patterns. Trauma, stress and distress can interrupt established sleep routines. Ordinary life events can also disrupt sleep, having a baby, establishing a new intimate relationship, caring for someone who is sick, moving house, jetlag and shift work also wreak havoc with sleep patterns. In recent times significant numbers of people have learnt that loneliness and isolation can also upset sleep.

There are two things that regularly conspire against my getting to bed on time. The first is a desire to have some quiet time without the rest of my family. Love them as I do, I also value some solitary time, even more, since we went into lockdown together. When my kids were younger that was easily achieved in the later hours of the night. Now they are teenagers they also like that time of day, so I have had to reverse engineer my day and now rise very early to a peaceful quiet house.

It has taken me a while to remember that to get up early I need to break the well established habit of going to bed late at night. I have had to find some serious discipline to go to bed earlier, I’m not used to it yet. In the past this goal has been hard to achieve. It does make a difference when I stick to it though. Remembering the reason behind the earlier to bed plan and telling others that I am going to bed before a certain time keeps me accountable and helps.

The second challenge is the call of work in the evenings, especially watching recorded webinars and zoom calls in this new computer bound world of work.

Such a double-edged sword. Recorded meetings and courses are blessings in that I can watch when it suits me, except that I somehow think that means I can do twice as much. Unless I have missed the memo, there is no more time in a 24 hour day than there was pre-coronavirus!

Working for myself and from home, the line between work and the rest of my life was already blurred… now the invitations to work all day and night, every day and night are constant. This is not useful for my ongoing wellness or for my family relationships.

BJ Fogg is the founder of the Design Lab at Stanford University where he has been studying behaviour design for decades. He starts his book Tiny Habits3 with “Tiny is mighty”. Fogg has learnt that a small change, repeated, achieves great things.

The psychology of his work is easy to understand. A small change is manageable, takes little time and is safe. Any failure is small and not too embarrassing. Our critical voice is less likely to overpower us and if we do deliver our small change, that feeling of success delivers us a powerful opportunity to celebrate and that has an immediate impact on our internal chemistry. This creates a natural feedback loop and reinforces the new habit.

The thing about sleep is that everything else follows. Sleep is when our body heals, rests and recovers, when our mind processes experiences including emotions and events of the day and consolidates memory. The quality of our sleep is associated with our metabolism and our mood.

I am certainly more productive, effective and happier when I am well rested, the better version of me compared with the tired version of me.

The keys for me are setting some boundaries around work and getting into bed at the nominated time. Following Fogg’s advice I started small.

  1. I decided what my ideal bedtime/wake up times would be.
  2. I wrote down what this decision is in service of – I want some time to myself, to remain well over the long term and to have a balanced work-life integration.
  3. I decided the first tiny step.

Since I was going to bed between 11 and 12 pm I decided the first step would be to go to bed every night at 11pm. This was relatively easy to achieve because I was already doing it more than half of the time, so I consolidated. I achieved this tiny step for two weeks. Then I moved the goal post back 30 minutes and practiced bedtime at 10:30pm.

The key to building a new habit is practice, the neurons that fire together in our brains wire together. The more we practice the easier it gets. I’ve been practicing the late routine for a long time so changing that pattern will take time.

The reasons for building this habit are long lasting, I always want to be as well as I can be, to have appropriate boundaries around my work, so there is no hurry. It’s more important to establish the habit for the long term than to have some quick win that I can’t sustain. Establish one tiny habit before you move onto the next one.

So here’s a few things that I have taken to heart and committed to over the past two weeks (after eight weeks of lockdown) in order to make sure I stay well – psychologically and physically.

  1. Remember that sleep is THE paramount foundational wellbeing activity
  2. Set a bedtime and a wakeup time – the two are related!! Stick to the routine, keep practicing and review in 8 weeks time. (tiny habit #2 for me)
  3. Turn off all screens 60 minutes before the nominated bed time and do perceptual activites like fold washing, wash dishes, talk to other people, read (non screen) (tiny habit #1 for me)
  4. Keep practicing mindfulness – for me that means a short meditation at bedtime (5 minutes) and a longer one in the morning (10-45 mins)
  5. Keep practicing gratitude and set short term goals (prioritise) for each day

I hope this has given you some useful ideas about your habits generally. Cultivate regular, restful sleep, it could change so many other things in your life.

Sharee Johnson works as a psychologist, executive coach and meditation teacher. She is the Director of SKJ Consulting and Coaching for Doctors and consults with people all around Australia in person and online. Sharee lives in Gippsland, Victoria

To learn more and discuss coaching

Contact Sharee today


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2. [Hillman D, Mitchell S, Streatfeild J, Burns C, Bruck D, Pezzullo L. The economic cost of inadequate sleep. Sleep. 2018, 41:zsy083.]
3. [Fogg, BJ Tiny Habits ,Penguin UK 2019]

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