Taking Control of Your Sleep Routine

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we aren’t getting enough sleep.  We’re always worried about our next deadline and other things we have to do.  Sleep somehow always becomes a lower priority.  After a while of consistently sleeping less and less, we’ve forgotten what it felt like to be fully rested all the time, except on the odd day where we sleep-in for 12 hours.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Personally, I simply got tired of sleeping so little.  I always sacrificed sleep for more work time in the past.  But now, I’ve come to realize how powerful being rested really is.  It feels so empowering when I wake up in the morning, fully refreshed.  I don’t have to struggle to get out of bed or set 5 alarm clocks to get me out of bed in the morning.  The reason that the struggle exists is because the body wants more sleep.  This is a clear sign of not sleeping enough.  I’m definitely no sleep expert and I don’t claim to be, but I thought I’d share some techniques in how to think differently about sleep.  But first, I think I should share my experience with sleep deprivation, which I felt heavily motivated me into adopting this way of life.  All of this below is just my view on sleep health.

My Battle with Sleep Deprivation

In high school, I pretty much got 8 hours of sleep a night.  It wasn’t that hard since at that time I didn’t really think about optimizing my sleep.  I just remember being nagged to go to sleep by my parents every night.  I never had to stay up doing any homework or anything like that.  Even my first year of university was like that.  Rarely found myself staying up to do work unless there was a exam the next day or something.

Second year of university is when it all changed.  A thought clicked in my head that I could sleep less and get more work done.  It’s not like I felt sleepy at night anyways.  For a while it was alright, but then as I slept less and less, my sleep debt accumulated.  I found myself napping in class.  I even micro-slept while I drove and almost got into not one, but a couple car accidents.  I didn’t try to do anything about it at the time.  I liked the extra time.  There was a while where I slept about 4.5 hours a night because I stayed up playing computer games.  I looked like a zombie.  I yawned all the time and everyone knew I was sleepy.

In my third year, I lived alone on campus.  No one told me when to wake up to go to class.  With all the sleep debt I had, I struggled to get up every morning.  Eventually, I stopped going to morning classes altogether and my grades suffered.  I started questioning myself, “why is it so hard to sleep early?”  I was easily annoyed all the time.  I was so tired at one point, that I caught myself hallucinating.  It was weird because I saw this strange bug crawling up the curtain and when I waved the curtain around, it was gone.  I couldn’t find it anywhere on the floor.  I wanted to change my sleeping habits, but I couldn’t do it.  Logic told me to do it, but I couldn’t act on it.

My sleeping habits didn’t change until I went to Germany for my co-op work term.  I guess because I was adjusting to this new environment, I actually felt sleepy at night.  This urge made me sleep a lot earlier than what I was used to doing.  I felt rested for the first time in a long time.  It felt so good.  My constant zombie look faded away.  I could tell that my skin complexion was improving.

I guess because I’ve seen how dangerous sleep deprivation could be, it finally compelled me to change my ways.  Ever since I’ve made sleep a priority, I feel a lot healthier.  I lose out on wake-time for working, but I am able to think better when I am rested.  My thoughts are a lot clearer.  That makes me a more efficient worker.

Getting into the Frame of Mind

You’ve got to be truly convinced that you want to get more sleep.  I know a lot of people who say things “yeah I know I don’t get enough sleep”, but they don’t do anything about it.  Nothing at all.  Everyday they keep their usual sleep routine and they’re struggling all the time.  They’re the ones who are always late to morning appointments, and some even for afternoon appointments.  Why does it have to be that way?  It doesn’t.  But before even trying to maintain a proper sleep routine, people really have to change the way they think about sleep.

Sleep is NOT a waste of time. I’ve heard people say, “sleep is a waste of time” or “sleep is for the weak”.  It definitely is not.  Somehow I think there is a competition between who gets the least amount of sleep and still gets the most work done.  I’ve heard people people saying (sometimes bragging) stuff like how they got only 3 hours of sleep and then pulled an all-nighter to study for an exam.  Sure, they definitely were up for a while, but should we question the efficiency of that work?  Of course.  Anybody who has pulled an all-nighter has experiences how “out of it” they were by the end if not half way through.  Nobody wants to do an all-nighter.  That is an extreme case though.  A more common theme is to stay up for 18 hours or so.  That leaves 6 hours to sleep.  The average for most people lies somewhere around 7.5-8 hours.  According to the statistics, more than half of us need more than 6.  By not getting our required amount of sleep, this so-called “sleep debt” will accumulate over time.  Like I mentioned before, I once slept on average 4.5 to 5 hours a night for about 3 months straight.  People around me could tell I looked like a zombie.  I’ve definitely experienced sleep debt first hand.  In retrospect, doing this was so stupid, but that experience definitely helped me reshape what I thought about sleep.  It is a necessity.

Getting into the right frame of mind takes time.  I definitely did not just one day choose to make sleep a priority.  It happened over time.  For me it took a few years in order for me to drill it into my head.  After sleeping late and waking up early, I’d ask myself why I did that.  Why did I sleep so little the night before when the consequence was me feeling sleep deprived the day after?  As I’m in my early 20’s, sleeping late is easy.  It’s not difficult to just stay up late doing nothing in particular.  In fact, it seems to be natural tendency for most people in my age group to be night owls.

Going to bed early is not a chore.  Chores are something we’d rather not do, but we’re only doing it because we have to.  This attitude will not work.  Eventually, you’ll give up and revert to your old ways.  You have to change your attitude toward sleep.  You know how some people feel passionate about their work and will always feel motivated to do it?  That’s their motivation.  There is a similar motivation for sleeping early.  I want to go to sleep early today, so I feel rested and ready to go tomorrow.

Ask yourself why your sleep habits are the way they are right now.  Why do I have to wake up feeling terrible every morning?  Why do I have to set so many alarms just to get out of bed?  Why am I pressing the snooze button so much?  Shouldn’t I be getting up super early? Doesn’t this struggle to wake up give me less time to get ready?  If I don’t have enough time to get ready, won’t I look like a mess when I go to work/school?  Am I sleeping late all the time because I have so much work to do?  Could I be improving on my time management to make me more efficient? Is sleeping late worth it?  I’m sure there are way more questions to be asked, but asking yourself these questions will tell you how you really feel about it.  Everyone’s going to have different answers.  Some might want to change, but others might feel that what they’re doing is the best solution right now.

The Bottom Line

Sleep is absolutely essential for good health and its benefits are far reaching.  Ever since I’ve slept better, I’ve been able to accomplish more.  No longer am I the sleep deprived zombie.  My grades in school are better despite harder courses and more commitments. Better sleep health is something that anybody can do, but they have to want it.  You have to convince yourself that sleep deprivation is a terrible thing and it is something to avoid.  You’ve got to get into the frame of mind that sleep health is good and the will to change.  If you truly want to improve your sleep habits for the better, the improvements will happen.

The Anatomy of an All-Nighter

Swamped with work, somehow people still persevere and finish the job.  But how?  Probably through all nighters.  We’ve all done them at some point and it’s obvious that they aren’t good for our health.  Kindly sent to me by one of my blog readers, here’s an infographic on just what an all nighter really means to our health.

The Anatomy of an All-NighterVia: Online Colleges Guide

Maybe after this, we will all think twice about pulling all nighters!

Sleep Debt and Optimal Sleeping Time

Sleep Debt

I’ve been tracking my sleeping and over the past little while and I’ve accumulated 12.7 hours of sleep debt (as of 5 Oct measured by the Sleep as an Droid app).  I got this value by taking the difference of my actual time slept and the actual amount of time I need for each day and added up all those numbers over two weeks.  I noticed that this sleep debt over several days stacks up more and more.  I ended up feeling less and less rested everyday.  It seems obvious, but I never really paid attention to it until now.

What I’ve been doing now is try to sleep earlier to “pay back” this debt (probably the right thing to do).  I did a quick search on Wiki about sleep debt and as it turns out, the article basically told me the same thing that I noticed myself.  Sleep debt indeed does accumulate and catches up.  For me, one or two days, it’s probably okay, but anymore than that, then I start feeling less rested everyday.

For a bit, I tried sleeping at 11pm and waking up at 7am to pay back this debt, but I soon came to realize that I still didn’t feel better even though I was in fact paying back this debt (albeit slowly).  I came to realize the problem was in my sleeping pattern.  I didn’t actually know how much sleep I needed or when I needed to sleep (i.e. circadian rhythms).  I had completely forgotten about it (I wrote something similar on the subject awhile ago).  I always knew it existed, but I guess I lost track of what it was after I came back from Germany.  As of right now, my sleep debt for the last two weeks –7.9 hours, which is a lot better than before.

Circadian Rhythms

After I bit of trial and error, I found my optimal duration and time to sleep.  Apparently, I feel best if I sleep for 7.5 hours at 2:30am and wake up at 10am.  When I woke up after doing that, I felt great.  Kind of a night owl’s sleeping pattern.  Apparently some people can in fact sleep for 6 hours a day and sustain this daily without the need for naps, but that is a small minority of the population.  I on the other hand, fall within the average.

This doesn’t really work for me since I need to be up at 7am to go to sleep.  So now, my solution is to shift my circadian rhythms forward.  I’ve read a method for people with DSPS (delayed sleep-phase syndrome) that involved pushing back my sleeping time later and later until I reached the time I wanted.  If I slept at 2:30am usually, I’d sleep at maybe 5:30am the next day, then 7:30am the next etc. until I reached my goal of 11pm.  It would mess up an entire weeks schedule but apparently it works.  I’m not saying that I have this syndrome (I’m not about to self diagnose here), but this kind of treatment seems kind easy to do at home without great risk.  I don’t really have a week to spare for this right now so that is automatically out of the question.

Another method involved bright lights.  The Harvard Medical School Guide to A Good Night’s Sleep (really good book on sleep by the way!) states the following:

This treatment grew out of the discovery that exposure to bright light within a few hours of the body’s low point in body temperature—which occurs during the overnight hours—shifts the circadian rhythm. A dose of bright light after the temperature minimum advances the circadian rhythm, while a dose before it delays the rhythm.

Knowing this, I can shine a bright light in my face every morning when I wake up at 7.  Hopefully, my circadian rhythm will slowly shift to this new time.  Once I do that, maybe I can wake up at 7am feeling well rested.

Although I try to sleep and wake up at the same time everyday, school work always tries to disrupt my schedule, and as a result, I haven’t paid off my sleep debt and my sleeping time is kind of inconsistent at times.  Life always finds a way to break it.

Random Analysis on My Sleep Cycle

As an aside, I tried to find out how long one of my sleep cycles were.  On average, they are 90 minutes long, but differ from person to person.  The app that I use for measuring sleep graphs out how deep/light my sleep is throughout the night.  Since the human goes through cycles of light and deep sleep overnight, I thought I could measure the time duration between.  I looked at some of my sleep graphs (similar to this one):


In this graph (from 9 September – there is a typo in the picture because I mixed up the dates initially), the blue graph shows how deeply I sleep through the night. The sampling rate for that measurement wasn’t very good with the trial version that I used at the time.  Three regions are shown where values of the blue curve above the blue line mean I’m awake, values between the green and the red line mean I’m in a period of light sleep, and any value below the red line means I’m in deep sleep.  As it is shown in the plot above, it seems that a huge chunk of my sleep is in deep sleep, which is really strange since I’m supposed to be going through cycles of light and deep sleep.  Here, I only see one instance of light sleep.  Not really sure what to make of it other than the fact that the app is not a robust way of doing such measurements.

Fighting the Food Coma

Lately, I ran into a little problem where I had the ultimate urge to sleep whenever I eat a meal.  Whether it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I’d feel like sleeping afterward.  Even though I sleep plenty every night, I couldn’t seem to fight this urge to sleep.  Luckily I found a sure-win method.  I don’t know how good it is for my health though.  I figure that if I get sleepy after I eat, it’s because my blood goes to my stomach to aid digestion, hence a blood shortage in the brain and thus giving me the urge to sleep.  By holding my head in a position tilted such that the elevation of my head is below the elevation of my heart, I can get the blood flowing to my brain.  I hold this position for about 15 to 20 seconds and I sit up straight again, feeling refreshed and awake.  Works every time for me.

Optimizing Sleeping Time

Many people make generalizations about the amount of sleep they need each day.  I hear many people say, “I only need six hours of sleep”, but there is more to it than just how many hours to sleep for.  Someone can sleep for 10 hours and still feel tired.  Some say that sleeping too much can cause someone to be tired.  The idea here isn’t only about how many hours to sleep for, it’s also about when to sleep.

I won’t try to quantify exactly how much sleep one needs since it differs for each person, but rather explain some of the factors and what people can do in order to optimize their sleeping pattern.

The REM Cycle

During sleep, the body goes through stages of light and deep sleep.  Generally speaking, these types are known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep , and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.  The NREM type consists of three different stages, or cycles of sleep known as N1, N2, and N3.  The names of each type are not really important in the context of this article, but the body moves between these stages during sleep and each stage serves a different function.  The image below shows the body moving through the different phases of sleep over time.

On average, each sleep cycle last 90 to 110 minutes.  When one wakes up in between a sleep cycle, they will feel tired when they wake up.  A lot of times, the sleep cycle gets interrupted when the alarm clock rings in the morning.  But when one wakes up at the end of the cycle, they will feel very refreshed. 

The time to optimize here is plan the sleeping time in accordance with the sleeping cycle to ensure that one will wake up at the end of a sleep cycle.  Of course, this will take some experimentation to gage exactly how long each sleeping cycle is.

My method involves leaving some extra time to wake up.  I overestimate the time it takes me to fall asleep and the time it takes for one sleep cycle, I will wake up feeling refreshed before my alarm clock rings.  However, having too much extra time will cause the body to start its next cycle before waking up, but that depends on the person and their sleeping pattern.  Again, this takes experimentation.

Another issue is how long to sleep for.  To me, this doesn’t really matter as long one is able to wake up naturally.  This way, the body is able to communicate that it has had enough sleep.  Although, there are times where people wake up prematurely from sleep and feel that they need more sleep.  Another way would be to see if someone can get through the day without feeling tired or falling asleep.

Circadian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms are why we should not sleep whenever we want.  This is just a fancy term for explaining that each person’s body maintains the same pattern everyday.  Below is a picture from Wikipedia of what happens throughout the day for the average person.

A lot of these events don’t really have to do with sleep except for a few.  For example at 4:30 AM, our body should be at its lowest body temperature if the above pattern is followed.  Wikipedia states the following:

The optimal amount of sleep is not a meaningful concept unless the timing of that sleep is seen in relation to an individual’s circadian rhythms. A person’s major sleep episode is relatively inefficient and inadequate when it occurs at the "wrong" time of day; one should be asleep at least six hours before the lowest body temperature.  The timing is correct when the following two circadian markers occur after the middle of the sleep episode and before awakening:

  • maximum concentration of the hormone melatonin, and
  • minimum core body temperature.

Six hours before the lowest body temperature would mean that the optimal time to go to sleep for the average human is at 10:30 PM.  I experienced this first hand.  I used to sleep at 4 AM until 2 PM and always felt that my sleep felt super restless, but now that I sleep from 8:00 PM to 4:00 AM (I chose to sleep at this time because this way I get to talk to people in Vancouver while I’m abroad), I feel super refreshed waking and most of the time, I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up.  I only need the clock tell me what time it is.


This is what I follow when I plan my sleeping pattern.  I used to have a really erratic sleep schedule, where I woke up early one day and late the next because I’d always wake up in time to go to my first class of the day.  If the start time differed everyday, my sleeping time would change too.  As a result, I felt tired everyday and tried to adjust my sleeping pattern.  After changing up my habits, I no longer feel the need to take naps everyday, and I don’t feel fatigue anymore.



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