Rather than being a time when the body completely shuts down, as is sometimes said, it is actually an active time when your body repairs cells, processes information and strengthens itself. Many of the exact ways in which this happens are still a mystery to scientists, but they all resolutely emphasise its importance for good health and wellbeing.
The National Sleep Foundation lists a number of reasons for why we need sleep, including:
Helping us to solidify recent memories
Storing and processing long-term memories
Restoring and rejuvenation
It is easy to acknowledge all of these benefits but if, like me, you suffer from bouts of insomnia, actually going about having a good night’s sleep is another matter. The amount of sleep you need each night is different for every person, and very dependent upon your age and how much activity you have undertaken during the day. Most people will need between seven and nine hours every night.
Almost everybody will have intermittent bouts of insomnia but if you are finding that you still feel really tired even after several nights of proper sleep or are regularly sleeping for less than six hours per night then do, of course, contact your doctor or a sleep specialist.
For people who think they could benefit from even slightly improved sleep, then Kaizen techniques are a great way to alter your existing sleeping habits and adopt a new, healthier bedtime routine. Not getting enough sleep or waking up in the night for long periods can be caused by external sources of stress: worries about work, friends, family or big life changes, such as getting married or moving house.
Kaizen can be used to reduce these sources of stress and better cope with them when they do arise – but there is also lots that can be done to improve your bedtime routine and environment itself in order to promote a good night’s sleep.
How to sleep: Write a sleep diary
Before making any changes to your routine, a good place to start is with a sleep diary. Keeping a diary for a week will give you a general overview of how you sleep and will identify any issues or particular triggers for bad sleep.
How to make a sleep diary
Each morning for one week, make a note of the hours you fall asleep and wake up, how many hours of sleep you have each night in total, and whether you were awake for any period. It is also a good idea to rate the quality of your sleep out of 10. Our phones now have functionality that can help to track sleep too, the benefits of removing technology from the bedroom may outweigh the insight gained.
Once you have the information about your sleep patterns, have a think and note down any factors which could have influenced the quality of your sleep in a good or bad way. For example:
- Did you have any stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) within two hours of going to bed?
- What was the temperature of your room?
- How light/dark was it?
- How noisy was it?
- How messy is your room?
- Did you look at any screens before going to bed?
- Is there anything you were/are stressed or worried about?
You can either make a diary on paper, create a spreadsheet or use sleep-tracker app on your phone to fill in the details. Although this will initially take a little bit of time, having a week’s worth of information about your sleep patterns in front of you will mean that it is much easier to see where you might be going wrong and what external factors you can adjust to promote better sleep. Also note whether there are any differences between days when you are working/studying and your days off.
Sleep specialists recommend trying to keep to a regular daily sleep routine that doesn’t fluctuate too much between weekdays and weekends. They advise that you try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day, whether that it Monday or Saturday. And this is where Kaizen can be really helpful. It might seem daunting to try to change your whole sleep routine in one go, but making one small step at a time will encourage you to adopt better bedtime habits – and hopefully once one change starts to make a difference, then you will be motivated to make more.
Read on for some ideas for small changes that you could make to your sleep routine, both in terms of the environment in which you sleep and the actions you take before bedtime to promote sleep.
How to sleep: Improve your sleep environment
Having your bedroom as a calm, clean environment free from clutter and external interruptions is key to good sleep. If you are really busy or tired then the thought of having to entirely transform your bedroom into a minimalist, serene paradise might seem too big an ask, but there are some small things you can do to make a difference. And once you have adopted one change, then try another to see if it makes even more of a difference.
Declutter your room
Your room should be as calming as you are able to make it. Designating it as a decluttered space which you use exclusively for either sleeping or sex, and not for watching TV or Netflix on your laptop, will help to promote good sleep.
First Kaizen step: you might not always have huge amounts of time to tidy your entire room before bed, so set a timer on your phone for five minutes and just tidy up the area around your bed, so at least that area is free of clutter.
Change your sheets regularly
Changing your bedsheets once a week or at least every fortnight can help to promote good sleep.
First Kaizen step: if you are really tired and the idea of changing your entire bed linen feels too much, then just change your pillow cases and/or bedsheet. The rest can be done another day!
Block out noise altogether
If your street or building is noisy then try sleeping with ear plugs and see if it makes a difference.
Play relaxing noises while going to sleep
If you have trouble getting to sleep then try playing a relaxing sleep playlist or white noise (lots of sleep apps have these, along with YouTube and Spotify).
Shut out the light
Your room should be as dark and cool as possible. If you can’t afford black-out blinds or thick curtains and find the room too bright, then try sleeping with an eye mask and note any differences to the quality of your sleep.
Sort out your mattress
If you think that your mattress could be what is causing issues, start to save a small amount (say, the price of a sleep-depriving coffee) each day towards a new one. Or if you are renting, then try asking your landlord to provide a new one. If a new mattress is out of your price range, then consider investing in a mattress topper, which are much cheaper and can make a big difference.
Surround yourself in some nice smells
Scents like lavender and bergamot have a calming effect. Find a scented candle, pillow spray or aroma diffuser and see if making your room smell nice makes you have a better night of sleep.
How to sleep: Transform your bedtime rituals to promote good sleep
As well as making sure you create the optimum sleep environment, there are certain changes you can make to your actions in the period between returning home and going to bed in order to promote better sleep. As babies and children, we are coaxed (and occasionally strongarmed!) into a set bedtime routine, but as adults we often forget to perform such rituals, in favour of scrolling through Instagram or binge-watching the latest boxset.
Read on for some ideas for ways in which you can improve your pre-bedtime routine.
Get out the loungewear
When you get home, immediately change into comfortable clothes to relax you and encourage your body to start to shut down.
Have a soak
Try having a warm bath or shower before bedtime – perhaps with added lavender oil – and see if it makes a difference to your sleep quality.
Take off your makeup
If you don’t have time or the inclination to have a full bath, then try taking your makeup off as soon as you get through the door and apply a soothing face mask.
Hide your phone
Having phones and laptops in your bedroom can be a huge distraction. Try sleeping with your phone in another room and see if it makes a difference — or if the thought of that is too terrifying (!), then at least put it on airplane mode for when you are asleep.
Have a communication blackout
In the same vein, try to avoid social media or work emails for at least 2–3 hours before going to bed so that you don’t have any interactions whirring around your head.
First Kaizen step: have a few nights of a complete social media and communication ‘blackout’ and register if it has an impact upon the quality of your sleep.
Organising yourself for the next day can be hugely beneficial for sleep in that it declutters your brain and gives you less to worry about the coming day. Try packing your bag, sorting out your breakfast items and/or packed lunch, and hanging up your outfit for the next day and see if that makes any difference to your sleep.
Be a bedtime yogi
Try doing some gentle bedtime yoga or meditation exercises before bed to help to promote sleep. There are lots of tutorials online or you can use a meditation app. Remember to keep it to very light exercises so that you don’t overstimulate your mind and body too much before bedtime.
First Kaizen step: for one week, try meditating for five minutes before bed.
Do a ‘brain dump’
If your brain is still whirring, another idea is to get a piece of paper and write out a ‘brain dump’ of everything that is on your mind from that day. It doesn’t have to be anything coherent or fully-formed – just write out everything that is troubling you. This can also be a really useful exercise if you wake up in the middle of the night and are unable to go back to sleep.
Read a good book
Just six minutes of reading before bed has been shown to reduce stress levels by two-thirds and promote good sleep. Choose a couple of nights of the week where you read before bed rather than look at a screen and see if it makes a difference.
Remember: you can do absolutely everything right and there may still be a way that your body decides to rebel against you and give you a bad night’s sleep. So don’t beat yourself up if you have any setbacks when trying to improve your sleep routine. Be kind to yourself and just focus on one small thing you can do to improve your sleep the next night. Keeping track of your sleep and the impact of any changes to your routine is key to identifying the ways in which your body is responding to the slight tweaks in your behaviour before bed and in your sleep environment.