Last month, I wrote about how I’d started drinking a healthy amount of water every day. Having given that habit some time to bed into my lifestyle, I decided to add a second habit to my routine.
Continuing my focus on physical and mental wellbeing, I chose to improve my sleep. We all sleep, so this isn’t a case of doing something others aren’t. The challenge here was to find out how much sleep I need for my health, whether I was getting enough and whether I could improve what I was getting.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
Before trying to set a gold standard for myself to reach each night, I spent some time reading through research into sleep and health.
The first number that springs to mind for most people is probably eight hours a night. This is actually a number more focused on work than sleep, as it comes from Henry Ford’s introduction of the 40-hour work week back in the 1920s. The idea was to carve up the weekdays into three eight-hour periods of work, play and sleep. With eight hours free each day, Ford hoped his workers would spend more money (especially on cars).
Eight hours has persisted, because like all good ideas it’s simple. If we had a 21-hour day, we’d probably all think seven hours each for work, rest and play made sense. Yet, knowing the source and why it’s remained doesn’t make it right.
The purpose of sleep is to recharge mind and body for the following day. So, it makes sense that the amount of time we need to sleep should be the time it takes to do this. According to James Clear, who has looked in-depth at many sleep studies: the tipping point is usually around the 7 or 7.5 hour mark.
Of course, opinions differ. Buffer looked at some sleep research and found that “people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive.” In fact, sleep is not one-size-fits-all, as The Sleep Foundation shows with its breakdown of sleep ranges against age.
With all that in mind, it made sense for me to start by targeting seven hours a night to begin with. I’d try this out and see if I felt I needed more or less after a month.
Quality v Quantity
As useful as finding my nightly sleep target was, I knew it was meaningless unless I also focused on the quality of sleep I was getting. My research into sleep quality unearthed some surprising information.
It turns out that not only is the eight-hour sleep myth a recent creation, so is the idea of taking all our sleep at once. As Gabriel Roth explains in his recent article, we used to sleep in two phases before the spread of artificial lighting. Retiring at 9 or 10pm, we’d rise in the early hours to eat, drink and pass the time with our family. We’d head back to Bedfordshire an hour or three later and wake in the morning refreshed.
With that fresh morning feeling in mind, it’s also important to wake up in the right way, or we risk ruining the night’s work. According to research, snoozing in the mornings can be damaging to our sleep health. Closing our eyes again in the morning can send us into deep sleep, which is the hardest to then wake from.
As Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, says:
Taking our waking slow, without the jar of an alarm and with the rhythms of light and biology, may be our best defense against the thoughtlessness of a sleep-addled brain, a way to insure that, when we do wake fully, we are making the most of what our minds have to offer.
Can I Get Seven Hours of Good Sleep?
Tracking time asleep is easy (as long as you look at the clock before you close your eyes), but I wasn’t sure how to track sleep quality. A few friends had recommended using an app called Sleep Cycle so I thought that was a good enough place to start.
Sleep Cycle is simple to use, you just turn it on as you go to bed and leave it under your pillow. In the morning, the app can wake you up at a set time and you get a range of stats about your sleep quality, including:
- Quality score
- External factors
Over time, you can build a picture of how healthy your sleep is and what you can do to improve it. For example, after logging 58 nights in bed and 16.1 days of sleep, I can see that:
- My sleep quality has gradually improved
- I go to bed at very different times each day
- I get an average of 7.5 hours sleep
- My sleep is better when I’ve read and drank water
- I sleep best and longest at weekends
- Tuesday night seem to be a problem for getting enough sleep
Over time, this will become more useful as trends begin to emerge I can act on such as ensuring I read before bed and drinking enough water. For now, just having the app is enough to make me conscious of my sleep health, which is the main reason I believe it’s improving.
Do you track your sleep? What have you learned?
P.S. I didn’t use it in this article, but this post on Brain Pickings about famous writers and their sleep habits is incredible: www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization.