Fixing your sleep, actually, for real, really

Serena Chen
Aug 26, 2018 · 10 min read

Part 1 of 3 of Reprogramming your brain, body and life.

I have never slept well. I’ve tried pretty much everything there is to try to have something that even mildly resembles a consistent sleep schedule. As a child, I never had a bedtime. I would pull all-nighters — sometimes just because I didn’t feel like sleeping. My mornings would either consist of me sleeping and remaining in bed for as long as I possibly could, before I was inevitably late for something. It was bad.

For the past two months I’ve been getting up at 6:15am every weekday. Unthinkable, right?

In this article I’m going to run through all the things that I’ve tried in my evenings and mornings, and which things have made the most difference.

My main goal here is to get high quality sleep, enough time to do the things that mattered to me, and some semblance of routine. I’m doing this by going to bed and getting up early, but your most optimal hours might be different.


The one thing that actually made a difference, and the one thing that I had failed to do for the longest time, was start winding down for bed early enough. And I mean really early. Like, 7pm early. It sounds ridiculous, but giving yourself enough time to wind-down before bed is key. So many times I’d start thinking I should go to bed around 9pm, and by the time it’s 11pm I’m still doing something pointless, no closer to going to sleep than I was at 9pm.

Blue light and bright light at night is your number one enemy. A good rule of thumb is, if the sun goes down, so should your screens. Of course, there’s a little give and take depending on when you want to go to bed. (Although if you do shift work, it might be time to invest in some blackout curtains.) Aim for at least two hours of low light before bed. F.lux is your friend.

Nice activities for the evening include tidying, cleaning, reading, journalling, taking a long bath/shower, listening to nice music, and anything else that makes you feel relaxed and happy.

Something that I’m a sucker for is lighting a couple of nice candles, putting on some soft jazz in the bathroom before taking a long, hot shower. It sounds excessive but hey, it makes me happy and relaxed and that’s the whole point here. We want to do everything we can to signal to your body that it’s safe to sleep.

If you’re someone who struggles with insomnia frequently (like me), it’s worth mentioning that you shouldn’t stay in bed if you’re not going to fall asleep. Get out of your bedroom, sit in low light (I like fairy lights for night lighting because it’s warm, dim, and cute), and do something that relaxes you. If you’ve got racing thoughts, write them all out — pen and paper, of course. Stay away from screens and bright lights! You might want to do some reading. Maybe some meditation. You want to do the same kind of activities in your normal wind-down until you feel sleepy enough to go back to bed. Don’t just lie there awake.

There are always the classic “hacks” that wouldn’t hurt you to incorporate — stuff like putting your alarm away from your bed, charging your phone outside of the bedroom, laying out out tomorrow’s clothes and making sure your bedroom is at a cooler temperature for sleep. I’ve tried all of these with varying degrees of success, but honestly, the key thing is just to start preparing for sleep earlier. If you find yourself worrying about all the things you still have to do that day, just write it down and do it the next morning. We’re supposed to be waking up earlier, remember?


Morning strategies can be broken down into the following focus areas: sleepiness, comfort, purpose, sustenance. For this to work, you’re going to have to tailor each focus for your own needs. Here’s how I’ve approached them, but you’ll need to do the work of finding what works for you.

The first thing I’m going to concentrate on is removing the symptoms of sleepiness. This is the most important step! The feeling of sleepiness is the first hump to get over when you’re trying to wake up in the morning. You know how some days you press snooze over the course of an hour (or two) and still feel like crap? But when you force yourself to get up right away, it isn’t actually that bad? Once you’re over the sleepiness hump, everything else becomes that much easier.

So what makes your body feel like it’s still sleepy? When I get up in the mornings, my eyes always feel dry and gritty. My throat feels dry and gritty. Dry, dry, dry. Gritty, gritty, gritty. So the first two steps of my morning routine look like this:

  1. Put eye drops in eye (they don’t need to be expensive, they just need to be wet)
  2. Chug one (1) full glass of water. I don’t always feel like it, so I count my gulps to get through it all.

Just after the eye drops, I suddenly feel awake. Even though the only thing I’ve changed is the wetness of my eyeballs. Bodies are weird. Your sleepiness symptoms might be different, so identify what they are for you, and eliminate them with our modern technological splendour.

The other thing to note is that sleepiness is controlled by your melatonin levels, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Melatonin is a part of your circadian rhythm, and it rises and falls against the sun. You might have noticed that it’s so much harder to get up in the wintertime. This is why! The sun is nature’s alarm clock, and when the sun sleeps, so do you. Except we live in a capitalist society where clocks are superior, so fuck you, sun! This is the part where we haXXor our bodies. We’re going to make a wake-up light.

There are two crucial things for a wake-up light to work. First, is colour temperature.

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You’re going to want a light that can go up to at least 6500K if you want to trigger the reduction of melatonin. If your light is emitting a comforting warm-white colour, it simply won’t work. We’re trying to deceive our bodies into thinking the sun has risen, and the sun is a flaming nuclear furnace, not a wee incandescent bulb.

Secondly, your light has to be bright enough. Uncomfortably bright. Real sunlight provides a luminance of about 2000 lux, so for a small room, anything close to 5000 lumens should do you.

The brightness of lights will usually be measured in lumens. If you are buying an array of lights (like an LED strip), you add up all the lumens (because more lights = more brightness, right?). So, a 30 LED strip of 150 lumen LEDs = 4500 lumens. To get to the lux value, it depends on how big the space you’re lighting is. Here’s a quick formula:

lux = (lumens * light sources) / room size in square metres

Or, you could just do what I did and buy this wifi LED strip. Or, for a cheaper option, a timer plug attached to a multi-box linked to some cool-white lamps will do the trick too.

To really simulate the sun, we’ve got ours taped to the inner frame of our bedroom window to make it look like sunlight coming in from outside. It’s surprisingly effective. I’m always surprised when I walk into the lounge only to find it’s dark outside.

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Our bedroom window with simulated sunlight (it’s dark outside)

With fancier lights, you can control things like colour temperature and brightness. For our light, we have it timed to fade in from dim to bright, warm light to cool light, over the course of 15 minutes before our normal alarms.

Okay, next thing: comfort. You could probably stop after the sleepiness symptom removal, but I want to make getting out of bed a comfortable experience. I wanted to be one of those people that liked getting up in the morning (ridiculous). For me, because I live in New Zealand and we don’t understand the concept of insulation, it’s warmth. For you, that might be something like setting the AC or your thermostat on a timer. Now my morning looks like this:

  1. Eye drops
  2. Put on gigantic fluffy robe, fluffy socks
  3. Chug one (1) glass of water

(By the way, if you’re a woman buying a robe/dressing gown: go straight to the men’s section! Don’t even bother with the women’s section. The men’s gowns are higher quality, thicker, fluffier, and usually cheaper. The world is sexist, what else is new? On that note, buy men’s pants, men’s jackets, men’s t-shirts…)

This is also prime time to do the auto-pilot things you need to do to slowly wake up. That could be making a cup of your favourite beverage, reading a book, whatever. I personally like to stay away from news until later in the afternoon, because I find it sucks me into an anxiety spiral way too quickly.

Now that you’re human, you can focus on why you got up in the first place. It might be making time to read, or making time to exercise. I wanted time to write and work on personal projects, so this is what I do. Every morning I start with free-writing over a cup of tea, it’s a nice way to slowly spin the gears up. Then I move onto whatever project I’m working on — recently it’s been organising RailsBridge Wellington, but at the moment it’s just a lot of writing (as you can see).

If you’re planning to do something that requires more motivation (like exercise), it’ll be worth making the first steps of that a part of your auto-pilot routine. You want to trick yourself into putting on your running gear and getting your butt out the door before your brain has enough time to become conscious and realise it doesn’t want to do the thing. This will be very, very difficult the first week, but just remember that every time you do it, it will get easier and easier. And every time you skip it, it will get harder.

Don’t forget to eat. Unless you’re doing a hardcore fasting thing, eating something in the morning is a great way to kick your body into gear. Anything unprocessed and high in fibre and protein is good, but honestly, eat whatever you want.

My morning and nighttime routines

After years and years of trying to sleep properly, here’s where I’ve come to:

  1. Eye drops
  2. Fluffy robe and socks
  3. Chug one (1) glass of water
  4. Put the jug on to make tea
  5. Sit down at desk and write some stuff
  6. Work on personal projects
  7. Eat breakfast
  8. Change into Real People Clothes, get ready, and head into work

Sometimes I don’t always get around to the personal project stuff and just end up writing, or sometimes I make two cups of tea. Your mornings will vary, and that’s okay. You got up! You already win.

What I want to try next is to get up even earlier, so I can get a good chunk of project work in and arrive at the office at a Normal Person Time, so I can go home at Normal People Time as well. Tiny steps.

  1. Turn off TV, laptop, whatever screen I’m looking at
  2. Put on some nice music in the bathroom (maybe even light candles!)
  3. Brush teeth, go through excessive skincare routine
  4. Write down (pen and paper; no screens) what I want to do tomorrow
  5. Get in bed and do some reading (if there’s time)
  6. Lights owt!

I’m still starting this process around about 9:30pm, so my next steps are trying to inch that wind-down time earlier and earlier. I want to be able to build chores like tidying up and cleaning the kitchen into this routine (something that I’m still very bad at doing).

Again, you’ll have different needs, wants, and variations between different days. Some days you might need to sleep in because you’re under the weather. Some days you might get up but do nothing because you don’t feel like it. Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t follow through — be mindful of why you’re doing what you are, and that you’re actively choosing it¹. If you want to stay up to finish just one more episode, actively choose it. If you want to hit snooze for two hours until you’re late, actively choose it. Approach your behaviour with curiosity, rather than judgement. If you know you’re probably going to do the Bad Behaviour anyway, choose to do it and see what happens. Actively monitor your experience of it. How do you feel during? Is it giving you joy? Enlightenment? Is it giving you the value you had anticipated? Monitor your feelings afterwards. If it was worth it, then it’s all good. If it wasn’t, why? How did you feel? How will you approach the craving to do it again?

The tl;dr

That has been my experience so far in trying to get better sleep. I hope it helps you in some way! Some key takeaways:

  • The most important thing about waking up is getting to sleep. Start winding down ridiculously early.
  • Limit blue light and bright lights when the sun is down, or at least two hours before bed.
  • Wake-up lights are helpful, especially during winter.
  • Focus on just removing the symptoms of sleepiness in the morning, and you will feel awake.
  • Approach your behaviour with curiosity and mindfulness. Don’t beat yourself up—be kind to yourself.

You’ve made it! Thanks for reading this far. I really hope it was helpful. If you liked it, repeatedly smash that clap button so other people can find this too! Go on. I need the social validation so I can feel better about putting what is basically a journal entry up on the internet.

In the next part we’ll talk about taking back control of your attention in the age of endless feeds and novelty. Got another 10 minutes? Check it out here.

Hope you liked it! Until next time 👋

[1]: Shoutout to Sophia who blew my mind with this idea in the Good Habits, Bad Habits episode of our podcast. It has completely changed the way I think about my own behaviour.

Acknowledgements. This series started out as one long, rambly journal entry (and kind of still is), and has been whipped into shape by the generous feedback from my beautiful friends. Thanks especially to Greg, Tom, and Nat for taking their time to read over the walls and walls of text. I know how busy you all are and I appreciate your time so very much. ❤

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