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How I improved my sleep by changing habits

Applying a product development process to redesign my life


Since middle school, I have struggled with countless nights of insomnia because I kept worrying about upcoming exams. Being unable to sleep was frustrating, because I had to continually fight against cloudy thinking and find the energy to perform on the next day. I wasn’t alone. 1/3 of the world’s population suffers from sleep challenges.
 In 2018, my sleep improved significantly after seven months of effort. During this journey, I felt much happier and healthier. I also learned a lot about sleep. I wrote this article to share my process and practical tips. I hope it will help you sleep better!

High-level Summary of My Approach

I tackled the sleep challenges with a holistic problem-solving process, just like how I usually approach product design. This journey allowed me to observe my old sleep habits scientifically and ultimately changed my lifestyle.

Step 1. Identify the root causes of my sleep problems. I collected data by keeping a sleep diary.
Step 2. Try all possible solutions
to find the ones that work for you.
Step 3. Measure the success of my trial and error with metrics such as sleep efficiency (the amount of time you spend asleep divided by the time you spend in bed).
Step 4. Take feedback and iterate on my approaches under the guidance from my sleep doctor regularly.

“We need to set up our sleep to success. Whatever causes the sleep challenge, it has to be confronted and solved.”

My Problem-Solving Process

Step 1. Collecting data through a sleep diary

To identify the root causes of my sleep challenge and track the progress, I kept a sleep diary for six months. Every night, I rigorously recorded data, including “hours of sleep I got every night, what my bedtimes were, how long it took me to fall asleep, and my activities during the day such as physical exercise and caffeine consumption.” Surprisingly, the data collected in my sleep diary proved to be very valuable. It not only provided insights into my sleep problems, but also ultimately became the metrics to measure the success of all the methods I tried.

My sleep diary from April and June 2018

Step 2. Identifying the problem — the sleep pattern

After keeping the sleep diary for three months, my sleep doctor and I discovered one important fact, which has been ignored for years: My hours of sleep fluctuated weekly with a repeated pattern, which was associated with my stress level throughout the week. For example, during the week of June 4th and June 11th, my average daily hours of sleep fluctuated from Sunday to Saturday as “↓3h, ↓3h, ↑9h, ↓3h, ↓3h, ↑8h, ↑8h.” And the rhythm of my week is “quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, slow.” 😅
What I found interesting was that my habits of drinking coffee or exercising were irrelevant factors.

Take the week of June 4th and June 11th as examples, my hours of sleep fluctuated weekly with a repeated pattern.

Step 3. Solving the problem

Because the pattern of a fluctuated sleep hours was my main problem, my top priority was to normalize the amount of daily sleep. To achieve this goal, I had to limit the amount of time I allow myself to sleep. This sounds counterintuitive, but “sleep restriction” creates “sleep deprivation” which ultimately ensure I had the minimal amount of sleep needed daily.
For one month, I disciplined myself to sleep only five hours daily and got up at the crack of dawn. It was very hard to force myself out of bed😔. But my sleep did get more consistent and deeper during those nights.

Next: Optimizing My Sleep with Cognitive and Behavioral Habit Changes

In the fourth month of my sleep resolution, I removed the sleep hour fluctuations. I started to work on increasing my sleep hours from five to seven by building good sleep habits. I developed useful strategies from two perspectives: cognitive and behavioral.

Cognitive habit changes: stay calm and positive

  1. Symptom: Anxieties get exaggerated during the night.
    Be an effective worrier.
    My experience:
    Lying in bed in a quiet dark room, lots of worrying thoughts used to explode at night, such as a early morning meeting on the next day. I learned to cope with nervous thoughts by setting a dedicated time to worry in the evening, and writing down all the thoughts and potential solutions. 
    Knowing I have already worried about every possible thing in the evening, helped me to comfort myself at night. When the middle-of-the-night anxiety rose up, I can tell myself: “I’ve already thought through this. I can relax now and worry about it later”.
  2. Symptom: My mind won’t shut off.
    Solution: Relax before bedtime
    My experience: 
    - Growing up, I never really think of the importance of “relaxing”. I used to work until my bedtime and hoped I could fall asleep after closing the laptop. However, I ended up going to bed, but tossing and turning for hours.
    - I learned it is very necessary to relax before bed, in order to make the night a restful time. Now I spend at least 1 hour to unwind after work: I do yoga and meditate to reset my inner peace. I read books and paint. Those activities make me fullfilled, relaxed and happy.
Left: Practice yoga after work. Middle: My hand-lettering creation of “Namaste”. Right: My watercolor loose floral painting.

3. Symptom: Self-criticism.
Solution: Challenge my thoughts with other possibilities and positive perspectives.
My experience: 
I tend to be very hard on myself. Because I believed self-criticism kept me humble and achieving more. In fact, this mindset made me chase after the “unrealistic perfect Zi” for years. After reading Dr Kristin Neff’s book called Self-Compassion, I realized self-compassion can also motivate me with the power of love.
I write down every day’s achievements and the things made me happy. My notes become a strong support for my positive thoughts when fighting against self-criticism. I also learned to break the negative thoughts loop by challenging my own thoughts: “Oh is it true? Is there any other way to look at it?”

<<Self-compassion>> — The best book I read in 2018.

Behavioral habit changes: stimulus control

Here are tips proved to be useful to me:

  1. Avoid associating your bed with frustration: If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up and do some relaxing activities in another room. I usually read a book and then I will return to bed when I feel tired. Although I might lose 2 hours of sleep time, I can sleep for the rest of the night.
  2. Limit the usage from electronic devices: Keep laptop or phone outside of your bedroom. Don’t check work emails before bedtime. Avoid watching any intense TV at least 1 hour before bed.
  3. Sleep environment improvement: I learned that a clean room = a clean mind. I always get better sleep after decluttering my room.
  4. I have no coffee after 2 pm and no alcohol after 7 pm. I drink more water during the day but reduce water consumption after 8 pm to reduce restroom usage at night.
“If you change nothing, nothing will be changed.”

Correcting Common Misconceptions About Sleep

  1. Sleep improvement is a journey and there is no magic instant solution. You might need to try many methods and find the ones that work for you. A sleep doctor cannot remove your symptoms directly, but they can provide wise advice and help you reflect on your lifestyle.
  2. Not worrying about sleep is half way to the success. When I traveled internationally in a different time zone, I stoped obsessing about falling asleep at certain times. As a result, I slept very well for the entire trip.
  3. Sticking to a regular routine is the key to building a good sleep habit. Insomnia happens. You should still wake up at the same time every day, no matter how much sleep you get at night.
“We might not be able to eliminate all the pains from life, but we can learn to manage it.”

Special thanks to Dr Nicholas C, for his support and guidance. If you enjoyed this article, please 👏 to help other people find it!