Sleep is just one of those things many of us love to skimp on, but it should really be the one thing we never sacrifice.
Despite the supposed popularity of sleeping less and working more, especially among the uber-successful, the data clearly shows that any extra time gained by cheating sleep is outweighed by massive losses in productivity, much worse efficiency, and health problems.
“But Keenan, what about Bill Gates? What about Jeff Bezos? What about all the billionaires who built their empires by only sleeping 4 hours a night and working from dusk til dawn?”
As popular as this idea is, the sleep-deprived self-made billionaire is a myth. In fact, neither Jeff Bezos nor Bill Gates get by on 4 hours of sleep a night (or even 6 hours a night).
These two men, who have each held the title of richest on earth, get 7 hours or more sleep per night on average. Gates is quoted saying he needs at least 7 hours of sleep to get anything done creatively, and Bezos prioritizes a full 8 hours, every night.
Bezos actually hit the nail on the head in a quote for Thrive Global in 2016:
“If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion. When you’re talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity.” — Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
Bezos touched on a deeply important nugget of wisdom regarding sleep: when you lose sleep, you live in a delusion of productivity while actually performing terribly.
A study in 2003 discovered that the longer you go sleep-deprived, the less you notice.
That isn’t to say you stop performing worse, you just stop noticing that you are performing worse.
Participants in this study slept either 4, 6, or the recommended 8 hours a night for two weeks. Tests were done to assess performance in four separate categories as the week progressed. Simultaneously, participants were surveyed to assess how much they rated themselves in terms of “sleepiness.”
For each day that participants slept less than 8 hours, their performance declined in a linear fashion in relation to their sleep debt (the amount of cumulative hours less than if they’d slept 8 hours a night.)
However, participants only “noticed” their lack of performance during the first two nights of sleep deprivation. On the self surveys, they rated themselves as feeling significantly more tired on the first and second day, but only marginally more tired if at all on subsequent days.
This has powerful implications for those who still believe their 4-hour nights are an advantage. As you continue to lose sleep, you stop noticing your losses in performance despite the fact that you are still declining.
What exactly are these losses? Well, one study found that after a mere 17 hours awake — meaning pushing your bedtime by a mere hour later — you begin to perform like someone with a blood alcohol content of .05%. If sleep deprivation continues, this quickly increases to .1% BAC-equivalent performance.
This is just with regard to mental performance and motor skills. Sleep deprivation is a factor in many bodily health issues too.
A Few Effects of Sleep DeprivationIdentify Your Chronotype and Stick to a Sleep Schedule
Dr. Breus’ 4 chronotypes
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
On work contradictions
Prescription: Wake up and go to bed at the same time every dayOptimize Your Light Habits
An introduction to light
Get in the sun first thing upon waking
Lower or eliminate your blue light exposure at night
Prescription: Optimize your morning & night light exposureMaster Temperature
Prescription: Turn down the thermostat at night and take a cold showerLower Your EMF Exposure, or at Least Your Internet Exposure, When You Go to Bed
Prescription: Turn it off or put it on airplaneDo an Evening Ritual: Meditate, Journal, and Write a To-Do List
Future me visualization
The to-do list
Pro-tip: Get counter-intuitive
Prescription: Do an evening ritual, meditate, and write a to-do listBreathing: Sleep Apnea & Air Quality
Prescription: Improve your breathing and get a plant
Supplements and Gear for Better Sleep
Dr. Kirk Parsley’s sleep supplement
The Chilipad Gel
Pulsed EMF devices
Prescription: Supplements & gearConclusion
A Few Effects of Sleep Deprivation
- Increases inflammation, cardiovascular disease markers, & risk for stroke
- Contributes to weight gain
- Predictor for depression
- Shortens lifespan by up to 12 years
- Alters gut microbiota in such a way as to contribute to obesity
I know I’ve probably made the point, but I just want to add one more bit of information that seems key to me.
Sleep is the only time our body uses the glymphatic system, which is essentially a power-washing system for cleaning the brain. That’s right: sleep is the only time our body cleans our most important organ.
The importance of the glymphatic system has led researchers to believe this it is an essential component in understanding how a lack of sleep contributes to psychiatric illness like bipolar and schizophrenia.
So, sleep is one of the most important things you can optimize, be it to improve your performance mentally or physically, lose weight, avoid disease, avoid psychiatric illness such as depression, live a longer life, or avoid heart disease and stroke.
This is actually what I love about sleep: you can do so much to optimize it right now, today, without buying any gear or supplements.
With that said, we will discuss some awesome equipment you can buy to instantly optimize, but the majority of the process is simply about knowledge and habits.
I never had problems with sleeping enough, but I used to wake up tired after sleeping late and going to bed at crazy hours. Despite getting 9 hours a night, I woke up in the middle of the night and would not feel energized in the morning.
Part of this was due to weird habits, like going to bed at 2 a.m. after my bar/restaurant shifts, but part of it had to do with simple sleep habits.
Now, by using simple techniques like journaling before bed, going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time, and keeping the phone off when I’m going to bed, I get much better quality sleep and wake up feeling ready to go for the day.
My goal in this guide is to give you that same feeling and to turn you into a metaphorical “wizard” of sleep. Without further adieu, let’s get started.
Identify Your Chronotype and Stick to a Sleep Schedule
The first step toward optimizing your sleep is understanding a bit of circadian biology and identifying your chronotype.
You may have heard the term “circadian” before. It’s definitely a buzzword in the realm of sleep science.
Your circadian rhythm refers to an all-day hormonal cycle your body follows like a clock. This rhythm determines when you feel alert, tired, jovial, energized, etc.
Now, many people talk as though your circadian rhythm is mostly influenced by your habits, but that doesn’t actually appear to be the case. You can influence your circadian rhythm a little bit — by getting up earlier or later, working out at different times, and changing when you decide to eat. But we each have something called a “chronotype,” which refers to our natural hormonal rhythms during the day. In research on the subject, two extreme chronotypes were originally identified: morningness and eveningness. As time has progressed, multiple chronotypes have been identified to further categorize different circadian rhythms.
My favorite work on the subject of that of Dr. Michael Breus. Breus is a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating sleep disorders. His work has been featured on Dr. Oz, the “Sleep Matters” column in WebMD magazine, and his own writing, “The Insomnia Blog,” which has appeared on Huffington Post and Psychology Today. His book “The Power of When,” delves deeply into the use of circadian biology to plan your day, and most notably, to optimize your sleep.
For our purposes, I find that Dr. Breus’ categorizing of chronotypes is one of the easiest to comprehend and act on for the average non-scientist.
Dr. Breus’ 4 chronotypes
- Lions, The Early Risers: Lions are our morning people. This chronotype typically influences people to get up between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Lions also go to bed the earliest. If you know anyone who likes to go to bed by 9 p.m., they are likely a lion.
- Bears, The Not Too Late, Not Too Early: I am a bear. I like to go to bed between 10 p.m. and midnight, and I wake up between 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. This is the most common chronotype. Bears are not getting up at 6 a.m. before sunrise, but they also are not constantly staying up into the wee hours toward 2, 3 and 4 a.m. According to Dr. Breus, 50% of the population falls into the chronotype of the bear. (Note that many people have tendencies of other chronotypes, even though they tend towards one in general.)
- Wolves, The Late Nighters: Wolves are our classic late-nighters. These are the folks who are always up til’ 2 a.m. If you have any friends who wake up for the day in the afternoon, and who go to sleep in the morning, they are wolves.
- Dolphins, The Insomniacs: I’ve met a few wolves who think they are insomniacs because of their late hours, but they sleep a full 8 hours and get up around noon or 1 in the afternoon. Dolphins are the real insomniacs. Named so because dolphins in the wild sleep with half their brain turned on to watch for predators, Dr. Breus describes dolphins as suffering from not being able to turn off their brain until they are decimated by the exhaustion of sleep deprivation.
Personally, I am a bear with tendencies towards the wolf chronotype. The easiest time for me to go to bed is between 10:30 p.m. and midnight. If I go to bed later than midnight, it is harder for me to fall asleep unless I stay up even later, until 2 a.m. or so. I naturally get up between 8:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.
How do I know I’m a bear? Well, I spent almost a year opening a local rec-center pool when I worked as a head lifeguard. For this stint, I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. in the morning to make breakfast, bike 3 miles to work and open at 4:45 a.m.
I would try to go to bed at 8 p.m. every night. Despite feeling tired, most of the time I’d lie there staring at my ceiling until at least 10 p.m. Needless to say, my mornings were always caffeinated.
I can also adapt more easily to the wolf chronotype than the lion. For example, though waking up early has always been difficult for me, it has always been far easier to work night shifts and to go to bed at 2 a.m. When working in the bar and restaurant industry, though I felt somewhat tired after 11 p.m., I still felt good and capable.
At this point, I’d think most of you can guess your chronotype just based on these descriptions, but if not, Dr. Michael Breus has a free online quiz you can take: The Power of When Quiz.
Lastly, chronotype tendencies go beyond sleep. You can optimize your day down to such details as when to do creative work, when to have sex, or when to exercise. If you’re interested in such things, I definitely recommend Dr. Breus’ book: The Power of When.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
Now that you know your chronotype, pick a time to wake up in the morning and stick to it! Furthermore, go to bed at the same time every night or within 1 hour of that time.
Studies of shift work imply that major negative health consequences occur as a result of frequent circadian desynchrony. Basically, frequently disrupting your circadian rhythm by going to sleep and waking at different times is bad for you.
This theory is based on the data showing that shift work, such as the on-call style work of EMTs or the guard-duty habits of soldiers, causes an increased risk of some cancers, heart disease, lowers mental performance, and sleep deprivation.
Even if you are not sleeping in alignment with your chronotype, it is better by far to sleep at consistent times.
On work contradictions
Some of you may have noticed that your chronotype contradicts your work schedule. I get it, we all gotta eat. However, I am still going to encourage you to get creative. Don’t use your work as an excuse not to try optimizing your sleep.
Many office style jobs will let you do alternative shifts if you just ask, such as 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for bear chronotypes rather than the classic 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You could also request a removal of your lunch break, and just eat at your desk, in order to move your starting time an hour later (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. without a lunch break, for example.)
If I were to guess, however, I’d imagine your work schedule is already closely aligned with your chronotype, if not perfect. When I worked jobs that deeply contradicted my chronotype, such as opening a pool at 5 a.m., I found myself looking for a new line of work quickly.
Prescription: Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day
- Find your chronotype by taking Dr. Breus’ quiz. Pick a time to wake up every morning and go to bed every night (with less than an hour of variability for bedtime) and stick to it.
- For those who are curious, Dr. Breus’ work goes far beyond just sleeping. His work with chronotypes even extends to when you should work out during the day, go to therapy, do creative work, and have sex in order to be optimized by synching with circadian biology. I highly suggest getting a copy of his book: The Power of When.
Note for the dolphins (insomniacs): Fortunately, I do not personally deal with insomnia, nor have I ever. Unfortunately, this means I have no direct experience addressing insomnia. Having said that, implementing the strategies in this guide can’t hurt your chances, as they are all aimed at improving one’s ability to sleep.
Furthermore, you may find the final section — supplements and gear — to be of particular interest. Insomnia is a tough cookie, but there are definitely powerful solutions out there.
Some quick topics I’d also look into would be magnesium and CBD oil. Most people are deficient in magnesium, and it is important for sleep, among many other bodily functions. You can learn more about magnesium from my other Better Humans article, how to supplement with magnesium for health fitness and performance.
CBD, on the other hand, is the non-psychoactive compound found in both marijuana and hemp. It has many profound health benefits, and one of the most common success stories I hear about with CBD is treating insomnia.
I like CBD quite a bit. I don’t use it too much because it can be pricey, but if I dealt with insomnia and CBD cured it, I imagine I’d be pretty happy purchasing it regularly.
The brand I’ve always used for CBD is Elixinol. Elixinol is clinical grade and provides CBD for other sellers. Here’s an awesome podcast about CBD and Elixinol on Cellular Healing TV.
Optimize Your Light Habits
Going to bed at night starts with how you get up in the morning. Our circadian rhythm is a cycle you start influencing the moment you wake up, and you can start optimizing your night with your habits in the morning.
An introduction to light
First and foremost is light. I’ve written extensively on this subject in my first Better Humans article: How to Use Light to Optimize Your Mind.
With regard to sleep, here’s the gist:
The two basic ways of using light to optimize your sleep are to :
- Expose yourself to high-frequency light (ideally sunlight) in the morning, upon waking
- Limit your exposure to bright light in the later hours of the day, especially after sundown
Get in the sun first thing upon waking
Studies have found that exposure to short pulses of blue light in the morning can cause the body to create melatonin, a sleep hormone responsible for starting the process of going to bed, earlier in the day.
To take advantage of this effect, try to get out in the sun as quickly as possible upon waking in the morning. The sun is THE light source our circadian biology evolved around, and when in doubt, getting outside is the best way to “tune” your rhythm using light.
If the sun isn’t out yet when you wake up in the morning, turn on as many lights in your house as possible to create an artificial effect.
The studies on using blue light in this manner suggest exposure for at least 30 minutes.
If you have the ability to do something outside for 30 minutes upon waking, great. However, if not, then just go outside for 5 minutes, and then turn on the lights inside your house.
There are many ways to optimize this habit, but one of my favorites is to use my 30 minutes of morning sun as an excuse to get in some mindful movement. Go for a walk with your dog, or do a set of 20 push-ups or jumping jacks outside. If you have experience with yoga, get a few sun salutations in.
These are not sleep habits, but steady-state exercise activates the lymphatic system, which is one of our body’s prime detox tools.
If you can or want to, add a 20 to 30-minute “tanning” session at some point during the day with minimal clothing. Vitamin D plays an essential role in the production of melatonin, which is, again, an essential sleep hormone.
You can get some of this benefit using your morning sun exposure, but 20 to 30 minutes of “tanning” during later parts of the day, when the sun is more intense, will be more effective.
As a general rule, you should not get sunburnt. Heck, you don’t even need to actually tan. I’ve raised my Vitamin D to optimal levels by doing 20-minute sessions in the afternoon, 3 times a week.
Lower or eliminate your blue light exposure at night
Artificial Light At Night (ALAN) has been found to hinder melatonin production. This results in it being harder to go to bed on time and lowers sleep quality during the night.
Therefore, one of the best tactics for optimizing your sleep at night is to lower your exposure to artificial light.
In general, you want to expose your eyes to as little light as possible after sundown, but you especially want to avoid bright screens like those on your phone, TV, or laptop.
The cheapest way to do this is to pick a time to turn off your phone and other devices and read fiction instead of watching TV before bed. Even better is to lower the lights inside and listen to an audiobook.
One of the easiest ways to avoid artificial light at night is to purchase blue-light blocking glasses. These glasses, as you might have guessed, block out the most intense frequencies of light that cause eye strain and mess with sleep.
Gunnar is a great brand. They specialize in glasses for professional video gamers who are constantly staring at screens.
In a pinch, simple orange shades from the gas station will suffice.
Prescription: Optimize your morning & night light exposure
- Go outside for 5–30 minutes and do some morning movement, like push-ups, yoga, or walking the dog first thing upon waking. In a pinch, turn on all the lights inside for the first few hours of the morning — either in conjunction with, or instead of, going outside.
- At night, turn off your phone an hour or two before bed, and generally avoid light from device screens after sundown. You can make this much easier by getting a pair of blue-light blocking glasses such as those by Gunnar.
We mentioned light earlier, but temperature may be an even more important factor when it comes to sleep.
Lowering your body temperature helps the body create melatonin in the evening. Sleeping in a room that is over 71 degrees Fahrenheit can impair sleep quality, having a negative effect on both REM and deep sleep.
Lower your thermostat to a temperature in this range leading up to bedtime. I personally find that 62 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for me.
Another tool is to try cooling down leading up to bed. One of the popular uses for cold showers is as a way to relax before bed.
I personally find it to be too energizing to do a cold shower directly before I’m trying to sleep. Instead, I take my shower a good while before I go to bed and alternate between hot and cold water, and feel I definitely get a benefit. So, try taking an alternating hot/cold shower 1.5 to 2 hours before bed.
Alternating between hot and cold makes it easier, for one. Just jumping into a cold shower is tough for most people, but going from hot water to cold water feels pretty good.
I also find that by alternating between hot and cold, I feel like I’m somewhat “exhausting” myself, and I begin feeling sleepy every time I shift the water temperature.
The key is to end on cold since our goal is to lower our body temperature. I typically do 1 minute with hot water, then 1–2 minutes of cold water. If I feel pretty energized and awake, I might add another round of each.
Word to the wise: don’t overdo it. You should not be shivering, in the shower or out. Instead, you should feel comfortably relaxed upon exiting the shower. If you start to feel pretty cold, it’s time to stop the shower.
For a great Better Humans article about the benefits of cold showers, check this one out by author May Pang.
Lastly, if you still have trouble sleeping in a cold room, try wearing some thick socks. Physiology research implies that warm feet help sleep at night.
Prescription: Turn down the thermostat at night and take a cold shower
- Sleep in a room that is comfortably cold, somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. If you keep your home in this temperature range already, lower it by at least 1 degree at night to imitate changing temperatures at night.
- If needed, try taking and alternating hot and cold shower 1.5 to 2 hours before bed. Make sure to end on cold.
- If you still have trouble sleeping, especially if you feel too cold, try wearing some thick socks.
Lower Your EMF Exposure, or at Least Your Internet Exposure, When You Go to Bed
Everyone get your tinfoil hats ready, we’re gonna talk about electromagnetic frequencies (EMF).
EMFs are electrical fields that are emitted by electronics. The topic itself is somewhat controversial, with people on one side convinced that power lines are causing cancer, and those on the other side claiming EMF dangers are all fear-mongering and pseudo-science.
Frankly, I’m not here to weigh in on the broad topic of EMF. However, there is some very powerful research with regard to one specific set of electronics: cell phones.
The work of Dr. Martin Pall discovered that cell phone EMF frequencies may cause breaks in DNA via activation of voltage-gated calcium channels in our cells, releasing a free-radical known as CA2.
Basically, cell phone EMF increases inflammation and has been indirectly linked to DNA damage.
Now, I’m not here saying throw away your WiFi router or move to Mexico and get off the grid. There are some interesting studies about EMF and I personally believe it has some biological effects that aren’t the greatest, but more research is needed.
That said, Pall’s work with cell phones is pretty solid, and it’s at least worth taking measures to protect.
I suggest that everyone turn off their phone or put it on airplane mode while they sleep. I personally try to turn off my phone when I don’t need it even during the day, though admittedly this is more for avoiding distractions.
For one thing, the LED lights and the screen will mess with your sleep just from blasting your eyes with artificial light, and turning off your phone removes the urge to be a late-night web browser. But the second point: according to Dr. Pall’s research, a phone sitting by your head all night is causing inflammation in your body while you are not even using it.
Whether you are concerned about EMFs or not, I see absolutely no reason why your phone needs to be turned on and connected to your cell service while you sleep. If you use sleep apps, just put your phone on airplane mode. This cuts all wireless signals, WiFi, cellular, or otherwise.
I also find that learning to be OK with your phone being off, and people being unable to reach you, has a relaxing effect. You might be worrying right now: “But Keenan? What if there’s an emergency? What if someone needs to reach me while I’m sleeping?”
And my response is, “Come on, when is the last time anyone needed to reach you while you were asleep for an emergency and you actually woke up, or they couldn’t get someone else if you didn’t respond?”
Let it go. There are plenty of people out there for your friends and family to reach out to in the odd situation that they have an emergency while you are sleeping.
Furthermore, if you’re like me, it’s not potential emergencies that keep your phone on at night: it’s the monkey-brained desire for a distraction. I can’t count the number of times I’ve caught myself tired, in bed after midnight, yet still scrolling through Instagram or my messages app.
Turning the phone off or putting it on airplane mode forces you to stop browsing the ADD-inducing interweb.
And put aside EMF if you don’t find the research compelling. A study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that device use before bed, especially interactive devices like phones, correlated with later sleep-times and more difficulty going to bed.
I first heard about the benefits of turning your phone off at night back in 2015, and started implementing the practice back then. I felt such a noticeable difference in my sleep that I can remember it well, even now, and I still implement this practice. Is it because I’m reducing harmful EMFs from causing DNA damage in my brain? Or is it just that I am not distracted by messages, Instagram, and the internet?
Either way, for me, it works, and I strongly recommend getting into this habit yourself.
If you do want to dive deeper into the rabbit hole of EMF, I suggest the book The Non-Tinfoil Hat Guide to EMF by Nicolas Pineault. Nicolas is a journalist who does a great job giving a broad and accurate view of how EMFs may or may not affect our health. With that said, I do think this is a topic we should keep an eye on.
Prescription: Turn it off or put it on airplane
- Ideally, turn off your phone when you go to sleep to avoid DNA damage from cell phone EMF. If you use sleep apps, you can just put your phone on airplane mode.
- Not convinced about the EMF-is-bad theory? Turn it off anyway. Simply cutting yourself off from social media and distractions is plenty powerful enough to improve your sleep.
- Read The Non-Tinfoil Hat Guide To EMF if you want to deep dive on the subject, but remember that both myself and the author are only talking about how EMF might affect biology. The strongest research is around cell-phone EMF specifically, and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on, but not worrying yourself to death over.
Do an Evening Ritual: Meditate, Journal, and Write a To-Do List
Now that your phone is off, or at least in airplane mode, this is an optimal time to slow down, write down your thoughts from the day, contemplate the future, and, if you’re bold enough, meditate.
And we’ve got science to back that up!
A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that participants who wrote a to-do list before bed fell asleep significantly faster.
In my experience, writing down your plans for the coming day helps you to get them out of your head, so to speak. If I journal before bed, I feel like I can relax and I don’t have to sit there thinking about what to do the next day. I already wrote it down, so we’re good.
If, on the other hand, I just go to bed after my day, with no form of contemplation or writing, I’ll catch myself stuck in thought loops trying to figure out what to do tomorrow.
Now, you can take this part of the article and simply begin writing a to-do list about your following day, but I like to take things a step further and create a 15 to 20-minute evening ritual for reflecting on the day and optimizing the night.
I start by answering 5 questions from the book Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine. Mark was a Navy SEAL commander for 20 years, is a martial artist, and a yogi as well as the creator of 6 million-dollar businesses (most notably SEALfit academy & The Unbeatable Mind Program.)
This is where I first came across the idea of the evening ritual.
To perform an evening ritual, pick a space in your house to dedicate to journaling and reflection. I find it is more effective if this place is not your bedroom so that you are not laying down or thinking of bed.
When you have entered your space, be it your office, the kitchen, or wherever, sit with your journal and answer the following questions:
- Was I “on” today? Or was I “off” and unbalanced?
- What contributed to this feeling?
- What were the 3 most positive things I accomplished today and what did I learn from them?
- Are there any problems I would like my subconscious mind to solve tonight? (This one is a bit strange. Essentially, you are asking if there are unique problems you’d like to be addressed by your dreams. Sometimes dreams offer profound wisdom. If you like this question, be sure to keep a pad and pen by the bed to record your dreams when you wake in the morning.)
- What went wrong today and what can I learn from it?
Write down your answers to these questions, then perform a meditative exercise.
In Way of the SEAL, Mark Divine has his readers use this time to do visualization work in something known as the “mind gym.” Creating your mind gym and familiarizing yourself with its use is a project that is undertaken over the course of his book, so I won’t be asking you to attempt that here.
However, there is an incredibly powerful visualization I like to use called “future me” that fits just as well, if not better after the evening ritual.
Future me visualization
Sit with your back straight, either in a cross-legged position and/or with your back against a wall, or sitting erect on a hard chair.
Spend five minutes deep breathing by taking a five-second inhale through your nose, filling the lungs to full capacity, then exhaling for five seconds through the nose or the mouth. I find that the best method here is to find an ambient song that is five minutes long, so that you are not jolted out of your breathing by an alarm.
You can also simply count your breaths. 30 breaths is five minutes. This can add a mindfulness aspect of counting to the breathing.
After five minutes, let go of your breath by allowing your lungs to breath “as they want to.”
Now, breathing normally, imagine you are sitting in a theater, alone, watching a big white screen.
3-month image: On the screen, see a movie of yourself in 3 months time, in optimal health, pursuing your goals, and living your life.
Try to incorporate as much detail as possible into this visualization. Are you at a particular coffee shop? Are you more fit? More wealthy? Working on a new project? Living in a new place?
For the 3-month meditation, I usually see myself doing many of the same things as I do now, just further progressed, and feeling confident, healthy, and active. The idea is to see an ideal and possible future three months from now. Notice I did not say “realistic,” but possible.
Even if you don’t achieve this future, it is very important that you envision a desired future that is possible, even if unrealistic. This meditation helps you “practice” being the kind of person you’d like to be, and I’ve found it helpful for both pursuing my goals and identifying areas I need to work on.
1-year image: After spending some time in the 3-month meditation, bring the screen back to blank, and now start a new visualization of your ideal, possible future a year from now.
This is the time to see some of your longer-term goals being either already fulfilled and moved past, or actively resolving. This is a great meditation for imagining desired but difficult to predict futures, like moving to an ideal city or being in a new relationship.
The more details the better, although, again, it’s not important that these futures ever actually happen. The point is to orient yourself towards your desired future.
Personally, my future me meditations are always changing slightly. However, my big goals generally remain the same, and doing these visualizations helps me “see” how I’m moving toward these futures in the present.
3-year image: The final visualization is to go a full 3 years in the future. Imagine waking up on this day, 2022. What are you doing? Where do you live? What major goals have you long accomplished and what bigger, better future are you driving toward now?
Get creative. Life can be vastly different in 3 years, after all. Maybe you’ve gone back to college or started a new business. Maybe you live on a beach now or finally learned to play the guitar.
Merge with your future selves: You can repeat this exercise or modify it as much as you like for different timelines. You could do six months, five years, and ten years, for example.
Regardless, once you finish your last visualization, see these future versions of yourself clearly in your mind.
Now, imagine them collapsing into you and unifying into you all as one person. It’s important to feel like you are them, right now, and have lived these lives already.
You may notice feelings of joyous confidence. After all, why wouldn’t you feel a sense of surety after combining with versions of you that have achieved your ideal, desired, and possible futures?
Smile and feel gratitude, and continue on with your day.
The to-do list
Now, finally, you can do your to-do list. I find that writing this list after being in a meditative space allows me to better access my intuition.
You can start by identifying the most important things you need to do for the day. I often write down my “one thing,” meaning the number one thing that will move my life closer to my goals more than any other, and then I’ll write down the 4 next-important tasks to do after.
Once you have an idea of what you want to get done, do your best to write down your to-do list in order of time.
For example, I’ll write down something like this:
7:30AM: Morning ritual, feed dogs (Morning movement, sunlight, hydrate, cold shower)
8:30AM-10AM: Phone-off work on The One Thing
10AM-1PM: Work at coffeeshop on One Thing & tasks
1:00PM-2:30PM: Make & eat lunch, and 30 minute nap or guided meditation
2:30PM/3:00PM: Work session 2
5:00PM: Workout 1 hour
6:00PM: Cook dinner, do 15 minutes of mobility work on problem areas while listening to an audiobook
6:30PM: Eat dinner while listening to podcasts/audiobook, or watching an episode of TV
7:30PM: Write, read, or watch TV
8:30PM: Turn off phone, hot/cold shower, do more mobility work such as foam rolling, and/or read fiction
9:30PM: Do evening ritual
10:00PM: Go to bed
Most of the time, this schedule ends up being stretched out. I’ll end up working longer, throwing other activities in, watching more TV than I intended, etc. That’s not the point.
The point is that when I go to bed at night, I have a clear idea in my head about how the following day is gonna go, thanks to my to-do list, and I’m not worried about it.
I fall asleep much more easily by comparison, and over time.
Pro-tip: Get counter-intuitive
Of all places, I learned this little trick in the book Man’s Search for Meaning by the Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl, on top of writing one of the most profound philosophical pieces of our era, was also a capable psycho-analyst.
At one point in his book, while discussing psychology, he mentioned a little trick that just stuck with me: if you find yourself lying in bed unable to go to bed, simply stop desiring to go to bed.
Sounds counter-intuitive right? Still, I think you just might burst out in laughter once you experience this.
We’ve all had the experience of sitting there wanting to fall asleep, and the very wanting itself seems to keep us awake. So, to counteract this, start wanting to stay awake. Seriously, just tell yourself you want to stay awake, exactly like you are already doing.
The effect this has for me is that, as soon as I switch my thought pattern, I will suddenly relax and, paradoxically, have an easier time falling asleep.
I think this occurs because wanting to fall asleep is an anxious, worry-style thought, whereas wanting to stay awake is anything but worrisome. After all, you’re already awake so you’re getting what you want, and can now relax about the whole mess.
I don’t have fancy data to back this up or anything, it’s just a little psychological trick that I’ve found helpful.
Prescription: Do an evening ritual, meditate, and write a to-do list
- Answer some contemplative questions in a space other than your room sometime close before going to bed.
- Do a future-me meditation to enter an intuitive state.
- Write a detailed to-do list of your plans the following day, and if you find yourself lying in bed wanting to go to sleep, flip your thoughts and instead decide to want to stay awake.
Breathing: Sleep Apnea & Air Quality
This is by far the most recent area of interest for me regarding sleep. On the sleep tracking app I use, Sleep Cycle (which is admittedly not the most accurate thing in the world) I usually score highly. However, I’ve always been someone who wakes slowly, and sometimes my sleep tracker tells me I snore.
Now, I have a big Anatolian shepherd who sleeps on my bed, and she snores even when she’s awake — so it’s probably just her, but I’ve often wondered if I might have some level of sleep apnea.
For those of you who are not already aware, sleep apnea is an extremely common condition whereby sleep quality is interrupted by a lack of oxygen due to poor/restricted breathing.
How common is sleep apnea? Prevalence in the general population may be as much as 38%, higher in men, and it increases in prevalence as we age. Some elderly groups displayed sleep apnea in 90% of their population.
This means that on average, 2 out of 5 people have obstructive sleep apnea, yet I know that 2 out of 5 people I know are not treating such a condition. In fact, I only know one person who has been diagnosed and uses a CPAP machine.
Sleep apnea puts you at risk for a number of diseases, including depression and mental conditions. This isn’t terribly surprising. I mean, it’s basically just another way you end up with sleep deprivation.
Discovering you have sleep apnea is where things get more complicated, and is likely why so few people are aware they have the condition, despite the high prevalence in research studies.
To find out you have sleep apnea, you need someone to observe you while you sleep, and with the exception of the health-inclined spouse, most of us probably don’t have someone who is doing this that also knows what to look for.
The signs of sleep apnea are:
- Snoring. The louder and more consistent, the more likely you are dealing with obstructed breathing as a result.
- Short, bated breathing, especially if followed by gasping and sudden deep, panicked breaths.
- Feeling tired, especially in the morning. This is the main reason I’ve become curious about sleep apnea. Now, don’t get me wrong, plenty of people are just “slow starters,” but fatigue in the morning can be a sign of poor sleep quality.
To be clear, none of these signs are diagnostic tools. You may display any or all of these and not have sleep apnea, but if you’ve been told you snore, or feel like videotaping yourself at night to find out, then you may want to look into sleep apnea.
Heck, even if you don’t snore, remember that up to 2 out of 5 people have the condition.
To find out officially if you have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder specialist will use either a nocturnal polysomnograph or a home sleep test. These test measure such markers as your heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and other biological markers to determine if you have sleep apnea.
For the purposes of this guide, however, I simply request you ask yourself if sleep apnea feels like a reasonable possibility for you.
There are lifestyle changes you can make to eliminate or remedy mild sleep apnea without using expensive gear such as an airway pressure device (such as the CPAP machine).
The easiest method I know of is to use nasal strips. You know those strips you see football players wear? It helps them keep their nasal passage open. These also have surprising efficacy for treating mild sleep apnea, and they are inexpensive too.
Grab some from the pharmacy section of a local CVS, or order them on Amazon, and see if it improves your sleep.
According to the Mayoclinic, other lifestyle changes you can make to reduce sleep apnea are:
- Lose weight: Weight loss can reduce constriction around the throat.
- Exercise: Exercise, even without weight loss, can improve sleep apnea. Mayoclinic recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity a day.
- Avoid sleep medications and alcohol: These can relax the muscles in the throat, leading to poor breathing mechanics while sleeping.
- Sleep on your side or belly: If you sleep on your back and suspect sleep apnea, try sleeping on your side. Most people notice an adaptation period when choosing a new sleeping position, but in general, the “fetal” position is considered to be a more natural sleeping position. It also is more favorable for the airway. Sleeping on your back can allow your head and jaw to fall into strange positions that affect breathing.
- Don’t smoke: Smoking irritates the tissues in the throat and mouth and also increases phlegm. If you smoke and don’t sleep well, consider quitting.
Beyond addressing your personal breathing, the quality of the air in your house and especially the bedroom can directly affect your sleep quality.
The effects of poor air quality can contribute to all manner of health problems, including respiratory conditions and cancer.
Anything that affects the respiratory system will also affect sleep for many of the reasons described in the sleep apnea section.
Furthermore, indoor environments often have less oxygen and more carbon dioxide, due to the simple fact that people and animals in the house are breathing in the oxygen and creating carbon dioxide.
Unsurprisingly, sleep quality was improved in research where subjects slept in higher oxygen, higher air quality environments.
So, what can we do?
Well, the easiest habit is to simply open a window. I live in Texas, and from November until approximately April, we have many under-67 degree days. It also tends not to get excessively cold. For this reason, I find it beneficial to simply open a window while I sleep, both to cool down the room and to improve air quality.
However, I live in Texas, and from April 1st until Halloween, the weather tends to trend upwards of 70 degrees Fahrenheit each day. Like, way upward. I’m talking consistent 95 degree days and hitting the 100-degree mark through August.
I can’t open a window without toasting myself, so I need to use other methods to improve air quality.
Get some plants. The cheapest and easiest way to improve the air quality in your home is to get some house plants. Plants operate opposite to animals when it comes to the air: they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.
In a large study by NASA, having a wide variety of plants in the house was found to be effective for increasing the oxygen and humidity of the house, while simultaneously reducing indoor pollutants.
Furthermore, it’s an easy way to liven up and beautify your home.
Prescription: Improve your breathing and get a plant
- 2 out of 5 Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Lower your odds by sleeping on your side, using nasal strips, and/or exercising regularly.
- If you suspect more severe apnea, get a diagnosis via a sleep disorder specialist.
- Indoor air quality can be up to 5 times more polluted than outdoor. This contributes to respiratory problems and affects sleep. Get a plant (or several) for your bedroom and your house to increase oxygen and humidity, and lower pollution. If weather permits, open a window.
Supplements and Gear for Better Sleep
I decided to save this section for last for two reasons: I wanted as much of this guide to be cheap or free as possible, and the components of this section can be used to modify or complement the earlier sections.
Unlike previous sections, this one won’t have a specific “theme.” Instead, I will simply share a supplement or piece of gear I’ve used, and then tell you what it is good for.
First and foremost:
Dr. Kirk Parsley’s sleep supplement
This is the only sleep supplement I use. Dr. Kirk Parsley is an MD who is also a former Navy SEAL. The Navy SEALs are hard workers, yet even after proving their abilities, many of them begin to drop in performance once on the job.
Dr. Parsley noticed similar phenomena among students during the brutal medical rotations he partook in during his years becoming a doctor.
Eventually, he made the connection with sleep (or lack thereof.)
Both SEALs and med students spend long periods of time staying up all night, either for military ops or for medical rotations, and then attempting to sleep through the day.
Much of the time, they use sleep medications like Ambien to achieve this. Here’s the issue: medications like Ambien don’t actually let you “sleep”. It’s more akin to being “knocked out,” and analysis of sleep patterns reveals very little deep sleep is achieved on these medications.
In his pursuit to help the SEALs and shift workers in general, Dr. Parsley developed an all-natural “sleep cocktail” to simulate the hormone situation in your body just before bed.
The supplement contains minerals that are essential for sleep such as magnesium, a small amount of the hormone melatonin, and the amino acid 5-HTP. This is a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin phGABA, which is a precursor for the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA, and tryptophan which can be used by the body to make serotonin as well.
Dr. Parsley recommends taking his supplement until you run out of the box. From there, you can choose to keep using it or not, however, most people notice improved sleep patterns regardless, once they’ve used it all the way through once.
Honestly, if I’m having any kind of sleep troubles, this right here is my number one go-to. At $60, it’s a little pricey, but it works well and induces feelings of sleepiness very quickly without making you feel groggy or drowsy like medication.
Furthermore, my sleep quality always improves when using it.
You can get this supplement directly from DocParsley.com.
The Chilipad Gel
Chili Technology is an awesome company that makes bedsheets that stay cold. Now, their main products are in the range of $800 to over a grand, as they are cooled down by a machine and cover a whole king-sized bed.
If you have money to blow, the chiliPAD is one of the most popular devices among the successful for getting better sleep. I first heard about it in Tim Ferriss’ book “Tools Of Titans” which is a summary of over 300 interviews of top performers, ranging from big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, The Glitch Mob, Russel Brunson, and more.
The chiliPAD is one of the most popular purchases by interviewees throughout the entirety of the book.
ChiliPAD lets you control your sleep temperature under the sheets, and they even make versions where your partner can change the temperature of their side of the bed from yours.
However, at prices like $1k for larger models, it’s not the most affordable piece of gear in the world.
This is where the ChiliGel cooling pad comes in. Instead of being a full-sized bedcover, cooled off by a motor, the ChiliGel pad is about the size of your torso and is filled with a gel that gets cold chemically.
It is also, by comparison, only $60.
Though definitely not as effective as the full-sized ChiliPAD products, I find that the gel pad is just enough “cold” to induce tiredness. As you lay on the pad, it will warm up to your body temperature, but for at least some period of time, it feels nice and cold.
I recommend laying the pad on your bed horizontally so that you only cover half the pad when sleeping. This leaves the other half “cold” so you can roll over onto it later in the night if needed.
The ChiliGel pad is available from retailers like Bed, Bath, & Beyond.
Binaural beats aren’t so much “gear” or “supplements” but sound. These are noise tracks that utilize two alternating frequencies that will induce a specific brainwave state. Here’s a relevant study.
For our purposes, some binaural beats are tuned to get your mind in the Delta wavelength, which is optimal for relaxation and sleep.
Binaural beats can be found all over the place, from CDs to YouTube tracks. However, I personally use the website Brain.fm.
Lifetime membership is $40, and I quickly forgot the cost. I’ve had access for over 3 years and I believe I’ve used it every night since.
Brain.fm provides binaural beats for focus, relaxation, and sleep, with a variety of great variations and also guided meditations. I cannot recommend it enough for these purposes.
You can try Brain.fm for free for five sessions.
Pulsed EMF devices
I don’t own a PEMF device personally, but I have used them and they are incredible for sleep.
This is probably the most advanced tool for sleep, but if you’ve got the spare cash, it can be an incredible investment not only for sleep but also for recovery.
PEMF devices operate based on research showing clinical benefits from pulsing certain electromagnetic fields on the body.
The Earthpulse is more advanced and definitely offers the most variety. You can customize it to focus on sleep, recovery, lowering pain, etc.
The Delta Sleeper SR1 is less expensive but only has one setting.
With that said, if you can get either of these tools, I think you’ll love it. The Delta Sleeper SR1 honestly felt like I was cheating when I used it. I fell asleep quickly and had one of the best nights of my life in terms of sleep quality. I woke rested and ready to go.
Prescription: Supplements & gear
- Try Dr. Kirk Parsley’s sleep remedy for a month, especially if you have difficult sleep issues. It was developed to help Navy SEALs and shift workers get quality sleep despite crazy hours. Available here.
- If you have trouble with temperature, look into ChiliPAD or ChiliGel pad is a simple and affordable product that can address feeling hot under the covers. If you have more money to spend, the full-sized chiliPAD devices are very popular among top performers around the world.
- Use binaural beats to induce delta wavelength for sleep. My preference is Brain.fm
- If you want to get really advanced, invest in a PEMF device such as the Earthpulse or the Delta Sleeper.
So, there you have it: a thorough guide to improving your sleep using free methods, plus a few products for advanced needs.
Discover your circadian rhythm and pick a time of day to go to sleep and wake up that is consistent. Optimize this rhythm by using sunlight and avoiding artificial light to get your body to make sleep hormones earlier.
Keep your room cool at night to further align with circadian biology, and use an evening ritual to quiet the mind.
Finally, investigate sleep apnea and take the measures to improve both your breathing and to improve air quality, such as by opening a window and buying some plants.
If you’ve stuck with me through this guide, you now have a foundational view about how to master your sleep across multiple spectrums. If you still have sleep issues after using this guide, you can always invest in some of the supplements and gear mentioned in the final section.
To be clear, this isn’t truly “everything” you can do to improve sleep. For example, we didn’t talk about exercise or doing foam rolling (soft-tissue massage) before bed. Another very popular practice is inversion, meaning hanging upside down to get blood flow to the brain. There are tons of other methods out there you may come across, and I fully promote looking into them and using them.
However, I think the content in this guide is among the least expensive, most effective, and most actionable that you can try. I use all the habits here to improve my own sleep, and I think you will find great success in doing the same.
As always, thank you for reading and good luck on your self-optimization journey!