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Engineering The Perfect Sleep: 10 Steps To Follow Tonight

Let’s cut the crap: Everyone knows that sleep is important. But with so much to do, how do busy guys ensure they get enough shut-eye? Here are 10 simple steps we use to engineer the perfect night of sleep every time. Use it tonight. Thank us in the morning.

Sleep is my drug.

After six years in military special operations and a few more doing private security work overseas, I have an attitude towards sleep that’s like the appreciation you gain for oxygen after too long at the bottom of a swimming pool: I will do anything for it.

This doesn’t mean that I’m particularly good at sleeping, however.

I’m highly prone to insomnia and used to find myself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. doing the dreaded “sleep math”, working out how many hours I could get if I just went to sleep right now.

Most busy guys I know feel the same.

So if you’ve ever walked through the day more like a zombie and less like a man — if you passionately hate the sound of your alarm clock and hit the “snooze” button every morning — then try the 10 Steps to Perfect Sleep routine tonight.

10 Steps To Perfect Sleep

Warning: you will read through this list and say, “I know that already” to some of the items. But remember: it doesn’t matter what you know. It matters what you do.

So don’t just internalize and think about this stuff. Actually do it. Tonight.

1. Make your room cold.

For most guys, the ideal temperature for sleep is somewhere between 60 and 68 degrees F. You’ll have to experiment to find what feels good, but the first sign of good sleep is a chilly bed. If you shiver when you get underneath the sheets, you’re good to go.

Do This Tonight: Set your thermostat to somewhere in the mid-sixties. If you can’t control the temperature of your room, aim a portable fan directly at your bed and don’t sleep with a heavy comforter.

2. Make your room as quiet as possible.

White noise like a fan can help with sleep, but exposure to things like traffic noise has been shown to decrease overall sleep quality. It’s hard to drift off when people are arguing and blaring their horns outside your place.

Do This Tonight: Use a fan for white noise. Consider grabbing some ear plugs if things are really noisy. If you live with roommates or family, tell everyone to keep it down.

3. Make your room dark. Really dark.

Even a tiny amount of light can interfere with melatonin production and impair your sleep.

Do This Tonight: Turn off any electronic devices with LED’s or cover the lights with a small piece of electrical tape. Hang a blanket or towel over your bedroom window if light creeps in. Consider buying blackout curtains.

4. Ditch the cell phone.

Radiation emitted from cell phones can increase the amount of time required to reach deep sleep cycles and decrease the amount of time spent in those cycles.

Do This Tonight: If you’re using your cell phone as an alarm clock, stop. Replace it with a normal battery powered clock and turn your phone off or plug it in somewhere outside of your bedroom to charge overnight. You’ll get the added benefit of not being distracted by the buzz of an incoming text or email. Which you shouldn’t be checking late at night anyway.

5. Control red and blue light.

Quick science lesson: Light waves exist along a spectrum of color.

Wakefulness is triggered primarily by blue light, like midday sunshine or what’s emanating from your computer screen right now.

But a warm red glow — say, from a fireplace — does almost nothing to impair sleep. That’s a good thing.

Do This Tonight: Download F.lux, a free program that alters the color spectrum of your computer to mimic the patterns of sunlight in your region, allowing for healthier sleep rhythms. (It makes your computer and table screens softer and less bright as the day goes on.)

6. Improve the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR).

A good way to improve your sleep quality is to strengthen the initial spike in wakefulness that occurs in the morning. In other words, the more awake you feel in the morning, the more tired you’ll feel in the evening.

The best way to do this is to expose your body to natural sunlight shortly after waking for as little as ten minutes. Sunlight brings the bonus of increased vitamin D production, which is important for overall health.

If natural sunlight exposure is unrealistic or you’re waking up before the sun does, artificially simulated sunlight can work, too. (And yes, it’s fine that only your eyes are being exposed.)

There are a lots of lights and alarm clocks that you can use for this. Some of them turn on gradually, like a pleasant sunrise, and others come on suddenly and engulf you in an impossible to sleep through blue light death ray (which is what I use).

Finally, remember that vitamin D is what your body normally produces in response to sunlight and that this is tied into your wakefulness patterns. So if you’re supplementing vitamin D, try taking it in the morning.

Do This Tomorrow Morning: Get some sunlight — or something resembling sunlight — first thing when you wake up. Pop 5,000 IU of Vitamin D3, too.

7. Set a schedule and stick to it.

This one can take some discipline, but it’s worth it: Wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Your body can’t establish an effective rhythm if you don’t allow it to normalize to a pattern.

If you stay up late, don’t sleep in. Instead, plan on going to bed a little earlier the next night. The sleep you get before midnight will be more valuable than the sleep you get after midnight, so always think in terms of making up for lost sleep by going to bed early the next night rather than sleeping in.

Do This Tonight: Pick a time to go to bed and wake up. Stick to it for at least 2 weeks before altering.

8. Establish a sleep ritual.

Once you find out what helps you sleep the most consistently, develop it into a consistent ritual so that as soon as you’re an hour away from bedtime you’re already on a reliable path to good sleep.

Do This Tonight: Try the 10 steps in this article and pick the ones that work for you. Then practice them every night for the next two weeks.

9. Read For 15 Minutes before bed.

Avoid intellectually stimulating fare and use this time for “candy” reading. It will reduce mental chatter and allow you to relax and let go of the day’s preoccupations.

“Candy” reading, by the way, is whatever you normally wouldn’t read.

So if you normally read non-fiction, try reading fiction. If you prefer to read fiction, try reading some history or something. And if you normally don’t read anything at all, slap yourself in the face for wasting your brain.

Do This Tonight: Pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read. Fiction suggestion: The Art of Fielding. Non-Fiction suggestion: Guns, Germs, and Steel.

10. Get a good bed.

A quality bed is one of the best investments you’ll ever make. And it doesn’t have to be ludicrously expensive to work. High-end mattresses like Tempurpedics are fantastic but I know people who bought cheaper $300 dollar versions and love them.

Whatever you do, don’t put up with a crappy mattress or a futon. This isn’t college.

Do This Tonight: If you already have a good mattress, you’re all set. If you’re sleeping on something that’s thin, lumpy, or too small, take a look at your finances and see if you can set aside $50 – 100 per month to buy a new mattress. It’s worth it.

Quick Science Lesson For Those Who Care: Good Sleep Is All About Cycles

Have you ever felt tired in the morning — even if you slept for 7 hours or more? Blame your sleep cycle.

Your body has hundreds of different cycles fluctuating in various rhythms. From nervous system shifts that occur with every heartbeat to daily and monthly hormonal fluctuations, almost everything in your body ebbs and flows. It’s when something becomes fixed in a flat-line pattern that we run into problems.

Healthy sleep results from a robust up and down cycle of various hormones. Ideally, our heart rate, body temperature and cortisol (an energy mobilizing hormone which responds to stress) are at their lowest in the second half of our time asleep.

Towards morning, cortisol begins to rise rapidly in what is known as the “cortisol awakening response” (CAR), heart rate and body temperature pick up, and our body naturally primes us to wake up and face the day.

This spike in cortisol tapers off throughout the day, assuming you don’t get chased by a lion or yelled at by your boss at closing time (both of which will induce a huge stress response).

Toward evening, your body ramps up production of a rest-promoting neurotransmitter called adenosine and, triggered by the absence of sunlight, begins producing a hormone known as melatonin, which helps to trigger the sleep cycle.

Cool stuff, huh?

16 Responses to Engineering The Perfect Sleep

  1. Jake says:

    Seeing how I just woke up after a night of fitful sleep…thanks. Most of this I have read, but being reminded helps. Didn’t know about the cell phone thing!

  2. Rob says:

    You should start with this and turn your 5 day email program into a 6 days. If you are tired all the time and feel like crap, going to the gym and lifting heavy objects is the last thing you want to do.

  3. Shane says:

    Hey Craig,

    I’m one of those futon guys, and I actually set the money aside for a bed ages ago. Now it’s been a couple years, the money is still aside, and I still “need” a bed. I suppose I’m just so used to the futon that I don’t see much of a problem … nor have any idea what kind of bed I should be going for.

    What should we be looking for in a bed?

    • Tom says:

      You know, I really like this mattress, a LOT:

      I’ve bought it several times moving around the country, its pretty inexpensive and super comfy. If you don’t want to buy a whole bed, just put the mattress on the ground, or you can get a platform bed frame there on overstock as well, which looks better than getting a bed with a boxspring, which doesn’t look as good.

    • Craig Weller says:

      I think it totally depends on the person. Personally, I have a tempurpedic, which I like aside from the fact that it soaks up heat and gets hot easily in the summer. I have a buddy who bought a memory foam mattress on Amazon for about 300 dollars including free shipping (Amazon Prime for the win) and loves it. So really I’d just say try a few out in a bed store and see what feels comfortable and then find one that you like within your budget.

  4. Tom says:

    Cool article, something we all need to be improving upon.

    Now, a more specific case here, what would you say to someone who HAS to be up past midnight (til somewhere between 2 and 4am) most nights (like 3-6 a week) and can rarely get to bed before 12am like you’re suggesting? Obviously I’d still be aiming for 8 hours and waking up appropriately later, and I think fully blacking out the room would be a big help (and going outside to get sunlight immediately after waking up like you’ve suggested), but is there anything else you’d do, as someone in that situation?


    • Craig Weller says:

      That’s pretty much it. Simulate nighttime as much as possible with blackout curtains, white noise or earplugs and cool temperatures. Then get out into the sun as soon as you wake up. As long as you stick to a cycle you’ll be ok. Try not to deviate on the days that you don’t have to follow that schedule because you’ll just confuse your body and throw of your rhythm.

  5. Tom says:

    Also, do you take 5000iu of D3 every day? I’ve been doing 10000iu a day since I had low vitamin D and understood that I should go back to 2000iu when I’m back in normal range. Thoughts?

    • Craig Weller says:

      It all depends on where you start. Measuring in the first place is important. Don’t just start gobbling fistfuls of pills. Most people recommend closer to 5k per day, but doing 10k per day and then dropping down to a maintenance dose once your levels get where you want them would be based on another test is fine. Remember to take some K2 along with your D3.

  6. Great article, Craig. Good information and smart call-to-actions. I’ve been using F.lux for a while now, and I love it. (It’s also a great conversation starter.) I didn’t realize my bed had to be that cold. LA nights aren’t that chilly, but I’ll leave the portable heater off tonight and see how that goes.

  7. Holy crap that picture is funny!

    I’d like to add that taking a cold bath (23 Celsius) for 15 before bed has REALLY helped me fall asleep. Part of this reason is that my girlfriend can’t stand sleeping in a cold room.

  8. Mark says:

    This sort of goes against the part about no electronic devices, but I recently got a Fitbit to track my sleep. In some ways, just the extra awareness and ability to measure my sleep has improved it.

    • Craig Weller says:

      That’s a common response with those. The awareness drives better sleep quality and consistent adherence to a routine. I’ve never seen any studies examining the effects of potential issues from the electronics within it, but I would think that it would be a minimal effect; nowhere near what a phone does with it’s transceiver capabilities. I think they’re a great idea and that you should keep using it.

  9. Brad Robinson says:

    Fitbits are great activity trackers. The step tracking function is simple for clients too.

  10. I turn my phone onto Flight Mode so I’m unable to send or receive any communication. Does this negate any radiation emitted?


    • Craig Weller says:

      It would certainly disable any active transmission or reception, but there’s going to be a small passive RF field emitted from the device, even in airplane mode. So, it wouldn’t be as significant, but there would be something. Still can’t hurt to at least put the phone on the other side of the room.