Sleep hacking

Since I’m living a very unscheduled life these days, it’s an ideal time for me to experiment with my sleeping habits. I haven’t yet found a sleeping schedule that’s a stable equilibirium: either I build up a sleep debt until it becomes unsustainable, or I get enough sleep that I’m too energetic in the evenings to fall asleep again at a regular hour. In the latter case, I’ll either not get enough sleep the next night, or I’ll sleep even later the next morning, and my schedule starts to creep forward by 30–60 minutes each day. (In my current situation this makes the 28-hour day schedule, explained in this xkcd strip, somewhat appealing. The downside is that I like to be up during the day, as sunlight tends to improve my mood, and if I sleep through the day and then am awake through the night I generally feel a little depressed.)
Lifehacker occasionally posts links to sleeping tips, and the latest, from the Four Hour Work Week blog, contains several I’ve never seen before and might try. One that was familiar was the point about 90-minute ultradian cycles; this is something I’ve paid some attention to for the past few months, trying to allocate my sleeping time in multiples of 90 minutes, plus an hour for sleep latency. However, my sleep latency is actually highly variable, and this plus the accumulated phase error (since the cycles aren’t exactly 90 minutes) leads me to be awakened at any point in the cycle anyway. I think the key here is that if I set my alarm for 8 am, but then happen to wake up naturally at (say) 7:15, I should just get up even if I’m still sleepy. But this has proved difficult.
A cold environment is definitely important for me to fall asleep, and when I do get insomnia it comes with a sense of being too hot (it’s not obvious if one causes the other). The ice baths mentioned in the linked post, however, sound both painful and a lot of work. Since it’s winter, and my heating system is on a timer for energy conservation purposes, I can experiment with the room temperature instead: allowing the bedroom to cool before I go to bed, and warm up in the morning to help wake me up.
That post also recommends reading fiction (and avoiding non-fiction) before bed. I frequently do this, but it can have the opposite effect: if I get to within about 150 pages of the end, and it’s a halfway decent book, I’ll frequently be compelled to read on through, thereby massively overshooting my target bedtime. And then I’ll lay awake thinking about how it ended, especially if there was a big reveal or twist.
Post your favorite sleep hacks in the comments…

11 thoughts on “Sleep hacking

  1. Katie

    I had a couple week string of sleeping every other night. It worked okay but it was rather boring to lay down and not sleep for eight hours on the non-sleep days.

  2. Justin

    So “sleep latency” is the official term… That has always been my problem. I don’t think I found out that the “normal” sleep latency is 10-15 min. until grad school – quite an unpleasant shock to realize so much of my life is wasted, relatively speaking. It’s not as bad now as it used to be (now ~1 hr., used to be 2+ almost every night), but I attribute that primarily to age. Less energy -> more tired -> less difficult to fall asleep. Yay. 😛
    Charming as they are, cats are not especially helpful for sleep latency. Or for getting up in the morning (I just couldn’t disturb little Spike this morning, for example). I still recommend that you acquire a couple, if only for the catblogging. :-)
    I have briefly done the 28-hr cycle long ago. As you noted, it has serious drawbacks.
    Agreed on the fiction – that’s the most likely way for me to stay up past 2am nowadays. Maybe the trick is to find a continual source of fiction that is enjoyable enough to read, but not so good that you have to stay up to finish it if you’re near the end. From what Brad DeLong writes, a subscription to the Washington Post might fit the bill… 😀
    Apparently drugs are bad, mmmkay. The UCSC health center told me that the ones that worked were addictive, so they wouldn’t prescribe merely for high sleep latency. You’d think the utility pharmaceuticals industry would have come up with something useful by now.

  3. Arcane Gazebo

    Yeah, my own sleep latency is rarely shorter than 30 minutes (and usually more than 45) unless I’m carrying a sizable sleep debt. On top of that I’m usually incapable of falling asleep in the presence of any kind of ambient noise (other than white), although I’ve mostly solved that problem by sleeping with earplugs.

  4. Josh

    I myself often wake up anytime between 30 minutes to two hours before my alarm. But can I ever muster up to get out of bed? No.
    It’s hard for that sort of cognitive reasoning that “it will feel better and be more natural in the course of waking up” to surface before I doze back off again.
    I recommend toning down on alcohol intake, as well as sleeping on as empty a stomach as possible, as two possibilities for night-owls who are looking to increase sleep, or at least manage to sleep less and get more out of it.

  5. Mason

    My own sleeping situation this term hasn’t been optimal, though it’s gotten better in the last couple weeks (coincidentally with my having caught up on some of the urgent things on which I was behind…). I was very much doing the every other day thing (with 1-2 hour sleep nights alternating with 7-8 hour ones) earlier this term and it seems that it was basically caused a combination of (at first) jet lag and stress. Maybe things are worse now for you because of job-market stress?
    Before I got to Tech, I was always going to bed earlier than my body wanted to and it would take me multiple hours to fall asleep. At Tech, I was always exhausted by the time I went to bed and would crash immediately.
    I actually need some background noise to sleep optimally, so I have music turned on at low volume. Sometimes, though, I wake up with a song in my head that I don’t remember listening to recently (but that I know is on my playlist).

  6. shellock

    I use to sleep mostly ok with the ocasion bad sleep debt… Then came Maya. Kids really mess with you sleep timing but what can you do.

  7. Nick

    I’ve found that getting up for work 5 days a week at about the same time each day has done wonders for my sleep schedule. I’d still like to get more out of what I get, though, and sleep less. It takes me half an hour, sometimes an hour, to fall asleep and I aim for eight hours a night. If I’m up more than an hour or so later than usual on a work night I’m pretty tired the next day.
    I messed up my sleep schedule once at Caltech and woke up around 5am for a week. It was unexpectedly wonderful – — it felt very natural for me, and I really liked the abject quiet and stillness of the campus at that time. That only lasted a week before I stayed up too late and reverted to my previous sleep schedule, though. I could try it again, but it would be at he cost of never seeing friends in the evening again.
    One thing that I have found very important for my sleep is light — I need the room to be dim to get to sleep, and I need light to wake up. I’ve considered making an ‘artificial sun’ alarm clock that gradually brightens a bulb starting fifteen minutes before striking the alarm, I’ll let you know if this ever gets made. If you’re having troubles waking up in the morning, try opening your blinds a bit more.

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    Light in the morning is important. I’ve never had more trouble waking up than in my current apartment, which gets no direct sunlight. With luck wherever I move to next will be better positioned…

  9. Kaleberg

    The big three for sleep are cold, dark and quiet. It’s amazing how many hotel rooms, generally rented for sleeping in, lack one or more of these things.
    Also, as you have learned, limit your reading and watching as bed time approaches. Narrative drive can keep you awake even after you stop.
    One useful fact is that the lightest stage of sleep is identified by the fact that if you are woken and asked if you were sleeping, you will say that you were not. It doesn’t feel like sleep. There are few things more annoying than desperately tossing and turning and fighting to get to sleep, and then waking up from this fitful state. Embracing this stage of sleep helps get you into the deeper stages. Think of it as an entry drug.

  10. Mason

    There are way too many days that I have awakened far earlier than I desired because of some damned sliver of light that got through the window. Annoying.

  11. shellock

    Cold and dark are big ones for me. Unfortuanly my house has uneven heat and to keep maya room warm enough involes my room hot :( That said sharon and i also in general perfer differnt tempertures at night. I like abotu 3-5 degrees colder. Lucky dual zone heated blankets are great.

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