Have you ever felty lazy for not being a morning person? Have you felt weak because you just cannot pull an all-nighter? In today’s busy world, sleep is considered something to be ashamed of, although it is as basic a human need as pooping. That’s another necessary activity we would rather not admit to doing. We humans are strange that way. An animal never feel embarrassed for pooping or sleeping.
Honestly, I blame Thomas Edison. Apart from (allegedly) inventing the light bulb, thus making it possible for people to work during the night, he perpetuated the idea that sleep is something that is keeping us from making technological and economical advancement. And that is just plain wrong.
Another person who shares my opinion, and whose opinion counts much more as he is globally known as The Sleep Doctor, is Michael J. Breuce, PhD. He is a clinical psychologist and has specialized in sleep medicine for the last 15 years. He can tell you when is the best time to eat, sleep, have sex, ask for a raise, take a nap, play music and much more, based on your chronotype. Well, he won’t really tell you because he is busy consulting a bunch of Fortune 500 companies on how to optimize their employees’ performance with sleep, but you can read all of it in his book “The Power of When”.
If you aren’t sure if that’s something you want to invest time in, check out this article to get a quick summary of the subject. I’m sure you’ll end up reading it after all!
You have most likely heard the terms “early bird”, “night owl”, “morning person”, etc. These basically categorize humans into morning types and evening types. Dr. Breuce mostly concurs with that, but after years of experience in the field, he has observed more than 2 types. In fact, he uses 4 types to categorize his patients, and, instead of traditional bird names, he uses mammals. After all, he says, we are mammals, not birds. To make things even more logical, the animals he chose have similar traits as the types of sleepers they represent.
- Low sleep drive: 6 hours sleep at most. Basically, insomniacs.
- Low energy in morning, high energy in evening.
- Have a hard time falling and staying asleep.
- They make up 10% of the population.
- Generally anxious, neurotic and irritable. Intelligent and detail oriented loners.
- Medium sleep drive with approximately 7 hours of sleep required.
- High energy in morning, low energy in evening.
- Wake up early without an alarm, and go to bed early.
- They make up 15% – 20% of the population.
- Optimistic, overacheivers, go-getters. Healthy and happy. Less creative and social, with leadership tendencies.
- High sleep drive with approximately 8 hours of sleep required.
- Wake up with the sun in a haze, go to bed at an average time.
- They make up 50% of the population.
- Often hungry and fall for junk food, even though they try to live healthily. Team players and worker bees.
- Medium sleep drive with approximately 7 hours of sleep.
- Low energy in morning, high energy in evening.
- Wake up late, and go to bed late.
- They make up 15% – 20% of the population.
- Creative, pessimistic, moody, impulsive and prone to addiction. Mostly extroverted.
To accurately place yourself in one of these categories (we humans love to categorize) take Dr. Breuce’s quiz. It’s not long and, imho, you will benefit more from knowing your chronotype than knowing which Disney Princess you are. And don’t tell me you didn’t take that quiz!
So, what did you get?
Has My Chronotype Changed?
If you asked me a year a go what my chronotype was, I would have said night owl. Or wolf in these terms. I did most of my deep work from 11pm to 1am, I got up as late as my work allowed me, my mornings were usually very unproductive and filled with busywork and procrastination. Unless… unless I actually had to do something that required all of my attention, like an exam. I’ve never had problems concentrating on an exam, no matter how sleep deprived I was. My general outlook on the world and my life was OK, I never called myself unhappy, but I had a bunch of complaints and was mostly pessimistic.
Less than I year ago, I made a point of going to bed earlier and waking up earlier, as a part of my quest for a healthier life and more productive work. After a few days of struggle with an alarm clock, I started getting sleepy very early in the evening and waking up early, on my own. Furthermore, I noticed I had much more energy in the morning than in the afternoon, stared hitting the ground running as soon as I would wake up. Literally, I would torpedo out of bed and go for a training session. As my health and my habits improved, so did my outlook on the world. I started catching myself thinking how happy I was for having this or being able to do that.
When I did the chronotype quiz, I realised I had answered the question “Are you generally happy with your life?” with “definitely!!!”
I turned out to be a lion. Dr. Breuce mentions “lion envy” in his book, as a phenomenon where other chronotypes wish they were lions, because lions are the go-getters, the CEOs, the healthy eaters, with their amazing morning routines which make them super successful. We do live in a world where “early bird gets the worm” and sleep is demonized as a waste of time. So I re-did the quiz after a couple of days (to have enough time to forget the questions and my answers) and I once again turned out to be a lion.
Is it possible that my chronotype has changed during the 32nd year of my life? Dr. Breuce claims that chronotypes are genetic and that, even though it changes in the early childhood, between years 21 and 65, you belong to your genetically determined chronotype.
Rather than being a genetic phenomenon, I suspect that I have just lived on a wrong chrono-rhythm for the last 10 years! I most likely kept my wolfish habits from my teenage period for too long, mainly because it was convenient at the university – being able to learn late at night, when no one was pinging me online, was a useful tool. After that, I slipped into a bear rhythm for the next 5 years, because I was living with a bear.
Case closed! Or do you have another theory?
Tips and Tricks
Although you can find specific tips, tricks and schedules, based on your chronotype, in Dr. Breuce’s book, here are some that apply to all. I will try to enclose an explanation together with the tip, because I don’t like to read wisdom without explanation. If it is too much info, feel free to skip it…
Coffee does not wake you up, but rather suppresses the feeling of tiredness. Use it to stay awake, not to wake up. If you love that smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, that’s a different matter. Have a decaf. Caffeine suppresses adenosine, which is naturally in your brain to suppress arousal so that you can fall asleep. In the morning, cortisol which surges through your body when you wake up does this naturally, you don’t need caffeine. Don’t drink coffee first thing in the morning, because it does nothing but accumulate in your body which might make it harder to fall asleep in the evening.
To wake up more easily, do some light exercises, preferably in the daylight. Maybe go for a walk. Light is a zeitgeber (German for “time giver”), an external signal that tells your brain it is time to wake up. Your brain then lowers melatonin levels (a hormone that keeps you asleep) and secrets cortisol in order to jolt you awake. More natural light, easier to wake up.
A couple more words about cortisol. You may have heard it dubbed “the stress hormone”, which makes it sound like the bad guy among hormones. As you can see from this and the previous tip, it has various important roles. Cortisol secretion is not necessarily a bad thing.
Going to sleep
Sleeping environment should only remind you of sleep. Or sex. Your bed should be comfortable and inviting and you should only sleep and have sex in it. No watching TV, snacking, working, etc. If you associate bed only with sleep, you will fall asleep easier and have higher quality sleep. Sex is allowed only because it would be awkward to advise you to not have it in bed.
Make sure your bedroom is cool (or even cold) and completely dark. If possible, remove all devices from it. Anything that can blink or beep. Even the smallest light source can reduce the quality of your sleep, even if you are not a light sleeper and do not remember being disturbed. Fun fact: we have extra-ocular photoreceptors, i. e. light sensitive cells in our skin! They are weaker than the ones in our eyes, naturally, but you can technically see the blinking of the TV led with your arms. Neat, ha?
Avoid phones and computer screens at least an hour before going to bed. Blue light which screens emit signals to your brain that it’s still daytime and the brain doesn’t secrete melatonin, which is supposed to put you to sleep. Watching TV from the other side of the room is technically OK, whereas staring directly at your phone or tablet is not. You can mitigate the negative effects of blue light with blue blocking glasses, or apps which reduce blue light in the evening (f.lux or MacOS’s built-in Night Shift).
What’s even better, you can make a low-tech pre-bed routine which would include hanging out with family, reading (real books not e-readers), meal prep for tomorrow, and a warm bath to calm you down at the end.
Don’t exercise before bedtime, have at least 3-4 hour pause from your training session to your sleep time, to power down. Most sports will get your heart pumping like crazy and it takes some time for the body to calm down enough to fall asleep easily and keep a low heart rate throughout the night. Calming exercises, like yoga, are completely fine.
Avoid food or alcohol 3 hours before bedtime. If you have something to digest or your liver has alcohol to process, this will make your heart work harder and you will have a less peaceful and less restorative sleep. For every glass of alcohol, you need an hour to process it enough so it does not disturb your sleep.
Asleep and Awake
You need at least 4-5 complete sleep cycles (90 min each) to fully rest and recover. That means 6 or 7.5 hours of sleep, minimum. Calculate the time at which to go to sleep accordingly and add 20 minutes it takes to fall asleep.
Sleep is divided in phases during which different things happen. Physical regeneration is the most important function of sleeping and that’s why nature has it happen in the first part of the night. The phase for mental work, when your brain defragments all the information it had accumulated during the day, moves things from short term to long term memory, etc, happens at the end of the night. If you don’t grant yourself at least 4 cycles, that means the last part (brain stuff) is going to be interrupted or skipped. You might wake up feeling disoriented and forgetful. Avoid this as much as possible, because, in short, if you don’t sleep long enough, you wake up stupid.
Stick to your sleep schedule, even on weekends. Falling out of your sleep rhythm on weekends sounds tempting, but will cost you dearly from Monday to Wednesday, when aren’t able to go back into your rhythm because you couldn’t sleep on Sunday evening until 2 am. Even when you go to bed late, try to wake up at the same time as usual, +- 30 minutes.
When awake, use on peek performance times (when you are wide awake and feeling energised) to do focused work and use off-peak times (when you are low on energy) to brainstorm, get creative, play games, etc.
Extra tip: Nap-a-latte
Dr. Breuce has an interesting trick. I haven’t tried it yet, but I will put it up here in case you want to experiment on yourself first:
- Get a really strong coffee, like drip coffee or an espresso
- Cool it with some ice so that you can drink it quickly
- Set an alarm for 20 minutes
- Chug the coffee and immediately go to sleep
- After the alarm goes off in 20 minutes, you will have an extra 3-4 hours of high energy and productivity
Caution: This is for emergencies only, not something you can do every day to avoid the consequences of irregular and poor quality sleep. Do not do this more than 3 times a week.
Another Extra Tip: Getting Rid of Dark Circles Under Your Eyes
I have always had very visible circles under my eyes, ever since I was a baby. The worst thing: left one is darker and deeper. The horror! Over the years I have researched various ways to get rid of them. I always went for the superficial ones which I could put on my face and ignored the tricky ones which implied lifestyle changes.
I have tried every cream I could get my hands on and every concealer. Creams did nothing, except for some hydration which is a good thing but still didn’t do what I needed it to do. Concealers usually make things worse. In the best case scenario, they just cure the symptoms, i.e. cover up the mess. One that covers up the mess very successfully is the Tarte Shape Tape, in case you need it.
But what works on the cause, and not the symptoms?
As it turns out, you can reduce circles under your eyes significantly, only when you do the lifestyle changes. Regular and sufficient sleep, no smoking, no (or moderate) alcohol consumption, healthy diet, etc. Sorry, but the path of least resistance will lead you nowhere.
Nerdy Stuff: Sleep Tracking
Taking things too far, as I usually do, I wanted to track my sleep and see what I can optimize even more. I started using the SleepWatch app on my Apple Watch and here are my impressions after 2 months of collecting data:
First of all, it’s a pain because Apple Watch needs to be recharged pretty much every day. Secondly, I noticed that I fall asleep in around 10 minutes. I sometimes need as little as 1 minute. Ok, I knew that already.
Other than that, the results confuse me more than they give me insight. The app monitors things like sleeping heart rate dip (the lower the better), average sleeping heart rate (the lower the better) and average sleeping heart rate variability (the higher the better). I apply all the important tips and tricks, and my results are pretty good, but better results do not correlate with better environment. For example: the best quality sleep I ever recorded with this app was when I went to sleep late, on a friend’s couch, with another (drunk) friend jumping in at 3am?!?!?!
The app asks me what has changed when it detects a significantly higher or lower sleep quality, but never lets me know what all of that means nor does it let me see my answers again later, for comparison. Either I’m about to get a miraculous report with brilliant insight one of these days, or an offer for sleep aids from the companies my data was sold too. I can’t wait to see which one it is.
In the meantime, do you know an app which actually gives you some interesting statistics and tips?
I could go on about this for ages. Sleeping on the right schedule will give you better results, in work and in life. Denying yourself sleep to put in extra hours into work or relationships might give you results once or twice in a row, but doing that often will make you stupid and weak. Don’t @ me 🙂
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY