I have done a bunch of 30 day, or month long really, challenges and have found them a useful way of testing things out. Yes it doesn’t always form a lasting habit, or lasting change in my life; but it offers new perspectives and gives me a bit more understanding about myself.
My wife and I have quit added sugar for a month, done 30 days alcohol free (which we extended to 50 days), started meditating (for maybe 30 days??)… More recently I have experimented with intermittent fasting, which has found an ongoing place in my life.
I find the best part about these challenges is that they are small, and that they have an end date. It allows me to make decisions easier, because I don’t have to make them. I dont have to wonder whether I should have that snack; its past 7 o’clock, and that’s my cut off time. I don’t have to ponder whether I buy that Mars bar at work, because I know I am having no added sugar that month. I don’t have to agnonise about the decision, and how it affects my life ongoing, because for the time being I know it is just a small challenge, and I can focus my willpower elsewhere.
So I have a bunch of goals I want to attempt this month, and I will go over them in detail in the coming days. But I want to start with sleep, as this is the driving force behind this challenge. Changing my sleep patterns is a big deal for me, and so committing to do it for 30 days has given me an opportunity to chuck in a few other things in the hope that such a significant upheaval will let me anchor in a few more positive habits.
But for now, the main goal is simple; I want to give myself 30 days of at least 8 hours of sleep. For me this means get to bed at 10:30, and getting up at 6:30.
What prompted this? I recently finished Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker:
It was a really eye opening read, giving an explanation of what sleep is, how it fits into our lives, and how it can be impacted. Whats more important, it gives a litany of the many ways not getting enough sleep can affect you. It makes you sick more often, can lead to weight gain, negatively impact your moods, make it harder to interact with and understand others, ruins your memory, makes it harder to learn new things. This list goes on an on.
But the strange thing is, we all know sleep is good for you and less sleep is bad. Yet knowing isn’t enough.
I find that I can know something, but really not internalise it. I know I am not sleeping well, and yet I still do it; I still stay away past midnight knowing I will get up tired in six hours. I know I shouldn’t eat that doughnut, but I enjoy every last bite. I know these things as simple axioms, but sometimes I find it useful to read a whole book on the subject, to really get in deeper and go over the complexities. I may know the arguments, but it is useful to get the background. Even if I don’t remember everything from a book, I think I find the sustained immersion in a topic helps my mind to get the overall ‘gist’ of things.
[Indeed the idea of getting the ‘gist’ is covered in the book, and apparently part of your sleep cycle is great at taking these big overarching ideas, drawn from manifold memories, learnings, and neural pathways in your mind, and stitching them together into greater knowledge. This is apparently how young children are able to pick up on bigger overarching grammatical rules when learning language, without us parents having to explain it to them (or without them even understanding that they are learning it)]
So I read this book on sleep and yes, it was convincing. It reaffirmed what I already knew; sleep is important. The fact that pretty much every animal on earth does it should have been a pretty convincing clue; especially given evolutions propensity for ruthlessly removing pointless things from the gene pool.
But the next step is doing something about it.
The simplest thing is to simply make sure I get the sleep I need. The book recommends 8 hours, so that’s the goal I set.
I have always struggled with how to fit sleep into my way of living. I am a night owl, this is what I have always told myself, and the book did somewhat support the idea that some people simply have a different sleep pattern.
I find myself most active mentally at nights and I struggle in the morning. This might sound normal to a lot of people, but I have been assured that there truly are people out there who function well in the morning. Who knew?
Anyway, this has always been the relationship I have had with sleep.
When I was at university, I structured my week to avoid as many morning classes as possible, and would sleep in until lunchtime if I could, I would stay up well past midnight, studying, and generally living my life. This went on for years, but eventually I had to join the workforce, and what’s more I also became a father. Then all of a sudden my usual wake time of well past 10 a.m. got pulled forward to around 6 a.m., so I could catch my commuter train. But I never adjusted the time I would go to bed accordingly. I went from an abundance of sleep (probably around 8 hours now that I think of it), to a sleep deficit (usually around 5 hours).
I wasn’t willing to give up my awake time. I dont like conforming to things, and the idea of my work forcing me to lose my personal time did not sit well with me. So I have never really compromised, and instead have just gone on bearing the brunt of a lack of sleep.
It isn’t helpful, but I never really was able to see what impact it had on my life. This all happened when I was going through massive changes anyway; moving out of home, getting my first job, becoming a father, getting married. I did all of this in pretty much one year.
So as a result, any negative impact that sleep deprivation has had on my life was lost in the din. I have felt exhausted for years, but society loves to tell us parents that this is the norm. As if it is a heroic sacrifice. My moods have changed, I have put on weight, I have lost motivation in areas of my life that once gave me energy (writing?). I feel like I have bad self-esteem, and this makes me question and doubt myself; am I a good friend, a good father, a good husband? I feel like my ability to make judgements on these things is clouded; but that in itself could be a result of a lack of sleep.
And I know this might seem like I am blaming all my troubles on one thing, and I don’t really think that is the case, but given that the research I have done into a lack of adequate sleep has suggested that it can impact all of these disparate areas, I can’t help but feel that tackling my lack of sleep is a good place to start.
Do I think it will solve all of these problems? No. But hopefully it can eliminate some of these, and allow me to then focus on other areas of my life that I want to improve.
I feel like there is a haze that has been holding me back, and I need to see if I can clear it up.
So I am using the 30 days challenge template to see what I can do. I still dont like the idea of going to bed earlier than I want to, but for 30 days I can sacrifice some hours of personal time.
I dont know if the improvements I will see will offset this ‘lost’ time, but I am willing to give it a go. One of the arguments put forth in the book was concerning work, and how lack of sleep impacts your productivity. It pointed out that yes, sleeping less and working more means more work hours put in; but what you are getting aren’t the full hours. You aren’t being as productive as you could in those hours. So the question is; can I get more out of the hours for which I am awake by ‘sacrificing’ more hours to sleep?
I hope I can.
Week Day – Average 6 hours sleep
Weekend – Average 7.5 hours sleep
Total sleep hours = (22 x 6) + (8 x 7.5) = 132 + 60 = 192 hours
Therefore, awake time = 528 hours
Week Day & Weekend – Average 8 hours sleep
Total sleep hours = (30(ish) x 8) = 240 hours
Therefore, awake time = 480 hours
I hope that come November, I look back and see that I got more out of the 480 hours I spent awake in October, than I did the 528 hours of September.
And looking at the numbers, it really is only around a loss of 10% of my time. So if I can get anywhere near the number of benefits extolled in Matthew Walkers book, then surely it will be worth it.
Anyhow, the challenge starts tomorrow, and its already past my impending bedtime.