Tuesday Tips: A Night Owl’s Guide to Sleep


Last week I shared about my struggles with accepting that I’m a night owl and the baggage that comes with that. As a night owl I know how frustrating it is when you can’t get to sleep, how lonely it can feel when you’re the only one awake in the house. How crazy you can feel when you want to sleep, when you know you’re tired but you just can’t shut your eyes. When you’re staring at the ceiling how absolutely livid you are with your body clock because you know you’re going to be crabby and mentally impaired the next day when you have stuff to get done and you desperately wish you just had an off switch. So I thought I’d share my tips on getting more sleep. These aren’t the ridiculously difficult to follow tips like, keep your bedroom at exactly 20 degrees all year round. These are the ways I cope when I’m not sleeping well.

Plan ahead.

Remember that sleep isn’t supposed to be an instant thing, it’s actually supposed to take between fifteen minutes and half an hour. So going to bed at 10:30 doesn’t mean going to sleep at 10:30. Try to plan to go to bed half an hour before you’d like to be asleep.

Try not to eat at least an hour before bed time.

Eating late is the worst for me; I go to bed and all I can hear/feel is my stomach trying to digest. I even find that if I eat later it signals my body clock to stay awake longer. If you want an early night, try an early dinner — you might find yourself ready to go to bed earlier. However, don’t skip dinner because you’re avoiding eating too close to bedtime, otherwise you’ll just lie there awake because you’re starving.

Know when not to caffeinate.

If you’re a person who enjoys their caffeine and can’t bear the thought of giving it up entirely, even for easier sleep, have a look at when you’re having your caffeine. I find a coffee with lunch or dinner doesn’t really affect me, but a coffee at about five in the afternoon really keeps me awake. Experiment with when you have your caffeine and you might find which one is causing the difficulties in getting to sleep.

Go to bed at the first sign of sleepiness.

Once you feel a wave of sleepiness, ride it immediately. Don’t try to finish off tasks, drop whatever you’re doing and go straight to bed. Like don’t even stop to change your pyjamas otherwise you will feel awake again.

Don’t stress about not falling asleep.

Remember all the times during the day all you wanted to do was lie down and do nothing, well now you can. Just because you’re not actually asleep doesn’t mean that you’re not resting. Your mind and body will gain some benefit from being mindfully restful. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be to fall asleep.

Think of something nice.

My mind has trouble powering down at the end of a day, and instead of telling it to stop thinking I try to use it to get me to sleep. Sometimes I imagine my bed is floating down a calm river, or I’m in a hammock in the sun and I can hear some birds. Or maybe if my mind is really awake, I imagine a simple story. It’s like counting sheep for those who don’t like counting.

Listen to some calming music.

I do this when my mind just won’t shut up. I have a couple of playlists that only go for about half an hour so it doesn’t wake me if I do fall asleep. It gives my mind something to fixate on without my eyes needing to be open. It’s up to you what you define as calming music, sometimes I prefer classical music, other times I prefer something with lyrics so I can concentrate on them.

Write a couple of pages stream of consciousness.

Pick up a pen and paper, (or maybe a laptop on really dim light) and write down your thoughts for a couple of pages. Even if it just starts with ‘I really want to sleep’ over and over again. This particularly works if there is something really bothering you. Often we push the scary thoughts to one side by distracting ourselves during the day, but when we can’t go to sleep they come all flooding in because we’re not doing something. Let the things that are worrying you out onto the page. I find it really cathartic. Sometimes it surprises me because I’ve been worrying about something subconsciously. As I write them down I imagine them losing their power as I recognise them as false, insignificant or not in my control. I see this as emptying my brain and I sleep better when it’s done.

If you remember something small you wanted to do for the morning just get up and do it.

The time it takes to do the task is much better than the time you’ll spend worrying about whether you’ll remember it in the morning. Just make sure it’s a clearly defined task like ‘put phone in handbag’ not something that you could stretch out like, ‘check Facebook’. And it must be a small task because from experience you don’t want to tackle something like, ‘clean out wardrobe’ because you’ll just find yourself chuckling to yourself sitting in the middle of a pile of clothing at two in the morning.

Have a hot bath or shower.

Then when you get out, dry yourself off and go straight to bed. This particularly works well in winter, when your body will warm up the bed straight away and it will be very easy to drift off. You may want to drink a small amount of water because having a hot bath or shower can really dehydrate you, but make sure it’s a small amount so you don’t have to get up in the night.

Sometimes you just need to get up.

If you’ve been in bed wide awake for a while (like longer than forty minutes) and are feeling restless and bored, just get up and do something. Read a book, write something, pair your socks, wander around your house pretending you’re the mad person who lives in the attic, whatever, just do it by very dim light and go to bed as soon as you feel even remotely sleepy.

Remember you’re not alone.

There’s something about being unable to get to sleep that makes you feel like the only person on Earth; it’s really quite lonely. I try to remind myself that there are other night owls and I have imaginary conversations with them. Or I might pick a city that’s awake and picture what all the people are doing with their days. It comforts me somehow to think of other people being awake somewhere.

After a restless night, be gentle with yourself.

Let yourself sleep in if you can and don’t feel guilty. Give yourself some silent time with a hot drink or breakfast to let yourself wake up. Not sleeping was not your failure.

Be realistic about your productivity.

Things are going to take longer than you’d like them to after a night of not much sleep. Beating yourself up about that isn’t going to help. How productive I feel doesn’t always have anything to do with how much I get done; it has to do with how much I expected myself to get done. Often when I’m feeling pretty crummy for not being productive because I didn’t sleep well, I recognise that my expectations were unrealistic even for a day at my mental peak. You might need to drop a few things off your schedule if you can.

Avoid napping unless you really need to.

After a night of not much sleep it can be really tempting to have a nap; this will usually make it harder to go to sleep. But sometimes your body does actually need a nap and you will be more productive if you have one. The way I tell is if I’m doing a task and still falling asleep my body needs it and I let myself nap for a bit.

And finally…

…if anyone makes a disparaging comment about how late you slept in the morning imagine a tiny cheer squad dropping from their nostrils and singing a cheer just for you before they go back up to resume their lives in that person’s hollow head.

How do you cope when you’re not sleeping well?

  • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

    I’d add one more – to remember that it’s normal for humans to sleep in two halves – in fact, before the 19th Century it was considered normal to wake up in the middle of the night, get up, do something, and then go back to bed for your second sleep…

    I think our expectations that we all need or have to sleep 7 or 8 hours at a stretch is unrealistic – if your natural sleep pattern is to sleep in two halves, then embrace it…

    I don’t physically get up in the middle of the night, but I do wake up each night – now, when I do, I use it to plan my book, or think of a blog – once I feel sleepy again, I roll over and go back to sleep… I don’t fight my natural sleep patterns, and I don’t get stressed that I don’t sleep all night in one go…