When talking about how to build an effective daily schedule, morning routines usually get all of the attention; however, having an effective night routine is just as (if not more) important.
Here are five reasons why your night routine is holding you back, and what you can do to fix it.
1 | You Don’t Have a Consistent Night Routine
Mistake number one is not having a consistent nighttime routine. Every good day starts with a good night’s sleep – so if you want to have an effective tomorrow, you need to start preparing today.
A consistent night routine gives you the necessary time and space to decompress after a long day. It helps you ease into sleep so that by the time your head hits the pillow, your body and mind are ready for bed.
Think about wakefulness like driving a car. After you wake up, it takes some time to warm up the engine and get the car moving. But once you’re up to speed, it’s pretty easy to keep going. After you’ve been driving for a while though, the time eventually comes when you need to start slowing down. You don’t want to redline the engine and slam on the brakes from 100 to 0. Instead, you want to ease into it and gradually come to a stop.
An effective nighttime routine is similar. It gives you much-needed time to decompress and lets you gradually relax into sleep – both physically and mentally. Without it, you’re just slamming on the brakes and trying to force your body to sleep when it’s not ready to.
2 | You Aren’t Optimizing Your Routine for Sleep
Mistake number two is not optimizing your routine for sleep.
According to the CDC, more than a third of American adults don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per day. This is a big problem if you’re trying to maximize your productivity because sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively impact cognition.
Inadequate sleep has also been shown to negatively impact mental health. Although we often think of difficulty sleeping as a symptom of an underlying mood disorder, research suggests that it can also be a causal factor leading to the development of mood disorders.
Think about it this way: you can function without food for several weeks and without water for several days, but you experience the most rapid decline in function without sleep.
Despite millions of years of evolution, we still spend over ⅓ of our lives asleep. If it wasn’t necessary, then evolution would have prioritized things like finding food, finding a mate, or simply not being vulnerable to predation.
If you really want to be at the top of your game though, a huge part of sleeping better also comes down to waking up and falling asleep at consistent times.
In one study, researchers found a positive correlation between having a consistent sleep cycle and increased academic performance. They concluded that even when you control for the amount of sleep, participants who had a more consistent sleep schedule tended to perform better.
To optimize your sleep, start by deciding what time you want to wake up and then work backward seven to nine hours. This will tell you what time you need to be in bed, falling asleep. After that, subtract one more hour and that will be the time that you should start winding down and initiating your nighttime routine.
Knowing what time you need to initiate your nighttime routine and when you need to be asleep is only half the battle though. The other half is actually following through with it – which is much easier said than done.
This is something that I continue to struggle with even to this day.
If there’s anything I’ve learned though, it’s that if you really want to adhere to your nighttime routine and have a consistent sleep schedule, you can’t rely on sheer willpower and awareness. You need to focus on building systems instead.
For instance, sometimes I get so caught up in what I’m working on at night that I completely lose track of time. To combat this, I’ve invested in a smart light setup which I’ve programmed to dim and turn red at 9:30 PM. This serves as a visual reminder to me that I need to start wrapping up and winding down. This one adjustment has helped me to adhere to my night routine and go to bed at a more consistent time.
That being said, you don’t need a fancy light set up that makes you feel like a sith lord to remind you to go to bed, a simple alarm will work just as well.
3 | You’re Not Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Mistake number three is not activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
There are two major divisions of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” system. It prepares the body for higher acuity situations. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the “rest and digest” system. It returns our bodies to a calm, relaxed state and prepares us for rest.
For optimal sleep, we want to activate the parasympathetic in the hour or so leading up to bedtime and avoid activating the sympathetic.
The first step to achieving this is to lower your body temperature. The optimal bedroom temperature for sleep is believed to be somewhere between 65°F and 70°F; however, you can accomplish the same effect in a few different ways. Setting your A/C to a cooler level is one solution; however, you can also use a mattress cooler or reduce clothing while in bed.
For example, I live in a hot climate so I set my A/C to 72°F and sleep in a pair of shorts with a light blanket. This allows me to lower my body temperature, without having a huge energy bill at the end of the month.
The next step to activating the parasympathetic nervous system is to avoid things that stimulate you. This means no caffeine, no high-intensity music, no backlit screens, and especially no smartphone right before bed.
Blue light, like the light from a phone screen, stimulates photoreceptors in your eyes which suppress melatonin release from your pineal gland. Melatonin is a key hormone involved in regulating our circadian rhythm and priming our bodies for sleep. When melatonin production is inhibited, we don’t feel as tired, and it becomes more difficult to fall sleep.
Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, explains that using your phone at night can also result in sleep procrastination. You start by checking your email or social media, and the next thing you know an hour has passed, and you’re still wide awake.
The easiest way to avoid this is to not bring your phone into the bedroom. If this is not possible, he recommends imposing a rule on yourself to only use your phone while standing up. If you stick to this, after a few minutes you’ll probably feel the urge to lay down in bed at which point you will have to put the phone down.
The last thing to do to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is wind down and relax. Do something that makes you feel comfortable. Something that eases your stress. For some, this might be stretching or doing some light foam rolling. Others prefer to practice deep breathing or meditation.
My activity of choice is to read a relaxing book on my Kindle. This is often fiction, a biography, or something else related to my personal interests. I try to avoid reading any kind of intellectually stimulating book because I’m not optimizing for learning in the last few minutes of the day, but rather easing into restorative sleep.
4 | You’re Not Setting Yourself Up for a Successful Tomorrow
Mistake number four is not setting yourself up for a successful tomorrow.
One of the qualities of an effective nighttime routine is that it prepares you for the next day. Take some time to reset your environment so everything is ready for you when you wake up. Clean and organize your desk, do the dishes, pick up your laundry – do all of those little things that will prepare you for the next day.
After you reset your environment, ask yourself if there’s anything else you can do to make things easier in the morning. This might include prepping your backpack, laying out your clothes, or leaving reminders for yourself for anything you might forget in the morning.
When I go on an early morning flight, for example, I leave a sticky note next to my phone reminding me to pack my glasses and retainers, as I can’t pack them the night before.
By setting yourself up for a more successful tomorrow, future you will thank you, and it’s a good feeling. In fact, I find that the more you do this, the more inclined you are to do it in the future. It acts as a positive feedback loop.
5 | You’re Not Reflecting on the Day
Lastly, mistake number five is not taking time to reflect on your day.
Too often we focus on the negatives – the things we wanted to accomplish but didn’t – and forget to appreciate the small wins.
A great way to remind yourself of the small wins and express gratitude for the things you’ve accomplished is through reflection. The way that I do this is by journaling at the end of the day. And just like I have a journaling template for the morning, I have one for the night as well.
I write about the three most amazing things that happened today, three lessons I learned, and what would have made today better. This reflection provides perspective so that I’m not always focusing on what I didn’t do, and also helps me with future direction.
I can identify consistent themes under “what would make today better” and can focus my energy in a more data-backed manner that’s more likely to improve my life.
The last item that I journal about at the end of each day is the singular most important question for the day, which I then pose to my subconscious before I sleep. Doing so gives my unconscious mind the chance to mull it over while I sleep, often giving me a fresh take in the morning.
If you’re trying to optimize your night routine, remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Use these points as a guide and experiment with what works for you. And if you try something that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to change things up.
Night routines should be optimized for you and your schedule. But even when you think you’ve got it all figured out, keep experimenting and trying to make it even better!