If you’re anything like me, you’ve fine-tuned your morning routine to get your day started on the right foot. But while we often focus on morning routines, our days are highly dependent on our sleep, and our sleep is largely influenced by our bedtime routines. Let’s help you create an effective night routine.
If a morning routine helps you get out of bed and lay the foundations for an effective day, then a pre-bed routine is the opposite. An effective nighttime routine should focus on three main principles:
- Set you up for a successful tomorrow
- Activate the parasympathetic nervous system
- Optimize for sleep
This article was updated January 2022. It was originally published November 14, 2020.
1 | Initiate the Night Routine
Perhaps the most frequently overlooked factor of an effective night routine is knowing when to initiate it. Morning routines are easy—you start them as soon as you wake up, but initiating an evening routine is more challenging. We are too often distracted by our gadgets, a new show on Netflix, or chatting with our friends and family. Sometimes the most impactful changes are the simplest, and that holds true here.
A huge part of sleeping better comes down to waking up and falling asleep at consistent times. By practicing this, I’ve noticed I can more easily fall asleep, and I can even wake up at my intended time without an alarm clock. This is a more natural way to approach sleep, and you’ll feel far more refreshed for the remainder of your day.
So, when should you initiate the night routine? If you’re like most people, you probably need between 7-9 hours of sleep. Figure out when you need to wake up and work backward from there. My recommendation is you start your routine earlier than you think is necessary, as there are sometimes unforeseen delays that come up. I personally give myself 1 hour from start until intended bedtime.
Create a system that will consistently remind you, as relying on your own willpower will likely fall apart. I’ve set up my Philips Hue smart lights to turn red in my living room and bedroom at 9 PM every night. This is my signal, and red light is also friendlier to your night vision. You may also choose to set a recurring phone alarm instead.
Now that we’ve initiated the routine, first, start with your bathroom necessities. Brush your teeth, wash your face, shower, and do whatever else you need to in the washroom before bed. Do this now, at the beginning of your routine; otherwise, you’ll startle yourself awake if you wash your face with cold water right before crawling into bed.
2 | Set Yourself Up for Successful Tomorrow
Next, set yourself up for a successful day tomorrow. I approach this in two ways:
First, reflecting with journaling. I created a custom journaling template for my evenings that prompts me with three amazing things that happened today, three lessons learned, and what would have made today better.
If there are other thoughts bouncing around, I’ll make it a point to journal a bit further, beyond my templated prompts. This is important because without this, my new business ideas or vacation plans will continue to occupy my mind, and it’s more difficult to fall asleep. Putting down the ideas on paper helps to trap them and free my mind.
This also plays into a concept pushed by Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and an expert on learning. He recommends journaling at the end of each day on the singular most important question for the day and posing it to your unconscious mind before you sleep. That way, your unconscious mind can mull it over, and you’ll likely have a fresh take to brainstorm on in the morning.
Second, ask yourself if there’s anything you need to do now to make tomorrow easier for future you. What will make tomorrow easier? Reduce the friction in whatever way you can.
If I’m getting on a flight in the morning, I’ll make notes on a Post-it and put it on the bathroom mirror to remind myself to pack my toothbrush and retainers, since those are things I cannot pack until the morning anyway, and I don’t want to forget.
If I have a chaotic day tomorrow, I’ll write down the one thing I want to get done, despite being pulled in multiple directions. If I have an early morning for filming a Day in the Life, I’ll make sure I have my bag packed and batteries charged. Or if it was an early morning for surgery rotation, I’ll make sure my ID, pager, stethoscope, and scrubs are laid out for easy access so that I don’t have to hunt for them in the morning.
3 | Activate the PNS and Optimize for Sleep
The sympathetic nervous system is your fight, flight, and freight system, dealing with higher acuity situations. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the rest and digest system, dealing with more restorative functions. For optimal sleep, we want to activate the parasympathetic nervous system leading up to bedtime. There are a few ways to do this.
First, lower your body temperature. Set your A/C to a cooler level, or use a Chilipad, or reduce clothing while in bed. I live in a hot climate, so I set my A/C to 72°F and sleep in my underwear with a light blanket. I could get similar effects by setting the room a bit cooler and sleeping with a shirt and pajamas.
Avoid things that stimulate you, like backlit screens, high intensity/loud music, or other things that your grandpa wouldn’t approve of at late hours. Ideally, you shouldn’t be using backlit screens during this time, but if you must, turn down the brightness all the way or try wearing blue light blocking glasses.
And while night shift helps, it isn’t good enough on its own. This is important, as blue light stimulates photoreceptors in your eye that suppress melatonin release from your pineal gland, which is an important hormone in the onset of sleep.
At this time, some people like to relax further by stretching or doing light foam rolling. Others practice deep breathing or meditation. I go with reading. I’ll tell Google Assistant to kill the lights, grab my Kindle Oasis, and I’ll read something that will help me relax. My Kindle Oasis is a new purchase that allows me to adjust the color temperature to automatically become warmer after sunset to reduce blue light exposure.
I often choose fiction, a biography, or something related to personal interests. At the time of this original video and post, I’m reading How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey, which is all about his 35-year career in Formula 1. If I read an intellectual business book, it’s more likely to keep me up thinking. Once I feel tired, I put the Kindle on the nightstand and I’m off to sleep.
Building Your Own Night Routine
One more important point: if you’re living by yourself, you only need to worry about your own preferences. But if you have roommates or family living with you, or a significant other that shares the bed with you, then consider how your routine may influence them, and vice versa.
Seek to find a system that works for everyone. For example, if your significant other sleeps before you, consider doing your night routine activities that may disrupt them before they go to sleep. Or if your family stays up later than you, let them know you’re going to bed so that they know to keep the noise levels down. And remember to do the same for them.
Every routine is different, and it all depends on figuring out what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Continually refine your personal bedtime routine based on your results.
A bedtime routine’s best friend is a Successful Morning Routine. As you learn to optimize your night, don’t forget about the critical time right after you wake up. For more optimization and wellness articles, check out the lifestyle category on the Med School Insiders blog.