Sleep, the great white whale. OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but it is certainly my white whale, at least these last two years. I’m constantly obsessing about it, trying to create a flawless sleep routine that allows me to greet the day like a Disney princess. When I wake up tired and groggy, I fixate on what exactly went wrong. Is it my pillows? My mattress? If I can find the culprit, I can vanquish it and get eight glorious hours of sleep as my reward. Turns out (of course) it’s a lot more complicated than that.
“The Sleep Prescription: Seven Days to Unlocking Your Best Rest” by Aric A. Prather is designed to help you figure out exactly what’s troubling your sleep. Prather, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California San Francisco, takes us beyond anodyne tips like “turn off your phone” and digs into the way our body responds to all of the various factors that make up our lives over the course of a given week. For each of seven days, the book guides you to focus on one aspect of building a good sleep routine, paying attention to how your mind works in concert with your body and the sleep habits you’ve built over your lifetime. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I love a self-help book with practical tips. Come along on my journey of unlocking my best sleep.
Day One: Confession, day one is all about setting your internal clock, and I was feeling rather smug about it. “If you get up at 6 a.m. some days, and then other days at 9, you’re throwing off your circadian rhythm. You’re putting yourself, intentionally, into a state of jet lag,” Prager writes. Thankfully, I am pretty dedicated to my morning routine, and usually get up between 7:30-8. Nailed it!
Day Two is all about stress. Hmmm. Well. Stress and bad sleep are even more closely linked than I had thought. How you feel stress and how you manage it changes how you sleep. And of course, the less well-rested you are, the worse you handle stress. Prather recommends building in time to relax during the day — “micro breaks” he calls them. And it makes sense, when I think about my tendency to keep moving and working without letting myself feel any of the stress I might be carrying. Of course it rushes up right when I’m trying to sleep. So on day two, I try to work in 10 minutes of yoga twice a day, right on the floor of my office, with mixed results.
Day Three: The Mid-Afternoon slump. It’s gratifying to know that many people have the same feelings of exhaustion and low motivation that I do when the clock strikes 3. It’s less gratifying to be reminded that my midafternoon Diet Coke is probably not helping my sleep. Conceding the point, I try to follow today’s recommendation. I know I’m more alert and focused in the morning, so I plan a day with a long midday break built in, letting myself rest when I am more likely to be tired. Dr. Prather suggests a walk, which makes me cranky, but I have to admit I feel better after a stroll in the early-fall sun.
Day Four: “Worry Early.” Uh oh. Not only worry, but deadly rumination. You know, that tendency when you are lying in bed to review every embarrassing thing you’ve ever done? Turns out some people are more prone to this sleep-disrupting habit, and it’s without a doubt the thing that troubles me the most. Prather’s answer is to build in time to deal with the things that stress you out earlier in the day. I particularly liked his suggestion to create a plan for the things I was worried about. That way, when those pesky thoughts drifted in at night, I could tell myself “you have a plan for this.” It didn’t make a difference overnight, but it’s a habit I can see working for me once it’s fully a part of my routine.
Day Five: Winding Down. I already know I won’t sleep well if I’m scrolling through TikTok or Twitter. Everyone recommends reading before bed, but this book finally helped me understand why that didn’t work for me. Winding down does not mean “do things we have been told are winding-down activities,” it means “find something that relaxes you.” Reading, as nerdy as it sounds, simply excites me too much! I cannot count the number of times I have stayed up till 2 because the book I’m reading is too delightful to put down. I had to find something that actually calmed me down. Journaling, I discovered, is that thing.
Day Six: Retrain your brain. OK, I am still working on this one. The idea is to train your brain and body to be tired in your bed, and to stop whiling away the hours in bed if you’re wakeful. “Don’t get in bed unless you’re sleepy, and if you can’t sleep, get up,” Prather says. (In my mind, he says this sternly but kindly.) This is … shockingly hard. It feels wild to get out of bed and sit in the living room when I am ready for sleep but still awake. I’ve been getting better at sticking to it, and it’s helping, but I have not mastered it yet.
Day Seven: Stay up late! This is the most intimidating task, and the one I have yet to try. Partially because it involves math to figure out how efficiently you’re sleeping, and partially because I didn’t have time to try this out in my ideal setting. The basic idea is that you push yourself to stay up late, thereby ensuring you fall right to sleep and stay asleep, and then you gradually add 15-minute increments to your new late-night routine. The science of it makes sense to me — by building backward like this, you can find the ideal time and duration for your sleep routine.
Sleep is deeply personal, but “The Sleep Prescription” is the first book that showed me it’s possible to understand the science behind it, and find a way to unlock those perfect, restful hours. The book comes out on Nov. 1.
“The Sleep Prescription: Seven Days to Unlocking Your Best Rest,” by Aric A. Prather, Penguin Life, $13.95.