Wind-down routine: The perfect lullaby

I have talked about a morning route to rouse your day here. However, finishing your day with a routine is as important as starting your day with one. As with a morning routine, a wind-down routine is an excellent way to get you from wakefulness to deep sleep. Being an long time insomniac and a light sleeper, I can say that a wind-down routine has worked very well for me.

Why a wind-down routine works

A wind-down routine signals to your brain that your body is ready to transition to sleep. In response, the brain releases the melatonin hormone necessary to make it easier for us to sleep. While a strict routine is not necessary, you can still take a few steps to make it easier to sleep.

Preparation

1. Find out how much sleep you need to be well-rested: There is no common answer for everyone. There is no common answer for you all your life either. Sleep requirements differ based on how active you are, where you stay and the weather. A good way to find this out is by testing how much sleep you need. Turn your alarm off for a day and go to sleep as early as you possibly can, noting down the time. When you wake up the next morning, note down the time you woke up on your own (without the alarm ringing). If you repeat this for three days, you will get an average.

2. Plan your waking hour and sleeping hour: I deliberately mention that you plan your waking hour first. Waking up early helps you get more done as I mention here. For best results, you should wake up around 30 minutes before sunrise in your area. This is the time when the sun is nearly on the horizon and there is a hint of light in the surroundings. This is in alignment with your circadian rhythm. Personally, I like to wake up an hour before sunrise, since having done a lot of work before the sun even rises gives me a high.

Once you set your waking hour, you can use your observation in point 1 to work back and set your sleeping hour. For instance, if you decide that you want to wake up at 6 am and that you observed a need to sleep seven hours, your bed time should be no later than 11 pm.

Setting some rules

Now that you know when to go to sleep, you should set up some rules to make sure that you feel sleepy by your determined bed-time. Here are some tips that I follow. They work wonderfully for me.

1. No stimulant food after 6 pm: I consume no tea or coffee after 6 pm. I have stopped drinking cola altogether. I am okay with water, fruit juice and buttermilk as liquid intake after the forbidden hour. It need not be 6 pm for you, but it should be 4 hours before your bedtime. I stand firm on this decision even if I am a guest at a home where they love tea and when they try their best to offer me a cup. Every time I consume tea after 6 pm, my sleep gets adversely affected. I am lucky that my body is prompt in giving me a signal to avoid stimulants in the evening.

2. Light dinner: On one hand, a heavy lunch makes you sleepy. This is mostly due to the natural crash your body goes through in the afternoon. But on the other hand, a heavy dinner interferes with sleep. Going to sleep with a stomach that feels full just doesn’t work. My dinner servings are generally much less than what I consume for lunch. With a heavy dinner, your digestive system is working hard to digest the food. This generates heat in your body. To sleep, your core body temperature must actually go down.

3. To shower or not to shower: An evening shower completely foils my sleep. It actually refreshes and energises me, making it impossible to go to sleep. That said, Priya (my wife) feels relaxed after taking a shower and it helps her sleep. I know  an elderly friend from United States who never goes to bed without taking a shower. She likes to go to bed feeling clean.

I am against verdict on this point. I will let you experiment with what works for you.

4. Strict screen-off time: Electronic screens are one of the biggest sleep spoilers. The light from an electronic screen tells your brain that it is still day time. It is best to take your eyes away from any type of electronic screen thirty minutes to an hour before sleep. This is the single biggest sleep hack that has worked wonders for me. For me, it is a terrible idea to check Facebook or Whatsapp just before I go to sleep.

My bed-time is 11:00 pm and all my screens must turn off by 10:20 pm. In fact, I have automated this on my laptop. I have a reminder at 10:18 that tells me to shut off all my screens. If I ignore this, my laptop’s scheduler program takes over and shuts things down by 10:20 pm. It is too much of a hassle to restart the laptop and re-open all the programs and files, so I just give up.

I take my phone far away to a table at the other corner of the room and connect it to a charger, so that it can charge overnight. This table has no chair and it is not a tempting prospect to stand by the table while mindlessly thumbing through the phone.

5. No stimulating activities immediately before bed time: No movies, suspense novels or watching sports. In fact, no playing sports either. There should be no activity that energises your body or makes your brain think hard just before bed time.

I even have an extreme example that backfired on me. Every night, Priya and I used to talk of one thing we learnt, one thing we were grateful for and one thing we were happy about every day. The answers had to be different every day. While it was a sweet and humbling activity and something we loved, it made my brain think hard, searching for a different answer every day by thinking about the entire day. In this process, my brain revved higher and my sleep got disturbed. Instead of being a relaxing activity, this turned out to be a stimulating activity. I observed that I went to sleep more easily on the days when we forgot to do this activity. Somehow, this habit went away on its own for both of us and I am not considering restarting it.

Activities we can do

Here are suggestions for activities that we should consider just before bed-time.

1. Scents: A fragrance can work wonders in inducing sleep. The scent should be a subtle one such as lavender, sandal, rose or jasmine. It can be used in the form of a room freshener or incense. Make sure that the scent is not too strong or concentrated. Otherwise it can give you a headache.

2. Soft instrumental music / chants that fades away slowly: You can set up a playlist that plays really slow, soft instrumental music such as a low frequency chant or flute. The volume should be low to medium. You should program it such that the music fades away as your bed-time approaches.

3. Reading a book: I like this habit, especially if the subject doesn’t stimulate me too much. A suspense novel is a no-no. However, I have been questioning my choice of books of late. They involve too many productivity and skill-building books. On one hand, if I am too sleepy, I don’t absorb and learn from the book. On the other hand, if I am not too sleepy, the books inspire and stimulate me to take action, or at least notes.

I am not into fiction books, philosophy or poetry at all. So, I am considering getting rid of the reading-before-bed habit altogether and shifting the reading habit to a different time frame. If fiction, philosophy or poetry is your thing, then the read-before-sleep habit may work wonders for you.

4. Journaling: I am considering ditching reading for journaling. Writing down about how the day went works for me. It makes me unwind. Just keep in mind that you write only what you can remember instantly. If you try to think too hard, your mind will rev and you may lose your sleep. I have been avoiding this habit since I used to get too bored to write. But since I have been regularly writing the daily summary of our India 360 trip in our diary, I have come to like the writing habit and have found the sweet spot for how much to write before I get bored.

5. Planning your next day: Structuring your next day gives you a feeling of completion for today and also relaxes you as you have the next day all laid out, knowing what you have to do. This activity is a recent addition to my wind-down routine and I have kept it up for the last 4 months.

Please note that points 3, 4 and 5 require you to keep your lights on. This in itself is a questionable habit. Ideally, your lights need to be turned off to signal to your brain that it is bed-time. This is again to kick in the circadian rhythm. If you are reading, journaling or planning for the next day, try to finish 15 minutes before your intended bed-time and move onto another routine which allows you to turn your lights off. Check out points 6 and 7.

6. Conversation: Simply talking to your spouse, parents or children before you sleep can be a relaxing experience. Conversations can be about a specific topic or simply free-flowing, wherever our minds take us.

7. Meditation: Some people sleep well after meditating for a few minutes. The activity of quietening the brain relaxes them immensely and they come away ready to fall asleep instantly. I have not needed to use meditation to relax myself to sleep yet. But it is worth trying.

For the sake of completeness, there is an activity available to couples that I won’t get into the details of. But it is a catalyst for sleep!

Conclusion

Just as it is important to be deliberate in the way you wake up and get into the groove each morning with a routine, it is equally important to set a routine that gets you ready for bed-time and improves your sleep and restfulness. If you do not have a wind-down routine, plan one today… er.. tonight.

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Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

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