Getting a good night's sleep is essential if you want to be productive, healthy and perform when it matters. When I trained as a surgeon my body clock and circadian rhythm would be under attack from varying shift patterns and being woken up in the middle of the night if I was on call and needed to operate. As a CEO regular travel and changing time-zones has meant that I've had to master an evening routine that helps me to switch off and get a good night's sleep so that I can attack the following day and be as productive as possible rather than wake up feeling sleepy. Whether you are studying for an exam, training for a triathlon or just want to perform at your best in work having a structured evening wind-down routine is essential for getting better sleep.
What Is A Wind-Down Routine?
It's really important to switch off your racing mind and relax ahead of getting into bed. If our mind is racing we struggle to get to sleep. Having a structured routine is really important as it builds good sleep habits and ensures that regardless of where you are or how busy your day had been you get the rest thst your brain and body needs.
I've got really good at constructing a wind-down routine and ensuring that I can get back to sleep if I get woken up. Now in some of my previous articles on sleep I looked at why sleep is so important. Whether you're learning or working as an entrepreneur, when you sleep your brain consolidates memories and getting a good night's sleep can often mean that you solve new problems when you wake up and being more productive and focused is likely going to lead to better outcomes in your life both personally and professionally.
My Evening Routine
We're all guilty of working late and having a racing mind just before bed. When I was a student, when I was working as a surgeon and even now as an entrepreneur, I tend to try and cram as much into my day as possible and work really late into the evening. This is counter-intuitive and can leave you open to burn out. My own wind-down routine has been adapted over my time in med school, as a surgeon and now as an entrepreneur to be simple, focused and pretty regimented and I'll track my sleep routine as a habit in my diary and time block things out.
Set a Time To Stop Working
As I get towards the end of my day I make a conscious effort not to work beyond seven o'clock in the evening if possible. Now this doesn't always happen and sometimes I need to do calls to California late at night and sometimes I just need to get some stuff done for the following day as i'm in a flow state but for the most part I try and focus my wind-down routine on stopping work around seven o'clock at night as there's lots of evidence in the literature showing that our brains are very much like a muscle and you need to switch them off and rest them before you put your head on the pillow. If you're working right up to that moment you're less likely to be able to get a good night's sleep and it's going to take you some time to really rest and then fall asleep meaning that you're probably going to stay up later if you don't switch off. I'll use the focus settings on my Mac and iCloud devices to make sure I get a reminder to stop working. I'll then switch my laptop off and i'll make sure I grab a break to get my mind starting to wind down.
I always make sure that i don't have any stimulants beyond five o'clock at the latest. I won't really drink coffee in the afternoon, I won't go to the gym in the afternoon and I'll prioritize doing those things early in the morning or mid morning to get them out of the way to make me feel energized and so later on in the day I naturally start to feel tired.
Reduce Blue Light and Screen Time
After i close down my laptop I'll try not to immediately jump on my phone or put my eyes in front of any blue spectrum light as there's evidence that looking at screens late in the evening can block melatonin due to how that particular wavelength of light functions which leads to you not getting quite as good a night's sleep.
I'll try and relax either by reading a book going for a walk or talking to some friends or putting on some trash tv that i don't really need to think about and it lets my mind relax. Whatever you do try to do something that is fairly passive rather than playing a video game which can be a stimulant.
Eat Some Carbs
I'll get some food and if I'm trackin gmy food intake or looking at my calories I'll try and put most of my carbs at the end of the day as again there's evidence in the literature that shows that having carbs late at night can help with your quality of sleep.
Set a Bed Time
In addition to my wind-dwon time I'll also set a reminder for my actual bedtime i.e when I put my head down onto the pillow. For me this is aroundabout 10:30 or 11 o'clock every single night which means that I'll get a natural eight-hour sleep cycle and I won' tneed to set an alarm clock the following day. I typically use my fitbit to track this and to make sure I'm getting a goodnight's sleep during the week and if I know I'm lacking on sleep I'll factor this in and probably get a bit of an earlier night the following evening to catch up.
So now we've looked at my general wind down routine and habits let's look at how I improved my sleep hygiene to get a good night's sleep every single night.
Good Sleep Hygiene
One of the most important takeaways from the research on sleep is to make sure that your bedroom is set up for good sleep hygiene this means things like not having your mobile phone in your bedroom, making sure that you've got blackout blinds and there's no light creeping in and it's really a place where when you go in there you're focused on sleep and you're not working on your laptop while sat up in your bed or doing anything that's going to stimulate you late at night. For me I literally just have a book by my bed and I'll have my Alexa set with some sleep music next to me and then i'll also make sure that all of my blinds are closed and I'm not going to be disrupted by any sound from outside.
I try and keep the temperature in my room pretty cold with the window open because that helps me to sleep the best and I've also invested in some high quality duvets, mattresses and pillows which help me to sleep well at night.
What To Do If You Can't Get To Sleep
I try and keep my bedtime and my wind-down routine regular but I also try and keep it very simple and I don't beat myself up if there are some minor deviations. I track things on my fitbit to make sure my sleep habit is being followed as best as it can be but certainly when i was working as a surgeon and occasionally even now I might get woken up at night and then find it a bit of a struggle to get back to sleep so if you're struggling here are some key hacks that i use to get myself back to sleep if I'm woken up or I'm struggling to get off to sleep in the first place.
So my first key hack I adopted when I was a surgeon and getting woken up oncall and it's to make sure that you've got earplugs and you've got an eye mask on hand in case you're in any kind of environment which might be a little bit noisy or you might have some light creeping through your blinds or windows which are going to stimulate you and wake you up. It's really important to have absolutely no stimulation as you go to sleep and this is one really key hack that i'll use especially if I'm traveling or in hotel rooms.
Another tip that I adopt sometimes if i'm getting off to sleep quite late is to have a warm shower before going to sleep. This warms up the body and relaxes me and makes sure that when my head hits the pillow I get a good night's sleep.
I like to use apps like Calm with bedtime stories or meditation to switch off that racing mind. If you're someone who tends to overthink things as soon as your eyes close and your head hits the pillow you need to make sure you're switching off your mind and meditation is a great way to do that with either some guided meditation techniques or just focusing on your breathing.
If you don't have access to any apps my final hack here, which is again from doing lots and lots of traveling and having my body clock messed up and from being woken up as a surgeon, is that if for any reason you do get woken up late at night or early in the morning make sure you're kind to yourself and try putting on things like Calm's get back to sleep routine or listening to some white noise or nature sounds so that it lulls you back to sleep. Don't panic and over-think that you need to get sleep which can be one of the defaults especially if you'rea round exam time that can actually be counterintuitive to you falling back to sleep. Instead be kind to yourself relax and focus on your breathing and put on some gentle music and just allow yourself to fall back to sleep.