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In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to think so much about your sleep because it would just happen. You’d fall asleep easily, stay asleep through the night, and wake up feeling ready to take on your day. You’d have energy not just to survive your day but to thrive. You’d feel productive and focused at work, connected to your friends and family, and fully engaged in your life.
But so often, we sabotage ourselves. We become frustrated with our inability to sleep, with our low energy. We try to improve our sleep but either can’t find the time or discipline to follow good sleep hygiene practices. Or maybe we have great self-control; we do “all the things” we’re supposed to, but despite our hard work, they’re still not working.
As a sleep wellness coach, I talk to a lot of people about their sleep, and here’s what I see: until people make some important mindset shifts about their sleep and energy, they continue to work hard and struggle.
If you’re looking to sleep better with less effort, here are 3 important mindset shifts you’ll need to make.
1. Change how you talk about your sleep
First, you must acknowledge that your words, whether said to yourself in your mind or vocalized aloud, influence your experience.
For example, if you have trouble falling asleep in the amount of time you feel is reasonable, does your mind immediately say, “here we go again! Another night of me lying here awake!”
How you talk about your sleep and your energy reflects what you believe to be true. Your language has the power to solidify a random one or two-night experience into a story. Do this enough, and it hardens into an identity: “I’m just a poor sleeper.”
Initially, you probably did have a bad night or two, or even three. There are lots of very valid reasons to start thinking this way. But sustaining this mindset only holds you back. You can do all sorts of external things–like buying good pillows, taking pills, turning off your screens, and so on–but on the inside, you’ll remain stuck.
Start to pay closer attention to how you talk about your sleep. When you notice the negativity, change your language to something more compassionate. Think of it this way: if your child was having trouble sleeping, would you berate them and tell them they were being “stupid?” Or would you respond lovingly and encouragingly, empowering them to self-soothe and overcome this challenge?
Spend a minute or two now, brainstorming some more compassionate responses for your most common sleep challenge. (This could be falling asleep, staying asleep, waking too early, etc.)
2. Decide on one sleep-supporting behavior, then don’t look back
Some have reported that as adults, we make close to 35,000 decisions every day. Some of these are conscious. Others aren’t.
You probably don’t feel the need to make a conscious decision to brush your teeth twice a day. It’s part of your routine because at some point in the past, likely many years ago, you decided that brushing your teeth was important.
My point is this: you made this decision consciously. Once. Then you keep that commitment to yourself; you don’t re-decide each time. Brushing your teeth is simply part of your routine. It doesn’t take any energy other than the act itself.
I’ll bet there’s one thing you’re doing, one lifestyle habit you have that you know, deep down in your gut, that stops you from getting refreshing sleep.
So decide once to do that one thing you really know you should do, but don’t. Decide: “I’m a person who brushes her teeth.” Related to sleep, that may sound like, “I’m a person who shuts off her phone at 7 pm.” One and done.
Then make it happen. (My phone silences on a schedule: I hear nothing between 7 pm and 7 am. I place it in a charging holster located in the kitchen and leave it there all night.)
Why is this important? Because it requires energy to make decisions. When you’re sleep deprived, you have less energy. Even the best sleepers have a finite tank of energy.
When your mind wants to talk you out of it, you say, “the decision has already been made.” (If it helps, you can think of it like that work-related decision that took hours of meetings to come to, and your mind like that colleague who keeps rehashing the topic anyway!). “Nope, sorry. We already decided this.” No more energy goes into a discussion about it.
Complete this sentence with your one-time decision: something positive that you do (vs. something negative you avoid). “I’m a person who ________________ .”
3. Depressurize the act of sleeping, then surrender
I talk with tired and frustrated people about their sleep every day. They have good reasons to be upset; they’ve been sleep deprived for a long, long time. They may even have great sleep hygiene practices. They’ve tried “all the things!” and they’re still not sleeping. Why is that?
As someone who self-identifies with these labels, I hope you’ll smile about me sharing this hard truth. People who work with me 1-1 have certain qualities: they self-describe as:
high-achievers (with off-the-charts standards for themselves),
fixers (who work hard to “think through” and “figure out” problems–for themselves and many others), and/or
I once spoke with a woman who listened to a sleep hypnosis recording. She said, “I tried so hard to do everything he said, but at the end of it, I was still awake.”
The counter-intuitive thing about sleep is that the harder we try, the worse our sleeping gets. The more pressure you put on yourself to fall asleep or back to sleep quickly at night, the more stress and anxiety you create. Stress and anxiety build up and translate into vigilance.
Vigilance is what keeps your eyes popping open, your body beaming with energy, your mind racing even as you lay down to sleep. Even if the previously mentioned qualities are an asset to your daily professional life, they are not directly applicable to your nighttime woes. In the worst case, daytime overuse of these qualities sabotages your sleep.
Sleep comes easily when your body and mind let go of the day and surrender to the night. Control, stress, anxiety, and vigilance are antidotes to surrender.
If you want to “work” on your sleep, the best course of action can be to practice reducing the pressure you put on yourself. While that pressure may be directly related to sleeping right now, it can also be helpful to use small daily tasks to develop this depressurizing skill. Where are you pushing to excel, adding pressure to something that’s neither truly urgent nor important?
The more you see and take those daily opportunities to ease off the gas pedal, the easier it will be to put the brakes on vigilance and surrender into natural sleep.
Identifying, uprooting,and changing deeply held beliefs not just about sleep but also about energy, rest, self-compassion, and self-care usually requires some deeper work. And, it’s shifting your attention to these areas that can make sleeping much easier to come by.