Sleep is mysticism. It’s easy to believe that when you’re so tired that you start to think burrowing a trench in the sand would be a good way to get some rest. Any habit is a complex blend of many factors, not a single one of which will solve a persistent problem on its own. Quality sleep is so valuable that it’s worth focusing on marginal sleep gains.
The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ is the term for the cumulative effect of small inputs.
Let’s take a pizza for example. I’m going to make you a pizza with a frozen crust, canned tomato paste, and a packet of herbs I got at the dollar store. My friend is going to make what he calls “bachelor pizza” with a slice of white bread, ketchup, and a slice of processed cheese. Hopefully he remembers to remove the wrapper.
Because you’re a smart person, you’re going to make an excuse to leave and get a pizza with a crust from scratch and fresh ingredients, baked in a proper pizza oven.
There is no single factor that differentiates these “pizzas” - they each combine features that make a whole. Even my friend’s bachelor pizza would be marginally improved by using pizza sauce instead of ketchup.
What does this have to do with sleep? A word of advice: don’t eat pizza late at night if you’re having sleep problems. Have it for lunch instead.
Where are the aggregate gains for sleep going to be found?
Some of this depends on the individual. Most of it, I suspect, is universal, and in a couple of decades we’ll have a better understanding deriving from tech, big data, and sleep research. The trouble is that we tend to associate sleep with one specific aspect, our ability to fall asleep in the first place.
As an example, I can think of three people off the top of my head who claim they are fine on no more than six hours of sleep. All fall asleep quickly (go figure) and all are great at their jobs. Unfortunately, all of them are also crabby, snarky individuals with short tempers. What they think of as their “personality” is what I’m like after a rough night. Because they share the common Puritan-work-ethic problem of scorning sleep, everyone will just think they’ve mellowed out during retirement rather than correcting a problem that was decades in the making.
When we’re looking for marginal sleep gains, we want to be clear about which areas are up for improvement. We also want to broaden our time scale, so that we’re talking about sleep by the week and month, not just individual nights.
For myself, I’m looking at sleep gains in:
Falling asleep more quickly
Sleeping through the night without waking
(Or at least waking fewer times)
(Or at least not lying awake for 90 minutes each time)
Sleeping eight or more hours per night
No night terrors
I’m also looking at “externalities” that not everyone would think are related to sleep.
Other people might be looking at:
No restless leg syndrome
No circles under the eyes
Or any other way that sleep loss lowers your quality of life.
What I’ve learned from years of quantifying my habits is that the approach that works for one thing may have nothing to do with something else. This is why tracking is so important. Marginal gains may take a month or a year to really notice.
For instance, when I finally quit my day job, I slept about 15 hours a day for three days, followed by 12 hours a day for a month. A few months later, I started taking melatonin supplements (careful here!) and hated them because I felt drowsy all day long. I told my husband I was going to quit, and he was shocked. He said I finally had color in my face again. I kept at it. By the end of the year, I had lost 15 pounds (from doing literally NOTHING but sleeping all day and mastering all the crops in FarmVille) and suddenly had the bright idea to take up running.
At the time, I found my constant sleep and lethargy to be embarrassing and unpleasant. That wasn’t the reason I quit my job! In retrospect, that year completely changed my life, helping to make me the athlete I am today.
For thyroid disease, I found my biggest change came from extremely strenuous activity. For migraine, it was keeping my body weight in a certain specific range. For night terrors, the secret was the timing of when I ate - nothing for three hours before I go to sleep. I suspect one of the major keys for sleep, at least in my case, is hydration - drinking enough water at the right time of day.
The secret for me was a change in attitude. I adopted the philosophy that I call Do the Obvious. I assume that there is no reason to deviate from mainstream health advice unless I have tested it on myself in multiple ways. As a scientist I fully commit to designing a proper experiment that can give quality results, and then I analyze my metrics like I really mean it. If I don’t like the answer, then I am choosing my own suffering.
The aggregation of marginal gains does not apply only to one area of life, such as sleep or headache management. It all combines into one big thing, which is your experience of daily life.
As a young, broke, exhausted person, I know I would have been deeply annoyed with the expectation that I make the kind of changes I made for the quality of life I have now. What, quit drinking soda? Go to bed earlier? Lose twenty pounds? Get out of here! Yet the fact is that that young version of me suffered from four-day migraines and often felt sad and hopeless. Today Me would never return to Young Me’s habits out of fear of Young Me’s cruddy life experience.
Today Me has great faith that Future Me will sleep on a peaceful peachy cloud of sweet dreams and aromatherapy. This is hard as Today Me has to listen to Today Upstairs Neighbor clomping up and down the stairs at 5:00 AM.
Here are some of the factors that have gone into the marginal sleep gains I have made so far:
An air filter/white noise generator (or you can try a phone app and/or a fan)
Cracking the window at night
A $25 pillow I discovered at a hotel
A $9 eye mask
Drinking all my water for the day before 8:00 PM
Not eating for at least three hours before sleepy time
Putting my phone in Do Not Disturb mode from 10 PM to 10 AM (and now that I think about it, I should change that to 8 PM)
My husband training our dog to quit whining at 5:30 AM
No naps after 3 PM under any circumstances
Wearing a sleep tracker at night (Fitbit Flex 2) and checking metrics daily
Worth noting: I never drink coffee or alcohol.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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