In the first of my 52 weekly challenges (a new skill or experience commenced every single week) I resolved to learn how to be a good sleeper. If you think it seems a strange first challenge, think harder: we spend so much time sleeping, and the health benefits of good sleep are proven, whilst at the other end of the scale, insomnia was recently linked with heart disease. So I’m putting this essential activity right at the top of my list.

After that drowsy week of delicious dormitization (yes people, consider that coined) I’m sharing with you here my sleep strategy which will henceforth inform all shut eye shenanigans:

I’m a lark, I’m a lark, I’m a lark
A large part of fixing any problem is admitting some home truths – when it comes to sleep, it seems I should give in and embrace the fact that I am a natural early-riser, which means observing what that entails.

Till Roenneberg has written extensively about a social phenomenon he is calling Social Jetlag. In his book Internal Time, Roenneberg describes how people at both ends of the sleeping spectrum – so-called larks and night owls – accrue sleep debt just by the very nature of their sleep-work-life balance. In my case, social jetlag has been manifested thus: during the working week I get up pretty early – often 6am – but after around 4pm my brain is toast and by 10-11pm I tend to be in bed, but at the weekend I go out, have drinks and see friends (most of whom are owls) and don’t get in until gone midnight…but then I still awake at 6am the following morning, then go out again the following night, wake early again, get through Sunday on adrenaline and just-about make it back to Monday, after which point I spend the ensuing week restoring my balance before it all begins again on Friday. I’m perpetually fighting social jetlag. Sound familiar? If not, it’s because you’re an owl, and the reverse probably happens for you, and your late nights put you in the hole as much as my early mornings.

So, henceforth gone are the excuses for never being able to lie-in nor having the energy to party/read/work late into the night. This doesn’t mean I won’t burn the candle at both ends from time to time, there just needs to be a more honest appreciation about who I am, and an effective way to strategise that behaviour.

Sleep hygiene
Everything I read about sleep emphasised the importance off good sleep hygiene in gaining a successful nights’ rest. Aside from having a physically comfortable sleeping arrangement, good bedroom hygiene includes going to bed at a consistent hour, preparing your brain for sleep with some restful activity, treating the bedroom like a sanctuary where no TV, computer or mobile phone should enter and so on and so forth. It’s all common sense, but I think we’re making life increasingly hard for ourselves as technology becomes more portable and all-pervasive – I can remember listening to a talk by mobile guru Tomi Ahonen in which he quoted some startling research about how near the average person keeps their mobile phone to their head when sleeping. It was shockingly close – a matter of inches – and I bet no one reading this is surprised, because we all do it.

So I intend to put good sleep hygiene in place from here on in. I won’t always be able to control the environment over the coming year but I can definitely improve my wind-down and switch off process.

Working off your sleep debt – a marathon not a sprint
Replacing one short or fitful night with an attempted jumbo sleep just isn’t going to cut the mustard. Moreover, 6+ years of sleep abuse isn’t going to be redressed by a single week of good sleep. A different approach is required, in which my accrued sleep debt will gradually diminish and a natural pattern will hopefully emerge. Do you know how much sleep you actually need? I have no idea, and I really should by now! So, no quick fixes, just a steady repayment of debts, with interest, and a savings plan going forward!

Effective rest – not an 8 hour marathon but a 90 minute sprint
As I mentioned in the initial Sleep post, that ‘one big sleep’ we subscribe to daily is something of a modern invention and doesn’t necessarily fit within the body’s natural rhythm. In Tired but Wired Narina Ramlakhan describes the oscillating ‘ultradian’ rhythm which makes up roughly 90 minute cycles within our day-long circadian rhythm. Even when we’re sleeping, we subscribe to these phases, descending into deep sleep before coming up for air (lighter sleep) then diving back in to delicious deep sleep again. So resting smarter, throughout the day and/or exploring a polyphasic sleep approach may be just as good as sleeping for longer. Only time will tell on this one, but if my schedule can be bent to fit regular rest and more than one daily sleep, it doesn’t half take the pressure off nighttime rest. And for someone who struggles to remain in bed for any longer than a few hours, it’s a major boon. I feel like someone just let me in on a secret – no more eight hour sleep enslavement!

Need to be creative? Put yourself in the hole
The final interesting titbit I’m sharing is from a recent article in Wired which suggests that the disorientation caused by drowsiness can be stimulating for right brain functions like creativity. Hurrah! Perhaps that is why so many creatives struggle with sleep? Or perhaps we’re all kidding ourselves and finding ever more creative ways to cram more in at the expense of sleep.

Frankly, what this research and in fact this whole week tells me is that if we have a healthier relationship with sleep, we can learn how to abuse it to useful ends as well – I bet that greasy jumbo pizza tastes even better to the health freak than the obese teenager. And on that slightly odd metaphor, I’m signing off on sleep for now. Check back for updates on my sleep progress, and if you have any tips to share, ping them my way!