Sweet Dreams: How to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
The other day Caleb and I were on our way to school, when he said something that almost stopped me in my tracks:
“Mom, I love sleep. I don’t understand why people stay up late. Like, what are you doing? Sleep feels so good!”
I’m telling you, that one sentence put a huge smile on my face for a whole lot of reasons.
First, because, I’m going to be real with you, all I could think was, “Same, dude.” He and I are pretty much on the same sleep schedule, which I love because I’m an old lady and I have zero shame getting in bed by 9 p.m.
Second, because he and I have talked about the value of getting restful sleep since he was little. He’s always been a good sleeper (a little gratitude shout-out for that!), but I wanted him to know why being a good sleeper was a healthy habit to carry forward as he grows up.
I knew that at some point in his life, he’d feel the pull of nighttime activities like scrolling on social and bingeing a show on Netflix into the wee hours of the morning. And as his mom, my goal is to help prepare him to make his own healthy choices when I no longer have control over his bedtime.
When we scooted his bedtime back to account for later practices and more homework, he felt the difference, and he understood enough about his own sleep habits to know why it was happening. That showed me he’s really starting to consider his relationship with sleep. He understands that sleep goes beyond, “Oh, I ended up passing out at the end of the day.” He knows that sleep has a purpose and that, just like choosing a healthier snack or choosing to move his body, he can be intentional about choosing healthy sleep habits.
To me, that’s a huge win as a parent. Especially because I know so many adults who are trying to unlearn unhealthy sleep practices and reprogram their bodies to get better quality sleep. The fact that my kiddo sees the value in sleep at his age makes me proud.
Being intentional about your sleep habits is going to help you get all the benefits your body and mind need. There’s so much purpose in sleep, my friend.
In our go-go-go world where so people aren’t getting enough sleep, lots of us believe that if we could just get a few more hours of sleep here and there, everything would fall into place.
But here’s the truth: The quality of your sleep matters. It’s not just the number of hours. In fact, you could double the amount of sleep you’re getting right now and still be exhausted.
Not long ago I was chatting it up with my physician, and we were nerding out on all things wellness. He dropped this incredible insight on me that I knew I had to pass on to you.
He said we can think about our lives as being broken down into three chunks. For most people, the first 30 years don’t have a long-lasting impact on their long-term health. Even if you’re living on pizza, coffee, and mimosas, our bodies are usually resilient enough to recover.
But that second chunk of your life, from 30 to 60? It’s the most impactful one because it significantly affects the last chunk of your life, from 60 on. The habits you have in that middle chunk of your life really shape the longevity and quality of the rest of your life.
He went on to say, there are really three major habits to focus on. The first is reducing or eliminating the harmful substances you consume; smoking and drinking are going to age you and weaken your body. They’re poisons, and we know it.
The second is just maintaining your weight—whatever weight is comfortable for you. It’s not about going on a million diets, it’s not about making perfect choices all the time, and it’s not about being a certain size. It’s about eating and drinking things that make your body feel good and finding enjoyable ways to exercise and move your body and just maintaining a comfortable weight.
The third piece, though, is the one he says is most overlooked and underestimated: sleep.
And again, it’s not just the hours of sleep you get each night that really makes the difference—it’s the quality of the sleep you get that truly impacts your health.
If you’re falling asleep at 9:00 p.m. on the couch with all the lights on, the TV blaring, and a mouthful of Doritos, then waking up at 11 and crawling into bed, you’re not getting the restful, quality sleep you need.
Sleep is not a passive state for that incredible body of yours. When you’re asleep, your body is hard at work—regenerating cells, flushing out toxins, processing new knowledge and transferring it into long-term memory. Sleep neuroscientist Dr. Els van der Helm says we need to “word hard, play hard, and sleep hard” (so good, right???) for our best health.
Waking up disrupts that process, cutting down on the time your body has to accomplish all of that important work. You may have technically slept for 8 hours, but your body probably only got 5 hours of truly restorative sleep. And that’s not nearly enough.
So if you’re thinking about ways to get higher quality sleep, here are some things to consider:
Set your bedtime.
Yeap, bedtimes aren’t just for kids, guys. There’s a reason most kids have a set bedtime, right? It helps ensure that they get enough sleep to be rested when they wake up in the morning. It helps them fall asleep easier because the routine trains their bodies to expect sleep at a certain time. And it helps them learn to structure and organize their time.
And if you think about it, all of that logic applies to adults too!
When you’re thinking about improving the quality of your sleep, the first place to look is when you’re going to bed every night. Most experts say adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Why? Because while you’re sleeping, your brain is flushing toxins from it’s neural pathways. And studies have found that process takes about 7-9 hours to fully complete.
If you’re someone who normally sleeps 4-5 hours, consider adding another hour and building from there. It's not a race; it's a new habit that will take time to form.
And, try to avoid judging yourself. Our bodies and brains are different, so don’t fall into the trap of comparing your sleep needs to your friends’, your coworkers’, or your spouse’s. If you’re going to maximize your sleep time, you have to start by understanding what your body needs.
Once you’ve worked out how many hours of sleep are best for you, the math is pretty simple. You know what time you need to wake up in the morning, so count backward from there, and BAM, you’ve got your bedtime, my friend.
I have my phone automatically set to do not disturb by 9, I’m in bed by 9:30, and I’m drifting off somewhere between 10 and 10:30. Does that schedule fluctuate sometimes? Of course, but I’m really clear on what a reasonable hour is for me, and I stick to it as best I can because it’s what leaves me feeling my best.
Be intentional about the last 30 minutes of your day.
The things you do in the last half hour before bed can have a big impact on your ability to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest. So make conscious choices about the activities you choose in those last 30 minutes.
While it may be tempting to try to squeeze in some extra work or exercise during this time, studies have shown that even something like snacking right before bed can disrupt your sleep—your body is focused on digesting when it should be resting.
Instead, use that sweet time for more calming activities such as reading a book, taking a warm bath, enjoying a skin care routine, or practicing meditation.
Try to put your phone away in that last window of time. Beyond the fact that the blue light from your phone can mess with your sleep cycles, scrolling through Instagram and TikTok isn’t a mindless, wind-down activity. Your brain has to process that visual information and navigate your emotional responses—you’re laughing, you’re crying, you’re inspired. All of that causes your brain to fire off hormones that keep it active and make it harder to shift into sleep.
Listen, I’m not telling you that you can’t watch a show before bed, but be mindful of what you’re consuming right before bed. I had a friend who told me that he used to watch The Sopranos right he went to sleep, but he realized that all of that emotional angst and suspense was making it hard for him to fall asleep–and stay asleep. So instead, he started watching National Parks documentary before bedtime, and it made a huge difference. Listening to Barack Obama describe the Great Barrier Reef was the zen vibe he needed to help him transition into a more peaceful sleep.
Use mindful practices to fall asleep.
Figuring out your ideal bedtime is pure math, but I can hear you saying, “Okay, Karen, but how am I actually going to fall asleep at that time?”
If you have trouble falling asleep, try incorporating mindful practices into your bedtime routine. Mindfulness exercises work because they calm your central nervous system, which is exactly what you need to do to fall asleep! (And bonus: you can use these anytime you need a break during the day too!)
You can focus on noticing your breath (I walk you through it right here!)—pay attention to where you feel your breath the most. Is it in your nostrils? Is it in your throat? Is it in your belly? Lay quietly and just focus on noticing where your breath goes. It sounds simple, but it’s going to knock you out!
Find a bedtime affirmation to repeat (I share 12 of them to get you started in this post!), which can help you shift your mind away from the spiral of thoughts keeping you awake.
If you’ve got a busy mind, use it to your advantage and practice visualization. (Oh, did you think I might not have a TikTok for that? I absolutely do!) Take yourself to a space you’d like to go in your dreams. Do you love the beach? Go there. Do you find peace in drawing or cooking? Imagine yourself doing those things. If you’re single, maybe you want to think about the romantic partner you hope to meet. It might be how they look, but it could also just be imaging how you’ll feel when you’re with them. When it comes to visualization, try to incorporate as many senses as possible.
Pro tip: If you struggle with visualization, and lots of people do, the Sleep Stories on the Calm app can guide you through visualization! They’re full of gorgeous sensory details; all you have to do is listen and use your imagination!
Remind yourself that quality sleep builds resilience.
If you’re here, I know your ultimate goal is to show up in life as your best self. So if you find yourself resisting these changes, it’s a good chance to circle back and remind yourself that developing these healthier habits is really about enjoying life to the fullest and being able to bring your energy to creating a life you love. You can’t do that when you’re feeling depleted, moving through the world without enough quality rest, which leaves you cranky, moody, foggy, and on edge. Quality sleep is essential to have the energy you need to develop your growth mindset.
Living a long, healthy, fulfilling life is the goal, and prioritizing sleep is a necessary step to help you get there! By making sure you get enough rest, you give your body a chance to recharge and recover from the pressures of daily life. Not only is it good for our physical health, but it also has a positive impact on our mental well-being, helping us to be more productive, focused, and alert during the day.
Sweet dreams, my friend!