These 3 simple (research-backed) changes to the order of your evening is all it takes.

8:00 am: Get to work – Too tired to think. 

1:00 pm: Go to a meeting – Too tired to think. 

6:00 pm: Make dinner – Too tired to think. 

11:00 pm: Go to bed – How do dragons blow out candles?

Sound familiar? This was a post a friend sent me a few months ago with the comment, “Why does this have to be so true?!” Variations of this made the rounds of social media sites simply because it reflects the frustrating reality that so many people deal with when it comes to falling asleep.

It turns out that just because you’ve decided it’s time to sleep, doesn’t mean your brain or body are on the same schedule! 

If this is something that affects you, you’re not alone. Studies spanning the last two decades have indicated a steady rise in people, particularly women, having a harder time falling asleep

This sentiment is shared by many of the clients that come to my company to help them raise their Work Vitality Quotient (WVQ). Inevitably, the discussion of sleep and the impact it has on their performance, leadership, and life satisfaction always comes up. 

Clients will often say that because of things such as shift work, family commitments, client emails, or early morning commutes; going to bed earlier or getting up later isn’t an option. This makes falling asleep quickly a priority. Unfortunately for many of us, this just isn’t happening. 

While numerous things may delay the onset of sleep, one factor that is undeniably having an impact is our tendency to push all day long in hyper-drive go-mode. By aiming to squeeze in as much as possible during the day, many people have inadvertently left little time to transition out of go-mode and into slowing sleep-mode. 

As Shawn Stevenson shares in his awesome book, Sleep Smarter

“We get ready for everything. We need to shift our mindset around sleep from something we do to something we get ready to do.”

If you’re thinking, “I’m already too busy, I won’t have time for this,” fear not! This strategy isn’t about adding to your day; it is about changing the order of your evening. 

With a few small, but intentional adjustments to your evening activities, you can establish a wind down routine that helps you to both relax, as well as craft the necessary transitionary time to make falling asleep easier. 

A simple method that I have been using with clients as well as personally is what I call the 3-2-1 Sleep ‘E’ Routine. The goal of the approach is to create congruence between your desire to sleep and your brain and body’s readiness to sleep – yes, to help make you sleepy. The shift in your evening activities goes like this: 

  • 3 hours before bed – Limit Eating and intense exercise
  • 2 hours before bed – Limit Emailing & work
  • 1 hour before bed – Limit Electronics & screens

What does this look like in real life? Let’s say you plan to be in Zzz-land by 10:00 pm, this would be your approach to winding down.

3 Hours Before Bed (7:00 pm). Wind down EATING and exercise.

First step is to address eating, especially heavy meals. Your body requires time to metabolize and getting the majority of this done before bed not only results in a night of much better sleep but also decreases the chance of heartburn and indigestion, both of which makes falling asleep much more difficult. Unfortunately after the age of 30, this often increases when you lay down following a big meal. 

Besides, I can’t be the only one that has the strangest and most vivid dreams when I go to bed with a full stomach!

If a nice warm decaffeinated tea relaxes you into the nighttime mode, try to finish this up within an hour of going to sleep. The later these are consumed, the higher the chance of a required middle-of-the-night bathroom break interrupting your sleep. Not to mention, the more times you wake up, the more often you need to fall back to sleep!

Next is exercise, this time allotment allows your elevated heart rate and core temperature, as well as all that energizing adrenaline adequate time to decrease naturally. 

There is an abundance of well-researched data that shows exercising early in the morning increases the amount of deep sleep you get the following evening. It is during ‘deep sleep’ that the body repairs itself, and your brain cleans itself up, both of which leave you feeling more rested without sleeping more hours. 

If the later evening is the only time you can exercise, consider swapping out your high-energy Spin Class for Yoga. Slower, stretch-focused exercise is widely used to calm your mind and body. To fully feel the benefits, incorporate breathing exercises and meditations. Both of which are proven to be powerful sleep-priming enhancers. 

2 Hours Before Bed (8:00 pm). Wind down the emails and other work.

One of the best ways to help your brain disengage from workplace worries is to have a preset, designated time to stop working. The benefit of having this routine is that it signals to your brain that it can stop working, worrying, and thinking.

But it isn’t just about email; it is about mentally disengaging from work as well. In a 2019 survey I conducted most of the work people do in the evenings involved checking, clearing out, and replying to emails. What was most fascinating was that nearly 30% of the respondents commented that they rarely worked before bed – they just kept an eye on email. That is called WORKING!

Even if you disagree with what counts as work, research shows that constantly scanning your email signals to your brain that it needs to stay in alert-mode, ready to jump at the sign of an emergency – even when that emergency is a simple notification indicating a new email is waiting for you. Alert-mode and sleep-mode are not good bed buddies!

If you still find yourself defending your late email checking with the excuse that it helps you feel calmer to know what’s going on, read on.

Everyone knows that email can be triggering. Who hasn’t gotten a late-night crummy email from a colleague or customer? Even if you’re able to manage your fight-flight system and resist firing back an email, your brain stays hooked long after the email is read. To cope, you usually take one of two approaches. Either you try not to think about it, or you overthink it. Unfortunately, both approaches result in excessive cortisol, a potent stress hormone, being dumped into your system making sleep, especially falling asleep, much more difficult.

If the neurochemistry isn’t enough to dissuade you, consider how constantly monitoring your incoming messages and being preoccupied with with work impacts your connection to those most important to you. When you are accessible to work via email 24/7, it means we are inaccessible to the people around you 24/7. Physical connection via talking and spending time with those you love is both a more fulfilling and more relaxing way to ease into a healthier nighttime routine.

1 Hour Before Bed (9:00 pm).  Wind down Electronic use and screens.

Even with the hour before sleep being potentially the most important block of time, many people take a haphazard approach to calming themselves both psychologically and physiologically during this time. 

For most of my clients, decreasing screen time before bed is the hardest adjustment to make. So assuming you’ve closed down your laptop, don’t try to trick yourself into believing that reading the day’s news or political headlines on your tablet won’t have an impact on your sleep – it absolutely does.

Just like the work email, news, and other social media all have the potential to trigger the emotional neural networks in your brain and prompting the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. When you have more cortisol, then melatonin (that sleep-inducing hormone) in your system, it chemically communicates to your brain and body to wake-up and take action, counter to your sleep goal! 

In this final hour, helping your brain to disconnect from the day and settle down should be a priority. Spend this time relaxing with family, reading a good fiction novel, listening to an audiobook or Podcast, or doing some reflective journaling. It is critical to understand that the thinking brain fatigues, and the constant stimulation of scrolling social media tends to overstimulate the brain, essentially making it over-tired and unable to calm down and settle into sleep.

Before deciding what will or won’t work for you, test and tweak each step to suit you best. The calming power in routines comes from the replication of them. It takes time to get your brain, body, and behaviors on a new schedule. 

The 3-2-1 SleepE Routine works with your brain and body’s natural processes so that when the light goes off, sleep is not far behind! 

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