Neil Pasricha: 7 Ways to Calm Your Mind and Sleep Better
How’s your sleep? Mine’s been shot lately. Some nights I find myself tossing and turning and just can’t turn off my brain. Other nights an anxious chest fluttering will pop out of nowhere jussssst before bed. Other nights I fall into a deep sleep just fine before waking up perky and refreshed at 2:27 am.
I suppose I have never slept that much.
I fell asleep when I was tired. I woke up when I wasn’t. I kept moving. Honestly, what’s the big deal? I agreed with the philosophy of Wait But Why author Tim Urban who said on my podcast, “3 Books”: “Sleep is boring. Being awake is fun.”
But these days that type of thinking gets you in hot water. We seem to have all agreed, yet again, that 7-8 hours of sleep is best and if you aren’t getting that much, you’re not far from the guy who never wears a seat belt. You are a menace to yourself! How can you put yourself at risk when we know children who sleep less are more likely to be obese, lack of sleep results in horrible immune function, and, my favourite, sleeping less than seven hours a night means you’re 12% more likely to have a premature death and sleeping more than eight hours a night means you’re 30% more likely to have a premature death.
My point is on top of a lack of sleep we’re carrying around anxiety about a lack of sleep.
The other day I looked back in my journals and realized that I have gone through bouts of low sleep for pretty much forever. It’s the reason I posted 1000 blog posts at 12:01 am for 1000 weekdays in a row. In the years after my divorce this practice was originally a sleep aid too.
And it did help.
But what about now?
Well, after looking back in my journals I also realized I have devised a series of tiny sleep tools, practices, and habits that help me get to sleep during periods of low sleep. (Note: I don’t want to call it “poor sleep” or “bad sleep” and be judgmental about it. I think only you know how much sleep you really need and what works for you.)
But whenever I’m in a period of low sleep relative to what I want to be getting I try one of these — seven ways to calm your mind and sleep better:
1) Read Something Written Over a 1000 Years Ago.
Our entire lives are shorter than a flash of lightning on a December night in the long year of eternity. I find it helps me get out of my own head to connect with a voice speaking to me from long, long ago. There is a helpful perspective in recognizing that your present reality isn’t the be all or end all… of anything.
Others have wrestled and processed similar issues many, many times before. Some may find comfort in the Bible, Quran, or Vedas. For me, my go-to bedside table books are: On The Shortness of Life by Seneca, Letters from a Stoic also by Seneca, and The Art of Living by Epictetus. Lately I’ve also been enjoying The Essential Rumi, which is a measly 700 years old but we can say it still counts.
2) Clean Up your Bedside Window.
What’s your Bedside Window? Everything you can see from your bed that’s messy. For me, that’s my bedside table and dresser. What happens? Well, without regular pruning, my bedside table can quickly look like a library threw up. Tipsy piles of books, homemade bookmarks from my kids, pens and cue cards everywhere. And my dresser somehow becomes an empty chest of drawers underneath a sloppy pile of clothes. My sleep is a lot better when I take five minutes to straighten, tidy, and clean up my Bedside Window.
3) Perform an Intense One-Minute Workout.
Does your body shift into a sort of low-grade state of slow-moving, stomach-bubbling lethargy before bed? That happens to me. The energy dial goes from a 10 during the day to a 7 at dinner, a 5 when I’m putting my kids to bed, and a 3 when I’m brushing my teeth. So, what’s the problem? It gets stuck at 3. It never gets to a 0.
How do I twist the knob all the way down? An intense one-minute workout. Even the name makes it sound doable. It’s just one minute! Imagine you’re a car with a few tiny fumes of gas left in the tank. Want to go to bed on a slow cruise full of big turns and quiet idling? No, you need to run out of gas to come to a full and complete stop. How? By hitting the gas. Here are three one-minute workouts to hit the gas before bed:
- Jumping jacks x 10, pushups x 10, jumping jacks x 10, pushups x 10
- Squats x 10, lunges x 10, squats x 10, lunges x 10
- Triceps x 10 (hang off a chair by your elbows and lift), crunches x 10, triceps x 10, crunches x 10
For bonus points, roll a few stressed-out muscles on a lacrosse ball when you’re done.
4) Hang a Perspective-Setting Image Near Your Bed.
Have you heard the story of Jerry Seinfeld hanging a Hubble telescope photo of distant galaxies up on the writing room wall during Seinfeld. Why? Because it helped de-stress the place. Who can stay fritzed out making a black and white cookie joke when you know what? In the grandest scheme of things: You don’t matter.
A big image that grounds and centres you can help you zoom out of today and focus on something bigger. Right now, Leslie and I have an image of us holding our hands to remind us we always have each other.
5) Pick Bedtime Novels Based on Pacing.
Years ago my friend Shiv told me she read one David Sedaris essay before bed every night. I remember thinking that was strange. But then I tried it. His words really do have the perfect pacing to lull me to sleep. We don’t talk about pacing in books enough, but I think it’s the most important factor in a before bed book. A slow-paced book calms down a fast-paced life. Here are ten books I’ve found to be perfectly paced before bed:
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Norwegian Wood by Huraki Murakami
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expury
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Naked by David Sedaris
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
6) Buy a Really Expensive Pillow Filled With Water or Braided Horsehair or Something.
I’m kidding. Don’t do this. Everyone says you should and I’ve fallen into this trap a few times. At first, I’m excited. “My sleep saviour has arrived!” or “I have finally found the ultimate sleep hack!” But two nights later I’m tossing and turning. Same with fancy eye masks, creams, or anything that promises quick results. If you want it dark, sure, go ahead, buy a cheap mask from a dollar store. But don’t pour money into fancy pillows, masks, or other hacky tricks that don’t work on the underlying issue of calming down or relaxing your mind. That’s what we’re really aiming for here. I need to repeat #6 as this one doesn’t really count.
6) Make a Brain Billboard.
Be honest with yourself and ask what deep-seeded fear is taking hold in your brain stem and rattling you awake whenever you are mildly conscious. I mean the really deep thing — are you paranoid about money? Love? Connection? We all have fears. They aren’t necessarily rational or logical or even real when we wake up the next day. But they can grab you at night when you’re in your weaker, lower resilience moments and claw at your mind. What’s the solution? Make a little Brain Billboard that addresses the fear directly.
Write it like a loving note from your wiser self. Take a cue card, fold it in half, write down the ‘billboard’ to address your fear, and place it on your bedside table. That way it’s the last thing you see before bed and the first thing you see in the morning. So, for example, if you have a fear of money make something that says, “You Have Enough”.
7) Create a Two-Minute Morning Routine.
I normally start my day by filling out the three simple prompts in Two-Minute Mornings: “I will let go of…”, “I am grateful for…”, and “I will focus on…” But my wife Leslie has always done it at night. Why? Well, in two minutes before bed she extricates a fear, focuses her mind on positives, and writes a focus for tomorrow. Does it need to be Two-Minute Mornings specifically? Of course not. In this video I share how I surround myself with journaling opportunities to pick away at the mental plaque that builds over the day.
This article was originally posted on Neil’s blog.
With infectious enthusiasm, heartfelt authenticity, and a “what works” authority, happiness expert Neil Pasricha draws on the latest research in happiness to increase individual performance and create a more positive and productive workplace.