Good sleep, food, and physical movement are essential elements for our health, performance, and well-being, making everything else easier in life. Of these, for self-discipline, sleep is arguably the most important.
With inadequate sleep, our days, decisions, relationships, and well-being all suffer. It is a single problem with many negative consequences, including decreases in motivation, focus, mental clarity, and willpower. It shortens your attention span, patience, and memory. It impairs decision-making and increases the risk of health conditions and mood disorders. Sleep deprivation also increases cravings for food and cigarettes.
When you are sleep-deprived your cells are less capable of absorbing glucose, which is the main source of energy for your brain; this, in turn, makes you feel under-fueled, irritable, and impatient. Lack of sleep was found to lead to mild prefrontal dysfunction, a state where your brain struggles to regulate your emotions and to sustain attention in any task.
Clearly, sleep deprivation makes mindfulness and self-discipline harder. You’re more likely to give in to temptations, seek distractions, and not have the resilience to persevere through difficulties. If you don’t get enough hours of sleep, or if your sleep quality is poor, then this is a crucial area to improve.
There are three core elements that support the quantity and quality of your sleep: relaxation, environment, and routine.
You cannot sleep well if your body is tense or your mind is restless. Use meditation and other techniques to manage anxiety throughout the day and to relax your body and mind before bedtime.
Relaxing your body can be achieved through Yoga Nidra Meditation, Alternate Nostril Breathing, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. For relaxing your mind, any style of meditation can be good, especially Mantra Meditation, Inner Silence, and Trataka.
There are also non-meditation activities that can help: listening to calming music, stretching, aromatherapy with lavender oil, warming your hands and feet, and drinking certain types of tea (such as chamomile, valerian root, or passionflower). Gratitude journaling and a brain dump can also help.
Your bedroom setup can help or hinder sleep. Here are tips for a sleep-friendly environment:
- Pitch dark
- Cool temperature
- Silence (if that is not possible, then use ear plugs, or white noise apps/soundtracks)
- No work, TV, or device use in the bedroom
- Comfortable mattress, no more than nine or ten years old, ideally medium-firm
- Pillow that preserves the natural curvature of your neck (firmer is better), or orthopedic pillow.
- Pillow between or under your legs, for greater comfort
- Sleeping on your back or on your side
- Pet-free zone, if they wake you up at night.
Routine is about stabilizing our circadian rhythm, the inner clock that synchronizes our body with our environment and tells us when to sleep and wake up. It affects our appetite, heart rate, temperature, hormones, and moods. With a stable circadian rhythm, it will be easier for you to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up refreshed.
There are three main things you can do to improve your circadian rhythm.
First, keep regular sleep and wake-up times—even on the weekends! Why? Your body prepares to wake up one to two hours before you actually rise, and if it doesn’t know when you should wake up, you’ll have poor quality sleep. Similarly, if your body doesn’t know when you will go to sleep, it will not know when to prepare itself, and it will take longer to fall asleep.
Second, control your light exposure. Before electricity, our circadian rhythm was mostly regular and stable—waking up with the sunrise and sleeping a couple of hours after sunset. In our modern society, we often dysregulate the circadian rhythm with late-night artificial light and overstimulation. When you finally decide to sleep, you may have a hard time shutting down because you just told your brain some moments ago that “It’s still daytime! Keep on working!”.
For better sleep, control light exposure by avoiding blue light (produced by TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones) an hour before bedtime, and by getting some sunlight as soon as you wake up, and as much as possible during the morning and early afternoon.
Third, avoid overstimulation—no alcohol or caffeine six hours before sleep, and no physical exercise or heavy meals three hours before sleep. An hour before sleep, avoid smoking, heated discussions, mental stimulation, worrying, eating fruit, and drinking water. Those last two may interrupt your sleep with the need to visit the bathroom.
Bonus: Napping and Breaks
Strategic naps—in the early afternoon and not longer than 30 minutes—can help if they don’t interfere with your sleep routine. They count as sleep and help replenish your mental energy for the rest of the day.
Much-needed rest can also come through breaks in your day, where you unplug completely and go for a walk, or just “do nothing”. Going on vacation, scheduling cheat days, or taking a pause from a long project also help to recharge you—and your willpower.
If you feel frustrated that you can’t move forward; if you are overwhelmed, tired, or demotivated; if you feel your body and mind are not fully cooperating… don’t give up. Have some rest. Sleep more tonight. Try again tomorrow.