Routine Making sleeping easy, use a routine

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My wife and I recently moved flats. From South London to North East London. It’s a new area and we’re finding our feet, we’ve started decorating, the commute to work is longer, we’re joining different clubs, finding different cafes and different travel routes to see friends. All in all a very different weekly routine. And what happened? The change in our weekly routine completely threw us off balance. It really affected our sleep. So how much really changed? How does limiting these variables help me sleep better?

I found myself waking up earlier so I could maintain my morning routine and still be in work when I wanted to be. We were going to bed later and later so we could squeeze everything we wanted to into the evening.

This of course was bad. We had reduced our sleeping opportunity by almost an hour and were now going to bed at 11 pm and getting up between 6:30 – 7 am. It takes us about 15 mins to fall asleep and our sleep efficiency is about 80 – 90 % so those 8 hours actually result in only about 6 and half hours.

All seemed okay but by the time the weekend came around we were both shattered. Just over six hours a night is not nearly enough sleep for almost everybody and you cannot sleep off a sleep debt. Trying to sleep off sleep debt is like chasing  a moving car – it’s always moving and you can’t keep up. We had – excuse the pun – slept walked into a terrible sleeping routine.
The answer of course – and one I knew (I just needed a shock to remind me of it), was to take control of our sleeping routine, specifically our bedtime routine.

The power of routine

‘Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.’

So said W. H. Auden. Indeed.

You are wired to develop routines and habit. A habit is a regularly repeated set of routine behaviours that tend to occur subconsciously. We have evolved the ability to form habits, and form them quickly, we repeat things that work for us without having to re-think behaviours as it takes up too much thinking room. A Princeton study found about 40% of what you do is habit.

Its long been known your ability to make good decisions and your use of willpower steadily decrease during the day. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle and this muscle is in constant use during the day. Saying no to chocolates, ignoring emails, concentrating at work, they all take their toll and in the evening your willpower muscle is fatigued. This means you’re more likely to reach for the ice cream and you’re also more likely to stay watching TV or playing on the internet rather than going to bed. Your willpower is exhausted.

Here is where habits and routine can help. Don’t rely on your willpower and decision making. Habits are powerful and your ability to form them is a gift to be used to help you sleep better.

In addition your brain and body are incredible at remembering what to do. No doubt you will have heard of Pavlov and his dogs. Pavlov, a physiologist, was looking at salivation in dogs and noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate when he entered the room well before he fed them. Pavlov has stumbled onto an important scientific discovery, that of conditioned learning. Brains, yours and your dogs, will learn by association. If you have a set sequence of routines triggered by a certain activity or location your brain will atomically associate these. For Pavlov’s dogs it was salivating when he entered the room; for you it can be feeling tired and falling asleep when you have shower, get  into bed and start to read.

Sleeping routine – make it a habit

You can either evolve a bedtime routine naturally as my wife and I did after moving flats, or you can choose a routine instead.

Not all naturally evolved routines are bad of course, but almost all bad routines are evolved ones. Nobody would choose to have a routine they didn’t like, right? Planned routines give you an opportunity to decide on your desired behaviours when you’re thinking clearly about what you want to achieve. In this case, enough time in bed and waking up feeling great.

So what to do? Simple. Sit down and plan a bedtime routine when you’re fresh and thinking clearly about your needs and goals. To help with this it can be useful to know how much sleep you need. If you’re unsure I’d suggest assuming you need eight hours.

I decided to change my morning routine and go to work later. This meant I could wake up at 7:15 am. I then wrote a step by step list of my new bedtime routine which was triggered at 9:45 pm with an alarm, and then the following steps:

1. Check my work diary and get ready for tomorrow (making lunch, pack bag, iron shirt, etc.). Adjust my get up time or morning routine if I absolutely need to.
2. Turn off all screens and put phone to airplane mode
3. Have a shower
4. Journal
5. Get into bed and read

Seems painfully simple and perhaps a bit odd writing down such simple steps and pinning it to a wall but it meant I stuck to it. I was getting to bed just before 10:30 pm. It took about 3 – 4 weeks for this to set in and become a routine. I’m now getting the sleep I need, sleeping better and without having to put effort in or use what little willpower I have left at the end of the day.

Why the 9:45 alarm, seems a little early? This was deliberate so I wasn’t starting my bedtime routine before I got too tired. Falling into the too tired to go to bed trap is a dangerous one and one that will see you going to bed late and extremely tired.

Forming new habits

There are whole sections of libraries dedicated to habits and developing new favourable routines. I won’t try to describe anything in detail here. However, I will say developing a habit is simple on the face of it: use your intentional mind, to remind yourself to repeat a behaviour until the behaviour passes into the automatic mind (the limbic brain) and becomes a habit. Simple? Sadly not. The difficulty is it requires discipline to stick to the behaviour you want to become a habit or routine and unfortunately the behaviour you want is often difficult to stick to!

In addition, successfully established habits are usually underpinned by a reward feedback. The difficulty of the reward for sleeping is it comes eight hours after the behaviour so is limited in how effective it is at reinforcing a bedtime routine.

It’s often easier to establish a new habit or routine by derailing existing habits which creates a window of opportunity to form new habits. Your brain is most open to doing this during change or a disturbance to set routine. Consciously disrupting your evening routine is the best way to build a new bedtime routine if you want to.

Repetition. Performing a behaviour more consistently makes it more likely and quicker to become a habit. The more often you repeat it the quicker and more deeply the new habit will form. This means run through your new bedtime routine everyday – even on weekends. If that means going to bed at 10:30 pm on a Saturday then I’m afraid that’s what it takes. The more you do it more the routine will stick and you can sleep better. Just think of those salivating dogs.

Contrary to popular belief, it does not take just 21 days to form a new habit. There is huge variation between people and behaviours in how long it takes to form a new habit, about 18 – 254 days. With this in mind keep going until you feel the routine has set and you find your body is telling you what to do rather than the other way around.

You can of course go one step further and write a full sleeping plan. These are immensely powerful and of course, are the foundations of the SLEEPKICK™ plan. These contain lots of carefully placed bespoke routines which complement each other and build to make sleeping easier and more effective so you are the best version of you during the day time.

Written by
Sam Billington

Sam is our sleep guru. I am fascinated by sleep and I've used my science training to research and learn about sleep. I have been providing sleep advice and personal sleep plans for years. My day job is Head of Workplace Culture in Defra, I live in London with my wife and have a PhD in Ecology and Biology.