Productivity Lessons Part 4 – Sleep

19 Jan / James Eastham

“Do you know what happens if you type the words ‘why am I’ into Google? Before you can type the next word, Google’s autocomplete function — based on the most common searches — helpfully offers to finish your thought. The first suggestion: ‘why am I so tired?’ The global zeitgeist perfectly captured in five words. The existential cry of the modern age.”
Arrianna Huffigton – The Sleep Revoloution

Sleep; one of the worst societal pressures of our modern age. Advocated, rather frustratingly, by some vocal players in the tech world (I’m looking at you Elon) sleep has become something that people believe you don’t need very much of. That the less you sleep, the better you will perform. Like it’s some kind of challenge to see who can work the longest and sleep the least. For anyone who has at least tried to keep up with this, there is a better way! At first, however, the ‘other way’ may seem counter-intuitive.

A personal case study

To start with some context. I’m a software developer, if you asked my partner she’d say I am a nerd. I’ve been working with software for just over 8 years now and have always tried to distance my self from the culture of ‘stay up late coding’. I quite regularly find hours slipping away from me if I’ve got my head in a difficult problem. Once evening comes around I disconnect. Now, a lot of people I know in the industry quite regularly sit up until one, two even three am working. I’ve always managed to shy away from that culture for one simple reason, I just love being asleep.

That said, I do have my lapses every now and again. Just the other day I was working until around 10 pm. I shut the laptop down, fed my leopard gecko (yes I have a gecko, he’s amazing!) and went on up to bed. I don’t ever have trouble falling asleep, once I’m in bed and my head has hit the pillow it’s not long until I’m away with the fairies. This night, however, my mind was racing. I couldn’t slow down, I couldn’t focus. Heck, even my normally full proof meditation didn’t get me to drift off. It was almost 90 minutes later when I actually fell asleep. Some of you might say that going to sleep at 11:30 pm isn’t all that bad. Given the scientific evidence that shows 7-9 hours is the sweet spot for sleeping, my 6 am alarm begged to differ.

I am 100% certain the reason for me lying awake in bed was due to my brain being so active right up until I packed up and got in bed ready to sleep. I’ve experienced this same situation a number of times over the years, but less so in the last 12 months due to one simple change.

The importance of a bedtime routine

There are certain things the vast majority of us do before we go to bed:

  1. TV show finishes – 9:45 pm
  2. Check phone – 9:46 pm
  3. Brush our teeth – 9:50 pm
  4. Use the bathroom – 9:53 pm
  5. Check phone 9:55 pm
  6. Get changed into the clothes we are going to sleep in – 9:55 pm
  7. Check phone 9:59 pm
  8. Sleep – 10 pm

For the most part, these four things are your bedtime routine. This ‘routine’ would ordinarily commence maybe 5 minutes before you actually go to bed. For comparison, I’m going to give you an alternative bedtime routine:

  1. Wind down mode enabled on my mobile, say goodnight to any conversations I’m in and the phone goes on flight mode – 9 pm
  2. Finish off the TV show, if the TV is on at all – No later than 930 pm
  3. Read/relax with no external stimuli. This could just be chatting to my spouse – 9:45 pm
  4. Brush our teeth – 9:50 pm
  5. Use the bathroom – 9:53 pm
  6. Get changed into the clothes we are going to sleep in – 9:55 pm
  7. Sleep – 10 pm

I know the first ‘routine’ is a little exaggerated, especially with the ‘check phone’ steps but I don’t expect it is a million miles away from a lot of people’s sleep routines. Taking the second set of steps, you can see the shutdown routine starts a full hour before actually wanting to sleep. I’m going to run through each different step in a little more detail to really clarify the benefits of doing thing this way.

1) Goodbye mobile phone – 1 hour before bed

Scientific studies have pinpointed blue light as form of light that’s especially aggressive in triggering sleeplessness. Blue light suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths, and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree. Interference with the body’s 24-hour circadian rhythms can have a significant effect on health, creating problems with the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, disturbing mood, and compromising cognitive function. When your circadian rhythms are out of whack, you think, feel, and perform below your best—and over time, your health can be put at risk
Taken from The Sleep Doctor

My phone stays out of the bedroom, period! If you asked my phone what colour my bedsheets were, he wouldn’t know. Most evenings when we go to bed, my partner flashes her phone in my face saying words to the effect of “arghh the demon blue light”. Whilst this is completely in jest, science does back up my aversion to blue light.


Melatonin is the top dog of the chemical world when it comes to sleep. It helps to control your sleep-wake cycles, so anything that has any kind of effect on that chemical is a huge no-no for me. Keeping your phone out of the bedroom also removes what I call ‘one more scroll’ syndrome. We’ve all been there, scrolling through social media, before you know it 30 minutes have passed and you’ve burnt your toast. Just imagine; you’ve set up the perfect bedtime routine, timed everything perfectly so you get your full 8 hours sleep; only to spend 30 minutes mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Remove the cue, get that phone in a different room.

Actionable tip 1 – Leave your mobile phone in a different room at bed time

2) Finish off the TV show – 30 minutes before bed

This point is a little counter-intuitive to the above, as your television does produce blue light as well. However, let’s take baby steps. A TV is a massive part of people’s lives and a good proportion of the population spend their evenings in front of one. Whether binge-watching the latest Netflix show, or catching up on soaps giving yourself at least a short break between ‘TV off’ and ‘head on pillow’ will help. The biggest win I’ve found here is that you’ve already spent the mental energy processing what has just happened and predicting what is going to happen in the next episode. How many times have you gone to bed after a massive cliff hanger and spent the next 30 minutes thinking about it? Do yourself a favor, give yourself a break to do this BEFORE you actually want to sleep.

Actionable tip 2 – Make a conscious effort to not hit the hay instantly after turning off the TV

3) Read/relax/take a break – 30 minutes before bed

Once the TV is off, do something that doesn’t require a screen. I will hold my hands up here, I use a Kindle to read! With one huge caveat, I turn off the backlighting. Whilst I know this isn’t completely full proof, it’s a damn sight better than an all singing all dancing mobile phone. There are hundreds of different things you could possibly do if reading isn’t your thing but the most important thing is to do something that isn’t too intensive on your mind. You’re supposed to be switching off not powering up.

The benefit here is that you are letting your mind do it’s ‘thinking’ before you go to bed. It is almost inevitable you will have something on your mind, we all do. Let thinking run its course. Don’t judge the mind or get stressed about it being so busy, just let it do what it needs to do.

Actionable tip 3 – Have some time out before going to bed to let your mind do what it needs to do

4-7) The other bits

The final actions before bed are similar for all of us. We brush our teeth, we use the bathroom, maybe have a drink of water, get in bed and go to sleep. What you’ll now hopefully find is that when it comes to step 7, the actual sleeping, that you’ll be relaxed, tired and almost instantly drifting off.

But how does this help me?

To function at our absolute best we all need sleep. That is a non-negotiable fact. There is a small 4% of the population that has a genetic mutation which allows them to function on as little as 4 hours sleep. You might think you are part of that 4%, but your chances are relatively slim. Instead, give this routine a try. Even if you just pick up one of the steps take actions today to help yourself be that 1% better.

If after a couple of weeks you don’t feel any different, then woohoo for you. You’re one of the lucky ones. Otherwise, take this new found bedtime routine and go forth and smash your goals.

To circle back to the beginning and the counter-intuitive point I talked about. Since, around 18 months ago, I started being more conscious of my sleep I noticed a wonderful thing. I was MORE productive and got MORE work done than my colleagues. One of the biggest reasons for that? Being able to be 100% focused on working at 100% brain power for the full day.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out the first 3 parts of the series linked below

  1. Part 1 – An introduction
  2. Part 2 – Getting things done
  3. Part 3 Inbox zero

Sleep for productivity pinterest image


  1. Productivity Lessons 5 - Mastering The Morning Ritual | Uppd UK says:

    February 20th, 2019 at 7:44 am (#)

    […] it took a little more self-control to get myself into bed earlier to make sure I got all the sleep I needed. But once that routine has settled, being out of bed at 7 am most days is […]

Leave a Response