by Michael Plank

Want to be leaner? Stronger? Faster? Want to have more discipline? More motivation? Want to have an easier time with nutrition? Want to live longer? Be mentally sharper? Improve your memory and productivity? Want to be more injury-resistant?

Go to sleep.

Why do we need to sleep? It’s up for debate. But it’s clear that amazing things happen when we do sleep: physical recovery, memory consolidation, hormone regulation, and all kinds of other things. Good, quality sleep is definitively linked to making you more attuned to hunger cues, to improving the effects of any efforts at body composition change – whether gaining muscle or losing body fat – to longevity, and to mental acuity.

And culturally, our sleep is garbage. Which means we’re missing out in a big way. Things like blue light, alcohol, caffeine, systemic stress, a 24-hour economy, and hustle culture are making it so that we sleep less and less, and more poorly than ever.

In a perfect world, you’d get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Not 6. Not 4. You would fall asleep easily and wake up refreshed. But most of us don’t live in a perfect world. So how do you go about changing your sleep?

Like everything else we talk about, you do it slowly, with habits.

It’s widely agreed that good “sleep hygiene” (that is, the stuff you do that sets you up for good sleep) includes the following, at a minimum:

  • A consistent bedtime
  • Daily physical activity and time outdoors
  • Cool nighttime temperature in your bedroom
  • A dark bedroom (without screens, lamps, or LED indicator lights)
  • A 1-2+ hour break from screens before sleep
  • Abstaining from caffeine for 8+ hours before bedtime
  • Abstaining from alcohol or heavy meals late in the evening

That’s a lot. So if your sleep quality is not what you’d like it to be and you want to work on improving it, we recommend the same approach that we do with fitness coaching or nutrition coaching: start small (we call this habit coaching).

Take a look at that list of 7 things and see if you can find the lowest-hanging fruit. What’s the one thing on that list that seems easy; that you’re at least 80% confident you can pull off at least 5 days a week? Start with that. Maybe it’s turning down the thermostat at night. Maybe it’s putting a bedtime reminder on your phone. Pick one thing and then do it for a month. When it’s easy and just part of your norm, go back to the list and pick a second thing that seems easy. The rule is, you should be 8/10 confident that you can do it and it’ll be easy. Does everything left on the list seem hard? That’s ok. Just stick with what’s easy for a little longer. Little by little, these habits will build on each other and can improve things.

And look, some people will just always have an easier time sleeping than others; just like some people build muscle more easily or are naturally leaner or recover more quickly. But the goal here isn’t to WIN SLEEP QUALITY! It’s just to improve it so that we can improve our health and well-being.

A disclaimer though: if you haven’t worked out in years and then you start working out, you’ll be sore. Like, really sore. You’ll actually have a harder time moving for a couple of days than you did before you started. That doesn’t mean that exercise is wrong or bad, it just means that there’s an unpleasant adjustment period. The same is true with changing sleep routines. If you’re used to taking Nyquil and scrolling on your phone while you listen to the TV until you fall asleep, changing that may well have an unpleasant adjustment period. That doesn’t mean that your new sleep routine is wrong or bad. But it can take some time.

But it’s worth it. Because sleep is one of the single most powerful tools we have to improve our health and well-being. It’s massively underrated, massively effective, it will help you achieve your goals way faster, and literally all you have to do is lie down and close your eyes.

(A great resource is http://www.sleepfoundation.org. And for parents of young children, check out https://www.babysleepscience.com/resource-blog)