Tom Hanks woke me up to my poor sleep habits: I slept through most of The Da Vinci Code despite really wanting to see it. Whatever the flick’s merits, I was just fried from another week of stretching each day at both ends. So with two big work projects looming that would demand energy and focus, I enlisted the help of sleep expert Michael Breus and his book, Good Night (Dutton, September), and tried to follow his four-week program to “better sleep and better health.” Here’s what happened.
Day 1: I embrace Breus’s suggestions where I know I’ve been derelict. I don’t drink anything caffeinated after 2:00 p.m. I make sure to get outside during the day for 15 minutes of sunlight to calibrate my body clock. I upgrade my sheets and pillows to create a more comfortable environment. I give myself an hour before bed without TV, Internet, email, or anything work related, and wash my face and brush my teeth. I fall asleep at 11:30 p.m.
Day 2: I wake organically (without any alarm) at 5:09 a.m. And I feel great!
Day 4: Breus says you should know just how much sleep you need to function. There’s no shortage of high achievers who claim they rest only four hours a night. Doctors call them “short sleepers.” I call them full of it. Anyway, if you need seven hours of sleep a night, as I am discovering I do, and you average only six, do the math: You’re losing 52 nights of sleep a year. Better to maximize your day with a full complement of rest than try to keep up with Google’s Marissa Mayer (a member of the four-hour club). At least you’ll know you’re doing your best.
Day 8: I’m developing a rhythm, sleeping from 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. I feel good in the morning and am scarily effective for my first five or six waking hours. I am not experiencing those ugly periods of drift I had been dealing with during the day, when I’d meander online until my next energy kick (my bosses aren’t reading this, right? Good). Breus says that losing 90 minutes of sleep reduces your effectiveness for the next day by 33%, destroying clear thinking and ruining your mood. I get it now.
Day 12: Let the backsliding begin! I am still on schedule, but I’ve sloughed off most of the healthy practices I’d started back on day one. I know my overall lack of discipline is betraying me because I fall asleep immediately. That means that my body and mind are too tired (you should be in bed about 15 to 20 minutes before drifting off). I may need to move my wake time or get even more sleep, but I’m afraid I’ll accomplish less if I do.
Day 15: As work heats up, the running joke in the office is a variation on the old Lloyd Bridges line from Airplane!: I picked the wrong month to adjust my sleep habits. I stay up well past 1 a.m. to prepare for a big meeting the next day, then go to bed right away. I’m officially off the wagon.
Day 23: Breus suggests that the way to get the most oomph from a jolt of caffeine is to combine it with a nap. Here’s how the “caf nap” works: Chug down that late-morning cup of coffee or cola, then close your eyes for 20 minutes. That’s about how long before the caffeine will kick in. When you wake up, you get the double energy benefits of a brief nap and the caffeine. Just my luck: The coolest trick in the book doesn’t work for me.
Day 28: All I have left is 5 a.m. I have been able to sustain that as my wake time, which Breus says is a good sign. Now I just have to go back and relearn everything else I’ve jettisoned.
Postscript: As I write this, the clock reads 1:35 a.m., so I think it’s fair to say that discipline remains a problem. I’ve been a better worker this past month–less prone to lulls, able to manage more tasks–so even as a very poor patient, I’ve seen positive results. Until I can do better, I’ll take consolation in Breus’s parting words to me: “You’re not a forklift operator,” he said. “No one’s going to die if you don’t get enough sleep.”