What I’m doing to improve my sleep

Yesterday Irene tweeted:

I can relate to this sentiment a lot. Her sleep patterns are way worse than mine (which I am hugely sympathetic about), but mine are also pretty bad.

They are however a lot better than they used to be, mostly because I’ve spent a bunch of time working on coping strategies for making them better. I shared some of these with Irene and they probably weren’t very helpful because we’re operating on different scales of problems, but I thought I’d share these here too in case they’re more useful for some other people who have had similar problems to me.

Up front note: I am not a doctor, nor any sort of expert on the subject of sleep. I’m just a man. A man who sleeps really quite badly and would like not to. I have also not done proper science to myself. So these are just things I’ve tried that seem to help based on anecdotal evidence. I might be wrong, and even if I’m not wrong your mileage may vary.

So this would be my first advice: Consult someone who is a professional. Based on past experience your doctor will probably be patronizing and not terribly sympathetic (your doctor is probably incredibly overworked and thus will also be very tired, which I suspect inclines them to be less than sympathetic).

The reason you should see a doctor about this is because there are common nutritional deficiencies whose side effects include sleeping badly and being tired all the time. I’ve had this in the past from both B12 and D deficiencies. Other things can cause this too – this is not an exhaustive list and I don’t have the knowledge required to write one. This may not be your problem but it’s worth ruling out.

(It seems likely that some of my current problems are in fact being aggravated by B12 deficiency. I got a B12 shot recently and that seems to have helped, but I changed like 5 other variables at the same time so it’s a bit early to say.)

That covered, here are the things I try to do to improve sleep:

Lifestyle design

There are basically three major things I do to my lifestyle to try to improve my sleep.


Specifically, have a coffee addiction. I know this sounds weird, but it really does help me. I consistently sleep better when I have a coffee habit than when I don’t (exception: The first week or so of cold turkey I sleep great because I’m exhausted all the time).

I think the reason this works is that I have a hard cut-off of not drinking coffee after about 1, a soft cutoff (i.e. afterwards I go “I probably shouldn’t” but sometimes do anyway) of about 12, and rarely drink it after about 11 or so. This means that by the time I’m supposed to be in bed my body has processed a lot of the caffeine and as a result I have less energy. It basically accentuates natural feelings of sleepiness and acts as an extra bed time trigger.

If you already drink coffee or other caffeinated substances I strongly recommend a similar cut-off. Also, I would recommend you drink caffeine either extremely rarely or extremely regularly – I find that when I don’t have a caffeine addiction and I drink coffee my sleep that day is terrible no matter how early I drink it.

Outside time

As mentioned, vitamin D is delicious and nutritious and helps you sleep. As someone who is prone to being deficient in it it’s important for me to get lots of sun.

Also, light exposure is a large part of what regulates your sleep patterns, so getting light during the day is good for feeling awake and keeping your body calibrated.

I’ve done a few things to tinker with this after reading Internal Time which is basically all about this sort of thing (more on the other one later), but essentially what I try to do is get lots of sunlight during the daytime and reduce lighting at night (I only somewhat recommend this book. It’s got some really interesting content in it but it’s also got a lot of filler).

It’s also worth noting that you get a lot more sunlight from being outside during a cloudy day than you do from a sun lamp. It turns out the sun is quite bright.


I hate being one of Those People.

You know, those irritating people who have been telling you your entire life how great exercise is and how it makes everything better.

Unfortunately it seems that that they’ve got a point.

Exercise seems to help me in two ways: Being physically tired makes going to sleep a bit easier, and regular exercise makes me feel mentally better. One of the big things that can stop me from getting to sleep is my brain racing through a great deal of unproductive thoughts and regular exercise seems to help calm that. I don’t know why, but a lot of people seem to experience mental health benefits from exercise and for me that translates to better sleep.


Lifestyle stuff out of the way, what do I do about actual bed? There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there about good sleep hygiene, which is mostly where this comes from, only tempered with a whole bunch of “Yeah but lets be realistic here”.


In particular a lot of people will tell you to avoid electronic devices before bed, but lets be realistic here. Also this isn’t actually very useful advice because the artificial lighting you have in your home is nearly as bad for you.

This is the other important half of what I got from Internal Time: Blue light is the trigger that tells your body that it’s daytime and you shouldn’t be sleeping yet (I think all light does this to a degree, but blue light is the most significant).

So I put on blue blocking sunglasses a couple hours before bed. I use these ones because they’re ridiculously cheap and seem to work perfectly well. You can get fancier ones if you like. Let me know if you do and if you see any difference.

Seriously, this helps a lot. I broke my only set about a month or two ago and my bedtime started going all over the place. I got some replacement recently and… well I’ve changed too many variables at once, but it seems to have cancelled out the “but I’m not tired yet” problem that I was having. If you change only one thing on the basis of this post you should try this one.


I am not very good at this one.

The recommended advice is that you should have rigidly consistent times of going to sleep and waking up. For a while I was doing a pretty good job of sticking to a consistent 22:00 bedtime and 07:00 wake up time. This has slipped a lot recently, but I think it’s worth getting back to – the more regular I can make this the better my sleep tends to work.

Regardless of how consistent you manage to be, it’s worth having these times set because it makes it harder to make excuses. If you’re out socialising then yeah you’re going to miss your bedtime, but if you’re home playing on the computer and it’s past your set bedtime then you know you should be going to bed and it makes you more likely to do so.

Story telling

The major thing that stops me from falling asleep other than not being tired (which the glasses and the exercise seem to be sufficient to help with) is my brain. The accursed thing won’t shut up. Sometimes it’s interesting things it wants to talk to me about, but more often it’s an unhelpful litany of “Hello David, don’t you think now would be a good time for me to enumerate all your flaws in exhaustive detail? I sure do”.

This is unproductive.

Fortunately, I hit on a solution for this a while ago: I tell myself stories.

They’re not good stories. They’re typically the sort of trashy self-indulgent things which are frankly a bit embarrassing to read because of how obviously the protagonist is an author self-insertion and the whole thing is basically a fantasy of agency (and this is how David used the magic ring he found to save the world. Yay David, you’re the best).

That’s rather the point though. They’re basically things which are mildly pleasant fantasies which are not interesting enough to keep me awake but are capable of holding my attention well enough

When I’m lying in bed and my brain won’t shut up I tell myself really bad first person fiction. This tends to be incredibly banal sci-fi/fantasy plots in which I get to play an unrealistically perfect hero. They’re inevitably totally boring and that’s not only fine but beneficial – the point is to create a narrative that is interesting enough to keep my brain distracted but not interesting enough to keep me awake. It just gives me a train of thought that I can focus on to keep out the other less productive trains of thought.

I have heard versions of this from other people to the tune of imagining a nice walk on the beach or something, but my imagination is so non-visual that this doesn’t work at all for me. Might be worth a try for others though.

Hugging a pillow

I’m honestly a little embarrassed to admit to this one, but it works pretty well so it feels mean to withhold it as advice if you haven’t cottoned onto it already.

I sleep alone. This isn’t always the case, but it’s the case the overwhelming majority of the time.

This is absolutely fine for the most part (indeed a lot of some peoples’ sleep problems in fact come from the partners they sleep with), but sometimes you just need a hug, you know?  So if I’m struggling to sleep I will often take a large pillow and hug it while I try to sleep. It works surprisingly well. There’s a definite psychological comfort from it which seems to help relax into sleep a bit better.

A large stuffed animal may also work well here. I can recommend Squishables. I’ve never tried them for sleeping but hugging the Squishable rabbit was the only thing that got me through the Aframe public launch.

Yes, I’m a grown-ass man recommending you bring a stuffed bunny to bed. Deal with it.

Fluid intake

There are two competing problems here. The first is getting dehydrated during the night and the second is waking up early because your bladder is insisting now is bathroom time.

Basically what I do here is that I try to drink lots of water during the day and then stop drinking anything (or at least drink a lot less) an hour or two before bedtime. This seems to help.

Things that I don’t currently do

Here are some things that I’ve either not got around to trying or have tried and didn’t find terribly helpful.

Meditation before bed

This has been suggested to me as a solution for stress causing you sleep problems. My story telling technique mostly seems to work for me for this and I’m really rubbish at meditation, so I haven’t tried it.

Peanut butter before bed

I have tried this one. I think it helped a bit, but not enough that I stuck with it. Basically the idea is that if you wake up feeling awful that might be due to low blood sugar. A spoon full of peanut butter or a similar amount of peanuts before bed gives you a slow release into the blood stream which helps cushion that, or at least that’s the theory.

Note: I got this advice from a Tim Ferris book (four-hour body) so it’s intrinsically suspect.

Playing the didgeridoo

Yeah, uh, apparently this helps. Throat exercises also help.

The idea is that if you’re waking up tired this might be due to snoring and/or sleep apnea causing you sleep quality issues. Things that strengthen your throat muscles reduce the amount that you snore and this improves your quality of sleep.

Looking at these sources though this seems to only really apply to people with sleep apnea. I’ve heard it claimed that it works for snoring in general, but I suspect this may be a distortion of the research. It’s also unclear to me how much snoring is a problem for me – I definitely snore a bit, and it’s been suggested that this may be hurting my sleep, but I don’t know if I really buy it.

Still, I’m amused enough by the idea that I’ve impulse bought myself a travel didgeridoo and a book on how on earth to use one. I’ll report back if this seems to help and/or I just feel too utterly ridiculous to try it.

I got this information from Night School. It’s an OK book, but this was the most interesting information in it for me. It’s got some neat stuff about sleep in it but I didn’t find it had much else in the way of actionable advice for improving my sleep beyond what I already knew.


I use a Jawbone UP to track my sleep. The numbers are interesting, if only for validation.

It’s useful in several ways. Firstly it just gives me a good measure of an upper bound on how much sleep I’m getting (I don’t find it distinguishes well between awake and light sleep, so I tend to think it overestimates how much I’m sleeping, but if it says I’ve averaged 7 hours of sleep a night for the last week I’m pretty confident I haven’t regularly got more than that).

The second interesting aspect of it is that it tracks deep sleep – sleep in which you’re not moving very much – and apparently on this metric I am significantly worse than average (which given that the average jawbone up user appears to get 4-5 hours of sleep per night is frankly depressing). Right now I’m essentially treating raising this as my goal.

Right now I’m definitely classing this under “interesting” rather than necessarily useful. The step tracking is more useful for raising my general exercise level, but I’m hoping that once I’ve been using this for a bit longer the sound sleep metric will be a helpful tool for improving my sleep quality.

Everything else…

I’m still not very good at this, and still figuring it out. Right now I’m making it a major goal to try to sort this out, because not being tired all the time would be really quite lovely. We’ll see how that goes. In the mean time, I would be utterly delighted for you to share any advice with me that you think I’ve missed.

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3 thoughts on “What I’m doing to improve my sleep

  1. Ivo

    Have you tried melatonin? As gwern points out:

    [we] are [..] profoundly tampering with [our] natural sleep cycle, and indeed, all of Western civilization is tampering with it; most of [us] do not [..] sleep multiple times during the day, as ‘Nature intends’ and as humans have usually slept through history, but rather in a single 7-9 hour long block.
    modern artificial electrical lighting during the evening is systematically tampering with sleep and melatonin secretion in particular.


    1. david Post author

      A long time ago. It didn’t work super well for me – left me very groggy the next day. I’ve vague intentions of giving it another go but it’s not as easy to obtain on Europe.

      In the meantime the light thing is mostly counteracted prerty well by my blue blocking glasses

  2. John

    I can second the story-telling-before sleep approach. Although I did it slightly differently. For a long time I used a short time after going to bed to write a little of my novel. This wasn’t a deliberate anti-insomnia tactic, but it worked remarkably well as one. Once I no longer had a netbook the practicalities of novel-writing in bed became sufficiently troublesome that I stopped (and it seemed to have lost some of its effectiveness by that point anyway, although all these observations are purely anecdotal).

    I will also mention the discussion of sleep disorders at the bottom of http://hpmor.com/notes/98/ which contains a list of various techniques which overlaps quite a lot with the above.

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