Ah, the perennial desire to be more productive.
For better or for worse, we're always looking for new ways to do more, and do it faster. What can we knock off the day's to-do list during our commute? What music should we listen to at work to make us work smarter? What foods should we eat to stimulate brain activity?
While it might seem far-fetched to say you can be more productive in your sleep, hear me out ...
Getting the best rest possible and then taking advantage of the first few hours of your day will boost your productivity for the rest of the day, making you an overall happier and more energetic person. Here are 13 hacks for optimizing that valuable, underutilized time.
How to Make Sleep More Productive
Nothing kills productivity like a bad night's sleep. According to a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, sleep-related reductions in productivity cost $3,156 per employee with insomnia, and averaged about $2,500 for those with less severe sleep problems. Here are a few ways to increase the quality of your sleep.
1) Exercise that morning or afternoon.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, exercising in the morning or afternoon can help you fall asleep faster that evening -- and then sleep more deeply once you do fall asleep. Regular aerobic exercise has been proven to improve sleep quality and leads to fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality, and less sleepiness during the daytime.
There's a reason they don't include nighttime, though: They warn that vigorous exercise before bedtime can actually reverse those good effects of exercise.
2) Avoid eating heavy meals late in the day.
Some studies have shown that food is processed differently at different times of day. Avoid eating a big meal within two to three hours of bedtime, otherwise your body will be busy trying to process those calories rather than resting.
A grumbling stomach won't help you fall asleep either, though -- so don't deprive yourself if you're hungry. Just keep in mind that some foods are more conducive to a better night's sleep than others, like chamomile tea, warm milk, and turkey. Other, lesser-known foods that help you fall asleep are broccoli, bananas, kiwi, tart cherries, and halibut, according to Sleep Expert Dr. Michael Breus.
"The data suggests a high-carb, low-protein snack (under 250 calories) is a good choice," Dr. Breus told Yahoo! Food. "I suggest cheese and crackers, or even a bowl of oatmeal."
3) Set an alarm for a time that's a multiple of 90 minutes in the future.
We all have circadian biological rhythms (a.k.a. "body clocks") that regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day -- and also periods of deep and light sleep throughout the night. Every 90 minutes that you're asleep, you go through two periods of REM sleep, separated by one period of non-REM sleep.
So, to get the most out of your sleep time and be the most comfortably alert when you wake up, you'll want to sleep for multiples of 90 minutes.
"Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking, writes the folks at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies. "The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy."
In other words, someone who only sleeps for four 90-minute cycles (six hours total) will actually feel more rested than someone who's slept for eight hours. (Learn more about sleep cycles in this blog post.)
4) Develop a regular sleeping pattern.
If you go to bed at about the same time each night and keep your alarm set for about the same time each morning, you'll find it easier both to fall asleep and wake up.
"Go to bed at the same time and do the same activities every night before bed," says Dr. Heidi Connolly, the chief of pediatric sleep medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Your body is getting a cue that it's time to fall asleep."
5) Don't check your phone before going to sleep.
Here's one most of us are guilty of: Checking our phones (or tablets, or computers) right before hitting the hay. But studies have shown that people who stare at a backlit screen right before bed report lower-quality sleep -- even when they get just as much sleep as someone who didn't look at their electronics before bed.
Why? Because the presence and absence of light tell our brains whether or not they should release the sleep hormone melatonin that makes you tired, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The LED lighting emitted by the screens on our electronic devices is similar to daylight, which can trick our brains -- making us stay away for longer and disrupt our sleeping patterns.
By unplugging during the 30-60 minutes before bed, we're priming our brains for sleep much better -- which leads to better quality sleep and a happier time waking up.
6) Start visualizing.
Falling asleep is easier said than done for most of us. Even if you've exercised, eaten the right foods, and put your electronics away before bedtime, you might still find yourself struggling to drift off -- and knowing the minutes are ticking by and you'll probably be exhausted in the morning is never a good feeling.
One way to help fall asleep faster is through visualization techniques. Use your imagination to make up a story or picture a certain scenario. For example, I sometimes pick a type of candy -- like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups -- and then visualize some elaborate, fictional story about how they're made. Here's another visualization exercise from LifeHacker, which explores using "Blue Energy."
"The brain doesn't always know the difference between pretend and real," Dr. Kathy Doner told Health.com. "If you watch a scary movie, your adrenaline might go up, just as if you imagine eating something vividly enough, you might start to salivate."
7) Get enough sleep for you.
The number of hours you need to sleep each night varies from person to person. Why? It has to do with your "chronotype," -- your natural tendency to be sleepier and more awake at certain times of day. It also affects when and for how long you need to sleep.
If we're looking at the average number of hours of sleep we need, though, it depends on factors like age:
Image Credit: HubSpot & Market Domination Media
By sleeping better and in ways that make sense for our bodies, we'll be more productive throughout the rest of the day.
How to Make Waking Up More Productive
For a lot of us, mornings are a manic rush of hitting snooze as long as we can afford to, followed by running around and getting out the door as quickly as humanly possible. But it doesn't have to be that way. Mornings are totally underutilized times to get in the right mindset for the day and cross a few things off your list, undistracted, which will set you up for success during the remainder of the day. Here are some ideas for making your morning routine more productive.
8) Avoid the earth-shattering buzzer alarm.
If anything sets the tone for the rest of your day, it's the sound of your alarm. Are you using one of those earth-shattering buzzer sounds? Talk about a horrifying way to start your day.
My favorite idea for an alarm sound comes from Lifehacker:
Put one alarm clock on your nightstand, the other across the room and make sure they're in sync. Set the alarm clock on your nightstand to go off at, let's say, 6:30 a.m., if that is when you need to get up. I set that one to use the radio, and make sure it is loud enough to wake me up, but not too loud (I don't want to wake my wife on purpose). The second alarm clock on the dresser is set to go off exactly one minute later, but using that dreadful buzzer. So, when my alarm goes off in the morning, it doesn't startle me like the buzzer. Then, I know I have about 60 seconds to get up and turn the other one off before I hear a buzzing sound. At that point, I am out of bed, and no buzzer."
9) Wake up a little earlier than usual if you're working on a creative project.
I love this quote from Buffer: "The creative mind is an early riser ... and the editing mind sleeps in."
A study of the brain showed that we are most prone to creative thinking right when we wake up. Why? Because our prefrontal cortex is most active just after waking up, while the more analytical parts of the brain (our "editing mind") become more and more active as the day goes on.
So, if you're working on a creative project, you might want to wake up an hour or so earlier to give yourself time to unlock those creative parts of the brain. If you're concerned about getting enough sleep, try going to bed an hour earlier so you won't be too tired.
Image Credit: BuzzFeed
10) Let there be light.
Turning off your electronics before you go to bed so you aren't staring at light in the darkness helps tell your brain the get ready for bed. Likewise, waking up in the light helps wake up your brain. Again, we all have our own circadian rhythms -- and these rhythms are deeply influenced by the presence and absence of light.
Let in light in the morning by leaving your curtains or blinds open when you go to sleep. If that isn't an option, try an artificial sun lamp, like this one from Philips. Some of them are connected to alarm clocks that get gradually lighter and lighter as you approach your wake-up time, making you less groggy when your alarm finally goes off.
Image Credit: Philips
11) Develop a morning routine.
My morning routine starts with washing my face, brushing my teeth, and making a cup of coffee. Some of you might start with meditation, or picking out the day's outfit, or doing a bunch of push ups.
Whatever you choose to do, repeating the ritual will make it a habit, and the brain loves habits. The more often you "do" a habit, the more your brain will get used to doing it -- and the less effort and energy it'll take for you to do it in the future.
According to Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project, the best way to get things done "is to make them more automatic so they require less energy." He advises his clients to develop rituals; highly specific behaviors done at precise times that, over time, become so automatic that they require no conscious will or discipline. (Read this blog post to learn more about developing productivity rituals.)
12) Wait to check your email.
We understand that some jobs require you to check email in the morning, but you should avoid making it one of the very first things you do when you wake up -- especially if you'll be online the rest of the day.
Instead, spend the first part of your waking hours doing something that doesn't involve email, like taking a shower, putting on coffee, or working on a creative project. As Richard Whately said, "Lose an hour in the morning, and you will be all day hunting for it.”
13) Eat a nutritious breakfast.
Why do so many people skip breakfast in the mornings? Oftentimes, it's because they don't have enough time to eat it, or at least to make it nutritious. But depriving yourself of food altogether or rushing to work with a bagel-to-go isn't going to give you the energy you need to stay focused at work.
Take time in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast. Foods that boost productivity include eggs, bananas, yogurt, and blueberries. Check out the graphic below for some of the science behind why these foods are good for productivity, and click here to see the full infographic on the perfect diet for productivity.
Image Credit: HubSpot & Market Domination Media
What other productivity hacks for sleeping and waking up can you add to the list? Share with us in the comments.
Originally published Oct 30, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021