I struggle(d) with my sleep habits. Several months ago I made a goal to change this, and came up with several ways to ease into better habits…and then I didn’t really follow through. Once this summer hit and I was offered a new job in the autumn, I knew something had to change.
My Bad Sleep Habits:
My first real, long-term job, which I used to work my way through my undergrad, had many good points: it had great benefits, great people, and decent money. On the other hand, it was monotonous, exhausting, and not for me. In fact, the last year I was there they decided to shake things up and go from the tried and true assembly line (I was a seamstress where we mass-produced) to something supposedly more efficient: stand up team sewing, which meant going from sitting and sewing to walking and sewing. I would work from 6:00 to 2:30, be on my feet all day, then go to the gym and run 5 miles. Add in piecework pay, which means you get paid for production—it can work when you just have yourself to depend upon, but the team sewing means only getting paid as much as the slowest sewer—and I hated it.
Have I mentioned my anxiety and depression? Well, that last year it blossomed. I didn’t to go to sleep at night, because that meant waking up and going to this dreaded job (I should be clear that the company itself wasn’t awful, but the job wasn’t for me). But I’d have to get up anyway, so I was chronically sleep deprived, depressed, and escaping into books at any moment.
I quit and embarked upon a life as a freelance writer (difficult in a new way), which offered a great deal of flexibility as to my sleep. I didn’t have to get up at 5:00 a.m., so I slept in. And slept in. And slept in. Basically, I spent the last seven or so years indulging my bad sleeping habits.
It took a while for me to separate the horror of getting up early with the horror of that particular job. The depression laid not in the actual earliness, but in doing a job that suffocated me. Unfortunately, I mixed up the dread of my job with my sleeping habits, and allowed it to stand for far too long.
Making Better Habits:
Once I got my new job, I knew that I’d have to once again be subject to an alarm and early rising. I did everything wrong the first (two) times: reading late, staying up late, waking up early and then all of that but waking up late. The common denominators here are the reading late and staying up late. It’s how I unwind, but then it turned into indulgence and an utter lack of discipline.
Now, I’ve tried to shift my habits before, but I’ve always done it all at once: go to bed early, wake up early, run early; and that never worked out long-term because it was too much and too jarring. So I went piecemeal:
- No reading while lying in bed. At all. This always resulted in poor sleep and reading to the wee hours of the morning. At first I found it hard to go to sleep. For so long I used reading as a way to distract my mind from the coming work day, and then I used it to distract my mind from uncertainties. I’d literally read until I could no longer keep my eyes open. For the first week, I spent hours laying awake, but eventually I retrained my mind.
- Go to bed before midnight. The next step was to go to bed at a certain time. This time has gradually moved earlier.
- Wake up to my alarm clock. Yeesh, this one was hard. I was super-motivated at night, but in the morning I’m like a different person. Not a morning person at all. I remind myself that the alarm clock is not the enemy. Neither is earliness. Neither is a job with regular hours. If I go to bed early, I’ll wake up rested. The enemy was depression and fatigue.
- Wake up earlier. This time has changed as I’ve progressed in my goals.
- Wake up and go running within an hour. This is actually my true goal: to wake up and go running right away. As in, I have 15 minutes to make my bed, change clothes, and brush my teeth. But alas, I’m not a morning person—as I think I’ve mentioned—and when I wake up I just want to sprawl on the table with some sort of caffeine (soda, those caffeinated drink packets, chocolate—not coffee), and slowly wake up. So I had to start with wake up and go running within an hour, and then move it up to 30 minutes, and so forth.
- Wake up and go running right away. I’m actually still struggling with the wake up and run within 30 minutes part, but I have 12 days to get into this habit.
How to Change Habits:
I’m pleased with how I’ve managed myself with very little backsliding. If you have a habit you want to change—and don’t we all—whether it’s exercising more or eating more healthy or going to bed earlier, these tips might help you:
- Get motivated. My new job motivated me, but so did so many other small things. I never liked waking up late, I just wasn’t that motivated to change. Be better than me and get motivated without a deadline looming.
- Take baby steps. Make a list of goals, and then subdivide them into reasonable steps in an orderly fashion. I knew logically that I would be more likely to go to bed earlier if I wasn’t reading late, so my first goal was to stop reading in bed.
- Be accountable. The person I was most accountable to was myself. Every Sunday night I journaled about how I did the week before and then write down new goals for the following week. I was honest, even when it wasn’t comfortable.
- Be flexible. Sometimes you have to make a change or shift your plan. I didn’t know some parts would be harder than others, so I focused more time on those goals, sub-dividing them into even smaller goals.
- Don’t give up. You are going to fail, fall, backslide, and make mistakes up to a point. You may briefly lose a battle, but never the war if you refuse to back down. And winning a battle against yourself, against your own bad habits, is the sweetest sort of victory.
The idea is that once you’ve established a good, healthy habit, you’ll enjoy life more. The hard things won’t be so hard. Getting up early won’t be traumatic. But most importantly, when you establish a healthy habit, it tends to stay with you, even when you’re in the midst of depression; it’s those little habits that keep you going until you can climb out of the hole.