It's amazing how good I've been feeling lately. Ever since returning from FUDCon in Arizona at the start of the month, I've been paying attention to my travel-ravaged body for the first time in ages, and I'm beginning to understand why people say things like "I don't have time not to exercise." I'm still a scrawny, soft, uncoordinated, out-of-breath hacker living with RSI, but my awareness of being in a physical body (as opposed to my former conception of "I'm a brain with keyboarding fingers attached!") has grown, and I'm beginning to see the tiny differences that things like nutrition, exercise, bodywork, and sleep have on me. In the name of 80/20, here's what's been most useful and enlightening so far. I'll start with sleep.

Prior context

I started staying up late to sneak off and study before I finished elementary school. I pulled my first all-nighter at 11. By high school, I was sleeping 5 nights a week, and continued to pull at least one all-nighter a week on average through most of college, becoming famous across campus for the number of consecutive days I could go without sleep. When I was 19, I gave up all-nighters for Lent and kept it up afterwards, but still slept somewhere between 1-5 hours on most days, working until I collapsed on the nearest horizontal surface, dragging myself up whenever my alarm rang, and winding up with something between 20-25 hours of sleep most weeks. When I graduated and got a job, I started traveling across timezones with no rest because I "didn't sleep" and therefore "didn't get jetlag." Boy, what a waste of time sleep was! I didn't need to sleep that much! I was so proud of this.

I lived, studied, and worked in a perpetual fog of sleep deprivation for over 13 years before some really bad crashes and months of endearingly persistent gentle nagging from Sebastian finally did what even numerous peer-reviewed studies and a dare from Andrew Bouchard could not; I'm consistently getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night, at roughly similar times (weekdays and weekends). And holy smokes, what a difference - I didn't really notice it when I (gradually) started sleeping more, because things just slowly got a little better every day. The awakening came when I pulled some sparse-sleep nights early in February and was astonished at how much the quality of my thinking and work degraded. More importantly, I was astonished at how much my ability to judge the quality of my work degraded - that is, while I was sleep-deprived, I thought I was doing fantastic! but after a few nights of sleep I looked back and went "whoa, I produced a paltry amount of total crap." And then I realized I'd spent over a decade of school working with that sort of efficiency. I felt like headdesking.

I will say this now, publicly, in print, so people can beat me over the head with it when I'm tempted to slip later on: grad school will not make me sleep less. If I'm going to survive grad school while working, I need to sleep. I will have so much to do - and do well - that I can't afford to not sleep.

So here's what's actually important to pay attention to, sleepwise, for me.

Stuff that matters:

  1. No allnighters. If you're a knowledge worker and have 5 hours to work on something, 3 hours of sleep followed by 2 hours of work will almost always result in more work - and better-quality work - than 5 hours of brain-dead zombie work. (And knowing you have to plan your work in advance so you don't need to pull allnighters is a useful sanity restriction to have for project planning.)
  2. Sleep in multiples of 90 minutes, the length of a sleep cycle. If I have to choose between 4.5 and 5 hours of sleep, I'll go for 4.5 and use the extra half-hour to stretch before bed so my muscles are longer and more relaxed and my sleep will be more restful.
  3. On that note, what you do before bed does matter - I turn off my computer (artificial lights make your body believe it's daytime) before I change to pajamas, brush my teeth, and that sort of thing - no additional time needed, just shuffling around the order of operations for your day so that I end my waking hours grounded in the physical rather than the digital world. I also don't let myself go to sleep without working out painful knots, which is more an RSI strategy than a sleep one, but helps with the sleeping nevertheless (not being in pain helps you become unconscious, surprisingly enough).
  4. Try to sleep and wake at a consistent time every day; do not make your weekend and weekday sleep schedules substantially different. (My definition of "consistent" is plus-or-minus an hour - so I have a rough midnight-to-2am sleep window and my 7:30-to-9:30am wake window... and usually manage to make it.)
  5. Stretching out my spine when I settle into my final pre-unconsciousness position. I got the idea of stretchlying from Esther Gokhale's book, and it puts me in a better position for breathing and bodily awareness, not to mention being helpful for RSI.

Stuff that doesn't:

  1. Whether you sleep and wake early or late - basically, 10pm-6am vs 2am-10am didn't make a difference for me restfulness-wise. That having been said, there may be other reasons I would want to wake up early - less distractions when I begin work and that sort of thing - but as long as I'm sleeping when it's dark, the actual quality of my sleep doesn't seem to be affected. This is good news when I shift timezones, because I can just gradually shift my bedtime pre-travel so that it's (semi)reasonable in both timezones, keep shifting when I land, and then shift back in reverse when the trip ends.
  2. Sleeping in the same bed each time. At least I don't think so, but maybe that's because the mattress that came with my furnished apartment is sufficiently bleh compared to good hotel mattresses that I haven't noticed a difference yet. The nightly ritual of changing, brushing teeth, stretching, etc. after turning my computer off does a lot to even out my evening experience, and I don't find myself going oh no, it's not my bed, I'm in a strange place. It's actually a cool thing for me to notice the differences in blankets, pillows, layout, etc... I love traveling.
  3. Back vs side vs random-position sleeping. Inevitably, I wake up sprawled across my bed in a different position than I fell asleep in, with a weird tangle of pillows and blankets all over the place. The sleep science literature seems to indicate that movement is a normal part of sleep, so I'm not really that worried about it - I just settle into whatever position seems most comfortable to me that night (which has a lot to do with how cold I am, how tight my neck muscles feel, etc etc).
  4. Eating before sleeping, what you eat, etc. Aside from the obvious "don't drink caffeine," I don't think that meals or mealtimes really affect the quality of my sleep. (It might have an effect on physical performance and weight gain and such, but I'm not tracking that now because I don't care.) Not eating N hours before bed, drinking milk or eating carbs before bed, and so forth... tiny differences, but not so clear or so big that I'm going to make any of them a strict rule. If I'm hungry, I'll eat a little; if I'm not, I won't eat. Exercising reason here, of course; if you eat 20 hotdogs for dinner, you're going to feel awful whether you're awake or asleep. One thing I may try to pay attention to is alcohol - I suspect that does have an effect on sleep quality if taken too much too soon before bed, and my research readings seem to back this up - but I don't drink enough, or frequently enough, to have to worry about this.

Random notes

  1. I've heard you can shift your bedtime/waketime in either direction by an hour every day and not be adversely affected (so long as your total hours of sleep per night remain consistent). I've found that to be an underestimate - for me, it's closer to two. But I have to be getting enough sleep in order to do it. If I'm sleep-deprived when I arrive and sleep 3 hours a night while I'm on a trip, of course I'm going to feel terrible trying to shift that paltry amount of sleep 2 hours in one direction or another.
  2. Being able to decouple deep physical relaxation, deep mental relaxation, and sleep is useful - that is, ideally all three of them happen when you sleep, but you can relax physically separately from the other two, and you can relax mentally separately from the other two, and you can relax mentally and physically without sleeping. I'm still trying to learn the art of relaxing physically and mentally, but even the tiny bit I've learned has helped a lot. That having been said, relaxation isn't a substitute for sleep.
  3. I'm curious what effect getting a good mattress, pillow, etc. will have on my sleep when I move to Indiana. It will be my first time bed-shopping - I'd love recommendations and tips. Any ideas?