Most teenagers have really unusual sleep schedules right now, myself included. I almost never have planned activities in the morning anymore, so I don't always see the use of waking up early. I've never been a night owl, but I’ve been going to sleep as late as 3:00am and waking up past 11:00am. I'm always told that I need to sleep more, but it’s difficult to change my patterns when my body is so used to something different. On June 14, I decided it was time to give it a try. I wanted to see how my life would change if I developed consistent and healthy sleep habits.
- Going to sleep before midnight
- Waking up at 8:00am
- Turning off electronics and screens one hour before going to sleep
- Eliminating all sources of light before going to sleep
- Keeping a consistent evening routine:
- Brushing my teeth
- Getting changed
- Feeding my fish
- Journaling in bed
- Reading in bed until sleep
I have to be honest, the first week was tougher than I expected. I found that I would start to feel tired at about 9:00pm, which is normal for me. I would stay awake a few more hours talking to friends or watching a movie, but come 11:00pm, I couldn't sleep. It was very irritating. I thought that my evening routine would bring me to the pleasant drowsiness that precedes a peaceful sleep, but I was mistaken. Even though I felt completely relaxed, I just couldn't fall asleep for at least an hour. I felt stuck in one of those "when you can't fall asleep" memes (like this one).
One aspect that was fairly easy was waking up. No matter what time I drifted off, I had no problem with my 8:00am alarm. I found that I didn't necessarily feel well-rested, but I've always been able to wake up at any time. My issue with those first few mornings was finding the motivation to get out of bed, since I didn't usually have plans. I had to while away the extra hours with pastimes, which were usually reading, making music, working on video projects, and on one unfortunate off-day, sharpening every pencil in the house.
Reality time: I had one late night for a birthday party. I went to sleep at 4:00am and got up at 11:00am. After six days of early bedtime, I was exhausted by midnight. That was my first indicator that my body may have been getting used to the new schedule. I didn't expect it to happen so quickly. That night, I knew that if I were in bed, I would've fallen asleep. The next morning, I was exhausted. Not only did I naturally wake up at 9:00am, but I wasn't even able to go back to sleep, regardless of how tired I was. It seemed like my body wanted to get started early, and I had no say in the matter. I stayed in bed for two more hours, but only managed to find that unsatisfying half-sleep that left me feeling even less rested. I was worried about disrupting the fragile internal clock I had started to set, but was curious to see how that evening would affect the week to come.
Week 2 started off similarly to the previous week, but I knew I had to make changes. I wasn't waking up feeling as rested as I would've liked, so I decided to set an earlier bedtime. I started going to sleep by 11:00pm, and what a difference it made! When I felt tired, instead of trying to stay up, I just... went to bed. That simple. Even more satisfying was the fact that I was falling asleep faster than ever.
Toward the end of the end of the week, I found myself naturally waking up between 7:55am and 8:00am. That was magical. Normally, if I wake up before my alarm, it tends to be in the middle of the night because of a disturbance. This time around, I was always pleasantly surprised when I'd glance over at my clock. It was nice to savour those few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the sunlight streaming through my window.
I also found, for the most part, that I was in a more positive mood in the evening. This could be attributed to multiple factors, but I like to think that snagging more sleep was helping. I tend to get crabby and waspish when I'm tired, so it was refreshing to feel less annoyed at every mild inconvenience. Magic, I tell you.
One of the challenging aspects of Week 2 was that I started to feel disconnected from my friends. Often, my deepest conversations happen over text at 2:00am (we all do that, right?), but, as outlined above, I was to turn off screens one hour before going to sleep. In the first week, I was content with daytime texts and phone calls. I was too curious about this experiment to mourn those late-night chats. By the second week, though, I was feeling the loss. Most of my friends tend to stay up late, so if I wanted to catch them all at the same time, I would've had to wait up. But I couldn't.
I also started to miss talking to members of my family who live in different time zones. I love calling my sister, but it was more challenging to catch her. We usually talk late at night, so with my new bedtime, we had to rethink our situation. We wound up mainly communicating over text. It was alright, but didn't provide the full experience that I'm used to having with her.
Week 3 was a little... special. We were hit by a heat wave. With no air conditioning, sleeping was tough. On particularly stifling evenings, I relocated to a couch in the basement, which was significantly cooler than my room. This was a quick fix, but it presented new challenges. My evening routine was thrown off. Due to a lack of sufficient lighting, I was unable to journal and read in the basement. By this time, though, I was used to going to sleep early. I felt comfortable getting ready in my room, and then traipsing down the stairs to tuck myself in.
Another issue I hadn't taken into account was my three cats. I never allow them into my room on typical evenings. Call me heartless, but there it is. Regardless of my personal preferences, I had to let the cats climb on me because their food bowls and litter boxes are in the basement. But that wasn't all. It got worse.
We're not sure why (or who, it's a mystery), but some of our cats have developed an unfortunate nightly habit of pooping on the floor next to the couch. No one wants to wake up to cat poop. No one. Usually, if we're sleeping nearby, they'll hold off until the morning. It seems, however, that they became so accustomed to my being there that they felt perfectly comfortable pooping right next to me. It was lovely.
Despite the cats, I was still able to maintain my intentions. I was tired most mornings, but I stuck it out. I knew I only had one week to go, and would not be deterred by the weather. Plus, I was starting to feel more energetic in the afternoons, which I was able to enjoy by going for sunny bike rides.
The last week. The home stretch. By this point, I was used to my schedule and it felt more normal. I knew I could finish off the month, but... my dedication started to slip. Here's what happened.
I was still feeling the same fatigue at night, but I was really missing those late-night conversations. In the last few days of the week, I gave up on turning off my phone. I texted friends, called family, watched funny cat videos, everything. All I can say in my defence is that cat videos are much more entertaining at night. Despite this breach of my commitment to myself, I still made sure to turn everything off at my designated bedtime. I was disappointed in myself, especially when I realized that I was taking longer to fall asleep afterward. Go figure. Maybe all the studies about cellphone use in bed are actually on to something.
I'd like to say that I learned my lesson and will be more vigilant about screentime. I'm just not sure if I will always be able to commit to a full screen-free hour before sleeping. I think it would be more reasonable for me to avoid using my phone in bed in the future. That way, I can still talk to others at night while ensuring that my bed remains a space that is conducive to sleep.
Overall, I'd say that this was a positive experience. I enjoyed the feeling of waking up well-rested, minutes before my alarm, and ready to start the day. It gave me a sense of purpose and direction, something I was lacking in this strange Covid world. As the month progressed, I also had more energy in the afternoon, when I would usually have felt fatigued. As I mentioned above, it was highly gratifying to be able to exercise later in the day without feeling drained.
Another exciting result of this experiment was that toward the end, I was beginning to feel consistently hungry in the morning. As a result of my eating disorder, I haven't been able to experience regular hunger signals. I was hoping that committing to a reliable daily rhythm would help my body on its way to restoring that function. I made sure to eat breakfast before 9:00am (I slipped a few times, but I can't be perfect), and I found that by Week 4, more often than not, I was actually somewhat hungry! An exhilarating development, let me tell you.
Throughout this process, as I explained earlier, I felt less connected to my friends and family. I wasn't able to talk to them late at night as I used to, so I found the first two weeks slightly isolating. As I progressed, it became more common for me to have those conversations earlier on in the evening. I just wasn't always able to reach the people who were busy all day. That's the magic of texting, though. They would answer when they could.
Another negative outcome was that as the month drew to a close, I started to attach moral value to my routine. When I would decide to use my phone before bed, I felt like a failure for my lapse in discipline. I know that flexibility is key for this type of commitment in the long term, but I found myself stuck in the "I have to" mindset. I struggled to disregard certain intentions on special occasions. Maybe this experiment was actually a good exercise in incrementally letting go of the high standards I set for myself. Something to think about.
Will I continue?
Yes and no.
Yes, I will continue to honour my tiredness when it hits. Yes, I will do my best to improve my quality of sleep. Yes, I will limit my screen time before getting into bed. Yes, I will try to talk to my loved ones at reasonable hours. Yes, I will do what I can, as often as I can. But that's all. I no longer want to tie myself to a strict routine. I will maintain the same approximate schedule, but allow myself to listen to my body. If I need to sleep a few more hours on an off-day, so be it. If I'm exhausted at 9:00pm, maybe I should turn in early.
I believe that everyone can find comfortable and consistent sleep habits, and reap the same benefits as me. I would recommend experimenting as I did, but perhaps with more realistic intentions. Personally, I would never have tried it without setting very specific guidelines. It was a great way to start, but I don't think it's the most sustainable way to proceed in the future. However you choose to try it, do your best, honour yourself along the way, and watch your life change.