As groundbreaking personal statements go, ‘I never get enough sleep’ ranks somewhere down there with ‘I enjoy music!’ and ‘I like going out – but also staying in’. It’s the modern default. Because nobody does, right? Unless you’re under 10, over 70 or live on a farm with no wi-fi, you’re probably not getting enough sleep. I was one of those people. I decided to embark on a two-week experience to learn how to get eight hours of shut-eye a night.
We can lay almost every ailment at the feet of sleep. Science loves to send us to bed early, linking lack of shut-eye to a whole smorgasbord of problems including obesity, hormonal imbalance, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, stress, low productivity and dangerous driving. Eight hours a night is still the holy grail for adults, although the National Sleep Foundation say some age groups need even more – and recent research by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggests that falling short even by a couple of hours could be just as bad as pulling an all-nighter.
If we slept more, we tell ourselves, our skin would be better. Our life would be better. We’d have shiny hair and sparkling eyes, a spring in our step and a song in our hearts. We might get that promotion, lose half a stone, fall in love or write a novel. A well-rested brain wouldn’t fizz with anxiety or slump into lethargy; it’d stay measured and clear, like a calm day at sea. Those elusive eight hours are the only thing standing between now-us and potential-us, the future version who is better in every way.
But many of us will never find out if that’s true – not as long as we have a job, a social life or a smartphone by the bed. In her latest book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Arianna Huffington makes the urgent case for solving our modern sleep crisis. “We need to reclaim this special realm,” she says, “not just because sleep makes us better at our jobs (though there’s that) and not just because it makes us healthier in every way (there is that, too), but also because of the unique way it allows us to connect with a deeper part of ourselves.”
And while some of the advice around is as woolly as the sheep we should be counting, the fact remains that nobody is arguing for less sleep. Nobody credible anyway. Margaret Thatcher famously slept only three hours a night, and look where that got us.
Personally I average around six hours. Sometimes seven, often five when I have a deadline to meet or wedding hashtag to stalk. I’m an early riser too, because I hate missing out. Even on weekends I generally find a reason to be up and at ’em by 8am (the reason is usually a brunch queue). And I’m fine. I’m sleepy, sure. I use caffeine as a crutch, carbohydrates as a blanket and sometimes I cry because I can’t get my shoe on, but on the whole I’m perfectly functional. I’m fine.
But could I be better? Most recently the news that lack of sleep can dramatically increase our appetite (“Hang on!” I cried, mouth full of my third breakfast. “Is it possible I don’t have a friendly tapeworm?”) prodded me into thinking it’s time to stop shrugging off the warnings and try harder to sleep more.
So what actually happens if I get a full eight hours every night? I tried to stick religiously to the RDA for a fortnight, in the hope that bright-eyed, energetic potential-me would be waiting at the end.
Here’s how it went.
Bed is boring compared to the internet
At first, getting into bed at 10pm doesn’t feel like a treat; it feels like a punishment. I miss my usual evening wind-down activities – a bath, a book, a little light Netflix, and especially my favourite pre-bedtime hobby: dicking around on the internet. But with eight hours to squeeze in it’s a case of ‘straight to bed with no TV, and think about what you’ve done’. So I do. I lie in the dark, grumpy and agitated. My phone is on night shift mode so that the blue light doesn’t interfere with my sleep, but I can still sense the world having fun without me.
Digital FOMO is one reason not to fall asleep on time; another is the real-life human sharing the bed. Going to bed a full hour or two before my boyfriend every night feels lonely and antisocial. While he claims he loves having me there for longer in the mornings (probably just because I’m not appearing every 10 minutes to bark “GET UP GET UP GET UP” at him like an army drill sergeant), I prefer the pillow chat. I miss the nightly debrief on our days. And if “you must have sex with me NOW before Newsnight, I HAVE 20 MINUTES” is anyone’s idea of great foreplay than good for them, but it ain’t mine.
As well as spontaneous sex, personal grooming is another thing that quickly goes out of the window. Skipping a few morning showers is a sacrifice I’m happy to make (shut up, it’s for science), but I also don’t have time to paint my nails – usually done in bed before falling asleep and smudging them on the duvet, as is tradition. I hope to develop a well-rested glow to make up for it, but so far there’s no difference to my skin except the pillow creases on my face.
Old habits are hard to break
I predicted I would struggle to cut back on my late-night life admin, but what I didn’t bank on was how much trouble I would have actually falling and staying asleep.
On my usual schedule, I nod off minutes after my head hits the pillow while my boyfriend, king of the extravagant lie-in, often takes a full, fitful hour to finally drift off. I always assumed this was genetic difference, but now it occurs to me that reason I fall asleep quicker every night could be just because I’m more tired. Is that ok? I don’t know. But I do know that for at least the first week of my experiment, forcing myself to sleep before I’m properly sleepy feels less like falling and more like an uphill struggle.
In the mornings there’s a similar problem. Wary of the dangers of the snooze button, I dutifully set my alarm for 7:30, 7:40, 8am, but end up waking up at the crack of dawn in a restless battle against the sunlight, brain and body. Guilt wakes me up. Birds wake me up. And apparently I’m already at an age where my bladder acts as an involuntary alarm clock, so that’s fun to know.
“Trying to stay asleep past 6am,” I note in my sleep journal, because naturally I’m keeping a sleep journal, “is like trying to get a Weeble to stay down.”
You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone
Amid all the panicky wake-ups though, I still start to see benefits. For one thing, my appetite is more manageable. That empty, gnawing hunger, the one I normally placate by keeping biscuits in my handbag, has eased off. So have the caffeine cravings. One day I make it to noon before realising I haven’t had a coffee.
I don’t feel noticeably peppy, mind, there’s no amazing burst of newfound energy – but I don’t feel tired, groggy or fuzzy-headed either. Is that what people mean by ‘refreshed’? Just… neutral? Maybe sleep, like so many things in life, you only really notice when it’s missing. Perhaps that’s what Joni Mitchell was talking about.
We should sleep to the beat of our own drum (or something quieter)
There’s a popular myth that claims an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two afterwards. This is mainly bollocks – our brains being human flesh, not Cinderella’s pumpkin – but apparently it is true that those first hours of sleep, the Slow-Wave Sleep, are the most restorative and crucial for our wellbeing. So with this in mind, I keeping adjusting my schedule until I find an eight-hour slot that seems to suit: 11pm till 7am.
And suddenly, it gets easier. As I settle into my second week I’m still struggling to get the full eight hours, but seven has become the new six. I find myself powering down a little earlier, dicking around before bed a lot less. I eat earlier. I turn down the second cocktail. I leave my phone on the other side of the bedroom.
More superficially, I discover that washing my hair in the evening rather than the morning actually makes it better. Less fluffy. I miss my leisurely start to the day, but have to sheepishly admit that doing my eyeliner doesn’t take the full 40 minutes I used to allot it. In fact there’s a certain pocket of time – let’s call it ‘the faff window’ – which can be eliminated from my morning without actually making me later or less productive. It was probably time I spent staring into space with a toothbrush halfway to my mouth.
Sleep is your BFF now (the others can wait their turn)
Unlike my hair, though, my social life is no smoother. I’ve left people hanging as I ran out of time to reply to messages, and ruined my punctual reputation by being late more than once. At first I felt frantic, playing catch-up on WhatsApps and emails and Twitter exchanges in a cloud of stress that surely undid all my good work in the sack. But this probably says more about my digital overreaching than it does about sleep being a thief of joy. Eventually I learn that if you say “Going to bed now!” followed by lots of kisses, nobody shouts or un-invites you to their wedding. Frankly, it’s a relief.
Even on my paltry 5-6 hours, it turns out I was still getting some things right – I’m convinced there’s magic in the pre-bed wind-down. Over time I might find it easier to go to sleep earlier, but on balance I’d still rather seven peaceful hours with a nice bath beforehand than a rubbish, restless eight. Give me 37 good winks over 40 sketchy ones please. Science might be divided, but my bladder agrees.
And for the first time in about 15 years, staying up late has become a treat again. Going to bed after 11pm last night for the first time in two weeks, that extra hour suddenly seemed like a special luxury to be spent wisely. I could read a book! Write a poem! Paint my nails! Twice! MAYBE I’LL GO TO A RAVE.
Except I didn’t do any of that, because I was asleep by 11:15. Obviously.
This post originally appeared on Lifehacker UK