THE BLOG
11/26/2013 05:38 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

Kicking the Night Owl Habit

I've always been intrigued by the concept of willpower. When there's a will, there's a way, right? So where does this will come from? Any why do some people seem to have more of it than others? What allows people the self-control to consciously craft the life they desire? And how does one bypass becoming distracted by extraneous stuff that seems really pressing in the moment?

For the past couple of years, I've struggled with meeting the seemingly simple goal of getting to bed before midnight instead of my usual 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. I'd typically bank five to six hours of sleep a night, which would leave me perpetually tired. Granted, I'm a night owl by nature, but I had become so tired of being tired that I was more than willing to relinquish my night owl status. Despite the best of intentions, however, I just couldn't bring myself to get to bed earlier on a regular basis.

The few times I actually managed to get a good night's sleep, I felt unbelievably refreshed the next day, like I literally had a new lease on life. There was a clearness to my thinking that I wasn't even aware was lacking before. I felt more alert, energized and excited about tackling the day instead of my usual feeling of being ripped out of bed by the high-pitched sounds of an alarm clock, dragging my feet throughout the day. You'd think the contrast alone would have compelled me to break the pattern. After all, getting to bed earlier is not rocket science. It's simply a matter of getting to bed earlier. So what in the world was stopping me? What had become of my willpower?

I thought about the issue more deeply and came up with a few theories. There's something about calling it a day that felt like surrender to me. Oftentimes, I would compile extensive to-do lists, noting what I wished to accomplish each day. When 11:30 p.m. or midnight rolled around, I'd become very aware of all the unchecked items on my list. Instead of closing up shop, I'd push myself to write one more page, answer one more email, address one more item on my list, so I could go to sleep feeling as productive as possible. Ironically, I was never really productive after hours, so the work I did fell a little short and took a lot longer than it would have otherwise.

Another stopping point: I looked upon my bedtime routine with a kind of dread. Nighttime chores like washing the dishes, cleaning up the kitchen and brushing and flossing my teeth felt tedious and redundant. As a result, I'd postpone getting ready for bed for as long as I possibly could. Typical delay tactics included spending time on Facebook, googling an assortment of random factoids, or watching a few episodes of The Golden Girls. These activities contradicted my desire to feel productive, which made me feel guilty, which kept me up even later. Oy.

Since my willpower seemed to be waiting in the wings, I decided to bring it center stage and show myself some tough love. For five consecutive days, I pushed through my setbacks, extinguished any resistance that popped up, and forced myself to get to bed by midnight, basically acting as my own drill sergeant. Even if I wasn't able to fall asleep, I'd lie there with my eyes closed and not let myself get up. Maybe I needed to bulldoze myself to sleep until I formed a new routine. I read that it takes 21 days to change a habit, so if I could sustain this approach for 21 days, then maybe I'd be good to go. I couldn't help but wonder, though -- is this willpower in action? Did I want to be so harsh with myself? Is using force the most viable way to implement lasting change? There has to be a kinder, gentler approach that's just as effective, if not more so. So I went online to research strategies for easing into a healthier sleep schedule.

Here's what I uncovered: I should start getting ready for bed one hour before my actual bedtime, which means at 11 p.m., extricate myself from all technology and stop whatever work I'm doing, even if I'm not finished. I'd probably need to start winding down closer to 10:30 p.m., so I could prepare myself to complete the day rather than just abruptly stopping. At this time, turn off all electrical devices and keep them as far away from my bed as possible, as their electromagnetic fields may interfere with my nervous system. Plus, the blue light from these devices can suppress the body's production of melatonin.

Another tip was to create a pre-sleep ritual that goes beyond brushing and flossing my teeth to help calm down from the chaos of the day. Recommended rituals include meditating, listening to relaxing music, lighting candles and reading a book (instead of watching TV -- apparently, watching TV doesn't facilitate sleep, though I had always watched TV before bed). These activities could help ease the burden of my nighttime tasks, so I could start looking forward to my bedtime routine instead of dreading it.

A few more ideas that struck me as helpful: write down any thoughts before bed that could potentially keep me up at night. Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees, dim the lights an hour before bedtime and wear socks to bed. And last but not least, talk about my sleep goal, share it with friends and family, so they can hold me to account.

I started following these suggestions, a bit loosely at first but then more wholeheartedly, and they actually worked. Allowing myself to end the day without completing everything on my list was liberating. I realized I didn't need to feel a perfect sense of closure before going to bed. Giving myself permission to relax and really mean it has made a world of difference. I still sometimes fall off the sleep wagon, but instead of becoming derailed, I just hop back on the next day. More focused, energized and peaceful, I consciously and consistently chipped away at a deeply ingrained habit. Now that's willpower in action.

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