The Power of Non-Doing: 3 Steps to Better Sleep

05/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I am sure we have all experienced it: After a long, busy day, once we finally say goodnight to our cell phone and adieu to our computer and the online world, we lie in bed, knowing that if we are going to be fresh the next day, we need a good night's sleep. However, no matter how hard we try, we just can't get to sleep; our system is still charged from the day.

We often initially respond by trying to order our system to do so. "Come on, sleep," we command, but with little success.

We then try reasoning. "Listen," we say silently, "I have a really busy day tomorrow with very important meetings, and I need to be at my best. Now, relax and sleep."

When all this does not work, we resort to pleading, "Please, if you can just go to sleep, all will be well. I am sorry I have been treating you badly, and I know I need to relax and exercise more, but can we please make up, and you let me sleep now?"

If you have experienced this (or regularly experience this) you are not alone. In fact, an estimated 58% of Americans experience insomnia symptoms or sleep disorders, and spent $23 billions last year to battle them. While insomnia may be caused by numerous factors, some more serious than others, for many of us our lack of ability to sleep is encouraged by our increasingly hectic and constantly connected lives.

How might we better welcome sleep in our fast-paced, technology-rich age? Below are three tools, particularly helpful the last hour before bed, that I have found useful.

1) Reduce Light

With lights in our house blasting, from ceiling lights to computers and TV monitors, it sends a message to our system to "wake up." However, it is one thing for the sun to send us such a message at 6 a.m., it is quite another for technology to do so at 11 p.m. To make a healthy transition to sleep, it helps then to decrease lights and use natural lighting such as candles as much as possible in the evening, particularly the last hour before bed.

2) Minimize Information Intake

I know, we all benefit from our great information age, but to make a healthy transition to sleep, it helps to reduce the amount of information we absorb the last hour before bed. (And yes, this means laptops in bed are probably not helpful).

How many times, for example, have you checked email right before going to sleep, read an unsettling message, and tossed and turned for the next hour processing how you would respond? In fact, by limiting the information we take in the last hour before bed, we often have greater ability to absorb new information the next day. Of course, there is some information, like a good book, that can help us adjust to sleep, but it is important that the information be easy to digest.

3) Slow Down

To sleep, we could say, we move from activity to non-activity. Sleep brings us into stillness. We, too, need to make this a conscious transition. It is difficult to rush around our house, busily doing one activity then the next until 11 p.m., and expect to instantly enter the place of stillness that sleep requires and be out by 11:15 p.m. It can help, then, to make a more gradual transition by spending that last hour before bed with a gentle practice like restorative yoga, Tai Chi, mindful walking, or to simply move around our house at a slower pace.

In a world focused on "doing many things at once" and "getting things done," it is no wonder that stillness and sleep are often a challenge. The beauty of sleep is that it cannot be forced; it is more something that we "non-do" than we "do." It requires a softness, ease, and letting go. Lao-Tzu encourages us in the Tao te Ching: "Practice non-doing, and everything will fall into place."

Of course, we may need to be networked and busy for much of the day, but if we can spend that last hour before bed with "non-doing" activities that slow the pace of our life, it can help make sure that in our increasingly digital, networked lives we do not create greater imbalance -- an imbalance that is often most noticeable at bedtime.