‘Enough is enough,’ I mutter, in between mouthfuls of long-gone-cold coffee that my partner had placed by the bedside around two hours earlier. I really needed to get a grip on this sleeping in late situation.
Mere moments before I had awoken, groggy and reluctant, from a deep slumber. My iPhone told me it was somehow 9:59 AM. I had to be at work in one minute.
In the old world, this would have been panic stations. Cue frantic, fictitious texts to my manager warning of train delays or a medical emergency. Cue panic-showering, the frenzied brushing of the teeth, the manic running out of the door in odd shoes and yesterday’s outfit.
But in today’s world, for those lucky enough, one minute is plenty enough time to commute. After draining the dregs of my unintentional cold brew and setting down my mug, I reach for my laptop and prize it open. It whirrs to life, my emails ping in, bold and blue at the top of my inbox. I’m in. Somehow it’s still 9:59 AM.
My avatar smiles out at my colleagues, suited and booted, hair combed and professional. Nobody in my team has the faintest idea that I’m actually in bed, bleary eyed and cognitively only 30% loaded up. Updates are very much still installing, mentally, that is. For all intents and purposes, I’ve well and truly ‘got away with it’, but that doesn’t mean it feels good.
This really can’t go on. Contrary to my lying-in tendencies, I’m not a teenager anymore, and every day I’ve really got things to do. With every year I age, I appreciate more and more the potential of each and every hour. I could write, paint, meditate, with those hours. Yet still I’m destined to spend half of them trying to sleep, and the other half of them sleeping when I shouldn’t be. I was told I would grow out of this type of thing, but I assumed it would have happened at some point before I hit 31.
My partner (the Coffee Bringer), proactive and sensible as he is, has already tidied the flat, made coffee and breakfast, showered, dressed, and cycled half way across London to work by this point. His aptitude at real life infuriates me (in an affectionate way). I would never actually say this to him, but I should probably take a leaf out of his book.
Change beckons. I decide it’s now or never. I’m going to become a morning person, even if it kills me. I’m picturing yoga at sunrise, freshly baked croissants, that glowing, well-rested feeling. I imagine myself buzzing from the heady thrill of finishing my day’s work by 4 PM. Here’s some of the ways I tried (and failed) to achieve it.
I exercised in the evenings
It had always been obvious to me that Marge, my elderly rescue cat, should be tired out as much as possible before bedtime if I was to expect her to sleep through the night and stop pawing at my face for a few hours. Laser pens, treats, dangling mouse toys, I’ve done it all in an attempt to tucker out my four legged pal. But why hadn’t I tried this approach on myself?
Obviously I’m not talking about cat toys and cheesy flavoured treats,my prey drive is much too lacking to engage with all that. But rather getting that blood pumping through exercise in an attempt to tire myself out. If its good enough for Marge, its good enough for me.
My first port of call was running, my absolute least favourite type of cardiovascular activity. I can just about manage a 5k on the right side of 30 minutes, but it’s by no means enjoyable or fun. Those people who claim running can be meditative are lying, I suspect. The only thought I can mediate on is ‘When will it end?!’ The best part for me is always getting home, sweaty and aching. Finally, it’s over.
After that first run, I felt certain I’d cracked it. I was mentally exhausted and my muscles were uncomfortably fatigued. But lying in bed, my mind raced, as did my heart. My thoughts were buzzing like I’d just downed a double espresso. I didn’t sleep until well past midnight.
I tried yoga in the evenings
The next day I reasoned that perhaps a more measured and calm type of exercise was needed to entice the sweet lulls of sleep. With my partner already in bed, I rolled out our barely used yoga mat, and selected, at random, a YouTube video from the iconic Yoga With Adriene.
I’m not completely new to yoga, but I’m by no means a seasoned, limber yogi with anything approaching muscle definition. Stretching this reluctant body into downward dog, tree pose, and various twists and binds was both calming and deeply stressful at the same time. A sweat drizzled across my brow, but my pulse barely picked up the pace.
When the video finally came to an end with my absolute favourite yoga pose, Shavasana (A.K.A lie down flat and thank the heavens its over), something akin to peace washed over me. My breath was measured and deep, my limbs were pleasantly - but not overly — aching.
In bed that night, I tossed, I turned, but the soft edges of sleep crept into my mind well before midnight.
I stopped my podcast habit
Somewhere around the year 2012 I discovered my love for podcasts, and found that I really enjoyed drifting off to sleep with the sound of someone chattering away in my ear. There is no particular genre or podcast that works for me, be it lighthearted comedy or grizzly true crime, the sound of conversational voices acted as a wonderful sleep aid.
Ironically, the only ones that don’t seem to work are the ones actually designed to induce sleep. Rain on a lake sounds? Not for me. Wild, twittering birdsong? Well, you might as well hand me a Red Bull.
As the years passed, my podcast sleeping aid started to become less effective. I found it more difficult to find the right mixture of conversational and engaging sounds. Monetisation of content crept in, and adverts of varying volumes would snap me out of sleep as if I’d fallen out of bed. I would check my phone, scrolling through episode feeds, searching and never finding the perfect sound. Turns out podcasts were keeping me awake, not helping me sleep at all.
An audio habit like mine wasn’t one that could be stopped cold turkey. My initial move was to reduce the duration of the episodes I drifted off to. I searched for half an hour short episodes, rather then lengthy, 90 minute rambles. It seemed I could still fall asleep within the time frame of a shorter episode, and it was less likely to wake me up from my deeper sleep later on.
Next I moved onto eradicating them altogether. The first few nights I lay there, staring into the abyss of darkness pressing into my retinas. It became clear that the reason I loved falling asleep with podcasts is because it masked my own anxious, twirling thoughts.
Days later, I started consciously creating distractions in my mind. I imagined going for a walk, or listened actively to the swooshing nighttime traffic outside my apartment. Lo and behold, sleep came. Turns out there were soothing sounds around me all along.
I questioned why I wanted to look at my phone in the night
Ignoring plenty of advice around mobile phones and harmful, sleep-interrupting blue light, I always check my phone if I wake up in the middle of the night. Pupils retracting from the glare, I scroll through Instagram, my emails, WhatsApp, anything rather than put my head on the pillow and attempt to fall back asleep.
In my pursuit of sleep health, I realised that constantly checking my phone, filling my mind with stressful or irrelevant information during the twilight hours, was completely counterproductive. I desperately needed a method to reduce my nighttime screen exposure.
These days, I’ve developed a simple but effective strategy to combat this addiction. Whenever I feel my hand creeping out of the covers to reach for my phone, I ask myself why. Why do I want to look at my phone? What am I hoping will be there?
The phone-addicted side of my brain is indignant. Perhaps I’ll have a like on my latest Instagram post! Perhaps I’ll have an exciting professional update languishing in my inbox! Perhaps there’ll be some good news, or crushingly bad news, or a message from somebody I love dearly! Either way, I simply have to know.
Next I ask myself: can it wait until the morning? The answer, readers, is literally always yes. Yes, it can wait until the morning. Now close your eyes and get back to restoring those precious brain cells!
I forced myself up and out
Ah, time for the kind of annoying, unhelpful advice that usually comes from parents and unqualified elders. And as much as I hate to say it, this over-simplified and obtuse life-hack is the most effective of all: Just Get Up.
It doesn’t matter if you have no reason to get up. It doesn’t matter if your eyes are stuck together with sleep, or your limbs are wobbly like a newborn antelope on a nature documentary. It doesn’t matter if your bed is warm as toast and your floor is ice cold. Just put one leg out, and then the other, and do something.
I still find this the hardest part of all, even though it is the most simplistic. The lazy side of me resists my good intentions with all its might, applying extra gravity to my limbs and eyelids, tempting me back to sleep.
But every time I persevere, toddling to the kitchen and pouring a ladle of instant coffee granules into my mug, it gets a little bit easier. The haze lifts a little quicker today than it did yesterday, and by the time I’m fully alert, I’m grateful that I have time to get to work early or even do a bit of cleaning.
It certainly helps that spring is here, that there is something to look at other than London smog and fog. Ask me how it’s going in December.
Verdict: success (for now)
It would be hubristic to declare myself a proper morning person. Still no yoga at sunrise, no freshly baked croissants, or 6 AM 10k jogs. But I can say that in the space of a month I have become a fairly reliable 7.30 AM riser, which is enough to empty the litter tray and make myself a low quality coffee, if not much else. Best of all, when the dreaded Zoom meeting pops up, I can go on camera safe in the knowledge that my hair isn’t birds-nested like an early 2000’s Russel Brand. It was all worth it.