Sleep is the best cure for most problems we encounter, and moving smoothly through our sleep cycles helps increase our ability to face challenges head on and be more productive every day. Unfortunately, we know surprisingly little about our own sleep cycles, the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep, or how we can hack and influence our sleep patterns to become more creative and productive.
In this article I’ll go deep on how sleep cycles work, how our sleep affects our productivity, and provide sleep hacks to help you increase your performance and productivity.
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What Are Sleep Cycles?
Many people think that a typical sleep cycle consists of only one cycle through the stages. However, the stages of sleep that we enjoy actually cycle throughout the night depending on how long we’re asleep.
Each stage is associated with different brain waves. When we successfully manage to pass through all the stages, we achieve a sleep cycle, which typically happens within 90 minutes.
This is your light sleep phase when you often drift in and out of sleep easily. As you have probably experienced, you can be awoken easily during this phase.
We go through alpha and beta brainwaves and have almost dreamlike periods before we begin to fall asleep.
This stage often lasts for about 20 minutes as our brain produces short periods of rapid, rhythmic brain waves. Our body temperature drops, and our heart rate begins to slow down.
This is the transitional phase between light and very deep sleep. Deep, slow brain waves known as Delta Waves emerge during this third stage.
After three full sleep cycles, the body will cut out this stage.
Stage four is your deep sleep period that lasts for about 30 minutes. Your body will typically go into stage four two times during a full 8-hour sleep cycle.
It is essential not to wake up during the deep sleep stage as this leads to disorientation and foggy mind, and it will ensure you have a very unproductive day.
This is the stage where most dreams happen. You will experience rapid eye movement and increased brain activity. Beta waves are generated; these are produced when we are focused in a mental activity.
It is important to note here that our sleep does not progress through all of the stages in sequence.
Our sleep starts with stage one and then moves into stages two, three, and four. After stage four’s deep sleep, stages three and then two are repeated before going into REM Sleep.
For context, 4-5 sleep cycles are optimal to get a good night’s sleep, as each cycle takes around 90-120 minutes to complete. The optimal amount of sleep we should be getting is 8 hours a night, but if you can’t get that 8 hours in, the least optimal period of sleep to wake up during is stage four.
Have you ever had your alarm go off or been woken up, and you get up with a headache and a feeling of grogginess? If you have, you would have been woken up from stage four of your sleep cycle.
How Sleep Cycles Affect Productivity
When we sleep, our brain goes through the different stages I’ve laid out above, with each full cycle (all four stages and REM) lasting 90 minutes. It makes sense then, that we will feel more refreshed ready for a productive day when we wake at the end of a full 90-minute sleep cycle.
The next step is to decide when you want to wake up. If you want to wake at 6am, then you will want to get five 90-minute sleep cycles in, or seven and a half hours, which means you should go to sleep at 10:30pm.
To monitor your own sleep cycle, there are a number of apps on the market that can help you analyze the quality of your sleep. Many of them monitor the movement of your body while you sleep and can estimate the different sleep stages you’re in. This helps you ensure you activate your alarm at the right time to complete a full sleep cycle.
Once we fully understand how our sleep cycle works and how we actually sleep each night, there are many things we can do to ensure we get the best night’s sleep possible and avoid sleep deprivation to increase our creativity and productivity.
Here’s some more information on how sleep is affected by what we do each day and vice versa:
How to Hack Your Sleep Cycles for Better Rest
Below are 18 sleep hacks you can start using right now to use your sleep cycles to your advantage:
1. Remove Technology
Many of us keep our phone on a bedside table, or at least in the bedroom. We check for notifications or respond to emails rather than just unplugging and winding down before sleep.
If it’s not smartphones, many of us have a television in our room, and we are catching up on the latest Netflix series before we switch off the light and go to sleep.
Wakefulness is often triggered by blue light that emanates from a computer or smartphone screen, which can affect the rhythm of your sleep.
Avoid laptops, phones or tablets an hour before sleep, or at least put your phone on airplane mode. Leave your smartphone or tablet in another room when you go to sleep, and decide on a time to stop emailing and being on social media at least an hour before you go to bed.
2. Use the 90-Minute Sleep Cycle Rule
If you know you are going to sleep later than normal or wake up earlier, then use your knowledge of your 90-minute cycles to optimize your sleep.
You will more refreshed and closest to your waking state at the end of a cycle. This knowledge will help you create more productive days.
If you need to get up at 4am, work back in 90-minute increments to figure out when you should go to sleep.
3. Use an App to Monitor Your Sleep Cycles
By tracking your sleep patterns for at least a week, you’ll have more of a sense of your sleep quality.
You want to wake at the top of a new sleep cycle to feel refreshed and ready for a productive day. Many of the apps can act as an alarm clock and wake you at the top of a sleep cycle rather than waking you up in the middle of deep sleep.
3. Don’t Exercise Two Hours Before Sleep
Unless you’re doing yoga or something similar, you shouldn’t exercise for at least two hours before going to sleep.
Exercise builds up energy, raises our cortisol levels, and makes it a much longer process to fall asleep.
4. Take a Hot Bath
A relaxing bath raises our body temperature slightly, but when we get out and towel ourselves dry, we cool down quickly and are in a much more relaxed state, ready for sleep, which means we often fall asleep quicker.
5. Go to Sleep Before 11pm
Sleep is an essential way of resting, recharging, and nourishing our body and mind.
Although it differs from person to person and during different seasons, we tend to naturally get tired between 10:45pm and 11pm as our biological clock is based around the circadian rhythms.
To avoid getting a second wind, we should fall asleep before 11pm, otherwise many people get an additional surge in energy that can keep them awake into the early hours.
If you can stick close to the circadian cycle, you will wake up feeling rested and productive.
6. Create Your Optimal Sleep Environment
Make going to sleep an experience that you really look forward to, rather than something you have to do.
Investing in a new mattress will help you sleep better than a 10-year old mattress, but there are some other simple, practical steps you can take.
Have crisp, clean sheets on the bed. Burn some candles and dim the lights before going to sleep as you wind down.
Many of us have a playlist for working out or running. Create a sleep playlist of relaxing, soothing music that will help calm the mind before sleep.
7. Keep Your Room at the Right Temperature
Adjust the temperature in your room or have lighter/heavier duvets so you’re not waking up in the night being too hot or cold. There’s a close relationship between body temperature and sleep cyles.
Most people sleep best in a slightly cooler room around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius. Waking up from a deep sleep because you’re too hot or cold is going to make you very irritable.
8. Use Guided Meditation
Guided meditation can help you sleep quicker and with a calmer mind, helping you enjoy a deeper, more restorative sleep cycles.
When you meditate, your muscles relax, your breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your daily thoughts can turn into rich, dreamlike imagery.
Try this guide to get started: The 5-minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime
9. Sleep in Total Darkness
Daylight is known to inhibit the release of melatonin in your brain. Melatonin is a natural hormone released in our blood during darkness and helps our bodies feel more relaxed and less alert.
If possible, use blackout curtains, eye masks, and other tools to create more darkness in your room to avoid disrupted sleep.
10. Avoid Caffeine After 1pm
The World Sleep Society suggests avoiding caffeine six hours or more before you go to sleep. Caffeine consumed 6 hours before bed can affect the amount of sleep you get by over an hour.
So, enjoy your coffee, but be clear when you should have your last cup of the day.
11. Create a Sleep Routine
One of the simplest ways to ensure you get your 8 hours of sleep every night is to create a sleep routine.
Ideally, this would be having a specific time to go to sleep, but that’s not always possible as we may have nights out planned or specific work or family commitments.
Instead, commit to a time when you are going to rise in the morning and work back to get your 7 or 8 hours on occasion.
If you follow a morning routine that has you rising at 5am, you know the ideal would be going to sleep at 9 or 10.
Be consistent with having a specific wake up time for 14 days, and see the impact it creates in your life.
12. Conduct a Sleep Audit
Start analyzing your “sleep performance” to explore different hacks to ensure you wake up refreshed and productive. You can use a sleep journal or just enter the information into a spreadsheet to help you get an idea of how well your mind moves through the sleep cycles.
You want to track:
- When you went to sleep
- What you did before you went to sleep
- When you woke up
- How you felt when you woke up
- How many times you woke up during the night
- What you ate before you slept
- How comfortable you felt during the night
- Any naps during the day
Try tracking for 7 or 14 days. You will begin to notice patterns emerge that can help you cut things out or add things in to improve your sleep.
13. Try Polyphasic Sleep
You’ve probably heard of polyphasic sleep and how many people are using this technique to hack their sleep cycles so that they only need 2 to 4 hours of sleep a night.
Essentially, you are breaking your sleep into two blocks of time rather than the traditional monophasic sleep, in which we sleep only once per day. You are sleeping for shorter periods but more often.
Many of us take naps during the day, which could be anything from a 15 minute power nap to a longer 90-minute nap and still have 5-8 hours of sleep a night.
Polyphasic sleep is different. It’s about sleeping a lot less and is often structured in one of two ways:
- Nap for 20 minutes every four hours, for a total of two hours of sleep a day
- Have a “normal sleep” at night with three 20-minute naps during the day
The aim is to get more time in your day and less sleep at night, but this method is not recommended for the long-term.
14. Try Pillow Sprays or Aromatherapy
There has been a rise of the number of pillow spray products on the market promising to help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling more refreshed and energized. They aim to help reduce sleep anxiety and improve sleep quality by calming and soothing the mind and body.
You can also use aromatherapy oils such as lavender to help you fall asleep quicker. These oils calm the nervous system by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature.
15. Wind Down Your Day Slowly
When you have lots of things on your mind, or your energy levels are high after being out or watching a film, it can be difficult to naturally calm down before sleep and move calmly through the sleep cycles.
As part of your sleep schedule, take 30-45 minutes to just calm the mind and body before getting into bed.
To help you decompress, try drinking hot tea with honey, journaling, or meditating. Slow everything down to give yourself the best chance of a great night’s sleep.
If that doesn’t work, pick up a book and read for 15 minutes before sleep.
16. Declutter Your Mind
To create the perfect harmony of mind and body before you go to sleep, try taking everything that’s running around your mind and get it down on paper by journaling.
Try sitting for 15 minutes and write down your worries, goals, and random thoughts. Clear your internal inbox so to speak. Quiet down that internal chatter so you are in the right frame of mind to experience a deep sleep.
For beginners, check out this guide on journaling.
17. Express Gratitude Before Sleep
Give yourself 5 minutes before you go to sleep to give thanks for the day. This relaxes the mind and body and leaves you feeling positive.
Whatever has happened during the day, step back, reflect on it, and be grateful.
Giving thanks will help ensure that you don’t fall asleep worrying. You will be positive, thankful, and tranquil rather than fighting with a negative, worried mind.
To take this one step further, focus you mind on one thing you want to achieve and let your subconscious work on it while you sleep.