I recently heard an interview of Dr. Michael Breus, a sleep specialist and author of The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype — and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More. That got me thinking about sleep.
I need 7-8 hours of sleep a night to function well. I can occasionally get by on 5 or 6 hours if necessary, but generally only for one night. When I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not just sleepy and ineffective; I get physically ill. Sleep deprivation is a reliable precursor to a headache, and as a lifelong migraine sufferer, headaches can be bad news for me. When I chronically get less sleep than I should, my immune system takes a noticeable hit, and I’m likely to come down with a cold. Therefore, I prioritize sleep. Even during law school and while working demanding private practice jobs, I almost always got 7-8 hours of sleep each weeknight. (I didn’t sleep very well last night, for no apparent reason, and I know I’m going to be feeling the effects of that poor sleep later today).
I get up early. During the week, my alarm is usually set for 5:30 AM. I often hit the snooze button a time or two, allowing myself to ease out of sleep and maybe checking my email while lying in bed (yes, I know, we aren’t supposed to do that). Then I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, do my makeup and hair, have a quick breakfast with a cup of coffee, and start writing. I get up early not because I’m a natural morning person, but because I know I do some of my best thinking and creative work shortly after waking, so writing early in the morning is a much better choice for me than writing late in the evening.
After writing for about an hour, I drive 35-40 minutes to work. I usually work from about 8:30-5:15 or so, arriving home around 6:00. On most weekdays, I eat dinner and then go to the gym, work on this website, or do other things around the house. I go to bed between 9:30 and 10:00. If I’m tired in the evening and I’m forced to stay up later than I’d like, I get CRANKY (my husband can attest to this). On the weekends, I usually go to bed around 10:30, sometimes a little later, and if I don’t have any plans, I’ll sleep until 8:00 or 8:30.
This schedule works ok for me, but it’s probably not ideal. Left completely to my own devices, I’d probably get up between 7:00 and 8:00 and go to bed between 11:00 and 12:00, with a mid-day workout and maybe a nap early in the afternoon. That’s more or less the schedule I followed in college, when I had a no commute and most of my classes didn’t begin until 9:00 or so.
Unfortunately, my work schedule doesn’t really allow me to keep that schedule. I could probably push my wake-up time to 7:00 and go to bed a little later, but then I’d be foregoing my morning writing time, which is important enough to me that I don’t want to give it up. While I can occasionally manage a lunchtime yoga class, I don’t have enough time at lunch to do a full, rigorous workout and then shower and get back to work. So I’ve come up with a system that works well enough for me, and maybe one day I’ll be in a position to structure my days for greater effectiveness.
Now, back to the interview of Dr. Breus. Dr. Breus divides people into four chronotypes, or sleep/wake patterns: Lion (morning bird), Bear (day person), Wolf (night owl), and Dolphin (light sleeper/insomniac). I took his chronotype quiz, which classified me as a Bear. Dr. Breus’s description of the Bear chronotype fit me pretty well:
Real bears are go-with-the-flow ramblers, good sleepers, and anytime hunters. This name fits fun-loving, outgoing people who prefer a solar-based schedule and have a high sleep drive.
Four Key Personality Traits: Cautiousness, extroversion, friendly and easy to talk to, open-minded
Four Key Behaviors: Avoiding conflict, aspiring to be healthy, prioritizing happiness, taking comfort in the familiar
Sleep/Alertness Pattern: Bears wake up in a daze after hitting the snooze button once or twice, start to feel tired by mid- to late evening, and sleep deeply but not as long as they’d like.
Most alert: mid-morning into early afternoon.
Most productive: late morning.
Naps: Bears catch extra hours on the weekends, on the couch.
When bears in nature are not hibernating, they are diurnal—active in the day and restful at night. Grazers, they forage for food continually and will eat regardless of when they had their last salmon. They are playful and affectionate within the family unit, and form close friendships within their larger society.
Human Bears’ sleep/wake patterns match up with the solar cycle, which is fortunate for them. With their high sleep drives, Bears would prefer to sleep for at least eight hours per night, if not longer. It takes them a couple of hours to feel fully awake in the morning. They are often hungry upon waking, and may be hungry all the time. If food is available, they’ll probably eat it, even if it’s not a meal or snack time. Their diet isn’t particularly good or bad; they may or may not be dedicated exercisers. Bears self-report their general health as fair. If they make an effort with diet and exercise, they do so sporadically, with mixed results. Bears’ BMI tends to be average to high.
In the professional realm, Bears are team players, balanced thinkers, worker bees, and middle managers with good people skills. Affable Type B personalities, Bears don’t do drama often. They’re not likely to scheme to get a colleague’s job or to blame others for their mistakes. In school, they were solid students, and the same can-do attitude applies on the job. They aspire to do decent work and then go home and put their feet up. Risk-averse, Bears are unlikely to put themselves out on a limb professionally or personally, unless they think they are a shoe-in or something happens organically.
Bears like to be around other people and grow restless and bored if they’re alone for too long. At a party, the gregarious guy manning the bar or flipping burgers at the barbecue is probably a Bear. In their personal relationships, Bears can be easygoing to a fault. They tend to rate low in both emotional repair (the ability to “fix” problems) and clarity (understanding what’s really going on). This can be frustrating for their partners, especially insightful Wolves and anxious Dolphins.
Bears don’t have high highs and low lows. If they do get knocked off their even keel emotionally, it’s a direct reaction to a real-life crisis. When the issue passes, so will their anxiety or depression. Their overall life satisfaction is good.
I came across this article setting forth Dr. Breus’s ideal Bear schedule, and now I’m thinking it might be wise to shift things around a bit. Maybe I’ll give it a try, though I really hate to give up my morning writing time.
There are a few hacks I’ve tried or am trying. First, I have a white noise machine that I sometimes play at night to cover up sounds like my cats meowing. I’m a fairly light sleeper, and often when I’m awakened at night, I have trouble falling asleep again. On a somewhat related note, my friend Rene Brooks of Black Girl, Lost Keys recently wrote about binaural and isochronic tones for sleeping. These concepts are completely new to me, and I’m intrigued.
Second, I moved my daily shower from morning to evening, for several reasons. I used to work out in the morning, so a morning shower was necessary, but I moved my workouts to the evening to take advantage of my morning mental alertness. I found that I really don’t need a shower to wake up in the morning, as I used to believe. Showering in the evening also helps me to unwind at night, allows me to do a task that doesn’t require mental energy when I’m mentally tired, and frees up more time in the morning for writing. Breus says that warm showers trigger sleep and cool showers trigger awakeness. I’m sure that’s true, but you are not going to convince me to start my day with cold showers, so warm evening showers it is.
Third, I bought a blue light device and have started using it in the mornings while I get ready for work. This is a recent addition to my routine, and I don’t think I’ve been using it long enough yet to see a huge difference. I do notice a slight uptick in my morning energy levels, though. Long ago, when I was about 18, I participated in a light therapy study for seasonal affect disorder. You can read about the research here. I’d long thought about purchasing a light box to help me get through the winters–my least favorite season by far–so when I heard Dr. Breus recommend blue light devices, I decided it was time to give it a try.
One thing to note about all of this is that I do not have children. I’m sure my friends with kids are rolling their eyes at this post, if they have the time and energy to read it at all. The lack of sleep that accompanies raising children is possibly the thing that most terrifies me about having kids. A friend of small children once told me that you get used to the lack of sleep. “You’ll be amazed at what you can do with two hours of sleep,” she said. I’m skeptical, but I guess like all the parents in the world, I’ll figure it out when the time comes (hopefully without too many migraines).
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