The Academic’s Lullabye

I used to think that every new graduate student should receive a night mouth guard and a prescription for Ambien. Now I think that academics need to talk more about sleep hygiene.

I slept great as an undergrad but suffered from an affliction known as “seminar paper deadline” as a graduate student. Symptoms of seminar paper deadline include trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, trouble eating healthy foods, and trouble talking about anything other than grad school.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last month states that one-third of Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. Some sleep troubles are health-related, some are situational, and some are about personal choice.

I write for an audience of academics here because we tend to have problems with self-care. But many people who have sleep struggles can benefit from these strategies. Small changes can make a big difference in our health, happiness, and productivity.

As a green graduate student in my early 20s, I did not know that sleeping well takes discipline. My soporific advice that follows encourages a disciplined approach to space, time, and technology.

Space

My first apartment was actually quite luxurious (for a grad student budget). My roommates and I had our own rooms, a good-sized kitchen and living room. Against the conventional wisdom, we all did school work in our rooms.

The place where you sleep should be disconnected from things that make it hard to sleep. That means no working on your laptop in bed and, experts advise, no TV in your bedroom. Save the bedroom for sleep and sex.

These days, I don’t have a home office, and I keep almost all of my scholarly books at work. This model frees up space both in your home and in your brain.

Time

In my early graduate school years, I would work until I was too tired to work any longer. Those late night writing sessions were not my most productive and those nights of sleep were not productive either. I would fall asleep thinking about my writing or my teaching and wake up throughout the night thinking about them as well. Does this sound familiar?

Image from CollegeDegrees360

Image from CollegeDegrees360

These days, when the sun goes down, some friends joke that I should probably get home to bed.  To all the haters: I like my early-to-bed routine.

Here it is:

7:30 my kids start their bedtime routine
8:00 my kids are usually asleep or on their way; I check my phone for the last time
8:30 my husband and I watch a TV show in the living room
9-9:30 we start reading in bed
10:00 asleep

You don’t see work anywhere in this evening schedule. When I put down my work at a regular afternoon/evening hour, my brain is quieter, I sleep better, and my work days are much more productive.

This sleep solution requires all of one’s work to fit into a regular work week. Some people require a different, flexible schedule because of family or other needs. However, many academics can do a regular, 9-5ish work week. It requires strategic planning on how to be more efficient in one’s work, prioritizing work based on goals, and being honest about whether or not we’re truly working as much as we think we are or need to be.

Technology

I have heard for several years that screen time at night disrupts sleep. I don’t take my phone to bed, I don’t read on a tablet before bed, and I don’t work on my laptop at night. I thought I was in the clear.

My quality of sleep was not great last fall, and it took a student’s persuasive speech to clue me into the problem: I was checking my cell phone, and spending a few minutes scrolling through various feeds, right before going to bed.

I could fall asleep just fine, so I did not think of my cell phone as part of the problem.

But research from Brigham and Women’s hospital reveals that screen time before bed can harm the quality of sleep because the screen’s blue light suppresses melatonin:

Research subjects “who read on a screen were also sleepier and less alert the next day than those who read a printed book, even though they slept the same number of hours.”

Boom. The researchers recommend having one to two device-free hours before bed.

I felt silly spending a few bucks on a cell phone sleeping bag, so I started by putting my cell phone in a sock at 8:00. It helped remind me not to automatically pick the phone up and check my email or social media accounts. Now I have better will-power to leave the phone alone at night—or I turn it off.

Some other solutions can help mitigate blue light sleep disruption:

1) New apps change screens from blue light to red light at a set evening time.
2) LED lightbulbs change the color of light depending on the time of day.

Conclusions

Experimenting with new techniques and reading up on sleep hygiene got me to a place of peace. The peace may be temporary as life changes come my way, but I have the confidence to deal with new sleep challenges effectively.

As graduate programs prepare to coach their next cohort on effective research and teaching strategies, they should consider coaching students on another skill that will be a boost personally and professionally: how to sleep.

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