Knowing to sleep ‘enough’ isn’t that hard: we’ve all experienced how miserable it is to wake up and then attempt to desperately hold on to the back of the struggle-bus as it drags us through the day. Actually making that decision, when there’s that juicy netflix series or wonderful book requesting your time and attention, is far harder.
Rule 0: Don’t Lie to yourself. Ever.
“I’ll be fine” is your enemy, and you should have giant red flags come up every time you here the phrase. You hurt yourself when you dismissively say “Oh, I’ll be fine”, whether deciding to stay up to finish House of Cards, spend a bit more time with a out of town friend, or play “just one more round” of a game on your phone.
You can make those decisions far better by being honest. “If I watch those last 2 episodes of House of Cards, I will only get 5 hours of sleep instead of 7.5 hours, and I will be tired, unhappy, and fairly cranky for the next two days. I will also likely have more difficulty falling asleep than normal, as the season finale is likely to be emotionally intense.”
You won’t be “fine”, you’ll hurt tomorrow. And the next day. Still, it might be worth it: perhaps tomorrow isn’t important, and you’re confident the enjoyment you’ll get will outweigh the costs and misery. But *that* is the honest decision you should make, because you will be tomorrow you soon, being pissed at yesterday you for making bad decisions is a terrible way to live life, and the only way for yesterday you to have made *good* decisions is for *right now* you to probably not watch those last 2 episodes.
The first thing: know your schedule. Most people have a pretty good idea about how much sleep they need, when they need to be somewhere in the morning, and how long it takes them to get ready (If you don’t, its worth figuring out!). If you work at 8, your drive takes 45 minutes and you average 45 minutes to not-miserably get ready to human for the day, 6:30 is your wakeup time. If you do best with 7.5 hours of sleep, you want to be *asleep* at 11pm.
Next step: figure out what you need to do to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get good sleep. This is much harder for most; a lot of people just take the ability to fall asleep as a given. Its far too big of a subject to cover well here, but basically, figure out what works for you, and *stick* with it. Whether its showering and then reading for half an hour, or yoga and eating a banana, or whatever else, try different things till you get something that works.
Finally: don’t cheat your schedule. Don’t skimp on your sleep prep time, or your sleep time; don’t “5 more minutes” or “I’ll be fine” yourself. You can make a decision to get less sleep, but *know* and be blunt with yourself that you’re doing that. If you know you *need* an hour of you time to get to sleep, don’t pretend you can get it done in 45 minutes. (You can play around to figure out how much you need, but that’s different, that’s science-ing yourself. And you do Very Bad Science™ when cheating your needs and justifying doing something else is your motivation.)
The Hard Decisions
Now, all of the above sounds great, but you still have to execute. Everyone knows what I’m talking about: you turn on the TV, pick up a good book, get lost in a game, and suddenly its 2am and you want to know where the time went. Or its 15 minutes from “get ready for bed” time, but you really want to play a game or watch an episode or read a chapter or talk with that friend a bit more.
The solution is simple: Make. The. Decision. Mindfully. (Simple; not easy.)
Think about it, even if it’s just for 2 seconds. Your emotions are making you want to do whatever you want to do; don’t just get pulled along. Balance them by remembering how you feel when you’re exhausted, imagine what tomorrow will feel like. Knowledge is power here: the more you know yourself and your needs and how less sleep affects you, the better you can balance these feelings.
Plan ahead *how* much time it would take, honestly. It’s easy with TV shows, but that requires you being honest with yourself about stopping after an episode or two. Its far harder with books, friends, games, and other non-granular tasks.
If that honest amount of time is too costly, or just probably too costly, to be worth doing whatever it is you want to do: commit to that decision, and focus on the positive. Emotionally place yourself fully in tomorrow you, enjoying waking up refreshed and feeling great, having more energy, getting more done, and generally being better and enjoying tomorrow more.
Its also an investment: if you’re well slept tomorrow, and a friend from out of town is available unexpectedly, you’ll have far more capacity to stay out late with them if you didn’t cheat today. Similarly, it’s a hedge against future bad things: its far easier to handle bad circumstance when you’re well slept, and you’re less likely to make ‘bad’ decisions that lead to bad circumstance when well slept.
Imagining all those things, framing them in your mind, is not easy. It gets easier, less effortful, and more immediate and intuitive with practice.
Once you’ve decided, especially if its a fuzzy timescale: hold yourself to it. Set an alarm on your phone, and absolutely stop when it goes off (fuzzier “5 more minutes” are extremely easy to cheat, so don’t do them if you can’t hold yourself to them).
Finally, be gentle with yourself. If you gave it a good try, don’t be angry. Its okay to be sad it didn’t work out how you wanted, but do your best to look at why it didn’t work out how you wish it had, and pick one thing you believe you could do differently to improve the outcomes. If you don’t feel you gave it a good try, figure out why you didn’t, and pick something to try to remedy that next time. Ask for help and suggestions if you’re struggling; many people share these struggles, and most are glad to share their successes (and failures).
Make mindful decisions: don’t let your emotions drag you into things without consideration. Whenever you catch yourself doing something or getting lost in something, take a step back, really think about whether this is how you want to spend your time right now.
Balance your want to do whatever it is with imagining how you’ll feel tomorrow. Don’t just dismiss your worries with “I’ll be fine”.