A part of the Radical Humans Series
Imagine waking up in the morning feeling grateful, rested, excited, and alert. This is possible, with no coffee or stimulants. And it’s possible to do this and be in harmony with yourself and your internal clock.
The idea that you have to wake up super early in the morning in order to be successful is, pardon my French, a bunch of horse shit.
Let me ask you a question - do you set a reminder on your phone for what time to go to the bathroom? Almost certainly not, or at least I hope not, because it’s a natural bodily function and you trust that your body will tell you when it’s time to go to the bathroom.
So why do you set an alarm for what time you wake up? Why don’t you trust your body to tell you when it’s time to wake up? And why don’t you trust your body to tell you when it’s time to go to sleep? Well, I could write a whole book about why you don’t, but practically speaking it comes down to two things - first, you’ve been conditioned to believe that you need an alarm clock to wake you up, so the idea of not setting one is scary. And second, you’ve been conditioned to operate on an externally imposed schedule which may or may not actually work with your body, so in that context, you actually might need an alarm because you’re fighting against what your body actually wants. Fighting against your body’s own natural rhythms over the long haul is a surefire way to develop cancer and disease.
I’d like to invite you into the idea that waking up at exactly the same time every day, and at a very early hour, might not be optimal. Your body has a natural sleep wake mechanism. If you don’t mess with that mechanism too much, your body will naturally make you tired and wake you up at appropriate times. My dream for society is one where we have less control and restriction and external systems for managing ourselves, not more. We would generally be served by letting go of the things that get in the way of our natural rhythms in the first place.
So here is my mostly complete list of the things that are getting in the way of your natural sleep wake cycle and how to gently let go of them so that you can get epic sleep almost every night. I say almost because the goal here isn’t perfect, it’s great. Getting perfect sleep every night is an unrealistic goal that’s liable to set you up for disappointment when you get a bad night's sleep every once in a while. And that will only put more pressure on you, which will backfire. But if we acknowledge that sometimes things are going to go off the rails, and that’s okay because you’ll come back to a healthy rhythm, then we preemptively avoid the self criticism of “screwing it up.”
The Top 5 Things to Let Go of for Epic Sleep
1. Your alarm
Ditch it, ASAP. Practically speaking you’re gonna have to figure out your own transition plan, but the ultimate move here is to ditch your alarm and not go back. I schedule my days such that I never have to worry about whether I’ll be awake and ready in time. For me, that means I don’t schedule anything before 10am most days. Not that I sleep until then, but since I like to have a restful morning where I have time to myself, I leave lots of breathing room to wake up and do my morning self care routines and still make it to a 10am meeting relaxed. Sometimes I’ll schedule something low stakes for 9am but that’s rare. You might say “but Max, I have a job I have to be at a certain time in the morning, I can’t take the risk” or “I have to be up to get the kids to school.” Fair points, and, I’ll encourage you to make the empowered move here of advocating for at least a trial period (maybe while your kids are on break) where you come in to work when you’re ready. It’s up to you what you do with this info, but the truth as I’ve found it is that not setting an alarm is one of the best things you can do to allow your body the time it needs to do deferred maintenance. When you first do this, you might find yourself sleeping in super late for what feels like an eternity. Keep at it until you get a signal from your body that it needs something different, and eventually your body will find it’s natural rhythm.
The next thing to cut out to improve your sleep is alcohol. Alcohol is arguably the biggest offender, but I wanted to focus on alarms first. Alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep. So the short version of my suggestion here is - don’t drink. Not only will cutting out alcohol vastly improve your overall sleep, which is one of the three pillars of health, it will reset your dopaminergic system and your moods will become more stable and positive. There will most likely be some emotional backlogs to clear, but it’s worth it if you’re willing to commit.
If you drink right now, even if it’s just a beer or two socially once a week, cutting it out is a big opportunity. Because that one night a week of drinking messes up your rhythm, puts you into sleep debt, and takes at least another night if not two to get back to baseline. So it messes up your flow for the whole week. If you choose to drink anyway, a compromise is to stop drinking 3 hours before you plan to sleep, plus an hour for each drink you have. So if you have two drinks, stop drinking 5 hours before you go to sleep. That will give your body time to (mostly) metabolize the alcohol by the time you’re going to bed. You might say “hey, wait that’s not realistic, that means I have to stop drinking at 5pm, which defeats the point!” Well, that may be true. So maybe just don’t drink. I’m not here to bargain with you, I’m just here to tell you the truth. You can do whatever you want with it.
I almost forgot about this one, because I don’t consume caffeine. It just doesn’t agree with my body, which has been a blessing in disguise, because I never got hooked on it like so many people do. Caffeine is a powerful drug, one that most people forget is a drug. Stopping your caffeine intake well before you plan to wind down for the evening and head to bed is wise. There’s not really an agreed upon conclusion about whether drinking caffeine/coffee is helpful, harmful, or neutral to your health, but if your coffee consumption interferes with your sleep, it quickly becomes harmful. For some people, that will mean no caffeine after lunch. For some people they might be able to stretch it until 2pm or later without an issue. If you’re not sure how caffeine impacts your sleep, the optimal thing to try here is as usual cutting it out completely for the time being. Many people are very dependent on caffeine and will experience an acute withdrawal if they cut it out. And those same many people may benefit from doing just that - and being healthier in the long run. Stimulants like caffeine borrow energy from your future self and use it right now. Eventually the bill will come due, and your body will be the one paying the interest. If you can pay that interest on a nightly basis with good sleep, then perhaps it’s a good investment. But if you’re not paying that interest with regular good sleep, it will catch up to you.
For the most part, the darker the better when it comes to your sleep environment. In particular, do everything you can to eliminate artificial light from your sleep environment. The darker your environment, typically the easier it is for your body to naturally regulate you through each ultradian sleep cycle - usually more deep sleep in each cycle at the beginning of the night, and more REM sleep in each cycle at the end of the night. Artificial light can interfere with your body’s natural regulation of these cycles, hence the importance of eliminating it.
And, in place of your alarm clock, natural light is the absolutely best way to wake up. So if you can have a bedroom that’s really dark when you go to sleep and has full daylight in the morning, that’s optimal. If you live in the city where there’s a lot of light pollution, you’ll need to experiment with your window covering setup until you meet both of those requirements, but you’re clever, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out!
Usually the important thing to ensure here is that you’re not too hot, but this one is going to be a lot more specific to your body and what’s optimal for you. Restless sleep can be a sign that you're too hot, but you may need to simply experiment a lot to get this one figured out. And when the weather changes outside, pay attention to how your body responds to the change in temperature.
Outside of artificial light in the bedroom, artificial light coming from screens in the evening hours is another source of interference to your natural sleep rhythm. Aim to close screens two hours before you plan to be asleep. This will help your onboard light sensors recalibrate and let your body start naturally producing melatonin to help make you sleepy. If you can get outside for an evening walk in the dusk hours, that’s even better.
Similar to alcohol, too much food in the evening hours can interfere with your sleep, because if all of your body's resources are being used to digest food, there’s not much left over to do repair work (which is what sleep is all about). Ideally you don’t eat anything within about 4 hours of when you’re going to fall asleep, so you're not in the thick of digestion when you’re trying to fall asleep. This window will vary based on your body type. Ayurveda can teach you a lot about what’s going to work for your body and your constitution.
So, start letting go of the things that are interfering with your body’s natural rhythms and you’ll be well on your way to deeper, more restful sleep. And like any good engineer, to get the best results you’ll want to change one thing at a time so you can accurately determine the impact and calibrate it well. Good luck!