When my co-founder Chris and I began talking about starting a company, and specifically about creating something based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I was immediately hooked on the idea. I’ve had problems sleeping ever since I can remember. It got pretty bad when I was in graduate school, to the point where I actually re-learned how to go to sleep. It’s still far from an automatic process, so I go back to these same techniques time and again.
Stop Working an Hour Before Bed
Most people in the startup world struggle with this, but I can’t tell you how important it is for me to decompress before trying to fall asleep. If I work right up until bedtime, as soon as my head hits the pillow I try to solve every programming problem under the sun. I need to separate myself from any type of work that takes a lot of concentration or I’ll just lay there for hours, usually accomplishing nothing and paying for it the next day.
Pro-tip: Read fiction before going to bed. If you can’t justify reading as leisure, or think that every waking moment of your life needs to be spent learning or growing, then know that reading fiction has profound effects on brain function.
Practice Breathing or Muscle Relaxation Exercises
I taught myself to go back to sleep using rhythmic breathing and body scan techniques. It helped me realize that I was taking short breaths when I was trying to fall asleep as well as holding stress in my shoulders and back. I had no idea that I’d end up programming these exact same activities into an application more than a decade later. Try practicing Deep (or Diaphragmatic) Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation when you lay in bed, and focus specifically on slowing your heart rate down as you exhale.
If You Can’t Fall Asleep, Get Up
I give myself about 15-30 minutes to try to fall asleep. I go through the techniques that I’ve learned to calm myself down but sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s important to recognize that relaxation techniques aren’t always enough; you may need to address the source of your insomnia head on. If I can’t fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time, chances are that I’m not going to. When that happens I get out of bed and go through the next step.
Get Those Thoughts Out of Your Head
Even though I know it’s terrible for me, there are nights when I work right up until the time I go to bed. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish what I’m working on before trying to go to sleep. But that isn’t always possible. When this happens, I know that I need to break out of my current mode of thinking.
I started keeping a journal on my bedside table in grad school for this purpose (I solved my master’s thesis in my sleep and this journal may have been the reason I finished it). If I couldn’t go to sleep, I’d write a paragraph or two about what I was working on and keep a short to-do list for the next day. This way I could preserve my train of thought and pick back up in the morning. Knowing that I didn’t need to solve everything right then and there made it a lot easier to get some rest.
Get Some Exercise
There’s a quotation from Thomas Jefferson that I used to see above the door when I went to play basketball at the Aquatic and Fitness Center at UVA. It has always stuck with me: “Give about two hours every day to exercise, for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong.”
Personally, I think that two hours is a bit much, but the concept is sound. Thousands of people have written about this and it’s every bit as important as they say.
Cut Back on the Alcohol
If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m terrible at this. It’s so easy to try to cut the stress with a few drinks. I’m getting better as I get older, but it has take a long time to realize how alcohol affects me. More than two drinks generally causes me problems, especially the next day. I wake up more lethargic and with less motivation. The daily recommendation is no more than one drink for women and two for men, so when you head out to your next networking event try to be cognizant of how much you’re drinking.
As entrepreneurs, we all battle an amazing amount of stress. Most of us aren’t seeing therapists, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything to address it. It is massively important to take a step back and look at how you’re living your life day to day. Combining all of these tips can provide a near-immediate spike in productivity.
Dale is a co-founder and CEO at Pacifica Labs Inc., the creators of Pacifica, a mobile application for stress and anxiety, based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, relaxation, and wellness.
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