Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep


More and more people these days seem to be complaining about trouble sleeping. Because one of the pillars of physical health is ensuring you get enough high quality sleep, there has been a lot written on the subject. I’ve had my fair share of difficulty sleeping, but recently have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. In this blog post, I wanted to share a few unique techniques and insights I’ve had about sleeping well.

Aside from all the usual advice (avoid caffeine completely, especially if you are a slow caffeine metabolizer; avoid alcohol; get exercise every day; learn how to deal with or eliminate stressors, etc.), there are three targeted techniques I use.

Establish a Sleep Baseline

How much sleep do you need? The answer is easy – you need as much sleep as your body tells you it needs. In other words, you need to learn to listen to your body and prioritize sleep above other activities. Think about it: what are the things your body needs in order to live? In order of “time to death”, they are: air and water, and then food, sleep and exercise. You wouldn’t think of foregoing breathing so you could watch a TV show, or skipping meals so you can check your social feeds, or allowing yourself to get parched so you can play a videogame, so why would you skip sleep to do these less important things?

To establish a baseline, pick a time when you have no incumbrances to getting all the sleep you could want. The holidays are here, and this is a good time to try this, as are vacations. Take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want for the whole week (while avoiding caffeine!). There are two important things to keep in mind:

  • You should track exactly how many hours of sleep you get in this baseline period.

  • You should keep in mind that for the first day or days, you may be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. Disregard the data from these days.

Once you have established a somewhat regular pattern and have zeroed in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline. It is your target. For many people, this target will be somewhere around 8 hours, as that is typical.  If it is a lot less than 8 hours, there is a very very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly need less sleep, but chances are better that you didn’t really let yourself sleep, and you should consider trying it again.

As you age, your baseline may change, so it’s a good idea to repeat the baseline measurement every few years.


Track Your Sleep, But Don’t Lose Sleep Over It

This is really easy.  Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. It literally only takes a couple of seconds to write this number down, so no excuses to not do it. This is the easiest form of tracking, you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this is a fail.

Be honest with yourself and grade yourself accurately. At the same time, be gentle with yourself! It will be hard to hit your target at first, and there will be all sorts of times when it will be basically impossible. But you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook to look at and think, “Oh, gee, I’m missed my target 3 days running. I really need to make sure I head to bed a little earlier tonight or take a nap this afternoon.” Don’t beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.

Personally, I track my sleep in more detail. I write down the exact number of hours as well as the quality of the sleep, and use these to compute a “sleep grade” for each day. I also look at my 7-day running average. I find these useful, and can share the exact formulas I use if you’re interested. But you don’t need to get this fancy. The simple pass/fail technique should give you the bulk of the benefits you need by simply making you aware of your actual sleep patterns.

Another bonus you may want to add on: also track your mood. You may find that when you lack sleep, you are more irritable and don’t handle stress as well. You shouldn’t be surprised by this – how many times have you seen a grouchy child miraculously cured by a nap? The same principle holds for adults, we just learn to cover up and ignore the effects of lack of sleep.


Iterative Visualization – Building Colorful Cubes in your Mind

Invariably, even if you exercise and eat right and do all of the right things, there will be days when you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Again, all of the usual advice applies here: establish a bedtime ritual, ensure you have a distraction free sleep environment, get fresh air, etc.  But here’s a particular technique I’ve developed and honed over the years that always works for me.

The technique is based roughly on the classic “counting sheep” and also on some forms of meditation, but differs from them significantly, in a number of important ways. The problems I’ve found with counting methods are:

  • Simple counting is too easy and fast – I can count and let my brain race around worrying about things at the same time.

  • Simple counting is boring and not challenging.

  • Simple counting ignores your physiology.

This technique attempts to address these shortcomings by replacing the counts with other memorized sequences (colors), engaging the visual centers of the brain, providing a task to be accomplished with waypoints, and linking it all to your breath. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  Here are the steps:

  1. Establish your breath. After the lights are off and you have found a comfortable sleeping position, establish your breathing rate by simply counting in your head to 100. It also helps to visualize the numbers themselves as you say them in your head, so you begin to engage both the auditory and visual portions of your brain. You can do this step as fast as you like. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.

  2. Build the cube. The task you are to complete, in your mind, is building a 6 by 6 by 6 cube, made of smaller cubes. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik’s cube, only bigger (see the image at the beginning of this post). Each of the 6 horizontal layers of the cube are built from smaller cubical blocks, all of the same color. These follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue, and purple. All in all, you will only “place” 216 blocks in total, but you will do it in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you finish. Here’s how:

    1. Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical, as established in step 1. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.

    2. Build “concentric cubes.” In other words, first build the 1x1x1 cube (this is trivial, you just place the first red block, and say “red”). Then build the 2x2x2 cube on top of the 1x1x1 cube, then the 3x3x3 cube on top of the 2x2x2, and so on.

    3. Always build the top layer first, then the right side, and then the front side. See the diagrams below.

    4. If you ever lose your place, don’t get frustrated, rejoice! This means you’re starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.

    5. If you manage to build the whole cube, don’t fret! Just build another one – maybe vary the color scheme a little.

At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. Personally, I rarely make it to the purple layer, which accounts for almost half of the blocks, so I’m usually out in 10 minutes.

How does it work? First, it engages the visual, spatial, auditory and language portions of the brain at the same time. It also engages the somatosensory regions by having you focus on your breath. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. Second, it provides waypoints, milestones of progress to keep you focused, and each successive waypoint takes slightly longer to reach, making the task progressively more difficult, thus keeping you engaged. Third, it replaces the “boring” elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun, making the task a bit less arduous.

I sometimes add a little variety to the task. For example, I sometimes build an “all blue” cube (e.g., midnight, navy, royal, cornflower, sky, powder), an “all green” cube (forest, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, mint), etc.  Sometimes even just trying to remember the names of 6 shades of a given color is enough to put me to sleep!


So there you have it: establish a baseline, track your sleep nightly, and when you have trouble sleeping, build the cube. I’d be interested in knowing how these techniques work for you.