Evening routines (Challenge 3): Day 24

The evening routine challenge is going well. Moving on with it, Day 4 of the Asian Efficiency Evening Routine Challenge is to make improvements to your sleep environment to help you get a better night’s sleep when you do get to bed.

There are a tonne of resources out there on how to get to sleep and stay asleep. I’ve had problems in the past, but right now I only rarely have trouble getting to sleep, so I’m very grateful for this.

Some of the common suggestions I’ve already written about in this series, such as having a set bedtime every night, putting a wind-down routine in place and dimming the lights around the house (easier said than done when you live with other people who stay up later than you do).

Other recommendations include:

Getting all devices out of your bedroom – including phones, TVs and e-readers, not only for the blue light that keeps your brain stimulated, but also because they are too easy to pick up and distract yourself with instead of going to sleep.

I once heard Arianna Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post, who has recently put out a book about sleep) say that when she’s getting ready for bed, she “escorts” her devices out of her bedroom, which I think is a nice way of putting it – she has 12 tips on her website for better sleep that you can download here.

I turn my phone to airplane mode when I shut down my other devices but I need the progressive alarm on the phone to wake me in the morning. This is a series of chimes that start off very quietly and get louder over the interval that I set (it’s about 6 minutes) – intended not to disturb anyone else, because I wake up before they get too loud and turn it off. I’ve tried to find something like a progressive alarm that’s a standalone clock but have had no luck, so until I can find something like that the phone has to stay!

Having a completely dark bedroom – which means blackout curtains and/or a sleep mask, and even going as far as no LED displays like clock-radios. We’re lucky to live in a relatively dark and quiet street, so haven’t needed blackout curtains, though they might come in handy in summer when it gets light earlier. It’s on the house improvement list.

Keeping the temperature relatively cool – apparently you need to drop your core body temperature slightly before you go to sleep; this is why a lot of people recommend a bath or a shower as part of their evening routine. There are several different recommendations out there as to what the optimal sleeproom temperature is, but I suppose it would vary between different people – they key is to having a lower temperature than your normal living environment.

The reason is apparently this (according to science):

Over a 24 hour period, our body temperatures naturally peak and decline. Our internal temperature is usually at its highest in the early afternoon and lowest around 5am. When we fall asleep, our bodies naturally cool off. Helping keep your body get to that lower temperature faster can encourage deeper sleep.

(http://www.simplemost.com/science-says-sleeping-cold-room-better-health-because-body-heat/)

I didn’t need to make a lot of changes to complete this challenge, but I’m still on the lookout for a progressive alarm clock that isn’t a phone app, so I can get the phone totally out of the bedroom. So if you know of such a thing, please let me know!

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Challenge 3: Evening rituals – day 22

Day three of the Asian Efficiency Evening Rituals Challenge  is to track your rituals.

Gretchen Rubin discusses habit tracking in what she calls the Strategy of Monitoring  in her book Better than Before. She says: “Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it.” This can apply both to monitoring how well you’re doing something now, to see where you need to make changes (for example, tracking your sleep, or how much you eat or exercise will give you a better indication of your actual performance than just estimating it), and also when you start to make changes, to show you how well you’re doing.

One of the tools I’m using at the moment is a website and app called Ritualize, where you can list all the habits you want to do and how many times a week you want to do it. Each habit has a check box that you can check off when you’ve done it each day and you get points every times you check something off. When I first signed up it was through work, and people were able to join “tribes” to compete against each other – the idea being that if other people were doing the same thing you’d be encouraged to keep up your good habits too. I think this would work better if there were more people I knew that were using it regularly, but there is a nice little community of users that I connect with in my feed, which keeps it interesting. There’s heaps of other apps out there that do similar things, including Habitica, which is a habit tracking role playing game that I started to use but never really got into. I’m told it works really well.

Or you can use good old fashioned pen and paper, a calendar, an Excel spreadsheet or even a whiteboard and check things off when you do them.

Why would you do this?

According to Asian Efficiency, tracking your habits is important because:

  • First,  it holds you accountable. You only really know if you’ve been following through with your intentions if you have the data to back you up.
  • Second, it motivates. By drawing a fat X on a calendar, checking a box off of your paper tracker, clicking a button in your app, or entering another day in your Excel sheet, you make the invisible visible. You’ll see your progress. And that’s motivating.

I’ve decided, for a bit of extra encouragement, to track my evening routine on paper as well for a couple of weeks to try and get the routine ingrained, or see if anything needs to shift around, be dropped out or added in. That way if I have my notebook with me, not only do I have the routine somewhere I can see it, I can see how much progress I’m making.

20160806 Bedtime routine

Evening routines – Day 19/30

To make sure I get the right number of hours sleep, I really need to be in bed at 9.30 at the latest. Right now, I can’t quite get there. So I’m working with 10 pm for now.

For Day 1 of the Asian Efficiency Evening Routine Challenge,  I’ve set a “reverse alarm” for 8:30 pm that tells me I’m getting up in 8 hours. This is to remind me that I have an hour before I have to start getting ready for bed. I have another reminder to finish up what I’m doing at 9.20, and another one for screens off at 9.30, which is when my bedtime routine begins.

So what goes into a bedtime routine?

I really love the structure that Lisa Grace Byrne has put together for a bedtime routine in her book Replenish. She describes the bedtime routine as “a bridge from where you are at the end of the day to a place where your body and mind are ready to fall into a deeper level of rest”. Its purpose is to “slowly disengage you from the world and bring you back inward to yourself to ready your self for deep restorative sleep”.

Lisa outlines four basic steps. First you cut your connection to the world for the night, by finishing up the jobs you have to do and turning off your screens and devices. You should have a fixed time to do this. For me it’s 9.30.

Then you move a step inward and do something to calm your body – it might be having a bath or a shower, washing your face, doing some light stretches, something gentle like that. Another thing that many sleep experts suggest as you start your bedtime routine is to dim the lights around the house to make sure your melatonin (the sleep hormone) production isn’t disrupted by artificial light.

The next step inward is to calm and soothe your mind, so Lisa suggests things like inspirational reading, meditation, calm breathing or journalling can be good to get thoughts out of your head before you go to sleep. The final level of transition is to nurture your spirit. Lisa says that she loves “including something before bed that aligns with [her] spirit and symbolises what [she wants] to bring more of into [her] life”, so she might do some gratitude journalling or prayer.

Lisa shows it as going a bit like this: World >> Body >> Mind >> Spirit (but she has a pretty diagram rather than words).

At the moment I don’t do much of any of the last two steps, but I feel like it would be a nice way to close the evening. Maybe some simple breathing exercises, some light reading and thinking about what I’m grateful for and what I hope for tomorrow. I don’t want to be writing stuff down at bed time or I won’t stop, and I’ll stay awake all night!

To me there seems to be a bit of an overlap between the last two steps (mind and spirit), so I think it’s a matter of experimenting to see what I might like to do and the order I do it in.

That will be my main focus for the last 10 days of this challenge.

As I start to work out what I want to do, day 2 of the Asian Efficiency Challenge is to write your routine down and put it somewhere you’ll see it to make sure you follow it. I’ve done what I think might work, and the approximate times I should be doing the things that should make sure I’m in bed by 10.00 pm. Now I have 25 minutes before I have to shut everything down and get ready for bed….

30 days of evening routines – take 2/day 2

Before I launch into 30 days of trying to sort out my evening routine, I wanted to explain how I understand this is all supposed to work. The idea behind having a regular predictable routine is basically that, because you have everything lined up to do one after the other, you’ll do the first thing and go into autopilot, doing everything else in order and slide easily into bed at your pre-determined bedtime.

Obviously this takes some time to set up and get working smoothly, but the way I understand it is, if you have a fixed schedule that you repeat until it becomes ingrained, it takes having to make a decision about “what to do now” out of the picture, so that you do what you need to do rather than getting caught up in “bad” habits that keep you up too late.

There’s been a lot written about this, and some of the resources I’ve looked at include Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, James Clear’s website (jamesclear.com) and his (free) booklet Transform Your Habits, Dr BJ Fogg’s work, and Asian Efficiency’s posts, podcasts and webinars on rituals.

The first thing you need is a “trigger” or a marker that starts you off on the routine. This can be a time, something you do or something that happens.

For example, in the morning my alarm goes off, I get up, get dressed and drink water and so on through my morning routine. When my phone beeps, I pick it up and check it. When the pedestrian light goes green, I make sure the traffic has stopped and I start to cross the road. After I’ve finished a glass of water I do a shoulder stretch (this is one I’m working on) – you get the idea.

A trigger leads to an action, which can become quiet ingrained, sometimes very quickly (I walk past the bakery I go in and get a peppermint slice), sometimes very slowly (the shoulder stretch one). For some reason the habits that are quickest to become ingrained seem to be the ones I really don’t want. (Also I don’t do the bakery one any more. That was a while ago when I fell off the no-sugar bandwagon.)

I mentioned in my first post on evening routines that I have three routines I want to put in place:

1. Get home from work routine.

2. After dinner routine

3. Bedtime routine.

They’re all important for me to get right, because doing the things I want to do at the times I want to do them will make sure that I don’t have to do them later, which would stuff up the next routine. Getting my clothes out at night for the next day means I don’t have to stumble around in the dark looking for them when everyone else is asleep. Taking my contacts out early in the evening means I don’t use not wanting to do that as an excuse for not getting ready for bed.

If you read James Clear’s booklet, or BJ Fogg’s work (which James quotes in his book), you’ll find that the best way to “stack” a new habit onto the trigger is to make the habit so easy that you can’t say no to doing it. The classic example is BJ Fogg’s advice on if you want to build a habit of flossing your teeth. What you do first is commit to flossing just one tooth. As James explains it, what you do doesn’t matter. What actually matters is becoming the type of person who always sticks to the habit – and you “build up to the level of performance you want once the behaviour becomes consistent”.

Gretchen Rubin says a similar thing in her book Better than Before. You need to start as small as you need to, in order to actually start. “By doing so, [you] gain the habit of the habit and the feeling of mastery,” she says. But the key is to start.

The other important thing here is that the action must be specific. That is, I need to set out exactly what I’m going to do. At least at the start, when it’s all new. Right now, I know when I say “I will go for a walk” on a weekday morning means that I’ll go for a 20 minute/2 km walk over the same route I always go. But if I just said “I will exercise” that could mean anything. “Pack up” isn’t specific. “Back up my computer, put all loose papers away or in the bin, close all browser windows and shut the computer down” is. (That might be the end goal; it’s probably too big a habit to start with when it’s not something I’m currently doing consistently now.)

So putting these three things together, my plan is first to loosely sketch out what I need to do in the evening (not necessarily specific actions at this stage) and then to work out which of the routines each task would work best in. I don’t want to be washing the dishes right before I go to bed, so that’s probably best suited to the after dinner routine.

A lot of it I already do, but I want to use this month to make sure each action is part of the best routine, refine the action so I know exactly what I need to do (some of the things I try to do are fairly vague so I tend not to do them, or not finish them) and then put them into an order that works for me.

As I work my way through the plans, the second step will be for me to start to define actual actions I need to take, if I haven’t already done this. Because I already do a lot of this stuff, I don’t think I necessarily have to start small. In some cases that would be going backwards. “Wash one cup” would be silly, as I’m already in the habit of washing up after dinner. I’ll be using that strategy more for anything new that I want to introduce.

And the next step will be to identify the trigger.

I’m laughing at all this right now, because I used to resist planning and scheduling and routines of any sort. If you know anything about Myers Briggs, I was a very strong P-preference (the appearance to the outside world of having a preference for a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle). I don’t know if my transformation into someone with a J-preference (the appearance to the outside world of preferring a structured and ordered lifestyle) is my true self surfacing as I’ve got older, whether years of working in the public service has eliminated my spontaneity, or whether I truly am my father’s daughter.

Anyway I’m going to give this a go, to see if it will help me (a) get more sleep, (b) feel more in control of what I do during the evening and (c) give me a balance between relaxing and getting things that I have to do done.

I don’t know if it will work, or if my stomped-upon spontaneity will resist the control freak that has emerged. It’s all a big experiment!

Here’s another holiday photo while I’m thinking.

20160706-51 12 Apostles

Stepping on the cracks: Day 45

If you’ve been following my Travelpod blog, you’ll know that we’ve just got back from a family holiday in Victoria and South Australia.

As you might have suspected, my attempt to holiday-proof my routines and continue the Stepping on the Cracks project was a spectacular failure. I ate more, drank more, went to bed earlier and later, didn’t sleep well, woke up early, slept in, didn’t drink enough water, didn’t find opportunities to go for a walk – pretty much everything fell in a heap and it was a massive waste of space in my bag taking my walking shoes.

We were on the move every day, so there wasn’t really any time to settle into anywhere. I didn’t read much, didn’t think much, and spent most of my time taking in everything around me. Being in a different bed every night played havoc with my sleep, so I never felt especially rested.

I had a great time! We went to some lovely places, ate some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life and had some great experiences – but it simply wasn’t the sort of holiday where I could have bedded down routines and spent time thinking and learning.

So I’ve decided to draw a line through the first 15 days of the evening routine challenge and the last 15 days of the growth mindset challenge, and start them again now that we’re home. This just means that my “habit change” challenges will start on the 15th instead of the 1st of each month, and my more substantial challenges will start on the 1st instead of the 15th. So I still have 15 days to go of the growth mindset challenge, and there are at least a couple of exercises from Carol Dweck’s book I want to do in that time. I don’t want to finish this challenge without giving some thought to some of the ideas she discusses.

I think that makes sense, and I’m ok with doing this, because I think I would have had a miserable holiday if I’d spent the time beating myself up for not sticking to my original plan. And I still have three more days before I have to go back to work to resettle myself.

Here are some photos!

Challenge 3: 30 days of an evening routine

Since I started learning about habits, and about stitching habits together to form routines or rituals, I’ve been using a morning routine to start my days. I’ve found this is helpful in making sure I get important things done that I probably wouldn’t get around to doing if I left them until later in the day. This includes meditation, exercise, and the most recent addition to my routine, learning a new skill.

The idea behind routines is that if you consistently do the same things, in the same order at (more or less) the same time each day, the routine will become ingrained in your brain and you’ll do it on auto pilot, without having to think about what comes next. One of my favourite websites for information on setting up routines (and on why habits by themselves aren’t effective) is Asian Efficiency, which has heaps of advice on how to do this, as well as some paid programs if you want to explore further.

So after about six months of experimentation, I have a fairly effective morning routine (which falls apart slightly on weekends, but which is mostly successful in getting me out the door on time with everything done on weekdays), but I’ve struggled putting a doable routine for my evenings together and sticking to it.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this. Despite having an ideal bed time, my actual bed time is a lot more fluid than the time I have to leave in the morning. I’m tired at the end of the day and I don’t want to be doing stuff, I just want to fall into bed. I’d rather be checking my phone. I don’t see the end of the day things as essential as the things I do in the morning, and if I’ve had a couple of drinks it’s very easy to have a couple more and stay up until after midnight. (This is not a Good Idea when you’re getting up relatively early in the morning to undertake said morning routine – but the 30 days alcohol-free challenge has eliminated that excuse – at least for 30 days.)

When I’m tired it’s easier to flop on the couch and check my phone than it is to get up, brush my teeth and go to bed, so I tend to stay on the couch. And check my phone.

I’ve been gradually working on changing this, so Challenge #3 is to develop and stick to an evening routine that allows me to get everything done I want to during the evening and to go to bed at a sensible time. My goal is for a 10pm bedtime every night to try and at least approach the number of hours sleep I probably need.

There’s actually three subroutines involved that I think I need to do to achieve this.

  1. What I want to do when I get home from work (not crashing on the couch and vegging out on my phone).
  2. What I want to do after dinner (not crashing on the couch and vegging out on my phone).
  3. What I want to do before I go to bed (actually getting ready for bed instead of crashing on the couch and vegging out on my phone).

Part of this challenge will be working out the best subroutine to put each task into and I’ve already started work on this. For example, taking my contact lenses out is something I used to do before bed, and was one of those jobs I dreaded doing and put off for hours. I’d stay up late just because I couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch and do it. So one of my first changes will be to add “take out contact lenses” to subroutine #1 (when I get home) instead of having it in #3 (before bed).

What I’m hoping to have achieved by the end of the month is to have put in place a series of routines and habits that I can do every night that will make me feel properly ready for bed and that will make sure I’ve done the most important things I need to have done each evening.

I’m not sure how this will pan out over the first couple of weeks because I’ll be on holidays, so it will be a great opportunity to holiday-proof my routines. I’ll be interested to see how well I can maintain them and work out what are the main causes of me falling down. It will be a good learning experience.

Speaking of holidays, I’ll be blogging about our adventures on TravelPod (right here), so just watch me try to maintain two blogs while I’m travelling. Now taking bets as to how long this will last!

Book 12/24: 8 Minute Meditation

8 Minute Meditation, by Victor Davish appealed to me because of its cover, which claims that I could “develop mindfulness for greater clarity, lower stress, increased productivity and a happier life in just 8 minutes a day”. That seems like a pretty big claim.

Book 11 - 8 Minute Meditation

When I bought it I’d been trying to learn to meditate, but wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, or what it should feel like or how I should be doing it. It’s something I’ve tried to do on and off (like yoga) over the past 20+ years, but only recently incorporated it into a more structured morning routine.

I felt like I needed some help, and this book seemed like it might be the help I was looking for. I didn’t see the statement on the top of the book that it was the most American form of meditation yet, because if I had I suspect that might have put me off buying it.

I didn’t read the book all the way through to start with. I decided to go with the eight-week program and stick with it week by week, so I began by reading the introductory sections over a few days and then the instructions for week 1, and once I’d done that I started the 8-week program the next day.

In a nutshell, the book gives a basic overview of what meditation is and isn’t, and explains that it’s “the ‘portal’ to mindfulness”. It describes mindfulness as “. . . the action of allowing. Allowing what is to be just as it is. Moment by moment. Experience by experience. Breath by breath . . . Mindfulness is allowing what is.”

It then goes on to explain the practice of meditation, what the benefits are and how to follow the eight-week program. It specifically refers to “the roving mind”, which is what happens when you sit down and try to meditate, follow your breath, be in the moment, whatever you call it, and your mind just keeps on thinking, thinking thinking. I’ve found the maximum time I can concentrate on my breath before I start to follow a train of thought is three breaths, and without realising it I’ve gone away from the breath and I’m thinking. The idea in mindfulness meditation is that you notice you’re thinking, acknowledge it and take your awareness back to your breath. As often as it happens. Which in my case is all the time.

The bulk of the book sets out the eight-week program. Basically all you do is sit down and meditate for eight minutes a day, and each week there’s a new set of instructions to follow about what to focus your attention on. Each week talks about some of the things you might be feeling at that time, and answers some common questions. It’s not difficult, but the key is to do it every day.

As I went through the program I found some techniques easier than others. Some my mind completely resisted and others I was drawn to a lot more. The one where you have to bring up pictures in your mind was a complete blank to me because I just can’t draw a picture in my mind no matter how hard I try. The one where you focus on sounds was really interesting, but I think I was most drawn to the one where you just focus on your breath. This is what I’m familiar with and what I would see myself as doing moving forward.

Once you’ve finished the eight weeks you can move onto the “Upgrade” section, which gives you some ideas on how to “deepen your meditation practice and apply it to daily life”. This includes ideas on increasing your daily meditation time; a technique called Meditation In Action, where you do an everyday activity but focus on that activity and only that activity 100 per cent; and some ways to practise the Lovingkindness Meditation, which is introduced during the eight-week program. There are also some additional resources if you’re interested in exploring further.

I found this book to be a nice basic introduction to several different meditation practises, some of which worked for me and some of which didn’t. Mr Davich writes in a very conversational tone that is very gentle and reassuring. The key message is that there’s no “right way” to meditate, and that it’s something that anyone can do.

I still struggle with not engaging with my thoughts, but the key is to be aware of them and to let them go. Apparently my struggle is normal, and so I persist.

So does the book live up to its claim? I certainly think I’m benefiting from having incorporated a meditation practice into my day. I feel calmer most of the time, but I don’t know if I’m specifically happier or more productive, and if I was, whether it would be possible to attribute it to one thing I was doing differently. Let’s just say that this something I intend to continue doing.