2012
11.10

What a revelation this challenge has been. I tend to stick pretty close the the “You can’t manage what you don’t measure mantra” and use an app called Sleepcycle which is great for tracking the hours you’ve slept and also the quality of your sleep.

The nightmare

Leading in to this challenge, over 122 sleeps, I had an average sleep time of 6:24 hours with an average sleep quality of 67%. Not bad you might think but that 6:24 hours was more like 5:00 hours during the week and much much more on the weekends.

A disastrous cycle of sleep deprivation during the week, huge chunks of catch up sleep on the weekend and then recovering from self imposed “weekend jetlag” through the start of the week. Crazy. Not that I knew it. This has been my sleeping pattern for so long, I knew nothing else. It felt normal.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama

The dream

The last 30 days have been huge. I’ve increased my average sleep time by 24% to 7:55 hours, my sleep quality by 14% to 76% and have moved from a continual yet largely ignorant state of sleep deprivation to being rested, alert, more focused and happier.

Getting to sleep after the weekend is no longer a struggle because I haven’t needed to spend 10 – 12 hours over the weekend catching up on the sleep I didn’t get during the week and thereby giving myself weekend jetlag.

I have noticed that I’ve gotten less done during the weekday evenings because of my earlier bed time but this has been more than made up for by additional time on the weekend and far greater productivity generally during the day.

Habitual

I’ve written previously about habit loops and how to create and modify them and am very happy that a regular bed time has now become habitual—something I’m absolutely going to continue with in the future.

I’ve also learnt a ton about sleep while I’ve been doing this challenge and have some great tips for improving your sleep.

If you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

2012
11.03

Not sleeping well? Constantly tired? Follow these tips for the best sleep of your life.

Alcohol is lying to you

While Alcohol can help you fall asleep, it actually affects the quality of the sleep that follows. When asleep, your body works to break down the alcohol in your bloodstream which in turn can cause you to frequently, but briefly, wake up. This means that even though you may get a full nights sleep, you’re not getting the deep restorative sleep you need and are likely to wake up tired.

Avoid coffee, especially if you’re a morning person

Coffee works primarily by inhibiting the absorption of adenosine, a nucleotide whose role involves the slowing down of nerve connections and the promotion of sleep. There is great variance in the speed at which people clear caffeine from their bodies therefore making it difficult to be able to simply say “avoid coffee in the evening / afternoon”. In addition to this, there is now research tying caffeine to chronotypes that suggests morning people are more affected by caffeine than night owls are.

“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.” David K. Randall

Like clockwork

Your circadian rhythm changes your general level of alertness and body temperature depending on the time of day. Most people tend to be fully awake from around 9am until 2pm at which point they start to experience an afternoon slump. This is followed by another cycle of alertness from circa 6pm until 10pm. Giving yourself a bedtime in line with these hours is going to work much better than trying to fight your body clock by going to bed at 3am one night and 9pm the next.

Regulate the light in your life

Behind your circadian rhythm lays a hormone called melatonin which is produced by the pineal gland which is in turn regulated by a tiny cluster of cells behind the eyes call the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. The pineal gland receives messages from the SCN letting it know when the eyes see light and if it’s dark for a time, the pineal gland will release melatonin throughout the body to induce sleep. Any light over 180 lux (approximately the output of a 100w lamp) is enough to reset your body’s clock and disrupt this process.

Because of the direct impact that light has on the body’s circadian rhythm, getting enough daylight during the day and avoiding electric light in the evening (including light from TVs and laptops) will help you get to sleep. Once in a dark room and safely asleep, use an eye mask to keep it that way.

“Sleep isn’t a break from our lives. It’s the missing third of the puzzle of what it means to be living.” David K. Randall

Tune out

Use earplugs.

Assist your body with it’s cooling process

When entering sleep the body’s core temperature drops, and to facilitate this drop, the temperature of the hands and feet increases. Do you like to fall asleep with your feet sticking out from underneath the covers? This cooling process is why.

Anything you can do to assist the body with this cooling will help. Keep the temperature of your room between 16 – 19 degrees Celsius (60 – 66 ℉) with pyjamas and at least one sheet or 30 – 32 degrees Celsius (86 – 80 ℉) without. Taking a cold shower before bed, while extreme, has also been proven to aid falling asleep and also improve the overall quality of sleep.

Track your progress

Because of sleep’s very nature, it’s extremely difficult to objectively know how long you’ve been asleep and also know what the quality of that sleep is like. This makes it difficult to then make changes (e.g: giving up coffee) and see what affect that change has. Tracking your sleep gets around this and there’s a number of tools out there that can help:

Relaxing is a skill

Give yourself some time to work at this. Read something before bed that isn’t related to or reminds you of your work. Try meditation. Find something that helps you disengage from your life just before bed.

Love thy nap

If all else fails and you’re still tired the next day, take a nap. Even as little at 15 minutes has been proven to markedly improve cognitive performance.

Have you got any tips I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below. Also, if you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

Yawning Leopard

2012
10.11

Reading this you might think this an odd challenge to set. You might get 8 hours sleep all the time and scoff at the thought of enjoying anything less. Well, I average 6.5 hours sleep per night. I have done for as long as I can remember. And that’s not a regular 6.5 hours sleep either, it’s more like 5 something hours during the week, and much more on the weekends to pay back my sleep debt.

Time in bed per weekday graph

My sleeping patterns are like this for two reasons. a) I’m a night owl with early morning commitments and b) I’m terrible at making time for sleep – there’s always something else to do, some task that I want to finish or chapter that I’ve got to read. No matter how tired I am, I possess a remarkable ability to put off sleep. That’s definitely not something to be proud of however and by all accounts, for the large majority of time, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that I’m sleep deprived.

“Sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life.” Virginia Woolf

It worth clarifying that I generally don’t have difficulty sleeping in terms of actually falling asleep. Once I make the decision to sleep, I’m usually asleep in reasonable time. My lack of sleep is well and truly my own doing.

This is something I want to change and a commitment to 8 hours sleep per night should be enough to permanently modify my habit loop in order to regularly get more sleep.

Are you sleep deprived? Let me know in the comments below. Also, if you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

2012
10.09

I’ve just finished 30 days without alcohol. A really interesting challenge and one which, with London’s most enjoyable pub culture, I thought I would find fairly difficult.

Actually though, once the decision was made, it turned out to be easy. I cleared my calendar (or more specifically selected a very socially quiet 30 day period) and set about eschewing any form of alcohol.

Things I noticed during this challenge

  • I didn’t miss alcohol at all.
  • Having not drunk coffee for 9 months prior to this challenge, I oddly & somewhat automatically found myself back in Starbucks every morning.
  • I generally had higher quality sleep and found waking up in the morning predictably easier.
  • My weight didn’t change in any significant way.

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”
Charles Bukowski

What I’ll take away from this challenge

I really enjoyed the freedom that this challenge gave me in term of not feeling like I “had” to drink. I did make it easy on myself by somewhat socially hibernating for 30 days but the experience of not drinking while at the pub or out with friends is something that I’ll probably experiment again with in the future.

I also found that I’ve had one of the most productive 30 day periods of my life. I’ve spent huge chunks of time working on my startup, finished two books and continued my drive to learn new things — all of which has been incredibly fulfilling.

That said though, I can’t wait for a drink!

If you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

Bottle of Red Wine and Two Empty Wine Glasses

2012
09.29

What made you brush your teeth this morning? Guess what? It wasn’t that you wanted them clean.

Something I’ve been trying to master recently is habits. Both making new habits and changing existing ones. If you want to start doing something on a regular basis, you need to make it habitual. Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” covers this fantastically well.

“All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” — William James

There is a cycle to all habits: cue, routine, reward. In the case of cleaning your teeth, the cue might be getting out of the shower, tying your shoelaces or switching on the radio. It doesn’t matter what the cue is, but it will be something particular, and you more than likely don’t ever notice what.

The routine is cleaning your teeth. The reward? It’s actually the cool tingling sensation you experience. Almost all toothpastes contain additives who’s sole purpose is to make your mouth tingle and it’s this tingling feeling that your brain takes as it’s reward. This habit loop of cue, routine and reward is so powerful because over time, the routine no longer involves a conscious decision, it becomes a neurological craving.

Forming habits

As a habit forms, the amount of neurological activity decreases steadily. A study was done by MIT researchers in the early nineties where they created habits in rats by opening a door with a clicking sound (cue) and having them navigate a maze (routine) with chocolate at the end (reward). The activity of the rat’s brain decreased as they learnt how to navigate the maze, then after a little more maze navigation, the decision making parts of it’s brain switched off and then finally, the areas of it’s brain related to memory weren’t even required. After a week of running through the maze the rat almost didn’t need to think at all.

Once formed, habits never really go away either. After forming a habit in the rats, the researchers then changed the location of the reward to a different part of the maze, thereby breaking the rat’s habit loop. When they returned the reward to the old location, the habit returned almost instantly.

“Unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically” — Charles Duhigg

Changing existing habits

The key to changing existing habits is to keep the cue the same, keep the reward the same and just focus on changing the routine. So if you want to stop having a chocolate bar at 3pm every day, find out what the cue is for that behaviour, find out what the reward is, and then once you know those, you can insert a new routine.

Say you leave your office at 3pm every day to go to the local shop and buy a snack. What’s the cue? Is it the time? Is there a natural break in your work? Then look hard at the reward. Are you actually hungry or do you just need the stimulation of a short walk? Is it the social contact with the shop keeper or your work colleagues that you’re sub consciously craving?

Once you know exactly what the cues and rewards are, then it’s just a case of altering the routine so that when your habit is triggered by the cue, you carry out a different routine (short walk instead of chocolate) and receive the same reward.

Building new habits

Creating new habits works in a very similar way but you have more control over how you design the habit loop. Want to go for a run every day? Put your running gear in a particular location where you can see it when it’s time for you to go running. Make that your cue. Then decide on a reward like a protein shake or bar. Then every time you see the cue, make sure you go running, and then relax and enjoy the reward afterwards. Over time, you’ll internalise this process until it becomes habitual and when you see your running gear in it’s spot, you won’t even think twice about running.

30 days and habit loops

There’s definitely a habit element to my 30 day challenges which is worth considering. There’s no hard and fast rule on how long it takes to form a habit and, depending on the habit loop, it could easily be longer than 30 days. But for me, the point of a 30 day challenge isn’t to make a habit of everything you try, it’s to try new things and if you like them, you’re well on your way to making it a habit.

Have you had any luck hacking your own habits? I’d love to hear what worked for you

If you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

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2012
09.10

Do something regularly for 30 days. Evaluate and decide whether it’s something you want to keep doing or drop. Choose something else for the next 30 days. Rinse, repeat.

I first came across the concept of a 30 day challenge whilst in Spain on a 2 week language course. A fellow student was running every day and, as this concept was rather foreign to me at the time, she explained that daily running was something she was trying for 30 days. She chose something new every 30 days and she used these month long challenges to experience new things, push herself and learn more about life.

So far I’ve been working on a system of annual challenges. Mount Kilimanjaro one year, learn to fly a plane another and run the New York Marathon the next. These challenges are great, but they’re huge. I like the idea of adding smaller lower key challenges over the course of 30 days so I’m going to give it a shot.

The first is no alcohol for 30 days. Here goes.

If you read this far, you should follow me on Twitter.

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2008
08.17

It’s just after dawn. A deathly hush pervades the vehicle and all those contained within are transfixed. A lone zebra has strayed from it’s zeal and is meandering towards us cautiously whilst distractedly pulling at the grass below it. An anthill stands t o it’s left, and beyond that, two femal e lions, looking for breakfast.

We’re deep in the Kenyan Maasai Mara, it’s day eight of our eight day safari and our last chance to catch a glimpse of the leopard that has been avoiding us for so long. I’ve come here for one reason: a passion for wildlife photos.

I ease my camera out of it’s bag, fit a suitable lens and run through a few settings to make sure the photo comes out right. The fresh early morning air pours in through our Land Rover’s extendable roof opening making me shiver. “Is this really going to happen?” I ask myself as one lion edges forward, still masked by the towering anthill.

The zebra moves closer and the lion, flat to the ground, edges slowly around the anthill. I ready and steady myself on the roof and frame where I think this might be headed. My digital camera is set to take 6.5 photos per second. Once in a lifetime and I want this shot.

Lion chasing zebra, Maasai Mara, Kenya, East Africa

The zebra’s eyes bulge wide and dust is driven away from it’s feet. In a matter of split seconds and almost like the start of an Olympic race both animals are in full sprint. Supremely focused, the first female navigates the curve of the anthill’s base and sets it’s run towards the zebra. Adrenaline surging, I press down my index finger. My camera tracks the scene and fires into life capturing the zebra whilst waiting for the lion to come into view. First a paw, then two, a nose and then, led by those merciless eyes, it’s head tears open the side of my viewfinder. A lion flying through the air is the only thing on my mind.

Wait, what’s going on? My index finger presses harder and then, unable to grasp the situation, presses harder still. Why is my camera not making those lovely clicking noises it was making half a second ago? Now releasing and then pressing harder each time, my mind shifts gear. My camera falls from my eye to reveal my worst nightmare, the word “empty” flashing cruelly back at me. Mentally I crumple and physically I dive back down into the Land Rover clawing for my camera bag.

The offending memory card goes flying across the floor and a new one is slammed into position. I launch myself upright but it’s all over. Too late. The first female has it’s jaws clamped around the zebra’s neck whilst the second stakes it’s own claim.

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It’s the photographic equivalent of an own goal—one of the hardest and surest lessons I’ve learnt about photography. The Maasai Mara is incredible but if you are going there for photos, learn from my mistake. It will save you hours years of pondering what could have been!

If you liked this post, you should follow me on Twitter.