Published 7 min read

I Managed to Improve My Sleeping Habits After Long Years of Being a Night Owl

Why night is so attractive? My story of a real night owl that became an early bird. Consequences of bad sleep and tips that helped me to fix my sleep schedule.
I Managed to Improve My Sleeping Habits After Long Years of Being a Night Owl

When you are a night owl, you constantly suffer from the world that seems to have been created by early birds exclusively for early birds.

I've been a night own since I remember myself.

When I was a kid, just a single fact that I would have to wake up early for my life sounded like a nightmare. During school times, my parents made me go to bed early. Even though I could hardly keep myself from falling asleep during lessons.

In the university, my sleeping schedule was crap. Usually, I started studying late in the evening, and then I was like an overboiled piece of meat presenting in lectures.

One of the lecturers knew me as the guy who always falls asleep in the middle of her lectures. She was sure that I had a night job or something.

Yeah, a kind of. I've been a night owl.

Night has always been something magical for me. Time of extraordinary concentration. Time of outstanding creativity. The time when I didn't sleep.

I could easily sit down coding at 11 pm and crawl to bed at 6.30 am.

Heh, sneaky productivity hacker.

My Awful Sleep Experiments

I did awful things with my sleeping schedule and carried out truly dehumanizing experiments.

Once I tried polyphasic sleep.

A polyphasic sleep pattern is when you sleep for many short periods during the day.

The main idea behind this is to exchange a monophasic 8-hour sleep for a polyphasic where the sum of all sleeping periods will be less than 8 hours, but much more recovering and healthy.

To achieve it, you should strictly fix those sleeping periods and train yourself to optimistically jump right to the deep or REM phase, skipping useless sleep phases.

Did it work? Pretty much no.

I ended up with a chaotic sleeping regime. Sleeping periods moved back and forth and quickly drifted into something like: "sleep anytime I want no matter what time is it. At some point, I could even hardly figure out how much time I actually slept and when.

Not recommended: 0 out of 10

My Sleeping Pattern Issues

When I don't control my sleeping hours at all, it immediately starts to drift forward. Every day I begin to fall asleep and wake up a little bit later, and then I quickly drift to something near the 3 am - 12 pm range.

Frankly, 99% of my prior attempts to fix my sleep ended that way.
I could resist for only several days in a row or perhaps a week or so, and then it started to drift.

The whole thing is worsened as I don't really have significant reasons to wake up early, as I've had a flexible remote working schedule for the last 6 years.

First Signs of My Bad Sleep

It's already been many years of my night owl experience when I started to notice that I'm doing the whole thing very wrong.

Sometimes I made silly coding mistakes somewhere at the beginning of the night and then spent the rest of it debugging. And then, the following morning, it would take just 15 minutes to find the problem and fix it.

Sometimes trying to understand complex unknown things is a real challenge at night. By contrast, I noticed how easily I can sort out pretty much anything in the afternoon.

It became more noticeable that I don't feel well after sleepless nights: a little bit tired right in the morning, a bit of headache, nothing critical but still nothing pleasant.

And the worst thing. Hard party until sunrise feels almost equally bad as hard coding until that time. That was my most surprising and disappointing discovery of the last 10 years.

One day I thought: "WTF?! Am I too old already?! Why the hell I don't feel good all the time?!"

Magic of the Night Explained

Night concentration magic is a myth backed by only two things.

The first one is that there are significantly fewer distractions at night: Fewer notifications, calls, and photos posted by our mates on Instagram.

The second one is an effect, which is quite similar to the Ballmer peak.

Our brain gets so tired during the day that it doesn't have enough resources to sustain multitasking anymore and jumps from one thing to another.

To be more exact, it's not even multitasking.

It's our neocortex that constantly scans the surroundings, seeking the possible known sources of dopamine reward, and immediately picks the easiest one he finds.

But not when it is exhausted.

For us, this low-power brain mode may seem like extraordinary concentration. But actually, we perform much worse at night while it seems vice-versa.

Consequences of a Bad Sleeping Habit

Don't you know what really happens when you don't sleep well? I'll tell ya.

Along with just simply physical recovery, our body does a lot of vital things under the hood.

It tunes the equilibrium state for the infinite number of internal processes to sustain homeostasis, including hormonal and immune systems.

During sleep, the brain processes things from short-term to long-term memory.

According to some research, our brain produces metabolites during the day, and it washes them out with cerebrospinal fluid during a good sleep. I'm not exactly sure if it is already proven, but still.

Humans are the only known creatures that put themselves into sleep deprivation. How do sleep disorders affect us?

Inadequate sleep has been associated with a variety of health problems. Not getting enough sleep in the short-term leads to fatigue, impaired learning and memory, and irritability.

Sleep deprivation destroys our ability to focus and literally damages our body and mind

Most of the tissue growth happens only during the deep sleep phases.

Tweaking the immune system includes looking for a balance between being strong enough to fight microbes and cancer cells and not being too angry to cause autoimmune or allergic diseases.

During sleep, we tweak the hormone system that controls almost everything in our body, starting from stress levels and ending with appetite and blood glucose levels.

The consequences of doing all those things wrong starting from anxiety and depression and end up with the world's first-class killers, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and other infections that could take place due to a weak immune system.

Bad sleeping habit during your whole life is like an enormous debt you have no way to pay back when payday comes.

Need more facts? I highly recommend watching Joe Rogan's podcast with the most sleeping guest in the world or looking through the notes.

How I Improved My Sleep After Years of Struggles

What really helped me is buying a fitness tracker that allowed me to turn the whole process into a game.

I bought a simple Xiaomi Band 5, and it works like a charm. It tracks the quality of sleep and gives me a score that includes many things, such as total sleeping times, phases of sleep, wake-ups, etc. Really, my best 50$ investment.

Another cool feature is a silent vibration alarm that doesn't blow the whole family up in the morning and gives you less chance to switch it off and sleep ahead.

Why not take an apple watch? Simply because they are too massive to sleep and their battery capacity does not allow them to keep them on 24/7

As soon as I made sure that the fitness tracker's high score really results in me feeling better (at least subjectively), I started to play a carrot and stick game with my own brain, trying to achieve the highest scores every day.

The first thing I do every morning is check my sleep score.

Usually, a low score means bad sleeping and vice-versa. Which in turn results in a harder wake-up and not the best feeling for the rest of the day. Sometimes even leads to a headache.

Generally, that should go in hand with cortisol and train me to avoid such behavior. Cortisol is a hormone of stress and pain that our brain uses like a stick to beat us.

High sleep score achievement should additionally give us dopamine reward and anchor the habit.

Hidden Perks of Sleep Measurements

The hidden perk of tracking sleep quality is that you really begin to pay attention to all those sleep improvement tips, measure their effectiveness, and really improve your sleep.

One thing is when you read on the internet how blue light suppresses melatonin and worsens sleep quality. Or how harmful alcohol for your sleep is.

A completely different thing is when you drink a couple of glasses of wine in the evening and see how your REM and deep sleep phases length drop by 50%.

Daily Schedule Constraints for Sake of Sleep

I'm one of those chaps who feel pain if they don't get everything done exactly today. No matter if "today" is already 4 am.

I've added a simple constraint to my evenings telling me that the best thing I can ever do after 8 pm is to go to sleep".

It doesn't mean that I ever go to sleep at this time. Instead, it keeps me from starting new time-consuming (typically coding) tasks. I can finish ongoing tasks but never start new ones even if I still have a lot of energy.

It's crucial because usually, I don't feel much tired by the end of the day, especially if I've been working deep in the flow. So I don't have a natural stop flag for it.

However, if I don't stop, I can go ahead until the middle of the night or even sunrise and then feel broke and unmotivated for the whole following day or even two.

I decided that for me personally, it's much better to have a very productive but short day with a night of good sleep and then one more (perhaps also efficient) day than get exhausted in just a single day.

A software engineering job is a marathon, not a sprint.

Results of Fixing Sleep Up

I haven't immediately turned from a night owl into an early bird, but nevertheless, I see significant improvements in my daily schedule.

Now, 8 o'clock is a "no-code" flag for me, and 11 pm is a "read-only" signal.

I nearly always go to bed in the range of 11-12 pm. Usually, I have an hour of reading or so, but already in bed and hardly ever after 1 a.m.

I wake up around 9 am and have a consistent 8h - 8h 20m of sleep on average.

Subjectively I feel incomparably better than ever before.

In general, days started to feel much rich and eventful. That also brings some novelty and impressions that work as an additional source of dopamine. And, in turn, the overall feeling of happiness.

Next Steps

I still envy those guys who manage to wake up at 6 am, get everything done by 2 o'clock and chill for the rest of the day.

I have no idea how it can be combined with at least anything that looks like a party on the weekend.

I still have a problem with occasional oversleeping.

Sometimes I face 1-2 weeks periods with average sleeping hours reaching an incredible 9h 30m or sometimes even 10h.

Although it seems like those periods appear from nowhere and disappear by themselves. Nevertheless, it's a rather unhealthy thing that is usually followed by first signs of depressed state, apathy, feeling of low charge, and inability to get things done.