Two shop assistants stand alone in a brightly lit and almost empty shop. One yawns and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. “It’s only 4.30!” I hear her say, in a mixture of dismay and disbelief.
I feel her pain. I too can’t wait to get home and take my contact lenses out in preparation for an early dinner and a good catch-up of Killing Eve or something equally edifying.
I remember, however, that I have this post to write first. This week brings the start of November, a month when many people struggle to stay upbeat and motivated.
We are in the season of short days but that doesn’t mean we need to go short on sleep. Here’s seven ways to survive the dark nights:
1. Focus on quality not quantity of your sleep. The body naturally wants to hibernate at this time of year. Going to work and coming home in the dark is sapping. It’s tempting to see more sleep as compensation for the lack of daylight. While it’s normal to want more shut-eye in the winter, don’t judge your sleep by the number of hours alone. Quality is just as important. Follow the basics of good sleep hygiene and the steps below.
2. Keep it regular – sleep thrives on consistency. Establish a time to go to bed and wake up, then stick to it. Even at weekends! Can’t wait for a long lie in and breakfast in bed on Sunday? Think again. Feeling sleepy relies on something called “sleep pressure”. This builds with each hour that you are awake. A Sunday morning lie-in means that now you won’t feel sleepy until later than your normal weekday bedtime. As a result, Monday morning arrives and you start the week already missing a couple of hours of healthy zzzzz’s. If you struggle to give up the idea of a lie-in at the weekend, then limit it to an hour max.
3. Set an alarm to wake up. If you use your phone, put it on silent mode and out of sight and reach when you get into bed. This prevents you checking the time if you wake up during the night (only leading to frustration at being awake). It also means that you have to get up when it sounds. Hitting the snooze button is far too tempting if the phone is within reach! You may kid yourself that it gives you a precious few extra minutes but in truth, any sleep you snatch will be fragmented and insufficient to add value. Use those few minutes to do something positive instead, such as enjoying your morning cuppa.
4. Get outdoors once a day. The body has a biological clock that runs on a cycle which is a little over 24 hours. Left unregulated, our sleep habit will drift forward so we go to sleep later and later. In extreme cases, this can lead to Circadian Rhythm disruption, where the body clock is no longer aligned to the natural cycle of day and night. Natural daylight re-sets the biological clock to the 24 hour cycle, meaning that all the biological processes essential for good health happen at the optimum time. Aim to get about 30 minutes of early morning light if you can, as studies show that people who are exposed to early morning light sleep more soundly at night. I know though that this can be difficult to fit into your already busy day. Be creative – walk part of the way to work or have your first meeting of the day outside (walk and talk is a great way of generating fresh perspectives). Or start small. Get up earlier once a week and go for a brisk walk or jog. Remind yourself that although you have given up half an hour of time in bed, you are gaining sleep quality.
5. A mid-afternoon slump is natural. This is when the Circadian clock has a small dip and then recovers. An afternoon nap can be helpful, as long as it doesn’t hinder your sleep at night. It’s not just Google but also some smaller UK companies that are starting to recognise the benefits and provide “nap pods” or quiet rooms for their people) If a siesta isn’t possible, then change your activity. Stand up, move away from your computer, stretch, go outside, walk up the stairs, play some upbeat music or go chat to someone.
6. Accept that you will be affected by the long, dark evenings. This is the time when Nature intended us to be harvesting the crops, clearing the ground and taking stock. November might not be the best time for you to be starting a new project or putting pressure on yourself to be at your most creative. If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to control your work schedule, think about working more in tune with your natural energy levels. Tasks based on reflecting, consolidating and organising are good things to do around this time. Don’t worry, in January as the days lengthen, you’ll get your mojo back – and all the stronger for a period of winter re-balancing.
7. Vary your evening routine so that weekday evenings don’t merge together to form one dark blur. Plan one night a week where you do something different – socialise, go to an evening class, set yourself a pleasurable project, be it researching your family history, learning a new skill or going to a book club. Most importantly, put it in your diary and stick to it! R and R is just as important for our performance as the stuff we do between 9 and 5.
Remember, it’s perfectly natural to feel different, both physically and emotionally different about work and life in general during the winter. With a little thought and adaptation, however, you can both survive and thrive.