If the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on your sleep, you're not alone.
Getting a good night's rest has been significantly harder during the pandemic according to experts, who are even coining a term for the phenomenon, "coronasomnia." About 40% of Americans are experiencing sleep problems, and doctors say that's roughly twice as many as before the pandemic, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published earlier this month.
And people are looking for solutions: The term "insomnia" was Googled more in 2020 than ever before. Especially as many Americans are still working from home, blurring the boundary between work and downtime, "developing better sleep habits has become so relevant for everyone," says Dr. Shaan Patel, the CEO and founder of Prep Expert SAT & ACT Courses.
Getting at least seven hours of sleep per night can increase job performance and improve overall well-being, according to the Sleep Foundation. Patel says that stat proves true in his own life. "My sleep hygiene and habits really increase my productivity and time management," he says.
Patel attributes a lot of his success to his productivity and time management habits. The 31-year-old CEO has earned an MBA at Yale and a medical degree from the University of Southern California, while also running Prep Expert, one of the nation's fastest growing SAT and ACT test preparation companies. He even pitched Prep Expert on the ABC show "Shark Tank" in 2016 and closed a $250,000 deal with Mark Cuban. These days, in addition to running Prep Expert, Patel is months away from completing a medical residency to specialize in dermatology.
While juggling his many pursuits, Patel says he's made five "little optimizations" to get consistent "quality sleep," that you can adopt, too.
Patel didn't always have the best sleep hygiene. "I used to actually have a ton of trouble falling asleep, and I think a lot of it was because my mind would race," he says.
To combat overthinking, he started writing what he calls a "Magic List." An hour before going to sleep, "I write in my Apple Notes the top six things I want to accomplish for the next day. I think that's really helpful. ... It takes a lot of the stress out of sleep," he says.
Patel shared an example of his list, which includes his top six tasks, as well as other big obligations for the week ahead.
"If I just thought about everything I need to do between my business and management and strategy there, and then also on top of that my dermatology residency, I would be totally overwhelmed," he explains.
Patel says he's able to let go of stress by mapping out one task at a time, rather than stressing about larger looming goals. "Prioritizing your next day is really, really important to sleep hygiene, and I think that's how I avoid getting overwhelmed with everything I need to do," says Patel.
If creating a to-do list isn't enough to quiet your mind, Patel suggests trying a short meditation before bed. "I'd love to get into meditation and mindfulness, but you know, being a busy professional who basically has two jobs, I don't have a ton of time for meditation," he says. "The way I get my mindfulness is to listen to a quick five-minute sleep meditation before I go to bed," he says.
While there are plenty of meditation apps out there, Patel says he uses an app from a fellow "Shark Tank" company called Simple Habit.
When he's meditating, Patel says he uses a technique known as body scanning. "I'll relax every part of my body from toe to head," he says. "I'll relax my ankles, my calves, my hips, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, neck, head, and then finally I'll just relax my mind."
To aid with noise reduction and avoid distraction, he says he's also a big fan of using earplugs for meditating and sleep. He buys disposable earplugs on Amazon, which come in packs of 50 and cost less than $10.
Patel has noticed a correlation between meditating and better sleep quality. "When I do listen to that quick five-minute meditation, my sleep is a lot deeper," he says. "Probably because I'm getting more REM sleep."
Time is a crucial component of Patel's sleep routine. "I've always made sure to get my ideal number of hours of sleep," he says. "Seven hours is the sweet spot for me."
In order to achieve seven hours, Patel keeps his sleeping hours flexible. Usually he goes to sleep at midnight and wakes up at 7 a.m., but sometimes his schedule gets in the way. "When I need to be more productive, I go to sleep an hour earlier and wake up an hour earlier."
That allows Patel to seize what he calls his "power hour," or the time of day when he feels most productive, which is when he first wakes up.
This is the same advice he gives to students that use Prep Expert. "To be ultraproductive, for students, I would recommend waking up an hour earlier on your busiest days. Call it your morning 'power hour' and do the most important studying of the day," says Patel.
Not everyone feels productive when they first wake up, so Patel recommends paying attention to what time of day you feel in the zone and getting your most challenging work done during that window.
Video by Courtney Stith
When Patel has an especially busy day, he finds naps helpful. Short naps of 30 minutes to an hour "are supereffective for productivity," he says.
Patel's three-part nap routine looks like this: At around 5:30 p.m., after his day at the dermatology clinic, he sleeps for 30 minutes, eats dinner, and takes a shower. After that, he says, "I feel totally refreshed and reenergized to work for two or three hours on a Tuesday or Wednesday night," Patel says.
To avoid getting too tired and falling into a deep sleep cycle, Patel makes sure to set an alarm and he doesn't close the blinds or use his earplugs during his naps.
Whenever you feel like you're not completing a goal, like getting enough sleep, it can help to analyze your habits. "To those people that are stuck, I would say that's when you really need to start taking an inventory," Patel says.
He uses an Oura Ring that tracks his sleep so he can measure the quality of his rest. But there are many other apps and wearable fitness devices including the Fitbit or Apple Watch that will help you analyze your sleep, too. There's even a free app that comes automatically installed on the iPhone called Sleep Cycle that doesn't require an extra accessory.
Tracking his sleep has helped Patel figure out what might be interfering. For example, "If I had a glass of wine within two hours of sleeping, I'll find that I got a lot less deep sleep and a lot less REM sleep than I needed, versus if I ate a really healthy meal and didn't have a bunch of coffee during the day," he says.
The habits Patel has developed around sleep are similar to all of his success strategies, he says. So you can use them to tackle goals in your financial and professional life as well. "Tracking progress is really important for anyone trying to achieve a goal, even beyond just sleep."
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