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Since contracting glandular fever in 2013 I have had an ongoing battle to get enough sleep to function well. During this time I’ve experimented with many things, some of which I will share now for the benefit of those with similar problems or anyone who wants greater control over their sleep.

Developing this high sleep requirement has been one of the most frustrating things I’ve had to deal with. I want to get things done each day, so needing so much sleep can feel like a real handicap at times. I’ve had to leave early from social events, cut down on commitments and in exam term my friends are often studying both when I go to bed and when I wake up. One thing that makes it a little harder is our current culture where it’s cool or impressive to be able to get by on very little sleep - I have friends who brag about how little sleep they get. Donald Trump reportedly only sleeps for a few hours a day..

What have I tried?

Steve Pavlina approach: The article 'How I became an early riser' is the first thing I read about controlling sleep.
In summary: wake up at the same time every day and go to bed when you’re tired. Read the article for full details.
However, this didn’t really work for me because my schedule varies considerably and sticking to the rule would cause lost sleep. Worth a try though.

For one month I kept a record of how long I slept for and gave myself subjective scores for things such as feeling of wellbeing, energy levels and level of thinking.

Partly I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being lazy and that I hadn’t just convinced myself I needed more sleep than the average person.

My conclusions were:
- reaching 9 hours in succession enables optimal functioning
- one day below 8 hours is bearable, but any more and functioning drops off considerably
- There is a 'plus-one' rule, whereby poor sleep doesn't affect you immediately the next day but kicks in the day after (even if you get a good night's sleep on night 2)

The exact values will vary between individuals but I found finding my personal values very useful in subsequent decision-making about sleep.

Sleep accessories
Tim Ferriss recommends 5 things in this podcast. I've tried the tea, earbuds and sleepmask - earbuds were the only game changer for me but I think the others are worth a try. They stop you having to worry about external noise, but make sure your alarm is loud enough to still wake you up!

Morning routine
I have developed a morning routine which enables me to transition from being bleary and craving more time in bed to being motivated and ready for the day. I have covered it in more detail in another post.

Current approach
Based on the huge impact I have found sleep can have on my functioning and level of performance every day, I now prioritise sleep above pretty much everything. If I don't get to sleep until 12am and have, for example, a lecture at 9am the next day, I will miss the lecture. I would much rather get the sleep I need then function on a high level for the rest of the day than force myself to get up for the lecture then flag all day instead. I have had to adjust my expectations in order to do so.

In combination, the above experiments and observations have enabled me to feel largely in control of my sleep. The frustration still exists, but learning to do more with less has been a valuable lesson in itself.

Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education.

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