How a digital curfew can improve your sleep

How to improve your sleep with a digital curfew

Sleep really is the elixir of life.

Poor quality or quantity of sleep can have detrimental impacts on our physical health, mental wellbeing and performance.

Our screen habits are among the chief culprits sabotaging our sleep. Therefore, it’s paramount that you prioritise your sleep, and one of the best ways to do this is to establish your digital curfew.

Research conducted in 2021 found that 70 per cent of participants had experienced one or more sleep challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anecdotally, many of the corporate teams I worked with during the pandemic reported accumulating similar sleep durations as they’d had before the pandemic but feeling more fatigued.

One plausible explanation for this ‘tired and wired’ feeling is that, during lockdown periods, many people were spending more time inside and online than they typically would have.

In fact, research suggests that adults were spending an average of 13.28 hours per day on digital devices. As a result, many people were experiencing increased exposure to blue light emitted from their screens and weren’t getting enough natural sunlight, especially within the first hour of waking up.

Sunlight is required to reset our circadian rhythm. These factors may have hampered melatonin production, resulting in delayed onset of sleep and shorter sleep phases.

Have you ever noticed you tend to scroll social media more, binge-watch more Netflix, or are just generally more easily distracted when you’re tired? You’re not alone.

The reason you succumb to your tech temptations when you’re tired is because the part of your brain that helps to regulate your behaviour, your prefrontal cortex, doesn’t work effectively when you’re tired. Your brain knows that when you’re tired, it must optimise its resources, so it will reduce the effectiveness of the frontal lobe to compensate for prioritising primary functions.

These digital distractions also give your brain quick dopamine hits, trapping you in a false cycle of digital appeal. This explains why we tend to make bad food choices when we’re tired: it’s simply that our prefrontal cortexes can’t regulate our behaviour.

This is also why many people succumb to ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’: the decision to delay sleeping at night and engage in monotonous socials scrolling or online shopping, often because of a perceived lack of free time earlier in the day.

Here are some of my favourite tips to create and stick to your digital curfew:

Dear Digital by Dr Kristy Goodwin

Dear Digital, We Need to Talk by Dr Kristy Goodwin.

Set up a sleep reminder

Set up a reminder on your phone 90 minutes before you want to go to sleep so you can start to wind up your day.

Over time, you will (hopefully) no longer rely on your phone to nudge you, because the habit will be entrenched.

Give yourself some digital-free time before bed

Switch off all digital devices ideally at least 60 minutes prior to sleep. If you’re using digital devices – particularly small, handheld devices such as phones, tablets and laptops – in the 60 minutes before you sleep, you can adversely impact both the amount and quality of sleep you get each night.

Digital devices emit blue light, which hits your pineal gland, which in turn inhibits the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Impaired melatonin production can delay the onset of sleep and reduce the deep and REM sleep stages, which are critical for memory consolidation.

Create a predictable wind-down ritual

A predictable wind-down ritual sends clear signals to your brain that the work day is done.

This is particularly important when working from home, because simply seeing your laptop can be a cognitive trigger to think about work. Is it possible to put your laptop away, or close the door to your workspace?

Consider dimming the lights, having a bath or shower (elevating your body temperature can also aid your sleep), reading a book or magazine, or doing a mindfulness practice or some breathing exercises to put you in a relaxed state.

Your brain has likely spent most of the day in a busy beta brain (stressed) state, so you need to find ways to unwind to help you get the restorative sleep that you need. Performing these activities has the added benefit of crowding out your evening tech time.

Do a screen swap before bed

Watching TV is a better choice at night than watching Netflix on your phone or laptop, because you tend to sit further away from the TV than smaller devices and therefore absorb less blue light.

TV also tends to be more of a passive rather than interactive experience, so TV can be a calming pursuit (so long as what you’re watching doesn’t hyper-arouse you).

Establish a landing zone in your home

Having a designated spot where devices go at night to charge can help to keep devices out of bedrooms.

Pop your device in the landing zone at least 60 minutes before you want to sleep.

Invest in blue-light-blocking glasses for use at night

If you really must be on your laptop at night – I get it, sometimes there’s a deadline or critical work incident you need to deal with – consider wearing blue-light-blocking glasses to help reduce blue light exposure.

I personally use and recommend Baxter Blue glasses (see the Book Resources page of my website for a special discount code). They will have their most potent impact if worn from about 4pm and into the evening.

Dim the brightness

In the evening, we really need to reduce all blue-light exposure, not just that coming from our screens.

Fluorescent and energy-efficient lights can all emit blue light, so consider dimming the lights in your house, or using candles or lamps at night. Close any curtains to reduce external light sources.

This is an edited extract from Dear Digital, We Need to Talk by Dr Kristy Goodwin. Purchase a copy here.

Dr Kristy Goodwin

This article was written by Dr Kristy Goodwin.

She is a digital wellbeing and productivity expert who works with senior business leaders and HR executives to promote digital wellbeing and performance in their organisations. She is also the author of Dear Digital, We Need to Talk.

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