How Did You Sleep Last Night?

Sleep quality

You probably think you know how you slept last night, but chances are you actually have no idea.


It’s a loaded question, and yet the first one I ask anyone who wants to discuss the topic of sleep improvement.  There are certain classes of questions that I generally avoid asking people because I know that their answers will be heavily biased and that challenging that bias will likely be problematic.  Questions of the type that people are not necessarily honest with themselves when answering.  Questions which they answer based on what they believe as opposed to what they know.  ‘How did you sleep last night’ is such a question.  Why is hard to say, but I have come to believe that people want to believe that they are not having a problem with sleep for the most part because, in many cases, how they sleep is not really something they can control or improve.  If someone works 2 jobs and cares for their family and has a maximum of 5 hours to sleep every night, they need to believe, even if it is purely subconsciously, that they are sleeping ok.  It’s a survival exercise in cognitive dissonance.  The trouble is, it’s not going to work out well in the long run. 

So after I ask someone how they sleep and they give me an answer, I ask them to prove it.  Usually they look at me quizzically and I repeat, “Prove it.”  I tell them to pretend they are in a court of law and I am a judge and that their testimony is life or death. (Funny thing, it kind of actually is…) I tell them to prove to me how they slept last night.  Usually, this leads to their education to the fact that, since they were asleep, they cannot testify in any manner to that fact because they were unconscious.  They woke up and made some after the fact observations, but that’s all they have – circumstantial evidence after the fact.  No proof.

In contrast, I can tell you with empirical evidence collected in a rather scientific manner how I slept last night and most of the 1000 nights before last night.  I can also compare and contrast last night with all of those nights and tell you how I slept on a large spectrum of collected nights’ data and give you an extremely accurate opinion as to how I slept last night in contrast to all those other nights.  I can do this because I collected data on each of those nights, along with notes and observations about everything from my activity level, medications taken, bedtime, time in bed, the weather, what I wore to bed, and scores of other variables.  As a result, I can tell you in great detail how I slept and, because I collected that data, I can generally manage to sleep extremely well.

It is difficult to accept, but most of the people reading this have no real idea how they slept last night and, for that reason, any journey to improve one’s sleep really needs to begin with undertaking a means to collect and evaluate sleep quality data.  The brilliant Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured gets managed”, and he was so very right.  To attempt to manage something without measuring it is nothing more than random trial and error based on guessing. It is folly to believe one can improve something so fragile and complex as sleep quality using an unconscious mind. As such, we will endeavor always to deal in cold, hard data when discussing how to improve our sleep, and that data comes from the use of personal sleep metrics collected by a device designed to do so.  Fortunately, this no longer requires a medical lab and can be done at home with an ever increasing degree of accuracy and detail.  I personally have used and recommend the Sleep Cycle app, available for both IOS and Android devices for the very reasonable price of free, but any good sleep tracking app or device will do.  (Note, while the authors of Sleep Cycle say you can put it on a bedside table when used on an IOS device, don’t.  Far more accurate data is obtained using the accelerometer in your phone in addition to the microphone by placing it on the bed.  Additionally, using a tablet device instead of a phone for either version allows for more device surface area in contact with the bed and results in better accuracy based on my experience. Plus, it’s generally more convenient to shut off your tablet’s radios than your phone’s if you need to keep your phone turned on.)

Once you start collecting sleep data (it takes about a week for most programs to get enough to start accurately tracking) you will have a baseline knowledge of how you sleep, and can move forward improving your sleep in the most meaningful and effective manner.  Not everything works for everyone, and with sleep metrics you can A/B test anything you do and see if it helps or hurts your sleep quality.  I cannot stress enough how important this is if you really want to improve your sleep.





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