Let’s be real, if you want to know how to survive a life of travel and stay on your game, this is the powerhouse you ask. It should therefore come as no surprise that I made sure to grab a seat front and center, legal pad positioned and pen poised, for her talk on her latest book, The Sleep Revolution, at Belmont University’s Spring Leadership Luncheon this afternoon. If secondhand sprays of success decided to emanate magically from the stage, I wanted to be waiting readily in their near vicinity for anointing.
All right, maybe success doesn’t exactly work that way (though a little cosmic fairy dust never hurt anybody) but relevant, impactful knowledge does, and of that, there was no shortage. Her talk encompassed commentary on our culture, tips for sleeping well, and a question and answer session, during which I gleaned valuable information and suggestions for staying well-rested while living this crazy plane life.
As she explained it, our overall cultural paradigm on sleep shifted dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, when we “started treating humans as machines.” Since then, we have evolved into a culture that lauds sleeplessness as dedication and importance. We showcase our lack of time for sleep as a trophy, because we think it proves just how indispensable we are. Given, however, that sleep, nutrition and exercise comprise the three pillars of health, “sleep,” as she put it, “is non-negotiable.”
Quick, someone put that on a graphic tee.
If we want to become healthier individuals, and ultimately, a healthier culture, that mindset has to change. Because “without disrupting models that don’t work, we can’t create ones that do.” Given that healthy cultures, communities, and families start with a healthy you and me, following are some helpful tips and guidelines I gleaned from her talk to start all of us on our training as Sleep Champions:
1- Take microsteps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, eat an elephant one bite at a time, so on, so forth. Good habits are not formed overnight or all at once. Start small, but start smart. Be deliberate. In the spirit of “practice what you preach,” I’ll list my microsteps for each tip.
2- Set a demarcation. I loved this. When we set a marker by identifying a time or an activity that says, “the day is done,” we condition our brains to stop harassing us with tomorrow’s work, and give it the freedom to unwind and rest. Bubble bath, meditation, sunset stroll, herbal tea, making dinner–your call!
♥ My Microstep: Use making dinner, taking a bath, meditating, or having a cup of tea as my demarcation by 8pm.
3- Learn your sleep cycle and ditch the alarm. Don’t panic; it’s possible. She makes a great point: the word “alarm” says it all. When we are yanked from our natural cycles, we are immediately starting our day in fight or flight mode, akin to pulling the laundry out of the washer before it’s done. Experiment when you can, learn your sleep cycle, and let simple mathematics become your natural alarm. Working from home (half the time) helped me get somewhat of a grasp on this, but letting our bodies wake us up shouldn’t be considered a luxury. When I have to be up at a certain time, being in bed nine hours prior has me awake before an alarm 90% of the time. On the road, it’s more like 50%, but that also could be the maid cart.
♥ My Microstep: Be in bed to read by 11pm.
4- Set your alarm for when you need to get out of bed. When you need to use an alarm, why yank your body out of its sleep cycle before you actually have to and rob yourself of precious rest? Commit to more sleep and less snoozing. I read once that hitting the snooze button is breaking the first commitment you made to yourself that day. As Jim Gaffigan put it, “Nothing like starting the day with a little procrastination.”
♥ My Microstep: Get UP when I wake up-no bonus hour of Instagram, Huff Post, or online shopping while I’m laying in bed.
5- Unplug. We all have tech addiction. Ditch the tech for a specified amount of time before bed so your brain and eyeballs can actually prepare for restful sleep. Her tech detox time is 30 minutes. Maybe start with five (see bullet point #1). Turn them off and, as she puts it, “escort them gently out of the room.” Having your phone in your room is kryptonite if you wake up in the middle of the night. Not even the best of us can ignore all of those little red bubbles. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself instead, they do still manufacture books: pick something fun and enjoyable and totally unrelated to work. If you use your phone as an alarm, buy an alarm (do they still make those)? I’ll be honest–I said a big, fat “no way, not possible” in my head when she covered this. Then I realized: Arianna Huffington is the President and Editor-in-Chief of a multi-million dollar news publication tech company spanning 15 countries (think of all the time zones). Maybe news never sleeps, but Arianna Huffington does. If she can go without blue-lighted tech overload for 30 minutes a day without something major falling apart, well, it’s absurd at best, and idiotically narcissistic at worst, to think I can’t.
♥ My Microstep: Noise machine. I usually use an app on my phone, but tonight it will be charging in the living room. [Follow up: What was the first thing I did this morning was when I woke up? Reached for my phone on zombie tech autopilot. At first, I felt a sharp stab of phantom limb pain, but after a few moments, it was really nice. When was the last time I started my day with my own thoughts instead of Facebook?]
As a professional who travels 50-60% of the time for work, I was dying to have those microphone ushers call on me during Q&A time, so I could ask her to how keep my head above water and happy on the pillow, while hotel-hopping from state to state. As luck would have it, I was the next person up when they stopped taking questions (fairy dust FAIL), so enter… Uber.
As part of her campaign to raise awareness for drowsy driving (the cause of 8k deaths and 1.2 million crashes last year), Arianna Huffington has partnered with Uber to provide free rides to college students during certain late hours. Which meant that in Nashville today, from 3:30-5:30pm, as part of this promotional campaign, you could enter a promotion code, move the toggle to ZZZZ, and get picked up by Arianna Huffington in an Uber (Is this real life?!).
By 3:46, the ZZZZ still wasn’t showing on my phone, so thank you, Uber Nashville, for quickly responding to my sad face emoji on your Instagram post, and telling me I needed to park my butt and my smart phone closer to Belmont. Sure, it may have required sitting in a coffee shop for 45 minutes refreshing my Uber app for a ZZZZ car every 90 seconds while skimming her book, and you may consider that light stalking, but let’s get real. Arianna Huffington is one of the top five people in the world I would have elected to have a cup of coffee with (before 2pm, of course) and pester with questions. And as she so eloquently put it during her speech: “Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.” So my Uber strategy was in full swing.
I had rather gotten used to seeing the “There are no ZZZZ cars” notification while haphazardly alternating my attention between the app, the book, and the two hipster musicians at the next table talking loudly about music-y things and writing music-y notes on their music-y computers, when I looked down and lost my mind. ARIANNA HUFFINGTON WAS PICKING ME UP FROM BONGO JAVA IN THREE MINUTES. I grabbed my water and ditched the coffee (I had ordered in a frenzy and had not followed the 2pm rule), and waited on the curb.
There are several words I could use to describe this little tête-à-tête, or têtes-àu-têtes, given the Uber employees and media guys, but honestly, it was just so FUN. She was, of course, fresh-faced and lively, and equally as warm and welcoming. Her follow up question to asking where I was from was, “What brought you to Nashville? Are you a model or an actress? You’re so gorgeous!” Needless to say, my inner dialogue went something like, “Wait… Was that real? Did Arianna Huffington just ask me if I’m a model? Okay, sold. Love her already.”
After she said she would have fixed me up with the Uber rep if he wasn’t married, and I asked her if she’d had hot chicken yet (she hadn’t), she asked me what I did for a living. I explained my job and told her that I travel 50-60% of the time. Her facial response resembled mine whenever I realize I have to book a flight with two layovers, or I find out TSA pre-check is closed. “That’s always hard on sleep. How do you maintain your sleep routine?” Most of the time, I do fine. But there have been a couple of instances this year when I have crashed and burned, and now Arianna Huffington was swooping in as my sleep angel.
I told her of a few examples when my schedule had been so overloaded or erratic that I had experienced major exhaustion and burnout. One incident followed five straight weeks of travel, followed immediately by five straight days of sleeping for no less than 14 hours per day when I got home. Another involved rampant and repetitive episodes of utter absent-mindedness, including booking accommodations in the wrong city, only to discover the night before that I was four hours away from the next day’s event (I got a good laugh out of it, then made the most of it by renting a convertible for all the driving, but it was still exhausting). The point is, these things are not in character. OCD is my second religion. Believe me, if I were a character on Friends, I’d be Monica.
What I hadn’t had the chance to ask and wanted to get her advice on most was about sleeping in hotels. When your sleep environment is always changing, it is difficult to maintain routine, and familiar comforts start to feel like long lost loves. There are an innumerable number of factors outside of your control that can affect your quality of sleep: noise, bed softness, light, pillow thickness, sheet fit, humidity, etc. It can be a nightmare for a light sleeper who’s used to sleeping on a King-sized tempurpedic in a room with blackout curtains. She gave some great advice, interspersed with a few laughs (bonus: Arianna Huffington is kind of hilarious). Her answers are written from memory and summarized to the best of my recollection, but they are not verbatim:
How do you maintain a healthy sleep routine when your sleep environment is constantly changing? Bring familiar comforts from home, like small scented candles and your own pillowcase. Make sure all blinking and bright lights are off. Turn the lights off, lay on your bed, let your eyes adjust, and then identify where any disruptive light is coming from. Unplug the clock. I always pack black tape to cover up lights I can’t unplug or turn off.
What do you never leave home without when you travel? I have a bag that’s always packed with everything I need for sleep: eye mask, noise cancelling headphones, lavender candles, my noise machine. When your schedule is always changing, you have to plan ahead, you have to prepare, and you have to be very, very organized.
During the 5% of nights when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, what do you do to maintain energy the next day? Take naps. [Let that sink in for a moment. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist tycoon named by Forbes magazine as one of the World’s Most 20 Powerful Women in Business just told us to TAKE. NAPS. NAPS!!] I drink coffee-not after 2pm-but I have no problem with coffee. I love it. I pack healthy, energizing foods. I love organic nuts like almonds and macadamia nuts. Especially macadamia nuts-I LOVE them. I don’t really eat sugar, because it makes your energy spike and crash. If you don’t stay fueled on good, healthy things, that’s no good, because you’ll end up taking whatever’s available to you.
To this, I replied, “You just exactly described my dating life,” and then, Arianna (yeah, our relationship is so first-name basis now) cracked up laughing. “See?” she quipped – “Some rules are universal.“
As if she needed to be any more endearing, she sent me skipping away with a bag full of sleep goodies-a noise machine, an eye mask, a granola bar, and a Sense ball that measures movement, light, humidity, and circadian rhythms while you sleep. They’re all going in my travel sleep kit. She called me bright and beautiful and I called her a charming powerhouse and thanked her for championing sleep. After years of hearing sarcastic choruses of, “oooohhhh, how nice of you to join us,” it’s a beautiful thing to be told by one of the most successful women in the world that “sleeping in” puts me at lower risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, cognitive decline, strokes, car accidents, and wrinkles.
At the end of the day, the bottom line from this magical experience boiled down to this: yes, we all live busy lives, but there’s a difference between being busy and being productive–and NO ONE performs at peak productivity when they’re running on fumes. In a world where being a yes-person is more popular than being a no-person, and fear of missing out or falling short dominates our daily decisions, we martyr ourselves in the name of success or think we are not holy unless we are haggard. Remember that sometimes saying “no, I can’t take that meeting,” or “now is not a good time for a trip,” or “no, I don’t want to go out,” is really the act of saying a bigger yes to yourself. It’s saying, “yes, I have the power to decide how I will spend my time today,” or “yes, I deserve to hit the market well-rested,” or “yes, my well being is more important than someone else’s opinion about how hard I can hang.”
We are each the lone steward of our life’s structure, our overall health, and our capacity for success. Sleep is one pillar that contributes to the vitality of it all, and not only is it an important one; it’s a pleasant one. Thank the moon and stars!