Wait a minute—we’re supposed to get a good night’s sleep to feel great all day? File that under, “Things we know we’re supposed to do that are impossible.” The problem isn’t wanting to get a good night’s sleep, it’s actually making it happen. And between work, kids, and, let’s face it, the new season of House of Cards, logging 7 to 8 uninterrupted hours can feel like a joke. So instead of beating yourself up for yet another crappy night of sleep, use these tips to make the most of what you got. (Want to pick up some healthier habits?
1. Don’t delay the inevitable
Remember how you spent all night waking up, drifting off, then waking up again? Doing that to yourself come morning via the snooze button just ain’t smart. Research shows snooze-button sleep is fragmented sleep (no kidding), and fragmented sleep is not restorative sleep. It’s a good rule of thumb for any morning: Set your alarm for the actual time you need to wake up, said Dr. Alice Doe, a sleep medicine specialist at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, MI, and then actually get up.
Snoozing might also make the process of waking up physically take longer: Getting the gears turning—like increasing blood flow to the brain—takes some time, but snoozing tells your body it’s not actually go-time yet and can delay those processes.
2. Give caffeine a fair chance to kick in.
Experts typically stick to an upper limit of about 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, or roughly 4 cups of coffee. On your most sleep-deprived day, if you’re not careful, you could hit that benchmark by 11 a.m. (hey, we’ve all been there), but too much coffee can leave you with headaches, heart palpitations, and a serious case of the jitters, Doe said. Keep in mind it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to kick in, so pace yourself throughout the morning and have a cup around noon or 1 p.m., she says. After that, stick to decaf.
“Caffeine takes a long time to be eliminated from your body, so I say no caffeine 7 to 8 hours before bedtime,” Doe said.
3. Avoid dwelling on it.
Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Yes, you didn’t get enough sleep. No, that doesn’t guarantee today will be a wash. Put on your favorite top, that special-occasions-only piece of jewelry, a fun lip color—something for you to feel good about, Doe said, then use it to keep up the sunny attitude throughout the day.
“Try not to think too much about the sleepless night or blame it for everything that happens during the day,” she said. “In time, that can create a negative association that will result in other sleepless nights.”
It’s going to be a challenge, she said, but try to make this a Glass Half Full kind of day. It might not make you feel more awake, but studies say positive thinking can help you cope with stressful situations—aka this horror of a sleep-deprived day. Dig deep.
4. Tackle your tough projects first.
Getting through any actual work may be the hardest part of today, aside from resisting the temptation to hit snooze. Budget your energy and get the big stuff out of the way early. Research suggests that you’ve got a two-hour window when you’ll be at your best, starting one hour after you wake up, Doe said. If you woke up at 7, expect to shine between 8 and 10. She suggests tabling any major decisions, whether they’re personal or professional, for a more well-rested day.
“If you really can’t avoid a meeting, try to get some exercise right beforehand so you can concentrate better,” she recommended.
Later in the day, cross off some of those mundane tasks on your to-do list you’ve been putting off forever.
5. Sit up straight.
A sort of silly sounding little 2012 experiment asked 110 college students to rate their energy levels before and after walking slouched over for a few paces or doing a few minutes of skipping. After slouching, they rated their energy levels significantly lower than after skipping. We’re not saying you should skip to your 4 o’clock meeting (although if you do, please send video), but you should check your posture while you sit there spacing out.
6. Keep your phone in your bag.
With your impaired attention and focus, you really don’t need any other distractions. If you want to stay productive at work, turn off your email notifications and power down your phone, or at least get it out of your direct line of sight.
“Your concentration can be so decreased that your concept of time goes away,” Doe said.
You might think you’ve spent just a quick sec scrolling through Instagram when suddenly half an hour’s flown by.
“It’s best to stay on task and then take more breaks to go outside for a quick walk,” she said. “Just about anything will be more beneficial, like a quick nap or a coffee break, than just staring at your phone.”
7. Don’t skip breakfast.
We know—you’ve heard it a million times before. But hear us out. Breakfast sends a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up, Doe said, since food intake is intricately associated with our internal clocks.
“If somebody is not a morning person, it doesn’t have to be a big breakfast,” she said.
A shake or a smoothie will work just fine, as long as breakfast provides you with a good balance of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats, Doe said. The better your nutrition on a sleep-deprived day, the more energy you’ll be able to salvage. You’ve got a tough task ahead of you: Research shows that sleep deprivation messes with our brain activity, convincing us that things like doughnuts and French fries are absolute necessities. Unfortunately, both will only make you more sluggish, Doe said. “Fatty foods require more energy to break down, and simple carbs give us a rush initially but then you’ll crash after that.”
Big meals, too, can slow us down, as our bodies struggle to digest, so stick to smaller meals and a couple snacks on your most tired days. Reach for nuts, an apple with peanut butter, or carrots and hummus between meals, Doe recommended, and pile on the veggies for lunch and dinner, with chicken, fish, or beans for protein.
8. Let the sunshine in.
Another way to send a powerful wake-up signal to that sluggish brain of yours is by exposing yourself to natural sunlight. In your beige office under fluorescent lights, your body can lose its sense of what time it is and when you’re supposed to feel tired. Sleep experts say natural sunlight first thing in the morning helps communicate to our brains that it is “bright eyed and bushy tailed” time. In one 2012 study, artificial light was linked with more sleepiness and worse performance on certain cognitive tasks.
“The more you’re outside the better,” Doe said of the days after terrible nights of sleep. At minimum, get in an early-morning walk and another stroll in the afternoon, when you feel that inevitable slump coming on, she says.
9. Force yourself to move for a little bit.
While it feels like the last thing you can drag yourself to do at the moment, exercising is basically guaranteed to help, even if you can only stand a few minutes. Luckily, it can be an easy workout. A group of low-key exercisers experienced a bigger reduction in their fatigue than more hardcore sweaters in one study. In fact, strenuous exercise should actually be off the table, since you’re at a slightly higher risk of accidents of all types when you’re sleep deprived, Doe pointed out. Exercise improves blood circulation, which in turn improves attention, so sneak in a brisk walk before an important meeting when you’re really feeling zonked.
10. Take a nap. (Maybe.)
If it won’t cost you your job, there’s pretty convincing research on the benefits of making time for a siesta (under your desk, sitting in the office restroom, maybe even in your car in the far corner of the parking lot). Just 10 minutes can result in immediate improvements in cognitive performance and energy.
Just make sure you’re following a few important napping rules. First, no more than 20 to 30 minutes, max. Longer than that and you risk entering deep sleep, and if you’re woken up in the middle of deep sleep, you’re likely to feel worse than you did to begin with, Doe said. A nap too late in the day will set you up for trouble sleeping at night, so keep it early—preferably five hours or more before bedtime.