This part III of the Habit Series will focus on the last third of your day: ending your day, the evening, and sleep.
First thing’s first: you HAVE TO separate work and life at the end of the day…
Or you have no chance of resting and recharging…instead you will burn out and be a nervous wreck the next day. In the “pre-pandemic era,” we often ended our day at the office or client site. Leaving work would mean shutting down our computer and making a definitive decision about what could wait until the next day. The commute home would further deepen the separation. Walking through the door meant kicking off your shoes, flinging your bag or suitcase in a corner, and getting comfy and cozy.
The new normal made everything not normal
In the “new normal” of work culture where we have been conditioned into an “always available mentality,” ending the workday is not quite so decompressing. Now that we work at home and everywhere else, we can struggle with knowing when to stop working and when to start winding down. It is not uncommon for coworkers to email, chat, and text each other at all hours of the day and night.
While you might enjoy the temporary dopamine rush from that 10pm ding, this can be extremely taxing on both your mental and physical health. In this article from the Harvard Business Review titled, “Your Late night E-mails are Hurting Your Team,” it discusses how late night emails can create a toxic culture that suppresses productivity, creativity, and missing essential down time the brain needs to recharge and rejuvenate.
How to handle work-life separation like a fit professional
So what do you do about this? Here are some pointers that I have gleaned from my mentors and the thought leadership on this topic:
- Draw boundaries with your coworkers and end the workday in a timely manner. One way to do this is by setting a strict “curfew.” This means that you will not be texting or talking on the phone with your coworkers after a certain time in the evening. The best time for this curfew depends on your personal life circumstances and your relationships.
- Once you set that cutoff time, do not check your emails or instant messages. Turn the “Focus” mode on your phone on, or set it to automatically come on at “curfew”.
- Be conscious of the culture that you may be perpetuating by failing to protect your teams’ personal lives, as discussed by this Harvard Business Review article.
I have a great example from one of my readers. She worked with a supervisor that regularly would message her asking if she had 5 minutes to talk, often at the end of the day when she was ready to log off or already logged off. If she did not respond until the next day, the supervisor would show visible irritation. If she was still online and did oblige, five minutes would rarely be five minutes and would usually result in her needing to crank out a request and make changes or answer follow-up questions. By this time it would be two hours later, dinner had gotten cold, and she would go to bed with her mind racing.
Finally, she took action. She arranged time to speak with her supervisor. She assertively said, “I appreciate that you may only have certain times of day to talk, but when you ask me to drop everything and work extra hours in the evening when it is not an emergency, that makes me feel like my time is not valuable. In the future, can we find a common time to discuss if it is not truly urgent?” She was surprised by how well this conversation went. But the failure to draw boundaries and recharge can lead to sloppy work product, getting forgetful and missing deadlines, or clashes with co-workers because of feeling overwhelmed and irritated. So as uncomfortable as this may feel, set your boundary, stick to it, and leave your phone in your car if you have to.
The DAO of Sleep
OK, now that we have ended the workday, there are probably only 2-3 hours max between that time and when your head hits the pillow. What you do during this time is the difference between sailing and stumbling through the next day.
Here are the 5 best habits for getting the most “recharge” out of your evening:
- No eating after 8pm. This study from The University of Pennsylvania Medical School shows that eating late in the evening is clearly linked to weight gain, poor quality sleep and increased hunger during the day. On the other hand, the participants in the study who ate more earlier in the day were less hungry in the evening. Eating shortly before sleeping also spikes your insulin, which disturbs your “natural circadian rhythms and disrupts sleep. This is supported by a second study from Harvard Medical School. If you cannot control how late dinner is on some nights, do not stress too much. The idea from these studies is that eating a MAJORITY of your calories late at night is what you want to avoid. This is based on the findings that the body has less hunger and more satiety when you eat meals earlier in the day because of its natural circadian rhythms.
- Note to self: YOUR BED IS NOT YOUR OFFICE, AND YOUR SMARTPHONE IS NOT YOUR CUDDLE BUDDY. As this recent Wall Street Journal article explains, by working and working out where you are supposed to be sleeping, you confuse your brain. If you have a studio apartment or no other space for a desk, then try to partition off that area. You can use a divider, like this one from WayFair. Not to mention, working in bed is horrendous for your back. (for more tips on a better back, read my Build your Back Better post). That same advice goes for being in bed with your phone. Unless you are an emergency room doctor, you do not need to sleep with your phone under your pillow. As this Harvard Health article explains, blue light suppresses the production of melatonin. My practice is I keep my phone charging in a room adjacent to the master bedroom, on the way to the kitchen, where there is coffee!
- Go to sleep at around the same time, even on weekends. It may seem rewarding to binge watch Stranger Things until 1am once your hard week is over, but it will wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. Keeping a consistent routine day in and day out is important for overall sleep quality. Same with waking up. Waking up early on the weekends gives you a chance to get a workout in early, go to the store when it is not crowded, and just generally have time for self-care, like journaling or meditating.
- To medicate, or not to medicate? I have tried many different sleep medications, over the counter and prescription. My bottom-line recommendation is experimenting is fine, but especially with scrips, beware of their addictive tendencies and dependency you may build on them to sleep. For some ideas on over-the-counter, the sleep advisor reviews the top 4 products. Now these definitely help some people, but a few more caveats to keep in mind: 1) They are not FDA-approved; 2) They could have weird interactions with current meds; and 3) They can have REALLY WEIRD side effects. For example, Ashwagandha and Valerian root are two popular herbs. I was impressed by my ability to fall asleep but had that crazy lucid dream experience where you keep waking up and then falling back into the same dream – which for me, is always the one about being back in school and taking an exam on something I have no clue about. In the end, none of these are long-term solutions. Alcohol is also one of the worst ideas. You may get lulled into a wine-induced coma, but later in the night when the alcohol metabolizes,there is a “rebound effect” that causes awakenings and generally lighter sleep. So you wake up NOT feeling rested.
- Instead, have a relaxation ritual. Have a nighttime relaxation ritual. Again, this is different for everyone, but take some time and think about what really relaxes both your mind and body. Some examples include: essential oils, taking a warm shower or bath, lighting scented candles, gentle yoga stretches, drinking a cup of herbal tea, or meditation. Most meditation apps and YouTube channels have specialized sleep meditations. You can find a summary of them in my post about meditation here. If you do not want to listen to words as you fall asleep, consider sounds like raindrops or thunderstorm sounds (my fave). Raindrop meditations help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It also helps to improve your mood and provide a sense of relaxation.Plus you don’t have to fish for an app – just ask Alexa to play “raindrops on a window” or “thunderstorm sounds.”
- Pimp your bedroom/bed. We all have different ways that we direct our disposable income, but some people are surpisingly cavalier about their sleeping accomodations. Here are some of my MUST HAVES for getting a great night’s sleep:
- Humidifier (dry air can make your skin dry and your throat sore)
- Satin pillowcase (for preventing hair breakage and night sweats)
- Moisture-wicking cotton sheets
- A weighted blanket
- Lavendar essential oil to spread on your pillow (first do a patch test to see if you have an allergy)
- A sturdy mattress (if it’s too soft, it will bother your back) (I recommend this one from the Zinus store on amazon, which has cooling memory foam).
If you are really interested in the science of sleep and want to constructively improve your sleep quality, consider downloading the Calm Masterclass, Sleep Better. In the Calm Masterclass, Sleep Better with Dr. Breus, he explores topics like circadian rhythms, how much sleep you actually need, and how you can adapt your sleeping habits to your genetic predisposition as a lion, bear, wolf, or owl kind of sleeper! If you don’t have the app and want more info before you try, read this post on the Calm blog or use their free trial option.
- Your Late Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team (Harvard Business Review)
- Timing Meals Later at Night Can Cause Weight Gain and Impair Fat Metabolism (Penn Medicine)
- Out Of Sync (The Scientist)
- Wood Room Divider (WayFair)
- Top 4 Sleep Aid Supplements (Sleep Advisor)
- Meditation for People Who Don’t Have the Time to Meditate (DaoFitLife)
- Do Sleep Trackers Really Work? (Hopkins Medicine)
- Sleep Basics (Cleveland Clinic)
- Managing the High Intensity Workplace (Harvard Business Review)
- 8 Strategies to Cure Emotional Hangovers (RTOR Organizaiton)