How I stopped sucking at sleeping
(and how you can, too)

I have an admission to make. I used to suck at sleeping.

These days I’m getting the hang of it, but it’s still something that has taken a lot of conscious effort. I have to draw on everything I’ve ever learned as a psychologist, including my time working as a researcher in a university sleep lab. 

These days I mainly get my 8 hours of good quality sleep, but it’s been quite a journey getting here.

In this post, I want to share the hacks and strategies I have learned along the way. These are things I have personally applied and found to be useful, as well as things I get my coaching clients to do when they also struggle with their sleep.

I’ll start with the low hanging fruit of sleep hygiene and basic strategies, and also tell you about the deeper psychological work that is sometimes required to really crack the sleep code.

For a while there, I used to think I was an awesome sleeper. My girlfriend 10 years ago used to call me a “Sleep Ninja” because I was out the moment my head hit the pillow. But one day it dawned on me that I was falling asleep so easily because I was chronically tired. I would stay up late and get up early, and the net result was that I would be so exhausted at night that I would basically pass out when I finally turned off the light.

As a psychologist, however, I was acutely aware that insufficient sleep impairs cognitive function and mood, and increases our risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. So I decided to start prioritising sleep and aiming for the 7 to 9 hours a night that sleep experts recommend. And that’s where the trouble began. As I started turning out the light earlier and earlier, I began spending increasingly longer periods lying there not sleeping. Some days my mind would be busy rehashing the day’s events, while other days my mind would be relatively quiet, but my body buzzing with stress hormones.

This is when I went on a mission to discover the most effective sleep strategies, and put them into practice.

So what did I learn? In short – lots! But let me boil it all down to the 8 most essential features of sleep optimisation.

1. Establishing a wind-down routine

The cornerstone of my journey to better sleep was creating a consistent wind-down routine. This begins an hour before bed, and involves turning off overhead lights and turning on lamps. This simulates the sun setting and primes the body to start releasing melatonin (one of the hormones that regulates sleep patterns).

This routine also involves avoiding electronic screens to reduce blue light exposure (which switches melatonin production off). Instead, I do some meditation or read my Kindle (the backlights on Kindles don’t impair melatonin production in the same way that phones and iPads do). 

A routine like this helped by signalling to the body that it’s time to shift into a state of relaxation and readiness for sleep.

2. Mastering your sleep environment

Creating a sleep sanctuary was another critical step. This meant optimising my bedroom environment to be conducive to sleep – making it cool, dark, and quiet. Investing in a good quality sleep mask, silicone earplugs and a high-quality mattress were all part of making my bedroom a place dedicated to rest.

It’s important that our bedrooms are places where we only sleep (plus make love and read non-work-related books). This is because our brain is very good at associating two unrelated things, through a process called “classical conditioning”. This is the learning process that Pavlov used to train his famous dog to salivate when he rang a bell (an arbitrary stimulus, totally unrelated to eating). 

This is why working, talking to our partner about problems, or even watching TV shows in bed can mean that our brains start to become active when we are in our bedrooms. Keep those things in the living room and you’ll notice a big difference.

3. Tracking your sleep

Harnessing the benefits of wearable technology was a pivotal moment in my journey toward better sleep. There are a lot of wearables available these days that offer a detailed glimpse into various sleep metrics, such as duration, sleep cycles, heart rate, HRV (Heart Rate Variability), and body temperature. These metrics illuminate the intricate dance of factors contributing to restorative sleep. My personal preference is the Oura ring, although there are many others that have great reviews.

The first thing my ring showed me was that if I spend 8 hours in bed, I’m actually asleep for around 7 of them. The rest of the time is taken up by drifting off and then waking up throughout the night (which is a totally normal and healthy phenomenon – as long as you can go right back to sleep again). Prior to this discovery, I would aim to go to sleep at 11pm and set my alarm for 7am. But armed with this new information, I started turning out the light at 10pm, with the result that I started getting the 8 hours that I need to thrive.

My ring also tracks sleep stages (light, deep, and REM). I noticed that many nights I had a lot of light sleep but not enough deep sleep. Deep sleep is where the body repairs the cardiovascular system and drains the Alzheimer’s-producing beta-amyloids from the brain. Which is why insufficient deep sleep might mean you get 8 hours, but still not feel refreshed the next day. I noted a correlation between low HRV, high resting heart rate, and lesser amounts of deep sleep, and this put me on a mission to improve these stress metrics.

Interestingly, I also noticed that if I was awake in the night and meditated lying down in bed (instead of thinking about work or stressing about being awake), my ring measured these periods as shallow sleep. So if you’re someone who gets insomnia, consider putting on a guided meditation or doing a progressive muscle relaxation.

All this personalised data served as a guide, helping me fine-tune my habits and routines. Adjustments like establishing a digital curfew and tweaking my evening activities led to noticeable improvements in my sleep quality.

4. Mastering the circadian rhythm

Establishing a regular sleep schedule was a game-changer for me. But this is about more than just going to bed and waking up at the same time every day – it’s about respecting your body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. Our bodies thrive on this consistency. When I started sleeping and waking at fixed times, I noticed a dramatic improvement in how quickly I fell asleep and the quality of my rest.

The science behind this is fascinating. Our circadian rhythm aligns with the day-night cycle, influencing body temperature, hormone release (like cortisol for waking up and melatonin for sleep), and other bodily functions. Disrupting this rhythm, as many of us do with our modern lifestyles, can throw off those signals and lead to poor sleep. By sticking to a consistent schedule, you reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle and promote better sleep overall.

Back when I was doing my psychology honours, I worked in a sleep laboratory at the University of Melbourne. We ran this fascinating experiment where we paid a student to spend 8 days in the lab. We blacked out all the windows and removed all the clocks so he had no idea what time it was, and then we secretly enforced a 27-hour day on him. (I remember coming in to start one of my shifts at 2am and hamming it up by asking my colleagues there if anyone needed anything from the post office!) 

Across the 8 days, he lost 3 hours a day, meaning he lost a full day over the course of the experiment. This meant his circadian rhythm at the beginning and end of the experiment was aligned with the normal day/night cycle, and on days 4 and 5 it was reversed. We measured his reaction time, memory, problem solving and mood all throughout the experiment – and predictably these were all maximally impaired while his circadian rhythm was reversed.

One of the most powerful ways to regulate the circadian rhythm is to reset it each morning. Every single day now, I get up and immediately go for a 10 minute run. This increases my body’s core temperature, spikes cortisol release, and gets early morning sunlight in my eyes. When I get back I take a cold shower (at the end, after the hot part – I’m not a masochist!), which further raises my core temperature. All of these things reset the system, meaning that 16 hours later, I start feeling sleepy. This routine has been one of the most effective hacks I have discovered, actually.

5. Embracing the power of light

The role of light in regulating our sleep patterns cannot be overstated. Our bodies are designed to wake up when it’s light and sleep when it’s dark. However, in our modern world, we’re exposed to artificial light all the time, which can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms. As I said above, I make it a point to get exposure to natural sunlight as early as possible during the day, which helps regulate sleep patterns by signalling to my body that it’s time to be awake.

In the evenings, I minimise exposure to blue light emitted by screens, as this type of light is particularly effective at halting melatonin production. Apps that reduce blue light on your devices in the evening and using floor lamps in your home can help prepare your body for sleep.

6. The role of diet and exercise

Nutrition and physical activity play a surprisingly big role in sleep quality. A balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, can significantly impact your sleep. For example, foods high in magnesium, like almonds and spinach, are known to promote muscle relaxation and better sleep. Similarly, avoiding stimulants like caffeine and sugar close to bedtime can prevent your body from entering a state of relaxation necessary for sleep.

I recently discovered that the half-life of caffeine (how long it takes for the amount of caffeine in our system to halve) varies wildly between people. I have learned (much to my disappointment, because I love caffeine) that it takes me about 12 hours to metabolise it (some people can do it in 3). This means drinking a coffee at 9am impacts my sleep at 10pm – which is why I have switched out my java for green tea.

On the topic of caffeine, podcaster Andrew Huberman recommends not drinking any at all for the first 90 to 120 minutes after waking up. The reason for this is because the body’s natural levels of cortisol are spiking at this time (cortisol activates our sympathetic nervous system and makes us alert), and caffeine will disrupt this natural process, making it less efficient over time as the body gets dependent on artificial sources of cortisol stimulation. Waiting a couple of hours means that our natural cortisol levels are starting to drop, and the caffeine then kicks this back in again.

Exercise is equally important but it’s all about timing. Engaging in regular, moderate exercise can improve the quality of your sleep by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and increasing the duration of sleep. However, exercising too close to bedtime can energise your body and make it harder to wind down. Aim to complete any vigorous activity at least three hours before you plan to sleep.

7. Tackling stress head-on

Stress is a major barrier to good sleep. Our bodies respond to stress by releasing cortisol, a hormone that increases alertness and energy. This is a useful response in the daytime but not so much when you’re trying to sleep. I’ve found mindfulness and meditation to be incredibly effective at managing stress. Just a few minutes of meditation before bed can help calm the mind and prepare the body for sleep.

Throughout the day, I also swear by non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). Also called “yoga nidra”, this involves getting the body into a highly relaxed state, but without falling asleep. I find that doing 10 minutes of this makes me feel like I’ve just had an hour-long nap, and I actually look forward to doing it now. I try to do it at least once a day, and also do it before turning out my light at night if I’ve had a particularly stressful or busy day. I recommend this free YouTube channel, which has a number of great NSDR exercises of different lengths.

Beyond these simple stress-reducing hacks, the important thing is to examine your overall stress levels during the day. If your HRV is low and other stress metrics are elevated, what is this telling you about who you are living your life? This is a question I ask my coaching clients when they have sleep issues, and 100% of the time they are out of balance. Once they notice this, they can start examining the deeper reasons for their elevated stress levels. This is where our work really starts to get interesting…

8. Understanding and addressing underlying issues

Stress is just a symptom of things being out of balance on a deeper level. Our body is perceiving something as a threat and activating our fight/flight response. When my clients start tracking their stress levels throughout the day, they tend to notice a distinct absence of sharks, tigers or snakes when their fight/flight circuits start taking over. Which tells them that the “threat” is happening in their heads. 

Common triggers include working too hard without taking breaks, excessive cognitive load (caused by too much complexity and also by consuming too much media), worrying, and interpersonal conflict.

Sometimes, sleep difficulties stem from deeper psychological issues, such as anxiety, depression, or unresolved trauma. In my work and personal experience, addressing these underlying issues is critical for achieving restful sleep. I love taking my coaching clients deep, helping them to examine the root cause of their stress and sleep issues. We always uncover something interesting, and once they start resolving whatever this is, they start sleeping properly again (and thriving, generally).

Recognizing and dealing with these underlying causes can be a challenging but rewarding process. It’s not just about improving sleep; it’s about improving your overall mental health and quality of life. If you suspect that deeper issues are affecting your sleep, seeking professional help can be a crucial step toward better rest.

Summing up

Good sleep is fundamental to enjoying good mental health and thriving in whatever we do. If you’re someone who struggles to get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night, I highly recommend you apply some (or all) of the strategies listed above. I have tested them all personally and also with countless other people over the past 2 decades, and promise you that they make a difference. 

For some of you, perhaps just implementing a few basic sleep hygiene strategies will make the difference. For others, you may need to do the deeper work of addressing your underlying stress levels and resolving whatever needs resolving to help you relax and sleep better.

If you know anyone who might benefit from this information, please feel free to share this post with them.

My hope for you and them is that you find ways to systematically improve your sleep, and enjoy the benefits of having a brain that is working optimally.

The concept of “wellbeing washing” as discussed in the Human Resource Executive article refers to a phenomenon where companies present a false sense of support for employee wellbeing. It’s analogous to “greenwashing,” where companies appear to be eco-friendly but fail to act meaningfully. Key findings and impacts of wellbeing washing include:

Superficial Wellbeing Efforts: Many companies implement superficial wellbeing initiatives, such as free fruit or mental health first aiders, without addressing critical issues like unrealistic workloads or workplace bullying. About 51% of employees believe their employer is guilty of wellbeing washing​​.

Ineffective Mental Health Initiatives: Certain mental health initiatives are perceived as insincere. For example, companies might provide quiet rooms for relaxation, yet using these spaces might be frowned upon by management. This contradiction undermines the authenticity of the company’s wellbeing efforts​​.

Growing Employee Awareness: There’s an increasing awareness among employees about wellbeing washing. While many employers celebrate mental health awareness events, only a small fraction provide effective mental health support. This discrepancy leads to a loss of trust in employer-sponsored wellbeing initiatives​​.

Consequences of Wellbeing Washing: The consequences include increased stress and burnout, with employees feeling pressured to maintain a façade of wellbeing. Glossy campaigns and perks are inadequate substitutes for genuine support. This situation can exacerbate mental health issues, negatively affect physical health, and lead to employee disengagement, reduced performance, and deteriorating workplace relationships​​​​​​​​​​.

HR’s Role in Addressing Wellbeing Washing: HR professionals must hold companies accountable for genuine wellbeing support. Moving beyond superficial gestures to implement meaningful, evidence-based initiatives is crucial. Establishing a culture of trust, support, and open communication is essential for employees to thrive. Failure to do so may result in increased staff turnover as employees seek organisations that genuinely care about their wellbeing​​.

Overall, wellbeing washing reflects a discrepancy between a company’s stated commitment to employee wellbeing and its actual practices, leading to negative outcomes for both employees and the organisation.


According to the 2023-2024 Aflac WorkForces Report, fewer employees believe that their managers genuinely care about their overall wellbeing. The report highlighted a decline in employees’ confidence in their employers’ concern for their wellbeing over the past three years. In 2023, only 48% of employees felt confident that their employers cared about their wellbeing, a decrease from 56% in 2022 and 59% in 2021. The report also noted that more than half of the respondents (57%) are suffering from at least moderate levels of burnout, primarily due to heavy workloads. Among those experiencing high burnout levels, 89% also faced other mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression​​​​​​.

The report suggests that employers should offer benefits that include mental health tools and resources, as well as work-life balance perks like flexible work schedules, to help with employee satisfaction, retention, and recruitment​​. However, there is a notable disconnect between how employers and employees view the satisfaction with benefits provided, which could affect organisational retention and recruitment​​.

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