Have you ever found yourself saying things like:
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”
“I do fine with just 4 hours of sleep a night.”
“I don’t need more sleep. I just need more caffeine!”
I know that I certainly believed such silly things in my hard-charging 20s and 30s. As did many of my fellow workaholic friends, family members, and colleagues.
Whether studying for exams in university, working for fast-paced startups, or trying to get my own ventures off the ground, I routinely cut back on Zs in an effort to “get it all done.” I sometimes joke that my approach in those days was not simply burning the candle at both ends, but rather cutting the candle in half and then burning each of those ends, too!
More is Not Better & Surviving is Not Thriving
While I certainly did get more done with these extra waking hours, the sad truth is that my study and work hours would have been far more efficient (and required far less time to begin with) had I given my brain the sleep it so desperately needed. More work and study rarely equals better results.
I certainly survived on little sleep all those years (or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now!), but there is a big difference between thriving and merely surviving.
Thanks to books like Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, I now know that my chronic sleep deprivation (and all the coffee and alcohol I used to self-medicate) significantly impaired my studies and work. May it be acquiring foreign languages, writing books, or launching businesses, more sleep would have meant:
- More clarity and creativity
- Less effort and stress
- Fewer mistakes
Sure, I eventually reached a decent level in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, but had my head spent more hours on the pillow, it would have been that much easier to encode and recall new words, phrases, structures, and characters while learning Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
The bottom line is this: If you want to master a language and live a happy, healthy, productive life of purpose, sufficient sleep is essential.
As Greg McKeown puts it in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people―especially ambitious, successful people―damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.”
So what is an optimal amount of sleep? And what kinds of sleep do we need to optimally consolidate, encode, and recall new words, phrases, and structures?
How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as your sleep needs will vary depending on numerous factors, including:
- Your age (babies and teenagers need more sleep)
- The time of year (we naturally sleep more in the winter)
- Your health status (we need more sleep when fighting off infections)
- Your previous sleep volume and quality (our bodies will try to make up for lost sleep)
But as a general rule, most adults should aim for 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night, plus a nap about 7 hours after waking if possible.
I know that this sounds like an impossible amount of sleep to attain for some of you, but try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do what you can to prioritize sleep using the tips below, but don’t let hitting your sleep goal be yet one more task on your overflowing to-do list that you stress over. As in all things, the goal should be progress, not perfection.
Good sleep is not binary. Getting 7 hours a night is much better than 6. Every minute of additional sleep you manage to carve out for yourself is a step in the right direction and vote for the kind of person you want to be.
NREM vs REM Sleep
Sleep quantity matters, but sleep quality is even more important. Just being unconscious for 8 hours is not enough. It’s also crucial that we get adequate quantities Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep (NREM) (so named because of the ocular movements, or lack thereof, observed during each type).
One of NREM sleep’s primary functions is weeding your “brain garden.” During this critical phase, your brain plants new memory “seeds,” pulls out mental “weeds,” and prunes your neural “trees.” New information is encoded and extraneous connections cut.
REM sleep, on the other hand, goes one step beyond simply encoding or pruning memories. It takes the raw material from previous experiences, and creates new connections and abstractions. Of particular importance for language learning, REM sleep is when we deduce grammatical patterns at an intuitive level. This is how babies learn languages, and how we adults can and should, too.
We cycle through both types of sleep roughly every 90 minutes, but NREM dominates earlier in the night, switching to REM dominance in the early morning hours.
So when you cut sleep short on either end by staying up too late or getting up too early, your memory and language learning take a hit.
5 Powerful Drug-Free Ways to Improve Your Sleep
Okay, so getting enough high-quality sleep is essential for learning a language. But I know what you’re thinking:
“How in the heck can I get more sleep and improve its quality?”
Many assume that sleep aids are the answer, whether supplements like melatonin or prescription drugs. The truth is that long-term melatonin use can disrupt your body’s natural hormonal balance. Not good. And sleeping pills are even worse: though they can knock you out, they do not actually lead to restorative sleep. Being unconscious is not the same thing as being asleep. Even worse, they can be habit forming and have loads of side-effects.
Fortunately, there are many natural, drug-free ways to fall (and stay!) asleep. Best of all, these approaches are free, don’t require seeing a doctor, have zero side-effects, and fit what your genes expect after millions of years of evolution.
1. Lighten Up (and Down)
Sunlight is one of the most powerful regulating forces of our circadian rhythms. Our natural sleep and wake patterns evolved to mirror the rising and falling sun. Exposing your eyes to bright light after dark (especially on the blue end of the spectrum, like your phone screen) tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime, which delays the release of melatonin and makes it tough to fall asleep.
Here are a few suggestions for limiting blue light:
- Set your devices to automatically dim and shift toward the orange end of the spectrum by installing the free F.lux app on your computer, installing the Twilight app on Android, or turning on Night Shift on iOS.
- Set a reminder to turn off all screens (smartphones, computers, TVs, etc.) at least 1 hour before bed. I find it helps to set up a charging station outside of the bedroom so I’m not tempted to use my iPhone in bed.
- If you normally do your language study at night, read a print book instead being on a device. (I highly recommend Olly Richards’ series of short-story books that teach you vocabulary and grammar in context.)
- Turn off overhead lights and use table lamps instead with warm, dimmable incandescent bulbs.
- Put on blue blocking glasses as soon as the sun sets. They may look nerdy, but they really do the trick.
And the opposite is true, too. Just as we should avoid artificial blue light in the evening, we want to maximize this wavelength of light in the morning. One of the best things you can do to sleep better at night is to expose yourself to bright sunlight first thing in the morning. Even overcast days provide plenty of blue light to help regulate your circadian rhythm.
2. Chill Out
Temperature is another powerful regulator of your circadian rhythm. Until the advent of central heating, our bodies would naturally be exposed to cooler temperatures at night, which helps trigger the onset of sleepiness. Here are a few tips:
- Schedule your thermostat to drop to 65℉ / 18℃ at night. This may sound chilly to some, but trust me: you will sleep far better.
- If others in your household can’t abide by the cooler nighttime temperatures, you can try a nifty mattress cover that cools just your side of the bed.
- Take a warm bath or shower before bed. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it works! As Matthew Walker shares in Why We Sleep:
“A luxury for many is to draw a hot bath in the evening and soak the body before bedtime. We feel it helps us fall asleep more quickly, which it can, but for the opposite reason most people imagine. You do not fall asleep faster because you are toasty and warm to the core. Instead, the hot bath invites blood to the surface of your skin, giving you that flushed appearance. When you get out of the bath, those dilated blood vessels on the surface quickly help radiate out inner heat, and your core body temperature plummets. Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10 to 15 percent more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults.”
3. Cut Caffeine
Caffeine is so common in today’s world that few ever stop and question the affects the drug has upon our brains, bodies, and sleep. And yes, it is a drug. It just happens to be a legal one found in nearly every kitchen, office, and rest stop. Ideally, you should experiment with zero caffeine for a few months to see the effect this has on your sleep. But kicking the caffeine addiction can be rough (I know, I’ve done it a few times), so at the very least, try to limit yourself to just one cup of coffee or tea in the morning (or no later than 12 hours before your desired bedtime). Also keep in mind that caffeine is found in numerous drinks and foods, not just coffee:
- Black teas
- Energy drinks
- Most sodas
- Some energy bars
- Coffee-infused ice creams, yogurts, etc.
4. Nix the Nightcap
As if I wasn’t enough of a buzz kill when I just encouraged you to kick caffeine, I am now going to up the ante and tell you to cut yet another beloved sleep sabotaging substance: alcohol.
Many believe that a few drinks help them sleep, but the science tells a different story. Like sleeping pills, alcohol can help “turn out the lights” so to speak, but it does not lead to restful, restorative sleep. In fact, it significantly reduces REM sleep, which, you will recall from above, helps us assimilate complex information like the grammar of a new language.
Here’s Walker again in Why We Sleep:
“. . . the evidence is so strong regarding alcohol’s harmful effects on sleep that to do otherwise would be doing you, and the science, a disservice. Many people enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. But it takes your liver and kidneys many hours to degrade and excrete that alcohol, even if you are an individual with fast-acting enzymes for ethanol decomposition. Nightly alcohol will likely disrupt your sleep, and the annoying advice of abstinence is the best, and most honest, I can offer.”
5. Stick to a Sleep Schedule, Even on Weekends
This last one is arguably the most important of the bunch, but also one of the hardest to follow. Many of us, especially because we are sleep deprived from insufficient sleep during the week, try to make up the deficit by sleeping in on weekends. Unfortunately, this approach has two big holes:
- You can never really make up for lost sleep.
- Sleeping in will make it that much harder to fall asleep at your normal time.
To ensure you consistently get enough sleep (and to make it easier to both fall asleep and wake up), do what you can to sleep and wake at the same time every day.
For those of you who struggle to wake up in the morning, I suggest using the Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light, which gradually increases light to mimic the sunrise.
But I also recommend setting a bedtime alarm in the evening to remind you to turn off screens and start winding down. You might not be able to guarantee when you fall asleep, but you can at least set the stage for sleep by scheduling the right triggers at the same time every night.