How to Improve Your Sleep, and General Health, by Exercising Your Self-Discipline Muscle

I’m beginning to think that getting a good night’s sleep is a superpower. Sleep deprivation leads to a laundry list of bad outcomes, so getting good sleep is critical to your mental and physical health.

This superpower is one that my oldest and youngest boys possess, but that my middle boy and I do not. One and three go to bed, fall asleep and they’re gone for the night. Two and I go to bed, toss, turn, fidget, doze off, wake up, conk out for a bit, and come morning, drag it out of bed feeling as if we go no sleep at all.

A million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in high school, I noticed something peculiar. When I went to bed, I simply couldn’t fall asleep.

In fact, it got so bad that at 11 pm, instead of going to bed, I’d turn on Global TV (I think) and watch reruns of Kung Fu. The good Kung Fu I mean, with David Carradine (a very white man) wandering the American Wild West as a (1/2) Chinese monk, looking for his long lost brother, getting into poorly choreographed, and even more poorly acted fights. That is to say, not the crappy sequel series they made with Carradine playing his original character’s grandson, filmed in Toronto’s Chinatown. They made that piece of crap long after I graduated university.

Anyway, I’d watch the nightly episode, and then take a walk. A long walk. Like, four to five miles, getting back somewhere in the 1am time frame, whereupon I would finally be able to get some sleep.

University wasn’t much better, with me often getting to sleep wayyy into the wee hours, and cruising through the day on four, maybe five hours of sleep. Damned 8am lectures.

This sleeping problem actually stood me in good stead in my consulting career. There were times when I was two time zones away from home, so getting up at 7am for work felt like 5am on my body clock. Being able to function for a week at a time on four hours of sleep was incredibly valuable.

Now, as I spend more time exploring the relationships that sleep has with mental and physical health, stress, digestion, heartrate and more, I find that my lifelong terrible sleep patterns are a big problem.

Fortunately I’ve also spent a good chunk of time noodling and writing on topics such as discipline and developing good habits.

Even more fortunately I have the experience of overcoming 45 years of poor posture (and learning to, so I’ve decided to apply the same core principals I use, to shed bad habits and develop good habits, to get better sleep.

One of those core principles is that self discipline is a like a muscle, and like any muscle, self discipline either gets stronger, or atrophies. It gets stronger through use, and atrophies through disuse.

I’ve led a highly undisciplined life; many (if not most) of my accomplishments have not come through hard work and discipline, but through talent. I find it both interesting, and revealing, that I find those accomplishments that took real work to be sources of pride, and those that did not, are not.

For instance;

  • I take no particular pride in my educational achievements. I never really worked in school, skating through all levels, including two degrees, on native intelligence rather than work.
  • On the other hand, my fitness level, my black belts, my yoga abilities? Those took work, and I take pride in them.

So, coasting through life on ability has made my self-discipline muscle rather weak, which means that fixing my sleep needs something more. I need to exercise that lousy self-discipline muscle.

Which I’ve been doing for the last two months. Every day for

  • eight weeks, rain or shine, I have gotten out of the house for exercise
  • five weeks, I’ve meditated
  • five weeks, I’ve done some form of strength training
  • the last week, I’ve gone to bed at a reasonable hour, to try to get 7-1/2 hours of sleep

Having spent two months exercising my self-discipline muscle has made the last one much easier than any previous attempt to fix my sleep. Of which there have been a few.

And I’m already seeing results.

It’s not much, as my falling asleep time is still highly variable, but getting a consistent rest time in bed is showing up in

  • my resting heart rate ticking down
  • my patience with the boys ticking up
  • having better focus earlier in the day
  • getting more accomplished during the day

Will I ever be like my father-in-law, who can drink a cup of coffee right before bed, and fall asleep for a solid night’s rest? I sincerely doubt it. But then again, when I began yoga I could barely stretch to my mid shins, and after two years I could lay my palms flat to the floor.

With self-discipline and practice, much becomes possible.