Chances are good, few habits need more of an overhaul right now than your sleep routine. You probably picked up a few bad sleep habits during the cold, dark winter and any additional stress you’re facing is helping the situation, says Brown University associate professor and medical doctor Katherine Sharkey.
Don’t panic: Sharkey, who has been researching sleep–and its connection with productivity, medicine, and mental health–for nearly 30 years, says it merely indicates that some spring cleaning is in order. “Just like how, at some point in January, you have to stop eating Christmas cookies,” she notes.
Sharkey believes spring is a particularly good time to reset your sleep hygiene–especially as the weather warms up and the days lengthen, increasing your exposure to natural light. Here are her top five tips for doing so:
1. Compress your sleep.
The reason most experts recommend six to eight hours of sleep per night, Sharkey says, is because your brain is only capable of producing that much quality sleep on any given night. Sleep for 10 hours and that quality gets diluted. So, set yourself some relatively rigid bedtimes and wake-up times to ensure that you’re experiencing the highest quality sleep you can.
2. Get outdoors.
Your body’s natural circadian rhythm is actually slightly longer than 24 hours, which means your sleep clock naturally shifts a few minutes each day–making it a challenge to consistently wake up at the same time each morning. Exposing yourself to natural light–not indoor light–each morning will help you reset that clock daily. “Doing things in brighter light does improve alertness and performance,” Sharkey says, adding that you don’t even have to do it in one fell swoop: As long as you’re accumulating between 15 and 60 total minutes of outdoor time daily by lunchtime, you’ll be in better mental shape.
3. Don’t sleep in.
If you’re short on sleep, Sharkey says, trying to catch up by sleeping in is “the last thing we would want them to do.” Rather, you should adhere to your normal routine whenever possible, even on weekends. “Irregular schedules do bad things to thinking, cognition, mood, hormone secretion, and waking–and are risk factors for all sorts of untoward health outcomes,” she warns.
4. Avoid long naps.
There’s plenty of evidence proving the value of short, 10-minute naps. Longer naps, however, can be problematic–especially if you’re already getting six to eight hours of sleep per night. “It’s like eating Doritos when your mom is making dinner,” Sharkey says. “And the sleep that you get in the middle of the day isn’t the sleep you get at night, because it’s not part of a 90- to 120-minute sleep cycle.” So, either limit your naps to 10 minutes or power through your midday slump until your predesignated bedtime.
5. Watch your caffeine intake.
Sharkey doesn’t necessarily recommend cutting caffeine from your diet. Rather, she warns against amping up your intake when you’re tired, because it can lead to fragmented sleep later that night–and that’s harmful to your cognition and productivity.
Most problematic caffeine consumption occurs in the afternoons and evenings, and Sharkey says that even people who think caffeine “doesn’t affect them” often experience lesser-quality sleep after consuming too much. So, consider the aforementioned 10-minute nap as a late-day replacement, as long as it too doesn’t disrupt your sleep later that night.
“The domains that I would say are important for sleep are high-quality, adequate duration, and well-timed,” Sharkey says, adding that shifts in those variables can lead to decreased reaction times, poor memory, and mood swings. So, take her advice. Your colleagues and clients will thank you–and so will your company’s bottom line.