Counting Sheep… to Get More Sleep

Getting more sleep matters. It really matters.

Recent research shows us that sleep deprivation affects us much more than we used to think. We now know that lack of sleep significantly hinders all of our abilities, and this includes our cognitive functioning. When we are sleep deprived, not only is our performance negatively impacted, it is also much less likely that we will ever be able to perform at our best, no matter how hard we try and how many hours we put in.

One study done in 2018 found that people who sleep for five to six hours per night are 19 percent less productive than people who regularly sleep for seven to eight hours per night, and people who sleep for less than five hours are nearly 30 percent less productive. So although the people sleeping less are awake for longer, they are actually getting less done in the day. Perhaps this is because other research shows that only getting six hours of sleep makes tasks that require focus, deep thinking or problem-solving a lot harder to do.

Where attention and reaction time are concerned, research shows that if you go 12 consecutive nights on only six hours’ sleep, it’s equivalent to a blood alcohol of 0.1% (which is marked by slurred speech, poor balance, and impaired memory). In other words, you would be functioning as if you are drunk. The performance of someone who has been awake for 24-hours is equivalent to that associated with a blood alcohol level 25% more than the current UK legal drink driving limit of 0.8%. This makes them 7 times more likely to have an accident.

Another study shows that sleep deprivation makes completing any activity that requires multiple steps (which is just about everything we do) much more difficult, because the sleep deprivation has an impact on placekeeping (the ability to complete a series of steps without losing one's place, despite potential interruptions).

The research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention. These results suggest that although some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together when doing routine tasks (e.g. a doctor taking a patient's vitals), they are less likely to be successful when completing an activity that requires following multiple steps (e.g. a doctor completing a medical procedure).

What this tells us is that sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do. They simply cannot trust that they won't make costly errors, because often, like when behind the wheel of a car, such errors can have tragic consequences.

For more information comparing sleep deprivation to alcohol impairment read: Cheers! Here’s to Your Health an article I have written and posted on my website.

Fatigue kills.

Sleep Matters to YOU too

Before you say, "Yeah, but that's other people; lack of sleep doesn’t affect me”, think again.

Although it is physically possible for some people to get by on only four or five hours of sleep a night, research tells us that only a tiny fraction of the population is actually built to function well on such little sleep. The chances that any of us fall into that tiny fraction are pretty slim, which is why we need to pay attention to the principles of good sleep hygiene.

To read about the principles of good sleep hygiene, read my article Insomnia

Sleep Discipline

Having a sleep routine – a regular ‘go-to-bed’ and ‘get-up’ time – is one of the principles of good sleep hygiene and it takes discipline.

Military personnel in the USA have this sleep discipline. Whether they are an early bird or a night owl it doesn't matter: every American soldier in basic training gets up at 5 a.m. Sound early? Sure. But they also go to bed at 9 p.m., a routine that forms the start of their "sleep discipline", the practice of creating and consistently following a sleep routine. And yes, it does take practice.

Planning for sleep in training and tactical environments is a core leadership competency in the US Army. The goal is seven to nine hours of sleep every 24 hours; otherwise, even simple tasks can be compromised. The situations they find themselves in sometimes means that soldiers cannot get the full amount of sleep required and so soldiers on deployment are also encouraged to take "tactical naps" whenever possible.

Sleep is a Weapon.
A Clear Mind is a Combat Edge.
Fatigue Increases Operational Risk.

Dept. of the Navy, USA

Creating Your Own Sleep Routine

If you are going to take getting enough sleep seriously, so that you can function at your best and be the most productive possible, creating a sleep routine is an excellent place to start. Here’s how to do it…

Tonight, choose a bedtime. This is the time that you will be in bed and will turn off the lights ready for sleep. You might have already given yourself time for things like reading, sex and journaling in bed, but bedtime is the time you switch off the lights and settle down ready to sleep.

Note, you are not choosing the time that you will go to sleep, because that's harder to control. You are choosing the time that lets you get seven to nine hours of sleep. For example, if you need to be up at 6 am then you need to be turning off the lights at around 10 pm.  

So "bedtime" is not as the time you will definitely fall asleep, but is the earliest time you might go to sleep. (You won't fall asleep right away unless you're totally exhausted).

Then just relax. Let your mind wander. Don’t focus on anything. Don't think about going to sleep. Don't try to go to sleep. Just chill. If it takes you a long time to fall asleep, that's alright. In my article Insomnia I mention that it is quite normal for a person to take 20 minutes to fall asleep. Those people that do fall asleep instantly are either totally exhausted or have trained themselves to fall asleep quickly.

The next day, don’t take a nap during the day, but do go to bed at the same time again. Remember to see it as bedtime, not sleep time, and just chill. In time, your body will start to adapt.

It is really important to keep to the routine. This includes the weekends. Most people have an early- to-bed time on ‘school nights’ and a late-to-bed time on weekends, which is not a sleep routine at all. Consistency every night of the week is crucial.

But what if you really struggle to get to sleep? Here are a few techniques you can try to help you to fall asleep.

Techniques to Help you Fall Asleep

There are many different techniques that you can use to help you to fall asleep quickly, but the most important thing is to find what works best for you. Some people find that relaxation techniques or journaling exercises help them fall asleep quickly, while others prefer to listen to calm music before bed. Some people find reading puts them to sleep, while others find reading wakes them up as they get ‘into’ an absorbing book.

The bottom line is that you should do whatever makes you feel relaxed and sleepy. If you can create an environment that is conducive to sleep, you’ll find it much easier to fall asleep in just a few minutes.

Relaxation Techniques

The "Military Method" to fall asleep in less than 2 minutes is a deep muscle relaxation technique that has been used by the military for years to help troops fall asleep quickly and easily. The method is simple and can be done anywhere, without any equipment. To fall asleep using this method, you will need to follow these steps:


  • Get into a comfortable position. You can either lie down or sit up, but make sure that you are in a position where you can relax your body.
  • Shut your eyes. Deeply inhale and exhale slowly. Then gradually relax every facial muscle. (If it helps, begin with the muscles in your forehead and gradually work your way downwards from there. Everything should be relaxed, including your mouth, tongue, cheeks, and jaw. Let them go, your eyes included.)
  • Release any tension. Get comfortable in the chair or bed by relaxing your neck and trapezoid muscles. After that, progressively relax your biceps, forearms, and hands, beginning at the top of your right arm. Repeat on the opposite side. Remember to continue breathing deeply and slowly as well.
  • Relax your chest as you exhale. That ought to be simple if you relax your shoulders and arms.
  • Your legs should be at ease. Let your right thigh relax into the chair or bed to start. Then repeat the process with your foot, ankle, and calf. Apply the same technique to your left leg.
  • Clear your thoughts now. Undoubtedly, it’s challenging to not think about anything and if you struggle to clear your mind, try a soothing image.
  • Repeat these steps until you feel yourself relax and fall asleep.


Essentially the Military Method is a progressive relaxation technique because you are progressively relaxing each muscle group in your body working from your head to your toes (or from your toes to head).

You will find many variations of the progressive relaxation technique if you look on the internet or in self-help books.

Personally, I prefer to work my way up my body from my toes to my head, rather than down, so that at the very end when I get to the top of my head I can also stop concentrating on relaxing my muscles and shut down my mind too. I also like to do both the left and the right sides of my body at the same time. So I relax both feet, then both ankles, then both calves and so on, working up my body towards my head. I also include my stomach and back muscles which are not really mentioned in the Military Method.

A very useful progressive relaxation technique is the one where you first tense and then relax each muscle group in turn. So if you were relaxing your calf muscles, for example, you would first tense your calves making them as hard/rigid/contracted as possible for about three seconds, then release/relax/let go your calves for about three seconds, feeling that lovely relaxed tingly feeling. Then you would contract your calves for a second time, feeling the tension for about three seconds and finally release/relax/let go the calf muscles and move on to the next muscle group.

The value of this technique is that you really become aware of how your muscles feel when you are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed. Many of us carry so much tension in our bodies all of the time that we are not even aware we are tense. With practice you can develop your awareness to the point where you can relax your muscles instantly and no longer even need to use the technique.

Identify the Things That Keep You Up at Night.

There are many things that can keep you up at night and prevent you from falling asleep quickly. Identifying the things that keep you up (noise, light, temperature, an uncomfortable mattress, stress, anxiety etc.) can help you to address them and so enable you to fall asleep more easily.

Clear Your Mind

Clearing your mind is often difficult, but it is essential if you want to go to sleep. Worrying about things and trying to remember things is a sure way to stay awake. Have a pen and paper (not a tech device) to write down things you need to remember. That way you can let them go knowing that the reminder will be there for you in the morning.

I encourage you not to use a tech device at night to help you to remember things for a few reasons:

  • It’s too easy to get sucked onto social media when you see notifications and quickly lose chunks of sleep time.
  • It’s too tempting to play your favourite games and scroll around looking at images and videos instead of sleeping.
  • We know that just being on your device is not conducive to sleep. Recent thinking tells us to put our devices away at least an hour before bedtime, if not 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

There are many techniques to help you clear your mind:

  • Repeating a mantra (a word or phrase) can be useful. Choose positive language such as “I am calm” rather than negative “I am not stressed”, because what you are focusing on is what you will get.
  • Repeat a short prayer over and over.
  • Picture a soothing image and focus on that.
  • Practice Mindfulness Meditation – focussing on the here and now – such as focussing on your breath. When your mind begins to wander, simply bring your attention back to your breath.

Even try counting sheep – this age old cliché’ is just another way to help you to focus on one repetitive thing and so clear your mind.  

These techniques might not help you get to sleep faster the first few times, but the more consistently you use a technique, the better you'll get at relaxing and letting go. Which, at the end of the day (pun intended! Ha!), is how we all fall asleep.