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How do habits affect sleep? And why is meditation so hard to start?

Hey sleep enthusiast, how are you with your habits? Do the actions you regularly take support your general well-being - and therefore, your Restful Sleep? You might have some habits that you’re proud of creating for yourself. Maybe you’re even happy to publicly share them, like your daily smoothie recipe or the trip to the gym.


There might be some habits that you know you’re ‘supposed to do’ but they just didn’t work for you. And there are most likely some that are, shall we say, not so instagram-able…?


As a sleep coach, a significant part of my work is helping people get clear on how the choices they make in their waking hours affect their overall well-being. Because these are what accumulate through the day to ultimately affect the ability to easily fall asleep by evening time.


In this blog article, we'll explore how habits work, along with how you can experiment with yours to support your well-being and sleep. We’ll also look at an approach for starting new habits and replacing what you might call bad habits (but are often just actions taken on autopilot that don’t serve your priorities).



What are habits and why do they matter?

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, defined a habit as ‘a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day.’


Habits actually make up a significant part of our behaviour, with research showing that ‘a stunning 43% of everyday actions are enacted habitually while people are thinking about something else’ (American Psychological Association).


So by understanding how we are using our time through our habits, we can see the impact that our, often subconscious, choices have on the outcomes that we experience in life. Which includes whether or not we find ourselves able to easily fall asleep at night or not.


How are daily habits related to sleep?

Something I often share in my work as a sleep coach is that good sleep starts the moment you wake up. That’s because whilst there are habits that directly relate to sleep, like the CBTI sleep rules, your general daily habits also impact on sleep. We make so many choices every day, often on autopilot, that shape our personal habits like how we exercise, deal with anxious thoughts and even watch tv in bed. These seemingly small decisions all have an impact on sleep quality to varying degrees.


If you’d like to find out more about the kind of things you can consider when it comes to assessing your regular, personal habits, you can check out the Restful Sleep guides for looking after your body, mind and environment to optimise your sleep. These cover most of the questions people tend to ask when starting out on their journey to improve their sleep.


Why we all have individual habits that support and block our sleep

There are many factors to consider because habits that support sleep will vary for everyone. That’s because there is no one formula to get consistent sleep as we all have different lifestyles, needs, priorities and preferences.


Supporting people to get clarity for themselves on what works for them and what doesn’t is what makes sleep coaching a fascinating journey. From working out which of their habits may support sleep and which can block it, to exploring new choices for habits that promote more Restful Sleep, to ultimately create a fulfilling lifestyle that works specifically for the individual.


You may not be sure which habits are supportive or detrimental to your sleep. Or your days could be so busy that you don’t have the space to consider these kinds of details. As habits are often things we do without thinking, it’s likely you may have some you are not even aware of.


For some inspiration about what’s worked for other people, you can read about how a former client got clear on the habits that were blocking their sleep here. If you would like to have a chat about how sleep coaching could help you to understand more about what may be blocking your sleep, you can book a free discovery call here.


How do you start to change bad habits?

An approach used in Restful Sleep coaching with clients comes from the work of James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits. A core concept from this is to start small, with the intention of becoming just one percent better every day in order to create cumulative improvements, and significant changes, over time.


“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it is actually big. That's the paradox of making small improvements.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits, page 38.


Atomic Habits refers to a framework called the Four Laws of Behaviour Change, this involves a habit loop consisting of four key steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue acts as a trigger, leading to a craving that motivates a particular response. The response is followed by a reward, which satisfies the initial craving and reinforces the association with the cue. James Clear adds in the following practical guidance:


1. Make It Obvious

This is about setting up a cue to do your new habit.


2. Make it Attractive

Creating a desire, or craving, to do your new habit.


3. Make it Easy

Encouraging yourself to respond and actually do the habit.


4. Make It Satisfying

Building a small reward built into completing your new habit.


It’s the same process in reverse for changing bad habits: make the cue invisible, reduce the craving by making it unattractive, diminish the response by making it difficult and dull the reward by making it unsatisfying. You can read about what James Clear has to share on breaking bad habits here.


What could changing a habit look like?

A habit people who struggle with sleep often wish to start is meditating in the evening before bedtime. As part of your evening routine, this habit supports preparing your body and mind to relax, gradually introducing an alternative to racing thoughts at night.


So let’s say you have decided it’s time to meditate after you have finished tidying up the kitchen (making it obvious). You get your cute new meditation cushion out and sit in a cosy spot you have specifically created in your bedroom (making it attractive). You set your timer (making it easy) for twenty minutes…


Not long into it, there are all the racing thoughts you wanted to quieten. OK, that’s to be expected, you stay with your breath and try to allow them to just be there. As the moments painfully go on, there are extra thoughts creeping in about how useless you are for not being able to do this seemingly simple practice of meditation. As well as frustration about the money spent on that meditation cushion. Soon enough, the discomfort becomes unbearable and the habit attempt shifts into ‘meditation just isn’t for me’.


Why ambitious new habits often don’t stick

This is a familiar story for new habits just not ‘sticking’ that I’ve heard from many people who really did give it their best shot. Where this habit creation didn’t follow the process was with the third step of making it easy - whilst the meditation app was helpful for tracking the time, setting the time for twenty minutes as a beginner meditator turned out to not be accessible.


Break habits down into their smallest possible version

Something that often comes with initial habit change is when big changes are enthusiastically attempted, the experience may feel overwhelming and lead to inevitable failure. So rather than setting out to do new habits to their fullest, the question to consider is how can you start out with the smallest possible version of that habit?


Through working with people who struggle with sleep, I have found that a three minute meditation can be a more comfortable place to start out and build from there, but you could go even smaller. Whatever it takes for you to get started, remember the intention of starting small, committing to the action you take as a vote for the type of person you wish to become, so you can get one percent better every day.


Why can meditation be hard to start?

If you’re used to a busy life with lots of stimulation in your days, maybe even living life feeling simultaneously tired and wired, aka t’wired, drastically stopping everything to sit in stillness can be a shock to the system. Which may mean that meditation may not be accessible for long at first.


This is actually a common reaction to trying out meditation for people who are always on the go and struggle with sleep. I want to offer some reassurance that it doesn’t mean meditation isn’t possible, it’s just that you may need to start off small and have some patience whilst finding a version that fits your life.


Get support with understanding your habits for sleep

How are you feeling about your habits, sleep enthusiast? Can you get curious about breaking down new habits into their smallest versions to get started? If you’d like non-judgemental support in exploring the habits you may wish to change to support your sleep, you can book a free discovery call here. Or you can find out more about sleep coaching here.


Stay curious,

Maša.


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About the author

Maša Nobilo, Sleep Coach

From first-hand insomniac to certified Embodied Facilitator with training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, the Feldenkrais Method and Embodied Yoga Principles, Maša is well-equipped to support you on journey to restful sleep.
Learn more below.

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