A More Useful Guide to Student Sleep

student-sleep-guide

…And why I didn’t mind being called smug

I loved being the last person to bed at night and the first person up in the morning.

My friends didn’t love it so much. I got called smug more than once.

I probably got called a lot worse out of earshot…

On one hand, I was lucky enough to only need around 6-hours of sleep a night, and I could do the odd 3- or 4-hour night without fuss.

On the other hand, I was only able to do this because I knew what made me tick. I’d already done the testing and suffered the consequences under control.

For example, one night I decided not to sleep at all. I wanted to spend the following day noting how I felt.

And that morning, I went for a haircut. I nearly fell asleep in the chair. The sound of electric clippers next to my ears wasn’t enough to stop me nearly dropping off.

The takeaway…I can’t get away with no sleep. Dagnabbit!

Another time, I went two nights without sleep. How long would it take me to recover?

When I finally did go to bed, I slept the moment my head hit the pillow.

Yet just six hours later, I was up and about as if nothing had happened.

Lots of small experiments like this were great in the run-up to university.

So why is this a more useful guide to student sleep? Basically, because this isn’t the usual advice to find a regular routine and get rid of distractions.

That type of advice is available elsewhere. And I’ve gone over those sleep issues on here before.

Student life can be different. Sleep can take a back seat. And when your timetable doesn’t have a regular structure, it’s hard to stick to a routine anyway.

That’s not to mention the impromptu late-nights and last-minute arrangements.

Understand how you work, with or without a routine

Clearly, a lack of rhythm is a pain.

Luckily, you can still do yourself some favours.

First off, it’s important to know how much sleep you need. Also, work out when you most like to get that sleep. Do you work better with an early night, or do you naturally stay up late?

If you don’t know these things, spend a few weeks testing the ground:

  • Spend a week going to bed at the same time every evening;
  • Now spend a week waking up at the same time every morning;
  • Now spend a week sleeping the number of hours you *think* you need. Do you wake refreshed, or might you need a longer stretch?

Thursday’s TUB-Thump will have more ideas on doing this.

When you know what makes you tick, you can tackle each situation as it arises. You don’t need a regular routine to make things work.

Learning from the teachers

Don’t knock regularity though. It’s still better if you can manage it.

Some of the most disciplined students I knew were those in Teaching.

During work placements, the teaching crowd had to be up early in the morning, ready to be taken to their school. Sometimes, this meant being up around 5am each day.

They didn’t have a choice.

But they didn’t complain. Well, not much!

It was clear from these student teachers that the only way to get past problems of unstructured craziness was to deal with it directly.

If you don’t take action, nobody else will. Your sleep is only a mystery when you don’t engage with it yourself.

My teaching friends still had late nights and managed to have impromptu fun. The difference was that they knew when to do it and when not to. Occasional was okay, regularly wasn’t.

And, perhaps most importantly, they called the shots. Nobody else.

How to deal with 6 more student-specific sleep issues

No matter how much you’re calling the shots, there are other issues that get in the way of your slumber.

From the people you live with, to the self-sabotaging thoughts in your head, you’ve got a lot to contend with.

TUB’s got you covered. Here’s how to address some of those student-specific sleep issues:

1. Early morning lectures when you’re a night-owl

When your timetable has two or three days of early starts, make the night before a calm one, even if you do stay up late.

The cards are already stacked against you, so don’t make it worse by going out, drinking loads, or doing anything that’ll keep your brain racing for longer than it needs to.

Prepare as much as you can for the following morning, so you have it sorted in advance. Clothes, books, equipment, packed bag, food…Everything you can think of so you don’t need to deal with it when you’re tired.

That way, bleary-eyed, you won’t have as much to think about for the early start.

2. Getting woken up by loud housemates

Some issues are out of your control. Noisy mates fall into that category.

When you expect your (supposed) friends to make a rowdy entrance in the early hours, it’s time for some damage limitation.

If you’d rather not wear earplugs, you could use comfortable earbuds (ones you’re okay to fall asleep while wearing) and listen to ambient sounds that drown out the outside world. A couple of my favourite apps are White Noise+ and Rain Rain.

And don’t forget to lock your door and windows. Yes, I’ve known situations where people are disturbed by drunken housemates who have climbed in through an open bedroom window.

That said, you probably don’t need to worry as much about an open window if you live on the third floor.

It depends on how determined (or sensible) your mates are…

3. Staying up later than you intended

Not all late-night events are planned. We’ve all been there.

But instead of thinking, “Just a bit longer”, switch to a different mindset. Think, “How much am I going to regret this in the morning?

In other words, get out when you feel the longer-term benefits of sleep outweigh the short-term joy of being out.

There will always be the odd event that you absolutely must stay at until the end. But these are rare. When your body is screaming out for sleep, do what it’s telling you!

4. You didn’t listen to your body anyway

Okay, it’s emergency time.

When you’ve not had enough sleep, you may still have a trick up your sleeve.

Enter the nap.

I’ve talked about powernaps before in these posts:

But there’s so much more to the nap than that.

Fortunately, someone else has put together a long article about getting the right type of nap for you.

How to Take the Perfect Nap for Performance, Mood and Memory

Thanks, Helmut!

5. You’re sabotaging yourself and you don’t even know it

What time in the day do you work best? Whenever it is, there may still be room to improve.

There’s a term called self-handicapping. If you’ve not heard of it, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

“An example of self-handicapping is the student who spends the night before an important exam partying rather than studying. The student fears failing his exam and appearing incapable. In partying the night before the exam the student has engaged in self-defeating behaviour and increased the likelihood of poor exam performance. However, in the event of failure, the student can offer fatigue and a hangover, rather than lack of ability, as plausible explanations. Furthermore, should the student receive positive feedback about his exam, his achievement is enhanced by the fact that he succeeded, despite the handicap.” [SOURCE]

A team at Indiana University found that people who identify as night-owls are more likely to self-handicap during their evening time of peak-performance. Similarly, those who prefer the mornings will self-handicap most in the morning.

Are you choosing to lose sleep, or stay in bed longer than you need? Don’t let your worries lead to self-sabotage.

6. Your gut is trying to tell you something

You may not have indigestion, but there are other ways your body can tell you to improve your digestive health.

Your enteric nervous system is your “brain in the gut“. It can mess about with how you feel. Digestion problems may be keeping you up at night.

Lifehack says you may get a better night of sleep when you drink tea, do yoga, and eat more healthily.

My favourite site for information on healthy eating and avoiding preventable illness is Nutritionfacts.org.

Summing Up

No matter how much sleep you need and no matter how your schedule looks, you can make sleep work as a student.

It’s not always as simple as going to bed early enough and getting up at the same time every day. But at least you have options beyond this.

There’s no need to feel tired in perpetuity. We all get the occasional rubbish day, but don’t suffer every day when you don’t have to.

For all the temptation there is to stay up as late as possible, it’s no good doing it when you suffer the rest of the time.

The most effective way to find what works for you is to put in the effort in the first place. The more self-aware you are, the more you can feel like anything is possible.

One day soon, maybe your friends will be calling you smug too. It might just be the happiest day (and night) of your life so far.

And if it’s not, at least you’ll be sleeping soundly.