It doesn’t matter if you catch me first thing in the morning or some time in the middle of the afternoon. Chances are that I’m going to be pretty tired (and look the part too). Maybe it’s a little cliche to say that all parents, particularly of babies and young children, suffer from chronic fatigue. Maybe this is further exacerbated by my life as a freelance writer and stay-at-home dad. I don’t feel like I ever get enough sleep.

But here’s the thing. Even if I am so lucky as to go to bed early or to sleep in for a couple extra hours, I still feel totally drained. It’s never good enough and I feel like I’ll never “catch up” on all that lost sleep. So, the idea is that if there isn’t very much I can do about the quantity of sleep I get, I should be working to improve my sleep quality instead. Now, how exactly do I do that?

Charging My Phone

It’s a nightly ritual that likely sounds all too familiar. I used to charge my smartphone at my bedside each night. And as I tried to fall asleep, I’d notice the notification light gently pulsing in my peripheral vision. I’d feel compelled to check, because clearly Facebook could not wait until the next morning. Or when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, I’d feel compelled to check it too.

Of course, we’ve known for years that the “blue light” emitted from such screens can disrupt circadian rhythms and inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone that normally induces sleep. This can be remarkably harmful for sleep quality. The first step was charging my phone across the room. Now, I usually charge it in another room.

Avoiding the Third Shift

Parents have been inundated with advice about establishing a bedtime routine for babies, but we as adults should really be doing that too. In addition to the whole problem with the blue light emitted by my computer monitors — which I mitigate to some extent with a program called f.lux — working the “third shift” after the kid is asleep also requires my brain to fire on all cylinders all the way up until I go to bed too.

That makes it harder to fall asleep, even if I’m incredibly tired. It also means that my sleep quality could take a hit, as my brain continues to process residual information throughout the night. Yes, sometimes the third shift is necessary, but I’m doing what I can to cut back… or at least have some time between the “end” of work and the “beginning” of when I want to sleep.

Reducing Screen Time

Late nights on the computer

Truth be told, these first three initiatives to improve my quality of sleep are all intrinsically related. They all have to do with limiting the amount of “screen time” I have before going to sleep. Even if I am able to end the third shift “early,” I don’t want to then turn on the TV to watch some Netflix if I can help it.

In an ideal world that will likely never be fully achieved, I’d like to have zero screen time for at least a couple of hours before bedtime. That’s not completely realistic for a myriad of reasons. What I can do is reduce how much I get.

That’s part of the reason why I committed to reading at least a book a month. I’d like my bedtime routine to involve some quiet time in bed, reading a book, rather than staring at a computer monitor, TV, tablet or smartphone. Even reading on the e-ink display of a Kindle is way better, though I think I still prefer actual printed books.

Cutting Back on Caffeine

Coffee can be good for you and I don’t think I’m going to give it up entirely any time soon, if ever. But I also recognize that people who quit coffee (and caffeine) have reported improved sleep quality, among other potential health benefits.

Caffeine is a stimulant, so of course it keeps you up. While I don’t have a hard and fast rule on the matter, I’m trying to avoid caffeinated or extra sugary beverages any time after about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I may have a little tea with dinner if I’m at an Asian restaurant. The idea is that this will give my body enough time to digest and process the caffeine so I can still have a more restful sleep.

Leveraging the Mind Dump

I think this is something that I’ve mentioned on this blog before too. I keep a paper notepad and pen at my bedside for precisely this purpose. You never know when inspiration might strike and, as I’m in a creative business, I need to capture these ideas for later exploration. I used to capture these ideas digitally on my phone, but I don’t have my phone next to my bed anymore.

The “mind dump” has dual benefits. First, it ensures that I can capture those ideas while they’re still fresh. Second, it helps to take a load off my mind so I don’t continue to stress and process the idea while lying awake in bed. I can comfortably set the idea aside until the next morning.

Do you struggle with chronic fatigue? Are you tired all the time? How do you get enough quality sleep each night?