Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

Creating a sleep ritual

Written on 8th May, 2011
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My first post on this blog was one where I pondered whether exercise is a requirement for sleep. The post was actually triggered by my inability to sleep, and I wrote it in the middle of the night. Since then, I have made a number of adjustments and I now sleep much better, so I’d like to share what I’ve changed.

Why create a sleep ritual?

As an early stage startup founder, I’ve found the emotional ups and downs to be incredible. In my experience so far in building my latest startup, there have been many different events which have caused a huge amount of joyful moments, and there are undeniably times when you wonder how you are going to progress and how you are going to handle the sheer chaos in which you’ve chosen to live. It is easy to work long hours, become very unproductive and find yourself enjoying the moments less.

In my experience, you have enough against you if you’re running a startup that feeling exhausted for the majority of every day is not a wise idea. I’ve realised over the last few months that balance, however elusive it might sound, is very important. A key example is how crucial feedback and communicating with users is at the beginning of a startup. For me, I find that the emails I write are much better, and the energy I can put into responding fast and positively to Tweets is higher when I am well rested.

What is a sleep ritual?

I learned about rituals from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. Whilst habits are often seen as activities you have to force yourself to do, rituals are instead activities which you are pulled towards. A good friend introduced me to the book, and also helped me craft a new ritual to help me get to sleep at a good hour and in a good state of mind each night. It takes some time to convert a habit into a ritual, but once you have it becomes something that does not require thought or energy, and instead can provide you with vast amounts of extra energy.

I’ve adjusted this ritual over time, and it can be simplified to two important parts:

Disengage: An activity to allow total disengagement from the day’s work. For me, this is going for a 20 minute walk every evening at 9:30pm. This is a wind down period, and allows me to evaluate the day’s work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work and reach a state of tiredness.

Avoid re-engaging: After the activity, go straight to bed. Be sure that all devices are in a separate room to the one you sleep (and slient). Once in bed, do not read books which are related to your work in any way. For me, this means reading fiction.

Adjusting and improving the ritual

It’s important to start with something simple, so that you can keep to it and allow it to convert from being a habit you struggle with to a ritual you are pulled towards doing. Once you are performing the ritual regularly, you can start to add more good habits and let those become rituals too.

Recently, I have combined early morning exercise with my sleep ritual. The sleep ritual helps me get a good night’s sleep, and allows me to get up very early. I like early mornings, and I like to start the day feeling refreshed and confident. I’ve also been trying to make going to the gym a regular part of my life, and I’ve often struggled to fit it into my day. I now go to the gym as soon as I wake up, and this is perfect since whatever chaos my day brings, I can almost always go to the gym before it starts.

Allow imperfection

Don’t worry if you miss days. It’s important to avoid guilt, and instead learn what is best for yourself and try again. It took some time, but I perform my ritual almost religiously now during the week. However, I don’t usually do it at the weekends. If I miss it one day, it is often due to being overwhelmed by everything that is going on. In those cases, I’ve found becoming consciously aware of the reason I’ve slipped out of my ritual, and then making a definite decision to start it again has allowed me to reduce the impact of stress.

I know that with the ritual, whatever chaos the day has brought, I can feel fresh the next day.

Do you have a ritual which helps you to sleep well and feel good each day? Do you think it is something you’d like to try? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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