On a recent episode of How To!, a listener, Ben, has tried just about everything to get better sleep. So Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the meditation app Headspace, suggests a new tactic: 10 minutes of meditation every day, at the start of the day. Puddicombe joined Ben and host Charles Duhigg to explain. This transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Andy Puddicombe: How much time do you take out for yourself, in any way, whether it’s simply resting, whether it’s getting some exercise, whether it’s being with friends? How much time a day do you give to yourself for that stuff?
Ben: I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of downtime where I can just completely let go and completely relax.
Andy: OK. Very often the restlessness of the mind will build up in the body, and it can come out in a whole host of different ways. It can be itchiness, it can be a lot of moving around and finding it difficult to sit still. But sometimes simply committing to 20 minutes a day, 30 minutes a day if you can, of quite vigorous exercise and building up to that over time. That can actually be a really, really important factor. And there’s a fair bit of research, as well, that shows how physical exercise can help us reduce anxiety and depression, and those things will inevitably impact your sleep.
The thing that I heard when you were talking to us both earlier is that all of these things tend to come in waves. And, so if you’re feeling tired, then you won’t go to jujitsu. So the sleep starts dictating, rather than you saying, “OK, each day I’m going to commit to these two things, regardless of how last night went.”
Charles Duhigg: This is the first rule. Make sure you exercise, even when you’re tired, especially when you’re tired. The physical activity becomes a cue that your body expects. When you don’t have it, when you disrupt that cycle because you’re feeling exhausted, it throws off everything. Your stress levels go up, and that impacts your sleeping patterns. And this ties into the next rule, because getting a good night’s sleep is not just about your body—it’s also about training your mind.
Andy: Do you experience your mind as more active when you lie down at nighttime than during the rest of the day?
Ben: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know.
Andy: So what usually happens is we lie down at night, we put our head on the pillow, we’re suddenly free from any conversation, any dialogue, any activity of any kind, and it can feel like the floodgates have just opened. Suddenly coming are all these thoughts. And again, the temptation is to think that that’s what happens when we go to bed., So that builds up anxiety around going to bed, because if you’re going to bed every night thinking, OK, I’ve just got to stop the thoughts, or I just need to try and create a state of mind, you’re putting so much pressure on yourself. And then when it doesn’t happen, it’s just demoralizing and then you feel like, Oh, I can’t do it, and then all of a sudden we start thinking that sleep is something that we do, rather than something that happens naturally.
Ben: Yeah, every night it’s like I have to run this marathon. It’s like I have to get there. I have to get to it. Like, how’s it going to go tonight?
Charles: The trick is to train yourself in how to let those thoughts go. And one way to do that is meditation, which, contrary to what you might have heard in the past, isn’t actually about emptying your mind. Rather, it’s about learning to intensely focus in a way that you can manage your thoughts. And meditation itself is like taking your brain to the gym and exercising this one very specific mental muscle.
Andy: I know mornings are a busy time for all of us. There’s lots of things going on in everyone’s households. Everyone’s trying to get to work and everything else. I would really try to carve out 10 minutes in the morning where—regardless of how that night’s sleep has gone, that’s done, that’s finished, it’s behind us—we sit down for 10 minutes and we train in mindfulness. Focus on being more present in the body, learning how to step out of the thinking, noticing when you get distracted, and coming back to the breath or whatever your object of focus is.
When you do that, a few things happen. One, you let go of any sort of sense of grogginess from the night before. You calm the body, you calm the mind, and you set the intention. You lay down the foundation for the entire day. We start to create this feeling of continuity, stability of mind, where we know where we are in the day. Over a period of time, that means when we go to bed, the mind isn’t so hurried, is not so restless, is not so confused. By the time you get to bed, the body already understands that you are winding down to sort of drift off.
Charles: Andy, I hear what you’re saying, and that sounds so attractive to be able to watch the thought come in and then watch it walk away and not feel any attachment to it. But how do I actually do that? It’s harder to do than just to say.
Andy: Of course. Most of the research studies around insomnia and mindfulness, they’re eight weeks long. So this isn’t you have to become a monk or a nun and you have to go off and do that whole thing. If you can kind of commit to a daily mindfulness practice for say 10 to 20 minutes a day, but 10 minutes is definitely enough, over a six- to eight-week period, then you would absolutely start to experience the ability to be less engaged with thinking. To be able to see thoughts, not necessarily chasing after the exciting ones, not necessarily resisting the difficult ones, but instead you’re just being more at ease, more OK, comfortable with the idea of thoughts coming and going. You’re just happy to lie down and let the mind drift off to sleep.
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