The golden sun begins to turn amber, then pink, and shrinks over the horizon. The streets begin to clear, the city becomes quiet. Desolate. Night creatures come out of their nests to feast on the remains of the day. As the temperature drops and the last lights shrink away and the shadows expand and engulf all that can be seen, it begins.

The ritual.

There is no need to fear The Ritual of The Dark. There is no use. Fear cannot defeat it. It can only be accepted. To fight it is folly.

Because it’s your night ritual!

Do you have a night ritual? Most of us do, whether it’s come together intentionally or not.

I suffer from hella insomnia, and my schedule is hectic and always changing, so it was critical to take control of my night ritual. It took a long time, and it’s still a process, but if, like me, sleep issues cause anxiety for you, I highly recommend taking a look at your night ritual.

The night time is the right time

Even though as a kid, I was a total morning person — even voted Class Morning Person in Senior Superlatives in High School — in adulthood I morphed into a complete night owl who loathes the morning alarm, especially in winter when it goes off AND IT’S STILL FRICKIN DARK OUTSIDE! IT SHOULD BE ILLEGAL TO FORCE SOMEONE TO GET UP BEFORE DAWN TO WORK, IT’S UNNATURAL!

But I digress…

As a night owl who has a 9-5, I developed the very BRILLIANT habit of trying to sneak in naps where I could. A cat nap after lunch, a disco nap after work, before the evening commenced.

Naps are fun. Believe me, I know. And when short 20 minute naps are taken early in the day, they can fight off fatigue. But if you’re taking them later than lunch, they’re ruining your actual sleep. A nap late in the day will throw off your body’s natural rhythms and make it unready to pump out that melatonin you need when it’s actual bedtime. If you have the kind of life where you can take a 1.5 hour siesta mid-day, more power to you. But most of us won’t have an opportunity for a nap until after work, and by then it’s too late. The rest of us need to avoid the naps and save the melatonin up for when we need it most.

The hour is nigh

What time do you hit the hay? 10? 12? 2? Whenever you feel like it? Whenever your work is done? Does it change every night.

Well, Einstein, if you’re having sleep troubles, why don’t we take a look right here.

Getting the right amount of sleep for what your body needs is critical for your health. Just like the DC Metro (supposedly at least) sleep time is when your body does it’s repairs on your systems. And these happen at specific stages of sleep too. More deep sleep stages has been proven to improve immunity, reduce recovery time after injury, and other good stuff. REM sleep may be when your brain flushes out all the shit that builds up inside of it during the day, reducing your risk of eventually developing maladies like dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s like your brain is power-washing those cells that got a lot of use recently, the act of which could be the source of our dreams, with the cells firing off as they get scrubbed. Bottom line, you need to get more sleep.

The best way to assure you’re getting ENOUGH sleep is to make sure you’re GETTING to sleep consistently. You need a consistent sleep time and wake time.

“A bedtime?” You protest. “But I’m a grown up!”

Oh is that why you lost your shit and screamed at bad-breath-Brenda for chewing too loud at work today? Is that why you spent an hour crying in the designated bathroom crying stall on Tuesday?

Let’s face it, you’re not adulting very well, and your sleep is to blame.

Consistent bedtimes and wake times — which enforce a healthy rhythm for your body — will help your body get better sleep, but many of us can’t commit to the same bedtime and wake time every day. I have my day job Monday through Friday, but I also have a smattering of very late night DJ gigs throughout the month — sometimes on weekends, sometimes on weekdays — that make an absolute sleep schedule impossible.

But there are ENOUGH nights a week I DO NOT have to DJ late for which I can enforce a strict bedtime and strict wake time on myself. On the nights I do work late, when possible, I try to get the same number of hours of sleep. Not always possible, but I try to let veering off that 6 hours a night path the rare exception and nothing close to the rule.

This makes things tricky when it comes to tricks. Whenever I’ve allowed a trick to spend the night it totally not only blows up my night ritual, but my morning ritual and — if he snores — my sleep altogether.

Basically, tricks can’t spend the night anymore. If anyone has some good advice for salvaging your night and morning rituals when tricks crash, I’d love to read it in the comments below.

Length matters

So how LONG do I sleep for? Everyone is different. If you want to feel rested when you wake up, you gotta let your body complete a few sleep cycles. You want about 20% deep (restorative) sleep and 20% REM (dream) sleep to feel rested. A sleep cycle is around 90 minutes, but it’s not as simple as getting an hour and a half of sleep and calling it good.

Your body repeats the sleep cycles over and over until you wake up, but not all cycles are equal in a given night. Your first couple cycles will err on the side of lots of deep sleep and not a lot of REM sleep. Your last few will be lots of REM sleep and not a lot of deep sleep. It’s smart to let your body go through the cycles at least 4 times, then to get a good balance, so a minimum of 6 hours. It’s easiest to wake up during REM sleep, and most difficult to wake up during deep sleep, so you want to aim to wake at the end, rather than the middle of a sleep cycle.

But, again, everyone is different. What’s more, the TIME you are sleeping will affect this. Regardless of schedule, people who go to sleep earlier in the evening in terms of hours on the clock, get more deep sleep and people who go to bed very late — us night owls — will get little deep sleep and more REM sleep. So the later you go to bed, the more sleep you will need to get to achieve that deep sleep goal. And the earlier you go to bed, the less sleep you will need to feel restored. UNFAIR! Circadian rhythms are biased toward you stinky morning people. Ugh.

Don’t fret, though, if you can create a fairly regular sleep routine, your body will adapt somewhat.

After you’ve figured out when you need to wake up, work backward 7 hours and set your bedtime for that time for a week or two. If you start to consistently feel great when you wake up by the end of that, perfect. You nailed it. If not, move your sleep time a half hour in either direction for another week or two until you find your sweet spot. Then stick to it. Seriously, fucking stick to it.

Banish the light

I don’t have to tell you about blue light at night. You already know.

But there you are, despite everything you’ve been told, checking Facebook for the 85th time since you got into bed. No matter how many times you check, Alec isn’t going to click like on your comment on his thursttrap pic. And that Housewives marathon is still going to be there tomorrow.

Seriously. Set a time for the screens to go off and stick to it. If your screens aren’t off an hour before you plan to be asleep, you’re fucking up.

As discussed above, your body doesn’t let you get as much deep restorative sleep during your sleep cycle when it thinks it’s daytime or nearly daytime. Bombarding your eyes with blue light from screens tricks your brain into thinking it’s mid-day instead of 11 pm. Sure, your phone’s blue light filter reduces it some, but it’s not enough, and what about your other screens?

“But Phil,” you say. “I sleep better with the TV on.”

You know you lie.

You fall asleep better to sound, maybe, but I guarantee if we stuck a heart rate monitor on you, we’d see your sleep cycle disrupted frequently by the TV sounds. And then there’s the blue light. C’mon man, stop it.

If falling asleep to something is part of your former routine, let’s compromise. If you have a smart speaker, you can ask it to play a podcast to fall asleep to for an hour or 90 minutes. If you don’t, but you have an old cd player or cassette player, set that up to play something boring or relaxing for that last hour of screen free time.

If you got none of those things, but you have a smartphone, many podcast or music apps have a “sleep” mode, where you can set them to play for an hour then cut off. Set it, then turn the screen off and never pick it up again for the rest of the night.

And if the only noise-making device in your sleep space is your dumb tv, then this is stupid, but maybe we can still work with that. Get a power outlet timer from CVS or wherever, and set it to go off a little after your sleep time, and then back on again a little after your wake time. Plug the TV into it. Then position your tv in your space so that it can be turned away from you and the screen can’t be seen at some point. Now get a very dark black fabric, or even blackout curtains, and an hour before your bedtime, set it to your fall asleep show, turn the TV away, and cover the screen side with the blackout fabric.

Seem like a lot of bother? It is. But you’re the weirdo who insists on NOT having a smart phone, but having a TV in your sleep space. Maybe if you weren’t so freaking difficult, this wouldn’t have to be. Jeez.

With screens off, I mean screens OFF. Don’t pick up your phone again until after your alarm goes off. To assist with this, you might want to put your phone into airplane mode so buzzing won’t tempt you to break the rule. If you’re really weak willed, you may want to get an analog alarm clock so you can turn the phone off completely and leave it in another room entirely. Turn your computers off too. You don’t need to hear that new mail ding at 2:30 am. It’s just telling you, once again, nobody looked at your profile today.

And while we’re at it, get rid of the full spectrum bulbs in your room lighting. Full spectrum bulbs are great for battling depression but not so much for letting your body create a natural daily rhythm. Get a designated lamp for full spectrum time, and then get all the fixtures set up to actually just illuminate your room, with normal bulbs. If you do have a full spectrum anti-depression lamp, use it in the mornings and during normal daylight hours. At dusk, it goes off for the rest of the night.

Let the ritual commence.

Okay, now you’ve figured out your wake time, from there you figured out your bedtime. And you’ve set a no screens limit for an hour before that. Now, time to set up a ritual for your evenings to clue your body in that sleep is nigh and it should start pumping out that melatonin.

If you like to exercise at the end of your day, do that as early in the ritual as possible to give your heart rate a time to come down, and your body to relax again. But definitely, regardless of whether or not you work out at night, include some stretching like yoga or Qigong into your ritual.

Nothing can make your body feel more relaxed than a clear mind, and there are several things you can do to clear your mind every night: prepare for the next day, review your day in a structured way, and meditate.

If you have everything set for your morning before you go to bed, not only can your morning be more efficient, your head can be clearer before sleep. Every possible decision you can make for yourself for the morning, try to make that decision before bed. What’s breakfast gonna be? Get the stuff ready. Gonna brew some coffee? Get it ready. What are you going to wear? Put it out ready to slide into. What will you take to work for lunch? Bag it up now. Do you need to run any errands on your way to work? Set everything you need for those errands by the door, along with your readied gym bag if you work out in the morning. Make your mornings as efficient and automated as you can. Less things to weigh on your mind.

Now, set up a structured review of your day. I do an emotions check, write in my journal and make a gratitude list before lights out. It’s a good way to get that shit out of my brain and onto the page so I have a clear head for bed.

Finally, I do some nighttime meditation. I’ll go deeper into my meditation practice in another blog post but you can meditate however feels most comfortable for you. There are a shit ton of apps out there that can provide guidance. Just do it, and do it consistently if you want it to be effective.

Finally it’s time for screens off. This last hour, I may read, or I may do some extra meditation. I’ll take my melatonin supplement at this point too. It usually doesn’t even take the entire hour until I am conked out. But if you fall asleep too close to screens off time, you may end up with an alarm going off mid-deep sleep, which sucks. Maybe shorten your screens off time a little bit then.

My ritual

My normal night ritual is to set some podcasts to play while I do chores, get my hygiene on, set stuff up for my morning, and I check in on various boards I participate in. Then I journal, do a gratitude list, and some mindfulness app check-ins before screens off time. Then I may turn the podcasts off and do a little reading from an actual book NOT AN APP OR A KINDLE, if it’s still early or I’m extra wired. At screens off, I take my melatonin, and I do an unguided meditation for 15-20, and stretches for about 5-10 minutes. If I’m still a little too wired, I read a bit more til my eyelids are heavy. I sleep for approximately 5.5-6 hours. And I have several alarms because I’m a snooze button monster!

What’s your night ritual? Is it deliberate or did it just come to be, organically?