Originally written for The Washington Post, June 28th, 2017
We all think our day starts when we wake up. But what if the day really starts the evening before?
Why does it matter? When you create an ideal nighttime routine, it is far more likely that your first step in the morning will lead to a successful day.
Many people struggle to reach their health and wellness goals. They cling to diet and exercise fads but overlook the importance of planning in creating consistent habits. A lack of planning can have a snowball effect: You start your morning tired from a poor night’s sleep, then skip exercise and miss breakfast while rushing out of the house. Lunches at restaurants are typically heavier than those made at home, but packing a lunch isn’t an option if you haven’t planned for it. Sugar and caffeine cravings may be elevated all day due to fatigue from poor sleep. The whole day feels hectic because it started off stressed and rushed. It’s a vicious cycle.
The goal of a nighttime routine is to set a tone to wind down and allow for a peaceful rest and reset, which will lead to starting the next day a few steps ahead of the game. This routine starts as soon as dinner is ending.
How we eat and plan our meals is essential for a successful day. Ideally, you want to eat in a way that allows your body to be ready for a good sleep.
• Don’t drink caffeine after 2 p.m. or so, especially if caffeine makes you feel jittery.
• Set a time to stop drinking alcohol in the evening, and be sure to drink plenty of water. You can experiment with no alcohol on some nights to see how it affects your sleep. While it’s true that alcohol can make you sleepy, it usually will cause you to wake in the middle of night.
• If you crave sweets in the evening, find a tea that tastes sweet but has no added sugars or calories. Teas such as camomile have calming effects and can be a nice nighttime ritual.
• Avoid spicy or very heavy foods in the evening to prevent heartburn or digestive issues.
• Pack lunches in advance. Ideally, batch cook for the week in advance so that lunch prep is a simple assembly line:
— If you’ve chopped or cooked vegetables in advance, grab 1 to 3 cups and place in a container.
— Add a protein made in advance such as hard-boiled eggs, rotisserie chicken, tofu cubes, burgers, beans, or canned salmon, tuna or sardines.
— Batch cook a large portion of a starch such as potatoes, rice or squash.
• Depending on how busy your mornings are, you can make breakfasts in advance:
— Make a smoothie and freeze or refrigerate it the night before.
— Make a frittata for the week and pre-cut into squares.
— Make overnight oats in individual containers or batch cook a large portion of oatmeal.
— Make snack bags on the weekend with a mix of nuts, fresh or dried fruit, seeds, crackers, jerky or chopped vegetables.
Getting enough sleep is essential. Sleep affects mood, metabolism and energy levels. Many people struggle with sleep and assume there’s nothing they can do about it, while it may be that they haven’t created a proper space for a restful night. Aspects of sleep hygiene can make a profound impact.
• Play classical, jazz or other soothing music as you wind down.
• Consider dimming or lowering the lights in your home so you set yourself up for a restful night.
• Place a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed to use if you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea you feel you should write down.
• Make sure your room is dark, cool, uncluttered and free of technology — no TVs, laptops, tablets, bright clocks or anything else that creates a blue or bright light.
Exercise is usually the first thing to get skipped when time is short. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having your workout clothes accessible to make it happen. Also, even a quick workout or stretch is better than nothing at all.
• When we’re rushing all day long, sitting in cars and desk chairs, our muscles often get tight and our posture becomes weak. Consider a five- to 10-minute stretching routine to open the body. Focus on whatever feels good. Place a foam roller on the floor and roll your back up and down to open up the chest, stand against the wall to work on posture and roll the body down the wall toward the floor to open the back and hamstrings, or try a deep squat to open up the hips.
• If you want to exercise in the morning, set out your clothes near the bed so you can’t avoid them.
• If you want to exercise in the evening, pack your bag in advance so it’s ready to go.
Paying attention allows for increased mindfulness, which is an essential part of stress management. Incorporating simple breath work or meditation into your nighttime routine has the benefit of leading to a better night’s sleep as well as increased mindfulness in your life.
• Consider an app or website to support guided meditation or breathing exercises.
• Set an alarm for even one minute, sit comfortably and breathe. Pay attention to your inhale and exhale. As it becomes easier, increase the time.
Small, simple changes can make a big difference. Start tomorrow off on the right foot.