Since we got Ashley, I have been sleeping better. Remarkably better. It’s kind of amazing.
My Oura ring gives me some data to go on.
The place where it’s very obvious is in deep sleep time. In the month or so before I got the dog, I averaged 57 minutes of deep sleep per night. In the month or so since I got the dog, I’ve averaged 1 hour 23 minutes. Other improvements are significant, but not so impressive in terms of numbers. Total sleep has gone from 7 hours 34 minutes to 7 hours 41 minutes, which is enough to make a difference. Sleep efficiency (the percentage of the time in bed that I’m actually asleep) has gone from 87% to 89%, which doesn’t look so impressive, but also seems to make a difference. I’m also getting up much less often in the night.
Of course, this leaves me with the question of why.
I think partially, it’s just that she sets a great example: She comes to bed when we do, lies down between our feet, goes to sleep, and stays asleep—better than I do, anyway.
The other big change, of course, is that I’m walking way, way more than before.
Again the Oura ring provides some data, with “walking” that has gone from 7.3 miles to 11.2 miles per day. That’s misleading though, because the Oura ring reports a “walking equivalent” number. (Based on, I assume, my heart rate during other activity, such as weight lifting.) The FitBit software on my Pixel Watch gives me actual distance data, and the last half of October I was averaging 5 miles per day, while last week I averaged 7 miles.
I wrote this a while ago, after seeing two articles in two days ragging on fitness tracking devices, and suggesting that they’re bad for you. Both articles warn against outsourcing your intuitive sense of “how you are” to some device. And, sure, I guess you can do that. But if you actually are doing that, I’d suggest that what you have isn’t a harmful device. What you have is a device disorder.
I was going to make an even stronger statement along these lines, comparing a device disorder to an eating disorder. I think the comparison is valid, even though, upon reflection, it weakens my argument. Sure, some people have an eating disorder. But anybody is likely to engage in disordered eating when they eat industrially produced edible food-like substances. Maybe that’s a fair comparison with industrially produced fitness-tracking devices. Unlike with industrial food though, I think the data from fitness trackers can be consumed safely.
“… sometimes I would wake up in the morning and check my app to see how I slept — instead of just taking a moment to notice that I was still tired…”
I get this, because I joke about this myself. My brother will ask how I slept, and I’ll say, “I’m not sure—I haven’t checked with my Oura ring yet.” Or I’ll say something like, “My ring and I agree that I slept well last night!” But I’m just joking. I know how I slept, I know how recovered I am from the recent days’ activities, and how ready I am to take on a physical or mental challenge.
That doesn’t make the data from the Oura ring useless. My intuitive sense of how I am isn’t perfect. Many’s the time I’ve let wishful thinking convince me that I’m ready for a long run or a tough workout not because I really am, but because the weather is especially nice that day and the next few days are forecast to be cold or rainy. Or because I have some free time that day and the next few days are going to be busy. My Oura ring has been a useful counterbalance to that. If I had a hard lifting session yesterday, but I feel great today and my heart rate lowered early last night, maybe I am really ready for a long run today. On the other hand, if my heart rate took the whole night to get down to its minimum, and its minimum was higher than usual, that’s a good sign that I’m not fully recovered, even if I’m feeling pretty good.
If you have an eating disorder, do your best to avoid triggers that lead to disordered eating. Similarly, if you have a device disorder, it makes good sense to avoid using whatever sort of devices lead to disordered behavior. But that doesn’t make the devices bad, any more than eating disorders make food bad. But any particular device might be bad for you, just like any particular food might be bad for you. (And, I admit, industrially produced edible substances are probably bad for everybody.)
We know hyper-palatable foods are bad for us, and that eating a diet based on minimally processed whole foods—such as a paleo diet—is better. I contend that hyper-comfortable beds are bad for similar reasons, and that the sweet spot for bedding comfort will be a level similar to what a caveman could come up with: a paleo bed.
During a recent run I listened to yet another podcast on the importance of getting enough sleep. (Since a bout of wretched sleep a couple of years ago, this topic has been like catnip to me.) As they almost always do, this one included in its list of tips for improving your sleep, getting “the most comfortable bed you can afford.”
I think this is a terrible idea.
Just so you know where I’m coming from, let me mention that I use an Oura ring, which gives me a “sleep score” every day. After making a few changes (primarily around stress reduction, but also changes to when I eat and a few changes to my sleeping environment), I now sleep pretty darned well. Over the last 3 months my sleep score has averaged 86 (out of 100), on a scale where 85 is the cut-off for “excellent” sleep.
The main reason that I don’t get a better score is due to my “Restfulness” score, which is always low. For example, my last night’s sleep got a score of 92, but my Restfulness was just 76, which as you can see qualifies as “Good.” My average Restfulness score over the past 3 months was 71.
I don’t know exactly what goes into the Restfulness score, but I gather that it is primarily affected by movement. Each time you get up during the night your Restfulness score goes down, but just waking up enough to roll over counts against your Restfulness score (as near as I can tell).
Now, this may be reasonable in a sense: waking up repeatedly during the night almost certainly interferes with the quality of your sleep, and having a more comfortable bed will probably mean that you wake up to roll over less often.
I still think it’s a terrible idea. Spending the whole night lying still is—I strongly suspect, based on no evidence whatsoever—probably just as bad for you as spending your whole workday sitting still.
On a good night I might wake up enough to roll over every 90 minutes or so—that is, after each complete sleep cycle I wake up enough to realize that I’ve been lying still long enough to feel a little uncomfortable, and will roll over to find a new, more comfortable position.
As long as I go right back to sleep every time I roll over, I figure it’s all good. (In the past—when I was suffering from higher levels of stress—I would all too often wake up enough to start worrying about something, and that would keep me from falling right back to sleep, interfering with getting a good night’s sleep. These days I’m doing pretty well.)
Sometimes, such as in fancy hotels, I have slept in very comfortable beds. And it’s true that, lying in a pool of memory foam that conforms perfectly to my body, I often get a very good night’s sleep. But then I wake up achy and sore from having been lying too still for eight hours.
As I see it, the same paleo-lifestyle logic applies to bed as to diet and exercise: We evolved to optimize our overall health sleeping in beds that are as comfortable as whatever our paleolithic ancestors slept on. I don’t know that there’s any evidence as to what that was. I suppose people often slept on the ground. Maybe sometimes in a tree? Presumably they made bedding out of whatever they could find—perhaps a bearskin rug, if they happened to kill a bear and didn’t need the hide for something more important than bedding.
Here’s a proposition for you: If you’re sleeping in something that’s more comfortable than you could improvise out of stuff you could find in nature, you’re making the exact same mistake as people eating hyper-palatable industrially produced food-like substances.
Reject the advice to sleep in the most comfortable bed you can afford! Choose a bed that’s about as comfortable as a paleo bed!
Very occasionally I wish I were the sort of person who kept lists.
It’s most common that I regret not being a list-keeper when someone asks for book recommendations, especially when they want something in a particular scope—the 10 best books I read this year, or three books that I’ve given as gifts.
I’m always daunted by a request like that, because I have no idea what books I read this year.
Some of my tools—in particular, Amazon and my Kindle—do some amount of list-keeping for me. The public library could, but by default it doesn’t. (For very legitimate historical reasons, librarians worry about their patrons’ privacy, and since they don’t need to keep track of what books you’ve checked out once you’ve returned them, they default to forgetting about them.)
I played around with using a little toy tool called IndieBookClub, which posts the books you enter to your site, but it didn’t do most of the things you’d actually want such a tool to do (associate the books you’re meaning to read, books you’re reading, books you’ve read, and your thoughts about them), so I didn’t find it very useful.
Some people really enjoy the process of keeping lists, but that’s not me. Basically, I don’t want to keep lists, I sometimes want to have kept lists. I sometimes regret not having a list of something, but not in a way that makes me think I should start keeping such a list.
I do track some things—money, exercise, sleep—when experience has shown me that doing so is of great value, but in most areas of life I don’t keep track of anything at all.
Just today—after a year of having this post hanging around in my drafts folder—I saw plans for folks working on IndieWeb stuff to talk about how to do personal libraries in a way that would produce decentralized Goodreads-like functionality. That would really appeal to me.
In the meantime maybe I’ll look around at some list-keeping tools (or maybe start using a few pages in my bullet journal to keep track of books and other things worth tracking).
I’ll keep you posted. Maybe next year will be the year I keep a list of one more thing!
After sleeping poorly the previous night (stress), and being sleepy all afternoon, I went to bed really early last night and got in a excellent night’s sleep, including 56 minutes of deep sleep—well above average for me.
I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.
Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.
The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).
Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:
Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.
I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:
There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.
That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.
For an article in the New York Times, technology writer Brian X. Chen wore a sleep-tracker for a couple of weeks. He reports:
Ultimately, the technology did not help me sleep more. It didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know, which is that I average about five and a half hours of slumber a night. And the data did not help me answer what I should do about my particular sleep problems. In fact, I’ve felt grumpier since I started these tests.
Breaking news: Looking at your power bill every month does not cut your electricity consumption! Checking your speedometer does not slow down your car! Tracking your spending does not make you rich!
I’ve been using a sleep tracker (the Oura ring) since December. Neither wearing the ring nor checking the reports I get has increased the amount of sleep I got. However, I have learned a lot about how to get more and better sleep.
Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned is that the standard advice that you should have supper at least three hours before bedtime isn’t sufficient for me: I sleep much better if I finish supper at least four hours before I lie down to go to sleep.
That’s actually a specific example of my larger point: A sleep tracker makes it easy to run little experiments and quickly see the results.
My intuition as to whether I got a good night’s sleep is an excellent guide (as I suspect it is for most people). But even a good intuition isn’t always enough to run a good experiment, and this is an example of that. Although the Oura ring’s report isn’t better than my own intuition, it provided some specific information that led me to that particular insight: On days when I had a late supper, my sleep quality was quite poor for the first couple hours of sleep, a pattern that I didn’t see on days when I had an early supper.
I’ve used it to run other experiments. For example, it appears that I get more deep sleep on days when I have only one drink than on days when I have two. (This is very sad news, and will have to be confirmed by many more experiments before I use it to modify my behavior—but at least I can run the experiments.)
After a rough patch last fall (which is what prompted me to order the Oura ring), I’m actually sleeping pretty well now, so I’m not aggressively running new experiments to try and improve my sleep. I am, however, paying attention when a natural experiment presents itself. For example, we generally sleep with the windows open all summer. Over the next two nights that will probably produce sleeping temperatures in the 70s, whereas over following several nights I’ll get to enjoy sleeping temperatures in the 60s. I know from experience that the cooler temperatures will produce better sleep, but the Oura ring will give me detailed metrics that will let me investigate if there’s an optimal temperature—information that may be very useful in the winter for deciding how to adjust the thermostat.
That’s the value of the ring for me: It lets me run experiments of specific sleep interventions, and gives me results that are more fine-grained than just a general sense as to whether I slept well or not.
Here’s one more natural experiment. I observed decades ago that I need more sleep in the winter than I do in the summer. I can now put a couple of numbers on that.
Here’s my total sleep each day in January and February this year. The report from the Oura ring lets me see that I averaged 7 h 50 min of sleep each night:
Here’s my total sleep each day from June 1st through last night. I can see that I averaged 7 h 03 min of sleep each night:
I’ve perceived each period as being roughly equally good in terms of getting “enough” sleep, so I’m inclined to think of the 47 minute decrease in sleep as being a decrease in the amount of sleep I need when the days are long and sunny and I’m getting plenty of fresh air and exposure to nature. In the winter I need darn near 8 hours of sleep per night. In the summer I can get by fine on just over 7.
That information doesn’t make me sleep better, but it’s still useful (even if it just confirms something I’ve known for a long time).
In other breaking news recently published in the science journal “Duh!”: Stepping on the bathroom scale every morning neither increases your muscle mass nor reduces your fat mass!