Stop counting sheep: 7 habits to reclaim your sleep in a fast-paced tech career

When I switched from the healthcare industry to tech, I constantly found my mind racing at night. My brain became a kanban board…

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When I switched from the healthcare industry to tech, I constantly found my mind racing at night. My brain became a kanban board. What did I need to plan for this week? Who did I need to meet with to get things done? Should I line up for charcoal ice-cream on Tuesday or Thursday? It became increasingly hard to shut off my mind during my off hours.

But as I started chatting with people in the tech space, I found that this was quite common.

Everyone had their own reasons for not getting enough sleep. Some were faced with the pressures of securing funding for their start-up. Some were anxious about their performance in a competitive work environment. Some, who were new to it all, were struggling to fit in.

What surprised me the most was the sensationalism of not sleeping: the idea that somehow not sleeping or getting enough sleep was equated to how hard the individual worked.

What? Don’t you need a well-rested mind to perform at your peak? Where was this coming from? Fresh on the tech scene from healthcare, I couldn’t comprehend why there wasn’t more of a dialogue around individual wellness.

Hence this post about why this. is. not. okay.

Don’t get me wrong — I love working in tech. It’s fast paced, you’re always learning, and I work with some incredibly smart humans. But just because we ship products at lightning speeds, doesn’t mean that we need our lives outside work to move at the same pace.

But just because we ship products at lightning speeds, doesn’t mean that we need our lives outside work to move at the same pace.

I am definitely not a doctor (Dr. Sukhu is my sister, not me), but my experience in healthcare and writing has inspired me to use the resources I know to dispel myths and bring awareness to these issues in tech.

What is sleep hygiene

Have you heard of sleep hygiene? And no, it isn’t related to seeing the dentist.

Sleep hygiene, as defined by the National Sleep Society, is the practice of “maintaining a set of routines or habits that can result in better sleep and mental alertness during the day.” On a daily basis we are mindful to brush our teeth or shower because we acknowledge the impact it has on our personal wellbeing. Think of sleep hygiene as another tool in your arsenal of personal care.

The amount of sleep needed for adults can vary anywhere between 6–9 hours and can be unique to each individual. While missing one night of well rested sleep may not be detrimental to your health, a pattern of consistently not getting enough sleep over weeks or months can start to take its toll on your body and even lead to a diagnosis of insomnia by your physician. Over time, the effects can amplify and contribute to “weight gain, diabetes, heart disease” and a myriad of other not-so-fun health problems.

It is important to note that the reasons for not getting enough sleep are drastically different for everyone. Reasons can range from diet, to psychological factors like anxiety or depression. Maintaining good sleep hygiene can lead to a better sleep, but if you are struggling to bunker-down, it is important that you talk to your neighbourhood family physician on how they can help you get there.

7 practices to reclaim your sleep

Rummaging through some handy health resources, I found seven easily applicable practices from both the Canadian Sleep Society and the Centre for Effective Practice. Here are some helpful tips I took away from these sites that are extremely relevant to working in tech:

1. Avoid stimulants, like coffee or energy drinks, several hours before bedtime. 

At the time, that 4PM coffee run is the much needed answer after tumbling through stand-ups and stakeholder meetings. While caffeine affects everyone differently, it might be that sneaky cup of joe late in the afternoon that is affecting your sleep later on at night. Try grabbing your fix earlier in the day or opt for a caffeine-free meet up with your Donut match.

2. Keep your room quiet, dark, and place clocks (that includes your phone) out of sight. Sometimes the pressure of falling asleep and the constant glare of a clock can give us anxiety, especially if you’re conscious of your sleep troubles. Light-emitting devices used before bed are also infamous for hurting our sleep cycles. As suggested in one Harvard summary, “avoid looking at these devices 2–3 hours before bed.” To help, keep those pesky Slack notifications on snooze (or do not disturb) after working hours to avoid temptation.

3. Stick to a regular sleep schedule — even on weekends. Whether you’re a nocturnal developer, designer or writer, it’s tempting to have your work dictate your sleep schedule. As Kimberly Cote points out, you cannot make up for sleep lost on the weekdays by catching up on the weekends. The impact of lost sleep is immediately felt the next day and similarly, you cannot store sleep for the future if you anticipate late nights during the week.

There’s no such thing as “sleep debt”

4. Try to avoid cat naps.

With trendy nap pods and office hammocks being the latest buzz in office culture, it’s important to use those perks wisely. That nap in the afternoon may be the reason for your night time alertness. If your head is just inches away from making contact with your keyboard consider “taking a nap before 3PM and keep your nap to less than an hour.”

5. Avoid large meals just before bedtime. Late night office hours and ordering-in go hand-in-hand during crunch-time. Try opting for smaller portions or lighter fares. If you’re still hungry before bed, try a good ol’ fashioned glass of warm milk. Milk contains tryptophan, which may aid in sleep naturally. For those lactose intolerant or vegan, soy and almond milk may also do the trick.

6. Opt for a relaxation technique prior to sleep. Now that we’ve established the importance of powering-down any electronic devices, spending at least 30 minutes on a relaxation activity can help prep your body for sleep. Try meditating, reading a paper book (they still make those?), taking a warm bath or even working in your hipster colouring book. If your mind is still racing, jot down your thoughts into a journal and set them aside to deal with the next day.

7. Keep your bed for sleeping (and hanky-panky). It can be easy to find yourself in a casual relationship with your laptop. Whether you’re working from home or catching up after hours, you constantly find yourself in bed or in your bedroom working from a laptop or device. Try to establish a separate area for work to signal to your brain that the bedroom is strictly for night time activities.

Still counting sheep?

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other recommendations that can definitely lead you to maintaining better sleep hygiene. If you are struggling with sleep and this is taking a physical and emotional toll on your life, I highly suggest visiting a sleep medicine provider aka your local sandman.

Originally published at

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