I often hear many of my clients who are mothers say that they either go to bed really late or find it hard to fall asleep. And when they do, there seems to be a stream of thoughts still snaking around in their brain, making them unable to have a deep and sound sleep. The next morning, they wake up feeling tired, and without renewed energy for the new day.
As a mother myself, I used to encounter the same issue. I used to have a lot of chatter in my mind, either about a new program I was creating or about the toilet tissue I didn’t have a chance to purchase that day, and I couldn’t put that chatter on pause. At night, I kept replaying different episodes from my day, often blaming myself for over-reacting to my kids or yelling at them. My brain would be busy planning for the next day or week, from work commitments to what to cook for breakfast, or even what to cook for dinner. The worst was when the little voice in my head started repeating the text I’d written for my most recent social media post, and started speculating about the number of reactions and comments on it. In different forms, I would find myself either worried or overexcited.
Over the past year, I have been implementing some thought work that not only helps prepare me to sleep, but also truly improves my sleep quality. The key to this routine is reducing uncontrolled useless and harmful thoughts, and installing good ones that create inner peace and calm.
1. Detoxing harmless thoughts
Even though I am a happy person, I can’t avoid the negativity that comes my way in a day. When the negativity starts to take control over my brain and I feel trapped in its storm, I will often journal about the outcome I aspire to for a situation, and the solution that goes with it. There are times when I talk with my husband. It’s not only a great way to get refreshed perspectives from the one I love most, but also a wonderful way to build meaningful connection with him.
Journaling and talking to a trusted person never fails to help me clear a heavy cloud of negative thoughts in my head.
2. Reducing triggers of useless thoughts
I find that my biggest thought trigger is the phone. For many mothers I talk to, it’s the TV. Before, I used to check on social media, my emails, or the news before going to bed. Immediately, my mind was crowded with hundreds of thoughts surrounding the posts, the worries about a work-in-progress project, or the fears of any bad news in the media.
Now that I’m aware of this powerful counter-effect of the phone, during the one hour before I go to bed, I try not to touch it. It is hard, as the habit is really hardwired. While we cannot erase neural pathways, we can create new wiring, and over time, the unwanted pathways will gradually dissipate due to lack of use. So I do two things. The first is to put the phone away from my usual reach, making it hard to touch it. The second is to form a new habit, the reward of which is so great that I can hardly resist. I love reading books, and it’s difficult to find a time in my busy day to digest one. So now, I have decided that the best time is before bed. I intentionally decide on a title I truly love and set a hard goal to finish it. The rewards are the opportunity to learn something new, and the ability to share about the book in conversations that make me feel current and smart.
Another big trigger for mothers like me is the to-do list. Therefore, before I finish my work day, I have a quick review of my wins, and mark down the big three for the next day. For any others that I don’t need to get done right away, including the tiny things such as emailing my son’s teacher about Career Day, I put them on my list so I can assure myself they are taken care of. This helps me feel at ease the moment I lie down.
All of these, however, can be harder for me to implement than climbing a mountain. There are two powerful tricks I often recommend to my clients who are mothers, and that I apply for myself. One is to put a beautiful energized photo of themselves in a visible place, often near the bed, so they aspire to be healthy and are reminded to go to bed earlier. Another is to have a visual tracker, like a page with stickers that you give yourself for each day of great sleep, for example. Involving children and asking them to hold us accountable is helpful as well. Competing with our spouses is another way. Help is right within your own home!
3. Installing useful thoughts
Once I have read for half an hour, I have a five to ten minutes of three-in-one mental work: gratitude, wishful thinking, and mindfulness.
My room looks out at the vast sky and river, which provides me with a serene view. I stand straight up or sit down, revisiting the three things that made me really happy and grateful in the previous 24 hours. As a mum who loves cooking and enjoys food, I often find one of my three items is the cozy dinner my family had together, with all the smiles and stories and yummy dishes. In order to hardwire these experiences into my brain for happiness, I immerse myself in them again with all their richness. Once in a while, when faced with a challenge that still lingers, I ask myself what lessons I have learned, so that the next time I am faced with something similar, I can apply it and turn the situation around.
Then I move on, wishing for a deep sleep so that the next day I wake up feeling well-rested, energized, and rejuvenated for my big three goals of the next day.
When my brain is working on those thoughts, I also focus on the lovely view that I am lucky to have, as well as my inhaling and exhaling in a quiet room where my lovely daughter has been soundly sleeping. As the boats along the river take their rest, I quickly find myself falling asleep on a mattress of happiness, peace, and calm.
This thought work has improved my sleep and changed my life. My skin looks more radiant. My mind is clear. The whole me is recharged to tackle my goals. I am more responsive instead of reactive to my kids. I am a more empathetic wife to my husband. And I have learnt to love myself more in the process.
On a random day, when I fall off my routine by either sending a work email that can wait or posting a brain-based conversation with my kids on Facebook that is not urgent, my brain is hijacked, and I am miserable the next day. But now I feel so clearly the damage of a bad sleep in comparison with the life-changing magic of a great one.
And I am now no longer just a busy mother. I am a well-slept mother.
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