A Bedtime Story for Adults

Sleep like a baby

Last night, I read Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life before 8 AM (review to come), and it got me thinking about the importance of routine in my life. Specifically, it got me thinking about how much happier I’ve become since developing a nighttime routine.

If there is one thing that graduate students need, and almost ever have, it’s stability. Uncertainty is built into our lives: classes and teaching schedules change, funding fluctuates (or disappears entirely), deadlines come and go, and few people hold us accountable for our use of time. Being your own boss is as liberating as it is frustrating, and academics rarely walk away from a hard day’s work with something tangible to show for their day. My nighttime routine adds a little structure to my life, gives me the opportunity to reflect as I wind down for the evening, and—perhaps most important—instructs my stress-addled brain that it is officially okay to be tired.

So what does a nighttime routine look like? It looks however you want it to look, though I’ve found that I get the greatest satisfaction from combining activities that involve different kinds of sensory stimulation. Basically, it’s a grown-up version of the routine my parents shepherded me through as a child.

Here’s what my night looks like:

  • Mood lighting. I have a very bright floor lamp on one side of my room, and a much dimmer lamp on each bedside table. During the day, the floor lamp is on. When I’m ready to wind down, the bedside lamps go on.
  • Scented candles. A bajillion years ago, I read that one of the most addictive parts of smoking (besides the whole nicotine thing) is the act of lighting a cigarette. Staring into a flame is that fun. It’s not news that fire is a fantastic meditative aid, but I think we underestimate how helpful it can be outside of standard-issue mindfulness practices. I don’t have a fireplace, so instead I light two scented candles on either side of my bed. The light bouncing off the walls and the aroma of “midnight orchid” is a quick signal to my brain that it’s time to get sleepy.
  • Pre-beauty rest beauty routine. A couple years ago, I discovered—to my horror—that lines had begun to appear on my face. I’m told that this is part of a larger process called “aging,” and that it’s something of a human universal. Well, it sucks. On the bright side, my new-found anxiety about the youthfulness of my complexion has led me to adopt a fairly rigorous face cleansing routine in the evenings. This is, of course, great news for my skin, but it’s also super helpful as part of my larger power-down process. The combination of cold water, and (the texture and smell of) the various lotions and potions I apply to my face, are great signposts for the end of my day.
  • Pro-level oral hygiene. This past summer, I found out I had a cavity. Three cavities, actually. The first twenty-seven years of my life were cavity-free, so this news was very upsetting, and the subject of another post, which you can read here. I used to brush my teeth before bed. Now I brush, floss (most of the time), and rinse with mouthwash… like an adult. My next visit to the dentist is going to be awesome.
  • Podcast-induced giggling. While all of this is going on, I’m usually listening to a podcast. They aren’t as all-consuming as television, they’re portable, and—if you listen to the right shows—they are tremendously entertaining. I normally listen to comedy podcasts while I wind down at night; “My Brother My Brother and Me,” “Throwing Shade,” “Sawbones,” and “The Adventure Zone” are among my favorite end-of-day jams.
  • Journaling. A daily writing practice is incredibly rewarding, and a surprisingly easy habit to pick up (I did it in August—you can read about it here). I usually only devote about ten minutes to journaling each night, but it’s enough to get me reflecting on my day, and thinking about the kind of tomorrow I want to have.
  • Body lotion marathon. I know, I know. All I can say is that I live in the desert, and I have really dry skin. I also hate this kind of maintenance unless I see it as part of a larger production.
  • Reading or Knitting. More often than not I finish my nighttime routine by curling up in bed with a good book, or a pair of knitting needles. Sometimes the rest of my routine is a little too effective, and I’m officially too tired to make this last step happen, but it hardly feels like a sacrifice, since I know I’m making the time to indulge my hobbies on a regular basis.

I’m hoping to make one addition to my nighttime routine in the near future: a to-do list for the following day. I used to write up lists and schedules every evening, but fell out of the practice for reasons that, honestly, aren’t entirely clear to me.

I realize that my nighttime routine is time-consuming, and (correctly) implies that I spend very few evenings out late with friends. Certainly that isn’t going to work for everyone. Maybe your routine can be counted in minutes, not hours. That’s fine, as long as you treasure that time. Make it non-negotiable. Your body, mind, and spirit will thank you.

It’s your turn. What’s your nighttime routine? If you don’t have one, are you down to give it a try? I’d love to hear if it works out!

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

One thought on “A Bedtime Story for Adults

  1. Mike says:

    Sleep training. I use an iPhone app called SleepQ. For about an hour at bedtime when I’m getting sleepy, I use it to practice falling asleep a few times, and it helps me.


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