Looking back at my old approach to sleep, and knowing what I know now, it's a wonder I got any sleep at all. I used to go to bed at different hours every night. For years, I slept on a mattress that was way past its prime. I often forced myself to go to bed long before I was sleepy, and had no consistent bedtime ritual at all.

Now I try to go to bed at the same time every night. I follow the same simple routine — PJs on, brush teeth, etc. — in the same order every night. Most importantly, I make myself aware that these simple activities are not just annoying chores, but part of a consistent sleep ritual. Being of conscious of that sends a powerful message to my brain that it's time to gear down.

Gearing Down the Body and the Brain

And gearing down is a big part of it for me. It used to be that as soon as the lights went out and my head hit the pillow, my mind would start racing. I'd replay the events of the day, think about things I had to do the following day, anticipate problems, think about schedules. Sometimes, I'd brood over things that bothered me or worried me. Other times, I anticipated things I was looking forward to.

But whether the thoughts were positive or negative, the result was always the same: my conscious mind was building up steam just when it should have been shutting down the engines. Over the years, I'd conditioned myself to use bedtime as a time for furious thought. No wonder my mind was so reluctant to give up consciousness; there was still so much work to do, it didn't want to let go of the day.

Now, when I hit the sack, I use some simple breathing exercises to calm things down physically. And I pre-empt the irresistible mental chatter with something I think of as a prayer — I picture the people I care about, I silently wish them well, I remember the loved ones I've lost, etc. The thing is, I do this in the same order, with the same words, every night. After a few years, it has taken on the feeling of a litany, almost a chant. I can do it almost without thinking. It puts me in a meditative state almost immediately, and I barely finish the prayer before nodding off.