I’ve had a long-troubled relationship with sleep.
That’s because I’ve always had terrible, wee-hours-of-the-morning work shifts.
It started way back in high school, when I worked a night shift at Channel 9 in Washington D.C. And during college I interned at ABC in New York City working 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. I remember suffering through those shifts, telling myself “I will never do this again!” I’ve learned to never say “never.”
I later became a morning anchor in Hartford, Conn. where my shift would sometimes begin at 1 a.m. And then I got my big break: overnight anchor for CBS News, working 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Life was crazy. I had an hour-long commute, a second baby, and was trying manage my growing career and family.
The sleep issues peaked in a dangerous situation that I wrote about in my book “All Things At Once.” One Friday, I was beyond exhausted by the end of a week at CBS. I was at the top of the stairs holding my 4-month-old baby, Carlie, and talking to her babysitter as she left. Suddenly it was like I was sleepwalking.
The rest is a nightmare that makes me too sick to recount — you can read about it here.
The accident is still hard for me to talk about today. But I share it because it crystallizes the value of sleep as a fundamental need.
I’ve changed my relationship with sleep, despite a very busy schedule. Today, it’s still a daily challenge.
The early-morning hours didn’t really change; I’ve gotten up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. for “Morning Joe” for the past 12 years. And my day doesn’t end when I get off the air. I might be on stage at 10 p.m. for an event one night and working in four cities in one week.
And while sleep has always been difficult for me, it’s gotten much, much better. Here’s what I’ve learned:
• Sleep begets sleep. This is the most basic core value of sleep. It’s as fundamental as eating. If you sleep well, you will sleep more. If you’re overwrought and exhausted and you haven’t had enough deep sleep, it’s really hard to snap out of it. Whether it’s getting more sleep at night or trying to squeeze in 10-minute naps during the day, more sleep leads to even more sleep.
• Keep your phone out of your room at night. The blue light in our devices is so horrible for sleep. It can affect you long after you put the screen down. It’s hard because we’re all busy and attached to our phones, but they don’t have a place in the bed. It’s time for sleep and nothing else.
• Create a bedtime ritual. There’s a reason we create entire bedtime routines for babies, and we should treat ourselves that way too. On the rare nights that I’m free, instead of “Joe, let’s go out to dinner,” it’s instead, “I can take a bath and sleep!” I throw a Lush bath bomb in the tub and watch “Hardball,” and then I get into super comfy pajamas. Going to bed should be something we look forward to.
• Schedule sleep. When I’m talking to my team about plans to be in multiple cities in a week, with speeches, appearances and meetings, I will pipe up and ask: “When do I sleep?” I sit there and plan it out on the schedule. If you don’t plan for it, it’s so easy to get suckered into late dinners and drinks with friends and responding to emails.
• Work with your doctor. This will mean different things for different people. I work with a mindfulness doctor on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which helps a great deal. But I admit I can’t “do sleep” in the perfect way. I get a full night’s sleep on few nights. I have trouble going to sleep at the same time every night. I’m lucky if I nap twice a month. Also, for my shifts, sleep has involved medication. It’s not necessarily the “right way,” and it’s certainly not right for everyone, but that’s the reality for me, for now.
Even after learning these lessons and trying to prioritize sleep over the years, I still struggle with it every single day. But I know that you can’t know your value unless you take care of your health, and you can’t take care of your health when you’re not sleeping. Many of the worst times in my life were made even worse by utter lack of sleep. Healthy sleep takes conscious effort and planning, but you and your health are worth it.