Posts in Tips

How To Sleep Better: What Worked For Me After Years Of Continuous Experimentation

I’m a sleep nerd. There, I said it. I genuinely believe that a good night’s sleep is a foundation of a highly productive and happy life. It’s great to see the trend of using sleep deprivation as a badge of honor is finally getting the bad reputation it deserves.

It wasn’t always this way, and I struggled with sleep most of my life. I would lie in bed, not able to fall asleep for hours, wake up in the middle of the night for no reason, and snooze the alarm countless times every morning.

Now, I’m falling asleep in 5 minutes, waking up without the alarm, and my sleep score is almost always above 85.

Here are the things that worked for me after years of continuous experimentation to optimize my sleep.

– Keeping a consistent sleep schedule.

Going to sleep within the same one-hour window every day has had the most impact on my sleep, bar none.

The exact time usually doesn’t work because life happens, and “being late to bed” just gives you anxiety, that will ironically ruin your sleep. For me, the perfect window is from 10 pm to 11 pm, but you’ll have to find your own because everyone has a different circadian rhythm, and by sticking to the same sleep schedule, you’ll normalize yours.

Your brain and body will know when they are supposed to shut down and relax, which will allow you to fall asleep quickly every day.

– No wake-up alarm clock.

I try to use an alarm to wake up as little as possible. If you need an alarm, you’re, by definition, sleep-deprived. You’ll never need it if you consistently sleep enough. Try to use the alarm only as a backup, and when you do, use the wake-up light alarm clock with sunrise simulation instead of the standard sound-based ones (they shock you into waking up, leading to sleep inertia).

– Blue light blocking glasses and f.lux after sunset.

There’s an ongoing debate whether blue light has a negative impact or not, but blocking it before sleep seems to work for me. I wear these glasses one hour before bed; they’re not fancy-looking but do the job and block 98% of blue light. And f.lux makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. I’ve been using it for years, and I love it.

– No screens for at least an hour before sleep and no screens in the bedroom.

My bedroom is a strictly screen-free zone. No phones, tablets, laptops, or TVs allowed at all times.

The first apparent reason is that blue light from the screens may restrain the production of melatonin and have a negative impact on your circadian rhythm.

But more importantly, the constant influx of information that you get from your devices is keeping your mind engaged and tricking your brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. Not to mention social media apps that are designed to give you a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx, which, again, directly inhibits production and release of melatonin and makes it much harder to unwind.

Make your bedroom a place for sleep and sex only, and watch the quality of your life improves.

– Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.

That’s highly individual because people with a specific variation of the gene PDSS2 (also CYP1A2, AHR17, ULK3, and NRCAM, but that’s beyond the scope of this article) process caffeine more slowly than others.

You can determine your caffeine sensitivity by taking a DNA test (23andMe or similar ones).

You should also know is that the caffeine molecule is similar in shape to the adenosine molecule, which is a neurotransmitter. It plays a significant role in a sleep-wake cycle. When adenosine binds to enough receptors, it signals the brain that it is time for rest. Caffeine doesn’t replace the need for sleep, but masks tiredness since adenosine can no longer do what it is intended to do.

The average half-life of caffeine in healthy adults is 4-6 hours, so if you go to sleep at 10 pm, a general rule of thumb is to avoid caffeine consumption after 4 pm.

– Cardio at any time during the day but at least a few hours before bed.

I’ve found that any type of cardio (running in my case) during the day does wonders for my HRV score. But you should avoid very late high-intensity exercise simply because it’s perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), and your body needs some time to return the cortisol level back to normal.

– Read a fiction book (physical copy) before falling asleep.

Reading a fiction book in bed before sleep has become one of my favorite rituals. My thinking is that non-fiction business books before bed stimulate your thought process, and you are ending up dwelling on the day-time issues. In contrast, fiction books invite you to a new world where you can actually “turn off,” stop thinking about what “you should’ve said or done,” and easily fall asleep.

– 20-minute meditation before going to bed.

I meditate with Headspace for 20 minutes before going to bed. I’ve been doing that for so long that the Andy Puddicombe’s (founder of the app) voice now works as a trigger for my brain to wind down and get ready to sleep.

– Chamomile tea with honey and apple cider vinegar.

I got this recipe from Tim Ferris (although he uses a different tea), and I’m also not sure about the biochemistry behind why this works, but it does work as a tranquilizer.

200mg of magnesium 30 minutes before sleep.

I take all of my supplements in the morning except for magnesium, which I’ve found is to be better taken in the evening before sleep. Sometimes I’d also take L-theanine after a particularly stressful day.

– No eating after 7 pm.

Nutritionists will usually tell you to wait two to three hours between your last meal and bedtime. This allows digestion to happen and the contents of your stomach to move into your small intestine, which may prevent problems like heartburn and insomnia. Eating also prompts the release of insulin, which plays a huge role in shifting your circadian rhythm.

Many people recommend using weighted blankets (helps with anxiety), CBD oil (same thing), and Sleep With Me podcast.
I haven’t used the first two because they address the symptom (anxiety) and not the underlying problem. And I’d always prefer a good fiction book to a podcast, but you might be in a different camp.

You’ll also find lots of people saying that keeping the room temperature at 60-68°F (15.5-20℃) is optimal for your sleep.

I find this a bit misleading. There is no universal optimal because it depends on your sheets, body fat, clothing, body temperature, and humidity. The more natural rule of thumb is that you’re not supposed to be too cold (not shivering) or too hot (not sweat). One empirically-validated ‘hack’ is to wear socks – keeping your feet and hands warm prevents blood from shunting too much to the extremities, and keeps your core body temperature better regulated.

I’m assuming that if you read this blog, then it goes without saying, but without a healthy diet, nothing from this list would work. That is, at a minimum, no processed sugars, no soda, no alcohol, no junk food. So if you’re for some reason reading this while drinking Coca-Cola, start there.

Sleep tips for traveling.

How to preserve your established circadian rhythm when you travel full-time and change the time zones? Hard way – arrive at a new place, force yourself to live by the new hours for a couple of weeks, and your body will adapt in time. But, of course, there’s an easier way. You should start even before you reach your destination. Figure out what time you’ll be living in, and start living by that time while on the plane. That means you should sleep if it’s nighttime at your destination, even if it’s 10 am your current time.

My recipe to easily fall asleep on the plane:

  • Use a 100% blackout sleep mask (I recommend Manta Sleep);
  • Get a 100% natural cocktail of magnesium, l-theanine, and melatonin;
  • Use noise-canceling headphones (I recommend Bose QC35);
  • Stay hydrated before and during the flight.

Once you reach your new place, hit the gym, and do a quick workout within an hour of arrival. I don’t know the science behind it, but it almost always helps me practically eliminate the jet lag.

Recommendations

People often ask me for the book, podcast, and gadget recommendations, so I put together a list of everything sleep-related that can help you to sleep better, and as a result, have a better life.

– Reading:

Start with a book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matt Walker.

Many people swear by this book, claiming that it’s changed their lives, and according to Google Scholar, it’s been cited more than a hundred times in academic papers. Walker goes more in-depth on some points I’ve made in this article and touches on CBT-i (the application of cognitive-behavioral therapy to sleep issues). In his book, the key point that Walker makes is that you need at least 8 hours of sleep:

“After being awake for nineteen hours, sleep-deprived people were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.”

Even though it’s a pop-science book, and there are quite a few factual errors, “Why We Sleep” has probably been one of the most important instruments to raise general awareness on the importance of sleep in recent years, which is all that matters.

After you finished with “Why We Sleep,” read the essay “Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors” by Alexey Guzey, that he has spent more than 130 hours over two months researching and writing.

He compares the facts that Walker’s presented in chapter one with the scientific literature and does a comprehensive review of all the scientific and factual errors and an apparent invention of new facts by Walker.

The essay’s main point is to show that if you naturally sleep well and wake up with no alarm clock on less than eight hours, stick to that. People are different, and not everyone needs 8+ hours of sleep. Many people tried to sleep more after reading “Why We Sleep,” which led to more awake time, frustration, worry, sleep-related anxiety, and insomnia.

– Podcasts to listen to:

  • Peter Attia, M.D. and Matt Walker, Ph.D., go in-depth on sleep, different stages and cycles, the dangers of chronic sleep deprivation, roles of REM vs. non-REM sleep, and much more. Basically, if you don’t want to read Walker’s book, listen to this podcast.
  • Think Your Way Out Of Insomnia by NPR – When you can’t sleep, your thoughts can be your worst enemy. In this episode, Stephen Amira, a psychologist at Brigham, and Christina McCrae, a clinical psychologist and CBT-I expert at the University of Missouri, explain five key strategies to help break the spiral, based on what many believe is the most effective treatment out there: cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I.

– Sleep gadgets that I use:

  • Oura ring – this is the best and the most accurate consumer-level sleep tracker currently available on the market. Yes, it’s far from perfect, but if you don’t have access to a sleep lab, this is the best option. With a body temperature sensor, infrared LEDs, 3D accelerometer, and gyroscope, it tracks your actual sleep time, sleep cycles (REM, deep, light), HRV score, resting heart rate, respiratory rate, and other things, allowing you to see how are you actually doing at a glance.
  • Manta Sleep Mask – the best sleep mask that I’ve tried (and I’ve tested lots of them). It’s highly adjustable, ridiculously comfortable, and offers 100% blackout.

– Sleep gadgets that I don’t use yet because they don’t fit into my suitcase:

  • Philips wake-up light alarm clock with sunrise simulation – I’ve mentioned this above, but will say this again – you shouldn’t use alarm clocks, but if you do, use this one instead of the annoying sound-based ones because they shock you into waking up, leading to sleep inertia.
  • chiliPad – basically a system to regulate the temperature of your bed. The best thing about chiliPad is that if you and your partner have different optimal sleep temperature preferences, you can easily set your own temperature for each side of the bed.
  • The Pod by Eight Sleep – the ultimate biohacker’s mattress. Combines chiliPad’s temperature control capability with sleep tracking and a premium memory foam.
  • White noise machine – I tend to stay in quiet places, but the white noise machine can be a lifesaver if you have a noisy household. It creates a sound that remains consistent across all hearable frequencies, which consistency creates a masking effect, blocking out the sudden changes in noise that can cause you to wake up during the night – the snoring, dog barking, or a garbage truck rumbling down the street.

Whatever you do to improve your sleep, remember one rule – don’t stress too much over it.

Ironically, it may backfire and lead to a vicious cycle of ever-increasing worry about sleep, frustration, anxiety, and insomnia.

Take it easy, and gradually implement one change after another and see what each of them does to your sleep.

And, as always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or want to chat about what worked to improve your sleep, hit me up on Twitter or email me at hi [at] mgrev.com!

30 Lessons I Learned After Living In 30 Countries

Over the last five years, I’ve traveled to over thirty different countries and lived for at least a month in each of them. 

There are lots of people that do the same, but my definition of living in a new place is probably a bit different from the average one. 

I don’t meet other travelers, I’m not trying to find people from my home country, I’m not eating the supposedly safe food that I’m used to.

Rather, I’m always trying to immerse myself into the local culture: learn at least a few words in the local language, walk everywhere, meet local people, eat local cuisine, and learn about the place not just from the travel websites, but directly from the people that live there. 

That way, I can understand the place, the culture, and the people on a far deeper level, while learning much more about myself in the process.

Here are the things that I’ve learned over the past five years of exploring the world and myself.

Airport in Phuket Thailand

1. People are pretty much the same everywhere in the world. 

It doesn’t matter which part of the globe they live in, what is their religion, and which language do they speak. Most people are just like you and me with more or less the same problems, aspirations, and values. The sooner you can understand that the better your travels will become. 

2. Every country can be a new life.

You can try on a whole new personality in every country you visit. It’s challenging to build a new self around your family, coworkers, and old friends. The familiar places trigger the thought habits of the old you. This is why getting out of your comfort zone makes room for growth.

When you’re in a totally new context, surrounded by new people that never met you, you can be whoever you want, and try on a whole new and unique personality. 

There’s a chance you may end up finding something more suitable than the old skin that was projected mainly on you by your old environment.

3. Learning and speaking even a few sentences in a new language can help to open some new and unexpected sides of your personality. 

I noticed that the language has an enormous influence on people’s character. The more facial muscles you need to engage to be able to speak the language and the wider you have to open your mouth, the more open you generally tend to be. And vice versa. 

Examples? All Slavic languages can be spoken with the mouth almost closed, while you have to actively engage almost every facial muscle to speak proper American English. And the people are more closed off or open, respectively. The same goes for Brazilian Portuguese versus European Portuguese.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, 2016

4. “Hell Yes or Hell No” rule doesn’t always work when traveling.

The best places I went to, the best experiences I’ve had, and the most interesting people I’ve met weren’t always a “hell yes” decision. In most cases, I’ve had doubts or straight up didn’t want to do that, go there, or meet with someone. 

If you have a chance to do something you haven’t done before, or to see a new place, just do it, it’s not a life or death decision, but could as well be one of the best in your life.

5. It’s generally safe in most places in the world. 

I’ve heard a lot of warnings and safety concerns when I went to Medellin, Cape Town, or Mexico City. 

You’d be surprised, but the only two places where I felt unsafe and something has actually happened were the small town in Russia and San Francisco. 

Use your common sense, be confident, act as you belong, and don’t flash any expensive items – in 99.9% of the time, you’ll be okay.

Public Transport in Gili Air island, Indonesia, 2015

6. You don’t really need a lot of stuff. 

After packing your suitcase for the hundredth time, paying for the excess luggage, and taking hundreds of flights, you begin to understand that you actually don’t need that much. Take only the essentials, and if you really need something you didn’t bring, simply buy it on the road. 

Yes, you can find any clothes, medicine, or an umbrella in almost any country.

7. Life is actually longer than you think. Don’t be afraid to try.

I’m astonished by how many things have changed and how many experiences I’ve had when I look back over the past five years. 

Yet, it’s been only five years. 

It’s okay to try to live in New York for a couple of years and see if it suits you. It’s okay to pursue a career you’ve always wanted to try and then switch to another one if it doesn’t work out. 

You don’t actually have to stick to things for the entire life, even if society tells you otherwise.

«New York is Always a Good Idea», TriBeCa, NYC, 2015

8. Your whole identity can be completely reformed based on the experiences you have around the world. 

Experiences change people. When you are in a different country every couple of months, and constantly going out of your comfort zone, those experiences are happening on a regular basis, compounding, changing your default set of beliefs, and reshaping you as a person much quicker than it may happen in regular life. 

9. The best time to travel is right now.

You won’t believe how many people told me that they always wanted to do the same. If you actually want to do it, just do it.

Helicopter Flight over Budapest, Hungary, 2016

10. Full-time travel is a part-time job.

What country to go to next? Which area is the best to stay in? For how long should I stay there – one, two, or three months? Most likely, you’ll spend about one-fifth of your time on planning, packing, flying, researching, and just thinking about all the organizational and unsexy things that no one talks about. A personal assistant helps, but you still have to be prepared.

11. Getting off Instagram is great for your mental health, and it makes your travel experience better. 

You have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes of those perfect pictures and videos of every “travel-influencer.” So stop measuring yourself against other people posturing, and start measuring against your past self instead. 

You’ll also avoid a lot of disappointment because your expectations for some beautiful places won’t be exaggerated by the ridiculously unrealistic pictures.

How will you know which places to visit? Ask locals – they always tend to have much better recommendations anyway. 

Gardens by the Bay aerial view, Singapore, 2015.

12. A set of rules always helps and saves a lot of time. 

For example, I don’t stay in studios, because I know that I feel much better when I have separate spaces for work, sleep, cooking, eating, and lounging. 

Or I always try to take either the first flight of the day or the last one, because later I’ll feel bad about wasting the entire day on flying if I don’t.

These little things add up and make the quality of your traveling life much better.

13. Don’t count the countries you’ve visited. Count experiences.

Counting countries doesn’t mean anything. You haven’t actually been to the country if you only had a stopover for 12 hours, and went on a city sightseeing bus tour. You probably won’t even remember that after a year.

Do you know what you will remember though even after a decade? The experiences that you’ve had.

I’m a big fan of Jesse’s Itzler idea of building a life resume instead of a work resume, and what’s a better time to do that than while you travel?

Fireworks at Disney Land in Paris, France, 2016

14. It’s easy to get carried away. Get your priorities straight and keep a schedule.

I’ve met far too many people on both sides of the spectrum: the ones that go out and explore all the time while not getting any work done, and the ones that move to another country and the only thing they do is work. 

Needless to say that neither approach is sustainable long-term, so the best thing to do is to have a schedule. 

I tend to explore the surroundings on Saturdays and Sundays and work during the weekdays. It may sound boring but works for me.

15. It’s important to know when to stop and settle down.

At some point, the law of diminishing returns will kick in, and it won’t make any sense to continue changing countries every month. You need to catch that moment and start a new chapter of your life.

Village life near Baikal Lake, Siberia, Russia, 2016. © Max Grev

16. Wherever you go, you’ll probably spend the same amount of money as you usually do. 

Lots of people think that if they move to some country in South East Asia, they’ll automatically be spending way less money. 

And while this is true in some cases, most likely, you’ll end up adjusting your lifestyle instead, and spending the same amount you were back home, which is your in your comfort zone. For example, in Tel Aviv, I’d go out to eat a couple of times per week, but somewhere in Bali, I’d do that two or three times per day, and end up spending roughly the same amount of money.

17. Know why are you doing this. 

There were quite a few times when I wanted to move to another country, but after questioning myself about the reasons, the one thing that came up way too often was “to escape.” 

Escape from the problem I’ve had to deal with, escape from the unpleasant feeling I’ve been having lately, escape from the decision that I had to make. 

Moving is rarely the answer, you have to face these hard things and deal with them. If, on the other hand, the answer is to widen your perspective and shake the mundane, then, by all means, go for it.  

But know why you are doing this.

18. Don’t try to “see it all.”

In some places, it’s almost impossible to see all of the exciting things the country/city has to offer, and it’s okay, just remember that you can always come back, or simply stay a bit longer.

James Bond Island near Phuket, Thailand, 2015. © Max Grev

19. Not traveling is often harder than traveling.

This may not be true for everyone, but it sure is for me, and some people who’ve been doing that for a while. 

It’s hard to stop, and not hop on a plane to another exciting destination, but instead spend that time and energy on the exciting project that offers more long-term benefits, or with the great people that you’ve met in that place. 

When you travel all the time, moving becomes your default and considering other factors takes a conscious effort. 

20. Make an effort to keep in touch with the best people you’ve met.

Too often, people forget about someone they’ve met on a trip simply because they are from a different country. 

While it would’ve made some sense twenty years ago, the chances are that today, you spend most of the time with the people closest to you, online – on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, over email, or any other corner of the interweb. 

So why limit your circle of friends geographically, if you can surround yourself with the best people from all over the world?

21. Imagine yourself as the first explorer of the world. 

When you read dozens of travel blogs, posts on Tripadvisor, and watch YouTube videos about the country you’re planning to visit, you set certain expectations that may or may not ruin the experience. 

For your next trip, try to go blindfolded while keeping an open mind, and see what happens. 

The less you’re expecting, the more you can enjoy what actually happens. 

22. Learn to enjoy transient relationships.

Most of the relationships formed on the road will be very brief, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy every minute of them. 

Smile first, ask deeper questions, and be more open – that way these short interactions will not only be a great way to learn about the country but may as well become the highlight of your trip.

The Circum-Baikal railway, Baikal Lake, Siberia, Russia, 2016. © Max Grev

23. Keep a diary. 

There’s a hundred percent chance that you will forget almost all of the precious moments you have experienced and all of the lessons you’ve learned from your travels. 

Daily dairy in any format you prefer – text, video, audio – can not only help to remember those moments and lessons better but also help to understand and experience them on a deeper level.

24. Getting to know fewer countries well is better than visit more countries knowing nothing about them. 

25. Find out what’s the most popular area of the city you’re staying in, and never go there.

In most cases, this will be the part that was surrendered to tourists, which is never a good thing.

Find out where the locals go (the easiest way to start is by asking your Airbnb host), explore the residential areas, visit the local markets – that’s where the actual life happens, and that’s where you’ll start to understand the city you’re in. 

26. High-end travel gear and clothes are worth it.

I’ve been wearing the same set of t-shirts from Outlier and Wool&Prince for three years now, while I would’ve had to buy a new t-shirt from Zara or Uniqlo every couple of months. Oh, and they also lighter, need less washing, and don’t take up as much space in your suitcase. 

Those $300 backpacks? Also worth every penny for the peace of mind and the comfort they bring.

27. Some people don’t like to travel. And it’s okay.

Don’t try to impose your traveling religion upon everybody. 

Just as CrossFit is not the best sport for everyone or keto isn’t the diet that fits all, traveling isn’t the most appealing activity for lots of people. Leave them alone.

New York City Commute © Max Grev

28. Traveling alone is underrated.

Nothing comes close to how well can you get to know yourself than while traveling alone. The best ideas came to me while I was walking the streets of a new city by myself. The most fascinating adventures happened when I got lost while traveling alone. It’s also harder to build a deep connection with the city when you’re with someone.

29. Create rituals along the way.

I take my parents to wherever I am in the world for a month once or twice every year. I eat at the same restaurant on the first day I’m back in Cape Town. And I still buy magnets in every country I visit. 

The memories of those rituals you’ve created along the way will put a warm smile on your face down the road.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, 2016, MGrev.com

30. The magical country that will make you a new person doesn’t exist.

There’s a great piece on traveling by Ralph Waldo Emerson: 

“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

Sunset in San Francisco, 2016

7 days without social media

I just had a week of “no social media policy.”

No Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter/Reddit/any messenger/etc. Any related app has been deleted from my iPhone, either.

And it was probably the most productive week in the past few months!

Instead of thinking of some article I’ve just read or deciding on what picture I should post on Instagram, my mind was able to concentrate on what truly matters.

I’ve finally launched a few of those projects I’ve wanted to test for a while, read two great books, given just enough time to practice Spanish, journaled without any time constraints, the list goes on and on.

But probably the greatest part of this “don’t disturb mode” was that every time I’ve picked up my phone to check Instagram or to meaninglessly scroll Facebook feed, I’d open Anki app and practice Spanish vocabulary instead, simply because that phone checking habit was still in place, but those time consuming apps weren’t.

As a result, today, when I’m finally “allowed” to get back and post some stuff, I just don’t want to.

And it feels great.