Ample research links sleep quality and quantity to performance including alertness, memory, creativity, cognitive reaction times and accuracy. Even so, studies of US workers report many people show up to work feeling too tired to perform their best. With competing priorities, sleep is often the first thing to go. And even those of us with relatively decent sleep practices at home struggle to get quality sleep when traveling for work. I’ve been focusing on improving my sleep habits for years and offer the following five strategies to try the next time your work takes you on the road.
1. Pack a travel kit that puts you in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating an environment conducive to sleep. Sleep researchers recommend sleeping in a dark, cool room but many hotel rooms make this challenging. Savvy travelers often choose not to check their luggage and take great pains to pack light. Rest assured this travel kit won’t take a lot of room in your carryon.
- Ear plugs – if a certain type doesn’t work for you, try others. The goal is to find something that will remain in your ears without falling out if you change your sleeping position.
- Face mask – these are often given to passengers as a courtesy on longer red-eye flights. And it comes in handy in hotel rooms where the drapes do not totally block out the light from the window or when the gap beneath the bottom of the door allows a lot of light from the hallway.
- Electrical tape – Sleep researchers often exhort us to remove light-emitting electronics from our bedrooms, but this can be difficult in hotels. Digital displays from the television, alarm clock, and/or microwave oven in your room can really light up the room. I bring a very small length of black electrical tape that is wrapped around a travel-sized container. For best results, be sure to get tape that tears easily without scissors.
- Large binder clip – While these are typically used to keep a thick stack of papers in place, a large clip can also be used to secure the gap between a set of curtains in the hotel window.
- Warm socks – Cooler room temperatures (between 65 and 68 degrees is optimal) are associated with better sleep. But it can be hard to fall asleep if your feet are freezing. Bring a pair of soft, fuzzy socks that you can wear around the room while you are getting ready for bed and keep them on until your body temperature warms up your bed.
2. Leverage your Smart Phone to support sleep. We often hear that using our cell phones too close to bedtime is contraindicated for sleep, but they can be used support quality sleep if used in the right way.
- Download a white noise application to mask ambient sounds from the hallway or an adjoining room. There are several free apps that allow you to choose from a library of sounds such as rain, an oscillating fan, the ocean, or different types of background noise.
- Set your notifications to be paused during sleeping hours.
- Enable night mode on your screen so if you check the clock in the middle of the night, you don’t feel blinded by a bright screen.
- If you use your phone as your alarm clock or for the noise app, turn the face of the phone downwards on your nightstand.
- Change the settings on your smart phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode so incoming calls and notifications are suppressed but the alarm clock will still work. Settings can be changed so certain VIP callers will still get through to you.
3. Take charge of your hotel environment.
- At the hotel registration desk, request a room away from busy streets, elevators, and hotel common areas. When you make your reservation, you can usually enter in special requests such having an upper floor with a window facing the quietest area surrounding the hotel. You can also set up your profile in your hotel rewards program, so all reservations contain these requests.
- Lower the temperature of the room before bedtime. This can sometimes take some time, especially if your room is on an upper floor or if the window gets direct exposure to the setting sun in the summertime. I often change the thermostat in my room to 65 degrees or as cool as I can tolerate as soon as I enter the room. If the room doesn’t appear to be cooling down, be sure to switch the thermostat from “heat” to “cool”. If I’m going to be away from the room to go to dinner, I will just change the temperature before I leave for dinner. This may require you to layer up a bit before you crawl under the covers, but you can easily shed layers as you sleep.
- Turn the fan setting on the thermostat to high rather than auto.
- Request extra blankets, different pillows, or a fan if your hotel’s HVAC system won’t let you reduce the temperature in the room.
- Cover all light-emitting displays with black electrical tape from your travel kit. If you can use your smart phone as your alarm clock, you can unplug the alarm clock. Just be sure to turn your phone so the display is face down.
- If you are not using the small refrigerator in your room and there is nothing in it that will spoil, consider unplugging the refrigerator if the compressor is noisy or cycles on and off.
- Use the binder clip in your travel kit to close the drapes over your window so no light bleeds in between the space where the curtains come together.
- If your bed pill is too squishy to provide good neck support, roll a small hand towel from the bathroom and stuff it into your pillowcase where your neck will rest on the bottom edge of the pillow.
4. Pay attention to what you put into your body.
- Avoid alcohol in the hours before bedtime. An evening drink may seem like a good idea to help you wind down and relax after a busy day, but the effects are fleeting. While alcohol can help you to fall asleep, it negatively impacts how deeply you will sleep and can make it difficult to sleep through the night. Try warm herbal tea, dimming the lights, or playing soft music to help you relax before bedtime. If you can’t fall asleep right away, try reading a book (not an electronic device) or journaling for 15 minutes. You might also try mindfulness meditation or concentrating on counting your breaths.
- Avoid caffeine after midday. Caffeine can make it difficult stay asleep or to fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. Try to eliminate caffeine as early in the day as possible.
- Read the labels on medications to ensure they do not act as stimulants. If they do, consider modifying when you take your medication, so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.
- Avoid eating too much too late at night. We tend to sleep better if we go to bed with an empty stomach. Sometimes business travel requires us to attend lengthy dinners that begin too late in the day and last several hours, returning us to our hotel room just in time to go to bed. If your schedule includes a lengthy dinner that requires you to go to bed soon after the dinner concludes, make your midday meal heavier and your evening meal lighter. Select smaller portions and avoid foods likely to cause heart burn, stomach upset, or that will be too filling. Skip dessert and opt for a cup of tea or offer to share your dessert with others.
5. Proactively prepare for a time zone change. This strategy often requires the most discipline and advance planning. My work travel often requires me to fly in the Eastern direction with a 3-hour time zone change. This can be especially challenging when I spend a full day traveling to my meeting location, go straight to a lengthy dinner with business acquaintances, and have to get up early for meetings the following day.
- Adjust your sleep schedule in the weeks leading up to your trip. Try to gradually go to bed earlier in the days or weeks leading up to your trip so by the time you depart your body clock has been reset to the new time zone. For example, if your business trip schedule requires you to get up at 5am every morning, that means you’ll need to get to bed by 9pm each night to get the recommended eight hours of sleep. If you have a time zone difference of two or three hours, gradually go to bed earlier each night before you leave so you are going to bed by 7pm in your own time zone. This is very challenging to do if you typically do not eat dinner until 7pm or have evening activities scheduled each night, but it’s worth it. When I have to travel cross country for work, I’ll typically turn down evening activities and move to an earlier dinner time with my family during the week prior to the trip.
- Adjust exposure to sunlight the day of travel so it aligns with sun exposure in your new location. For example, if you know it is nighttime at your destination, draw the blind on the airplane window, put on your sleeping mask, and try to sleep. Even if you cannot sleep, keep the mask on and lights down and just rest with your eyes closed. When you arrive at your destination, if it’s daytime, get outside and try to expose yourself to the sunlight as soon as possible. Even a brief walk outside breathing the fresh air can help energize you after a long flight.