When we think of creating healthier habits it's exercising, eating nutritious meals or drinking more water that are usually the first things we change.
But one important habit that often gets overlooked is sleep.
If you asked me a couple of months ago how I felt about my sleeping habits, I would've said "it's fine," not thinking much of it because I used to be one of *those* morning people.
But after doing the ABC Health Check Quiz, I realised I wasn't paying enough attention to the sleep I was getting and seems I'm not the only one. A third of Australians agree they don't get the recommended amount of sleep (around 7–9 hours every night for adults).
Poor sleep can contribute to anxiety, depression and chronic illnesses like diabetes — which is a condition some of my family suffer with — and as a First Nations woman, data shows I'm four times more likely to get diabetes compared to my non-Indigenous friends.
It's why I've made exercise part of my daily routine and why I'm trying to eat more nutritious foods.
But I didn't realise sleep could contribute to diabetes too.
So last month I decided to take my sleep more seriously and tried a four week "sleep experiment".
Using some advice from the ABC Health Check quiz I decided to stick to a consistent wake up time every day (including weekends), create a bed time routine, reduce naps to around 20 minutes and create a separate space for pets to sleep.
ABC Your Move explores Australia's collective and individual health and fitness to better understand and inspire us. We've built this health quiz so you can see whether just one thing could change your life for the better!
I'm sure I'm not alone when I say starting a new habit is tricky — and if there's one thing I've learned over time, it's better to start small.
Instead of applying a tonne of changes on day one, I made tweaks incrementally starting with getting my wake-up time right — even if I didn't get enough sleep the previous night.
My body clock naturally wakes up around 6.30am but I wanted to bring my alarm forward by 30 minutes so I could squeeze in some exercise before I started work (more details on that below) so my wake-up time for the experiment was 6am.
I also wanted to improve on my hours of sleep, so the new goal was eight hours every night, which means I had to fall asleep by 10pm — including on weekends.
But the first couple of nights and weekends took some getting used to.
You know when you have an early morning flight and find it hard to fall asleep because you're worried you'll miss your alarm?
Well, that's what was happening to me — even though I wasn't flying anywhere.
I'd lie there on my back, then roll over to my side, try a million different positions to fall asleep — which only made it worse.
"Just fall asleep, you're going to cut into your sleeping time," I would think to myself.
Followed by: "You forgot to send that email today".
"I wonder how Aji (my grandma) is doing after her appointment?
"How do they make tunnels underwater?"
After a few nights of this, I stopped trying to force myself to sleep and tried to shift my attention to breathing by lying on my back and placing my hand on my stomach. Sleep meditation or sleep story apps can also help too.
With the rise and fall of every breath I took, my thoughts eventually disappeared and before I knew it, I was fast asleep.
Before the experiment this would usually happen after a stressful day. But once I started sleep meditating, it only happened a couple of times across the month.
I found what I did in the lead up to bed made falling asleep much easier.
Prior to the sleep experiment, my activities before going to bed varied.
It wasn't like the old days when my parents would send me to bed at 8.30pm. Some nights I'd be sitting in front of a bingeworthy television series till past 10pm or scrolling on my phone in bed for an hour (or more).
Sleep experts often talk about our 'body clock' being in sync with the sun rising and setting. After looking back through my sleep journal, this now made sense.
I noticed a shift in my body where I started feeling tired around 6 or 7pm like it was time for bed.
The trouble was that I'm usually eating dinner, watching TV or commuting home from work around that time, so I had to block that signal until I finished everything for the day.
Noticing this body shift reminded me of why a "tech switch off time" is important — scrolling or watching TV right until bedtime was confusing my body with artificial light as if it were daylight, telling my mind and body that I needed to stay awake.
So I set up a bedtime routine that started at 8.30pm.
The routine involved having a warm shower, reading a book (which after dissing in this recent article I wrote, I've come to love again!) and putting my phone on "do not disturb" earlier in the evening to avoid any temptation to answer any texts.
Having stressful conversations in the lead up to bed tends to keep me up at night and that's why a bedtime routine is important — it's not just about physically winding down but mentally too.
It's about setting boundaries with myself, my friends and family, including my cat Hugo.
Pets can disrupt your sleep, especially if you have a noisy housemate like mine. Like most cats, he likes to be close which makes it hard to sleep when he snores and purrs like a tractor.
I set up a bed in a separate room, and closed my bedroom door. After a week of meowing and thumping his body against the door, he now loves his new bed.
But the first night was a nightmare. Hugo would bang on the door until I got up and would race between my legs to get into my bedroom and this fight continued for the next hour.
Eventually he got tired and fell asleep (thank goodness!) but now I was struggling to fall sleep, and the next day I felt it. It was the kind of exhaustion no amount of caffeine could fix, so I went to bed a little earlier that night.
A big benefit of working from home is being able to exercise before I log on for the day.
But now that I'm back in the office (about two days a week), I had been trying to wake up at 4am on those days to get to the gym before my hour commute.
I know I said I was a "morning person" but that only happened twice during the experiment and by 2pm I was ready for bed.
So instead, I tried swapping my morning workout for the evening … which wasn't the best idea.
The first week I did this, I headed to the gym around 6pm after work and ate dinner around 8.30pm, before tidying up and heading to bed on a full stomach without any wind down time.
I drank a lot of water post-workout, which meant my sleep was interrupted with trips to the bathroom during the night.
The next day I felt really exhausted and decided to give my workout a miss.
So I've since adjusted my exercise routine by skipping the gym on the days I head into the office.
Learn more and get inspired by visiting our Your Move collections on ABC iview.
Sundays are my rest and reset days — I enjoy sleeping in and letting my body rest before the week ahead.
But the sleep advice from the Health Check tool suggests that my wakeup time should be kept consistent, even on weekends. A 6am start on a Sunday? Cringe!
Most Saturdays, I'm not in bed till around 11pm (or midnight), so waking up at 6am was only giving me five to six hours of sleep compared to my usual eight.
This is where my naps came in handy.
I learned there's a bit of a skill to napping and apparently I was doing it all wrong.
Before the experiment, I would nap for an hour in the afternoon. Sometimes I'd be a little daring and leave my alarm off.
The only problem was, when I woke up, I would sometimes feel worse than before I went to sleep (which is known as sleep inertia).
Former ABC presenter Brooke Boney labelled this the "devil's nap" when she was doing shiftwork.
After doing the Health Check Quiz, I realised it was the duration I was getting wrong — if you nap for around 15 to 30 minutes it can provide you with a good boost which is great if you're trying to avoid more caffeine.
So, I tested this every weekend (because those 6am alarms caught up with me) and can say it works — no more feeling tired and heavy after I wake up and it was long enough to give me an energy boost without disrupting my sleep that night.
Now I know the secret to napping, I might just squeeze one in as part of my late lunch break.
Learn more and get inspired by visiting Your Move collections on ABC iview and ABC listen, including exercise playlists from ABC Classic and Double J, or take the ABC Health Check quiz at abc.net.au/yourmove.
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We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work.


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