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Here's how I hacked my sleep routine in 21 days

I tried everything to save myself from restless nights. Here's what worked.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Like most people in 2020, my sleep has been anything but sound. I would describe my recent attempts at rest as “chaotic” at best; I am forever tossing and turning, and my body wakes me up throughout the night — usually at the same times.

It is so predictable that I can tell what the clock will tell me before I even look at it, and it happens at least two or three times a night. I’m naturally an early riser but in the last few months I have been waking up at 4:09 a.m. for no reason. Not just opening my eyes for a second before drifting back to dreamland — like, actually waking up for the day. But then, similarly on schedule, I begin to feel exhausted by 6:30 a.m. and crash on my sofa or back in bed for another hour. It doesn’t feel great, and I don’t like it.

I have tried all of the things that everyone says to do. I have left my phone in another room, I have gotten one of those plain clocks so I don’t have to rely on electronics. I have tried to limit “blue light” (whatever that means), and I only use my bed for sleeping. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to leave my phone in another room or turn off the TV. I just want to fall asleep to the sounds of "Real Housewives" yelling at each other like I used to be able to do so easily. Is that so much to ask? Apparently yes.

I decided to try two things in an attempt to hack my sleep routine so that I might be able to make it through the night without waking up like the apparent infant baby I am. In fact, I found that tools parents use to put their babies to sleep worked for me as well.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. An adult swaddle

The first thing I tried is whimsically called the Hug Sleep Sleep Pod. OK, here me out. Yes, it is effectively an adult swaddler and adults wearing it look insane. You can only use one if you live alone or if you’re already married. Anyone who could potentially leave you or ghost you without having to legally fill out a bunch of paperwork to do so should never witness you climbing into your adult swaddle.

Yes, it looks like a baby swaddle for adults. Yes, it works.
Yes, it looks like a baby swaddle for adults. Yes, it works.Hug Sleep

It was on "Shark Tank," and the sharks loved it. Because I run a product-recommendation podcast, brands are always sending things for me to try. This was one such product. The first few nights using it I felt like I was trapped inside a cocoon for humans. A cocooman, if you will. The founder told me this was normal.

I am often wary of products that claim they “definitely work, you just have to use it a bunch of times to get used to it, and during those first few times you will be miserable and uncomfortable.” But running a product-recommendation podcast means I have to follow the rules of the product, and if the way you use it effectively is to get over the first three nights of terror and torture then I will have to do it. But ... it worked? Somehow — and I will not rule out the moon phases or witch magic — I was sleeping like a BABY on night four, which is exactly what the founder promised me. I slept through the night and only woke up at 4:09 a.m., which as you might recall, is my scheduled morning wake up (the first one). But, hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day!

The Sleep Pod is like putting your entire body into the leg of your favorite spandex athleisure. Marketed to people who like the pressure of a weighted blanket but not necessarily the heat, the Hug Sleep gave me a feeling of compression (“hug,” get it?) without making me feel like I was going to sweat to death. There’s even a hole at the bottom for you to stick out a foot from, much like you would under the sheets. My only complaint is that the hole wasn’t bigger. Sometimes I want more than a foot out from under the sheets for temperature control, you know? Sometimes you want a full leg. I contemplated enlarging the hole myself with scissors and a small sewing kit but then I remembered that I don’t know how to sew. Maybe that will be my next quarantine hobby.

I don’t sleep with the Hug Sleep every night, but I did sleep with it for 14 nights in a row after that initial three-night grace period. And I can tell you I woke up fewer times each of those nights. By the 15th night I fell asleep on the couch watching "Law and Order SVU." Success!

2. Adult bedtime stories

If the first thing I tried was crazy then the second thing I tried was a cliché. Meditation? Not for me. Like the Hug Sleep, I am sure I could get past the initial weirdness of meditation and have some sort of breakthrough but I already know — not for me. I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts! I mean, really, who does?

The Calm App came with my health insurance in 2020, but I didn't activate my account until recently when I realized it may actually be an effective way to fall asleep. I didn't want to meditate, but I was intrigued by what the app calls “Sleep Stories”: essentially cozy bedtime stories read at a calming lull by celebrities and other voice actors.

The first sleep story I listened to was narrated by a man named Eric Braa. It is about a little girl who is very interested in trains and on Christmas Eve somehow magically transports onto a Polar Express-type locomotive. You know what happens next? Neither do I because I fall asleep in the first 10 minutes of this story every single night I try to listen to it! I desperately want to stay awake and I can’t. It’s not because the story is boring. In fact, it reads like a good snuggly Christmas story from the “days of yore” when kids would get wooden trains and bears from Santa instead of iPads. But it puts me to sleep. A sleep story that works better than a dose of Unisom? Color me impressed.

What I realized in my 21-day trial was that my problem was two-fold: I had a hard time falling asleep (Calm comes in handy here), and a hard time staying asleep (Hug Sleep comes in handy here). One without the other has led to failure of both. I've tried other things during this time that failed me: sleep masks, CBD, pillow sprays that smelled like lavender, white noise, etc. The HugSleep and the Calm app are the only two that prevailed.

Now if I could only figure out what happened to that little girl on the Christmas train. But maybe, if I’m lucky or tired enough, I’ll never know.