Month: November 2019


Top advice for life from the most prolific members of the U.S. military’s most elite force.


(Note: Check out my colleague Jessica Stillman’s examination of how SEALs push themselves beyond their limits.)

There’s probably no tougher military training than the U.S. Navy SEALs. I say this despite the fact that I come from an Army and Marine Corps family.

Even if you don’t plan to jump out of an airplane and into battle, or burst through the doors of an enemy compound anytime soon, there’s a lot you can learn from these elite warriors.


Recently, I’ve looked at how the SEALs’ leadership principles can help your kids to become more resilient, or even how to make your life more extraordinary

Last  year, one of the top Navy SEALs commanders gave one of the best commencement addresses of all time. The New York Times recommended a Navy SEAL book lately–The New York Times!): DEADLY SKILLS: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation. 

Heck, there’s even a real U.S. Navy SEAL who is an columnist. You should check him out.

Now, here’s the ultimate Navy SEAL guide to exceptional success and achievement–combining the key advice from some of the most storied and prolific members of this elite force. Learn their lessons, follow their lead–and you’ll find you’re more likely to succeed.

1. Develop mental toughness.


Roughly 75 percent of people who make it into the initial six-month SEAL training cource, known as Basic Underwater Demolitions/Seal Training (BUDS), wind up washing out. In his book, Navy Seal Training Guide: Mental Toughness (which by the way goes for $790 on Amazon), author Lars Draeger says there four pillars of mental toughness: goal-setting, mental visualization, positive self-talk, and arousal control. We’ll tackle them in turn.

2. Set (and achieve) micro-goals.

SEALs, according to Draeger, learn to focus on one thing at a time, avoiding all distractions. They do that by determining the overall objective, breaking it down into smaller pieces, and repeating as needed until they get to minute-by-minute pieces. That’s the kind of planning that allowed Navy SEALs to capture and kill bin Laden–and also the same kind of strategy that can help you achieve your goals.

3. Visualize success (and overcoming failure).

During SEALs training, there’s an exercise in which students are required to accomplish a series of difficult tasks…



while wearing SCUBA gear…

while instructors attack them and try to destroy their equipment and keep them from breathing.

Become flustered, and you fail. So the successful ones learn not to visualize ahead of time how they’ll handle each calamity. As the folks at Examined Existence wrote:


Navy psychologists discovered that those who did well and passed the exercise the first time used mental imagery to prepare them for the exercise.  They imagine themselves going through the various corrective actions and they imagine doing it while being attacked.  … [O]nce the exercise (and the attack) happens, the mind is ready and the [SEAL] is in full control of their physical and mental faculties.

4. Convince yourself you can do it.

As entrepreneurs, how many times do we hear that you should fake it until you make it? That’s part of how you get through SEALs training, apparently. The folks from Examined Existence summed it thusly:

Those who graduate from BUDS block all negative self-talk … and …  constantly motivate themselves to keep going.  … They remind themselves that should be able to pass no problem because they are more physically fit than their predecessors.  They remind themselves to go on and not quit, no matter what. 

5. Control your arousal.

Arousal. Heh-heh. We’re talking here about all kinds of sensual distractions–thinking about the lost love back home, or the things they could be doing besides training, or even the warm bed they had to leave in order to go through the day’s training. 

Once more, Examined Existence:


When our bodies feel overwhelmed or in danger, [we] release … cortisol and endorphins. These chemicals … cause our palms to sweat, our minds to race, our hearts to pound, and our bodily functions to malfunction.  This is the body’s natural response to stress, developed over millions of years of human evolution.  But SEALS learn to control this natural response to arousal so that they are poised even under the most stressful of circumstances.

6. Be aware.

The next two are pretty basic, but I guess if you’re a Navy SEAL, it’s why they work. If you want to be in a position to overcome danger, be aware of your surroundings.

So few other people pay attention to their surroundings anymore. In fact, I should take a photo of the slow-moving people I see on the subway each morning, immediately and obliviously checking their devices as they get off the train.

“Get your head out of your phone. … Just look up,” former Navy SEAL Dom Raso told TheBlaze . “It’s just a very, very simple thing to do and no one does it anymore, and it’s really scary.”

7. Avoid bad stuff.

This one also is obvious–so much so that former Navy SEAL Raso seems pretty upset about that others don’t do it. And it goes against the uninitiated, who might believe that a Navy SEAL’s first reaction is always to fight.

“Avoid, avoid, avoid,” he said. “I want to avoid any [bad] situation before it happens.”

8. Practice humility.

Given that last bit of advice, the next one makes sense. Success as a Navy SEAL leader means recognizing that you’re not the solution to every problem. Fail to recognize that, and you’re likely to flat-out fail.


“What it has to do with is the fact that the person is not humble enough to accept responsibility when things go wrong, accept that there might be better ways to do things, and they just have a closed mind,” says Jocko Willink, coauthor of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. “They can’t change, and that’s what makes a person fail as a leader.”

As his coauthor, Leif Babin added: “No leader has it all figured out. You can’t rely on yourself. You’ve got to rely on other people, so you’ve got to ask for help, you’ve got to empower the team, and you’ve got to accept constructive criticism.”

9. Find your three mentors.

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week among other giant mega-bestsellers, interviewed General Stanley McChrystal, along with McChrystal’s aide, former Navy SEAL officer Chris Fussell, who offered him some key advice:

You should always have three people that you’re paying attention to within your organization:

  • Someone senior who you would like to emulate
  • A peer who you think is better at the job than you are
  • A subordinate who is doing your previous job better than you did

“If you just have those three individuals that you’re constantly measuring yourself off of and who you’re constantly learning from,” Fussell said, “you’re gonna be exponentially better than you are.”


10. Do small things right.

The last items on this list come from a speech that Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL commander who was in charge of the raid that killed bin Laden, gave in Texas last year.

His first commandment–a fairly famous one, in fact–is that you should make your bed in the morning.

Why? Because if you do that, “it will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”

11. Be smart about assessing others.

Next up: Don’t adopt others’ knee-jerk assessments. McRaven talked about being in SEAL training and reflecting on a crew of physically small classmates, none of whom was more than five-feet-five.


“The big men in the other boat crews would always make good natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim,” he said. “But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the Nation and the world, always had the last laugh– swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL training was a great equalizer.”

(As a guy who’s like five-foot-eight in my boots, I love this one.)

12. Suck it up.

This is probably the part of military training that people who’ve never gone through military training think of–the part they’ve seen in the movies where sadistic drill instructors put you through hell. McRaven talks about a punishment during SEAL training known as a “sugar cookie.”

The student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. … You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day–cold, wet and sandy.

The point of that training? To learn that when you’re uncomfortable and discouraged, sometimes you just have to suck it up and get through it. 

13. Sometimes, go head first.

Another McRaven story. The record for going through the SEAL obstacle course in the fastest time had stood for years. One of the trickiest parts was to maneuver yourself safely but quickly into a rope obstacle known as the slide for life.


The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life–head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.

It was a dangerous move–seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation–the student slid down the rope–perilously fast, instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.

The point? It’s the same in business and in any facet of life. Sometimes if you want to excel, you simply have to accept the risks and dive in anyway.

14. Take on the sharks.

Long before the television show, Navy SEALs learned to be afraid of sharks. There’s a part of their training when they have to swim in the waters off of San Clemente, California, which they are told is a breeding ground for sharks.

But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position–stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you–then summons up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.

This is the story of life. Bandits and bullies are all around. Usually, the only way to beat them is to take them head on.

15. Identify the moment that matters.

One of the keys to success is consistency–but of course we all know that there are some moments that simply matter more than others. One of the toughest during SEAL training involves training to attack an enemy ship–by swimming two miles alone underwater and, in the dark, approaching it from below.


“The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight–it blocks the surrounding street lamps–it blocks all ambient light,” McRaven explained. “To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel–the center line and the deepest part of the ship.”

The “darkest part of the mission” is the hardest–and the most important. We all have them in our lives. 

16. Be happy–and if you can’t be happy, fake it.

Truth to tell, SEAL training sounds flat-out sadistic at some points. During his training, McRaven talked about his entire team being forced to stand in freezing water up to their necks, while their instructors told them they wouldn’t let them out until five trainees gave up–and quit the entire course.

Their reply? They started to sing.

“The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night–one voice raised in song,” he said. “The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.”

Standing in the surf and mud and freezing cold still sucked, but it sucked a little less McRaven said, and that’s how they made it though–because they gave each other hope. 


17. Persevere–don’t ring the bell.

One way that SEAL training is a lot like the rest of the world is that there is an easy way to quit. You can simply give up, ring a brass bell in the middle of the compound in front of all of your peers, and walk away.

All you have to do to quit–is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT–and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.

The vast majority of trainees ring the bell. The very few who don’t become U.S. Navy SEALs. They face even greater challenges, and someday people write about their example. 

“If you want to change the world,” McRaven says, “don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”






WPP Stream
Oct 26, 2016 · 7 min read

Earlier this month, I attended Stream, WPP’s unconference hosted by their CEO Sir Martin Sorrell and Israeli technology pioneer Yossi Vardi where they handpick a group of 300 brand execs, media and technology leaders and entrepreneurs to share on any topics they want by the beach in Greece. So, when pushed for a discussion topic, it seemed obvious to me to share and explore tips to reach peak performance from Navy SEAL and elite athletes with this group of individuals who want to be the best version of themselves on a daily basis. To understand why, let’s go back in time.

Discussions at WPP Stream 2016

In April 2014, I experienced a major burnout that landed me 8 days in the hospital and 3 weeks without working. I was running my own company at the time and the mix of not sleeping and eating well, intense pressure and the highs and lows of entrepreneurship got the better of me.

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be the best at what I do and push myself to the limit, never considering what the consequences would be if I ever went past that limit. So after that burn-out, I got my act together, started sleeping and eating properly and asked myself the question “How can I push myself to reach peak performance in the long run without going over the edge?” I started researching and reading more and more and I realized that there is something that all top performers, especially elite athletes and warriors, have in common: they spend an enormous amount of time developing mental toughness to maintain their ideal state of peak performance. So, for the past few years, I’ve strived to emulate athletes and warriors to perform in the workplace. And there are a few concepts that are common to both of these groups, that we discussed during WPP Stream, and that I think anyone can and should start to implement in their life today.

Developing Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is the ability to thrive despite adversity, it’s an ability to control panic and fear in order not to let them affect your performance. To improve the success rate of their selection program, The Navy SEALs, turned to neuroscience research to develop a mental toughness training program that enabled them to go from a quarter to a third of successful candidates. The four pillars of the program are Goal-Setting, Visualization, Self-Talk and Arousal Control.

Goal setting

What the Navy SEALs learned from neuroscience is that concentrating on specific goals allows the brain to bring structure to chaos and uncertainty, which are both major sources of stress. Goals are formed in the prefrontal cortex of our brain and focusing on goals helps lower the effect of anxiety which is formed in the amygdala. Dr Jason Selk, Director of Mental Training for the St Louis Cardinals says that it is important to distinguish Product Goals (what you want to achieve) and Process Goals (how you are going to achieve it).

A product goal is what you can achieve in a 6 to 12 months’ period. For instance, let’s say you want to achieve $100K in sales this year for your business. In order to get there, you’ll need some process goals, which are actions you’re going to do on a daily basis towards the product goal. There must be at least two or three process goals per product goal. In this example your process goal #1 might be calling 50 prospects/day while process goal #2 could be calling 10 leads/day. If you consistently hit your process goals, your product goal will eventually be achieved. It’s important to remember that with both types of goals, they need to be specific, measurable, positive and displayed.


Visualization is the practice of seeing in your mind vivid images of something that you want to achieve. Commander Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL and author of the book “Unbeatable Mind”, says that there are two types of visualizations:

  • “Rehearsal visualization”: picturing yourself perform a skill to perfection.
  • “Ideal state visualization”: envisioning an ideal state for yourself at some point in the future.

Sport psychologist Jim Afremow in his book “The Champion’s Mind”, covers a prominent 1983 research study that demonstrated that visualization is “one of the most powerful weapons we have in our mental arsenal”…because “the brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences because the same systems in the brain are deployed for both types of experiences”


Jim Afremow, covers as well Dr. Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis’s analysis of 32 previously published sport psychology studies which says that “The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior”. Average adults talk to themselves at a rate of 300 to 1000 words per minute. In many cases, these thoughts are negative and uncontrolled, thereby leading to a decrease in performance. What we need is creating a positive loop using self-talk. Jim Afremow suggests to replace self-critical thoughts like “I’m not cut out for this” by power sentences like “bring it on now”. Other examples used by athletes are “Next play will be my best play”, “Let’s do this”, “I start strong and finish stronger”.

Lanny Bassham, Olympic medalist in rifle shooting in 1976 and mental training coach gives a great example of a combination of visualization and self-talk in his book “With Winning in Mind”.

In the 1970s he wanted to beat the national record of 396/400 in the kneeling position and set it to a perfect 400/400. Although he had never reached that mark in practice, he would, twice a day, visualize himself shooting perfectly. He would also visualize feeling the pressure rising when getting close to the end, so he rehearsed saying to himself, “That’s OK. I do this all the time”. Then, when the first day of competition came, he was ready. “I started with a 100 kneeling. My next two targets were also 100s. I began my last series with ten, ten, ten, ten. Only five more to go. Ten. Ten. Ten. Then reality set in. I was above the record. I heard an internal voice say, “That’s OK, I do this all the time.” I shot two additional tens, setting the national record at a perfect 400.”

Arousal control

Arousal control, also called breath control, is the ability to control the physiological reaction to stress through control of breathing. “To say that learning breath control is the most important component to forging mental toughness would not be an overstatement” says Mark Divine in Unbeatable Mind.

In the face of intense stress, anxiety or fear, your adrenaline spikes, your heart rate increases, your muscle tenses and your body starts shaking. These natural reactions, meant to help us survive life-threatening situations, get many of us to perform poorly in situations where we need to think straight. By breathing deeply, you can slow your heart rate and bring your nervous system back to normal. A simple breathing technique that Mark Divine suggests is called “Box-breathing”:

  • Inhale through your nose expanding your belly for 5 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 5 seconds
  • Exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 5 seconds

I have been using this breathing pattern in my meditation practice everyday for the past year and a half and I do that for 1 minute (3 repetitions) several times a day at work when I want to calm down, refocus or when I am switching tasks. This is game-changing.

Bringing it all together — Try this at home

The concepts listed above are simple to understand but not easy to implement. They require a lot of regular practice and dedication. Here is a simple practice that will enable you to start integrating all four of these elements into your life.

Set up — 30 minutes a day for one or two weeks

  • Write down one important goal that you currently have — This is your product goal
  • Write 2 or 3 process goals for this product goal
  • Outline a visualization session of yourself performing your process goals (write on paper what you are going to imagine in your head)
  • For each process goals:
  • Chose a power sentence to kick-off your process goal
  • Chose a power sentence to to get back on track when you lose focus during your process goal

Practice — Every day

  • First thing in the morning or at the beginning of your workday do:
  • 1 minute of box breathing (3 repetitions)
  • A 10–15min visualization session of yourself performing your process goals. Make sure to visualize yourself using your self-talk power sentences during this session
  • Perform your process goals. And for each of them:
  • Start with 1 minute of box-breathing (3 repetitions)
  • Kick off your session with your self-talk power sentence
  • If you lose focus, use your self-talk power sentence to get back on track

Focus on only one product goals to get started. Once you’ll get used to this process, you can expand to other product goals and other areas of your life. Just like working out, after a while, you will start to see that your mental is getting stronger. You’ll be able to focus more, to handle pressure better, to be more and more in control and constantly able to perform at your desired state.

Some great resources to get started are the books mentioned in this article and the website which sums up all those books and give you tons of wisdom to optimize your life.

Here’s to being mentally tough and reaching our ideal state of peak performance.

By: Pierre Ntiruhungwa

Pierre Ntiruhungwa

A lifelong learner and entrepreneur at heart, Pierre wants to empower people to be the best version of themselves via his passion for education and entrepreneurship. He started his first company, Silicon Students, at age 22 with the ambition to create a school of entrepreneurship. This summer bootcamp for young aspiring entrepreneurs from all around the world in Silicon Valley ran for 3 years. He now runs Founders of the Future, a non-profit community to uncover, nurture and guide the next generation of tech founders from across Europe. Follow him on Twitter @pierresn and find out more on


The Science of Sleep: A Brief Guide on How to Sleep Better Every Night

If you want to learn how to sleep better, then you’re in the right place. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know if you want to get better sleep. I’ll explain the science of sleep and how it works, discuss why many people suffer from sleep deprivation without knowing it, and offer practical tips for getting better sleep and having more energy.

Plain and simple, the purpose of this guide is to explain the science of how to sleep better. You can click the links below to jump to a particular section or simply scroll down to read everything. At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on sleep.

I. The Science of Sleep

II. How Sleep Works

III. How to Sleep Better


I. The Science of Sleep

Sleep is one of the strangest things we do each day. The average adult will spend 36 percent of his or her life asleep. For one-third of our time on earth, we transition from the vibrant, thoughtful, active organisms we are during the day and power down into a quiet state of hibernation.

But what is sleep, exactly? Why is it so important and so restorative for our bodies and minds? How does it impact our lives when we are awake?

The Purpose of Sleep

Sleep serves multiple purposes that are essential to your brain and body. Let’s break down some of the most important ones.

The first purpose of sleep is restoration. Every day, your brain accumulates metabolic waste as it goes about its normal neural activities. While this is completely normal, too much accumulation of these waste products has been linked to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Alright, so how do we get rid of metabolic waste? Recent research has suggested that sleep plays a crucial role in cleaning out the brain each night. While these toxins can be flushed out during waking hours, researchers have found that clearance during sleep is as much as two-fold faster than during waking hours.

The way this process occurs is fairly remarkable:

During sleep, brain cells actually shrink by 60 percent, allowing the brain’s waste-removal system—called the glymphatic system—to essentially “take out the trash” more easily. The result? Your brain is restored during sleep, and you wake up refreshed and with a clear mind.

The second purpose of sleep is memory consolidation. Sleep is crucial for memory consolidation, which is the process that maintains and strengthens your long-term memories. Insufficient or fragmented sleep can hamper your ability to form both concrete memories (facts and figures) and emotional memories.

Finally, sleep is paramount for metabolic health. Studies have shown that when you sleep 5.5 hours per night instead of 8.5 hours per night, a lower proportion of the energy you burn comes from fat, while more comes from carbohydrate and protein. This can predispose you to fat gain and muscle loss. Additionally, insufficient sleep or abnormal sleep cycles can lead to insulin insensitivity and metabolic syndrome, increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

All of this to say, that better sleep is critical for your mental and physical health. Before we get too deep into this sleep guide though, let’s pause for just a second. If you’re enjoying this article on sleep, then you’ll probably find my other writing on performance and human behavior useful. Each week, I share self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research through my free email newsletter.

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How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Alright, so sleep is important, but how much sleep do you really need? To answer that question, let’s consider an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington State University.

The researchers began the experiment by gathering 48 healthy men and women who had been averaging seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Then, they split these subjects into four groups. The first group had to stay up for 3 days straight without sleeping. The second group slept for 4 hours per night. The third group slept for 6 hours per night. And the fourth group slept for 8 hours per night. In these final three groups—4, 6, and 8 hours of sleep—the subjects were held to these sleep patterns for two weeks straight. Throughout the experiment the subjects were tested on their physical and mental performance. 

The Cost of Sleep Deprivation

The irony of it all is that many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation so that we can work more, but the drop in performance ruins any potential benefits of working additional hours.

In the United States alone, studies have estimated that sleep deprivation is costing businesses over $100 billion each year in lost efficiency and performance. 

Here’s a useful analogy for why sleep is so important.

The Theory of Cumulative Stress

Imagine that your health and energy are a bucket of water. In your day-to-day life, there are things that fill your bucket up. Sleep is one of the main inputs. These are also things like nutrition, meditation, stretching, laughter, and other forms of recovery.

There are also forces that drain the water from your bucket. These are outputs like lifting weights or running, stress from work or school, relationship problems, or other forms of stress and anxiety. 

The forces that drain your bucket aren’t all negative, of course. To live a productive life, it can be important to have some of those things flowing out of your bucket. Working hard in the gym, at school, or at the office allows you to produce something of value. But even positive outputs are still outputs and they drain your energy accordingly.

These outputs are cumulative. Even a little leak can result in significant water loss over time.

Keeping Your Bucket Full

If you want to keep your bucket full, you have two options.

  1. Refill your bucket on a regular basis. That means making time for sleep and recovery.
  2. Let the stressors in your life accumulate and drain your bucket. Once you hit empty, your body will force you to rest through injury and illness.

Recovery is not negotiable. You can either make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later. Keep your bucket full.

Ok, But Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

Extra sleep can remedy some of the negative effects of several bad nights of sleep. New research found that catching up on sleep on the weekends brought daytime sleepiness and inflammation levels back to baseline; however, cognitive performance did NOT rebound.

What exactly does that mean? If you’re not getting enough sleep during the week, you cannot depend on catch-up sleep on the weekends to restore your focus and attention. The only way to keep levels of those performance measures high is to make sure you’re getting adequate sleep every night.

Now does this mean you shouldn’t even try to catch up on sleep? No. If you’re already sleep deprived, you should definitely try to get some extra sleep. But the best thing to do, both for immediate performance and for the long-term, is to prioritize sleep every night—not just on the weekends. 

II. How Sleep Works

The Sleep-Wake Cycle

The quality of your sleep is determined by a process called the sleep-wake cycle.

There are two important parts of the sleep-wake cycle:

  1. Slow wave sleep (also known as deep sleep)
  2. REM sleep (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement)

During slow wave sleep the body relaxes, breathing becomes more regular, blood pressure falls, and the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, which makes it more difficult to wake up. This phase is critical for renewal and repair of the body. During slow wave sleep, the pituitary gland releases growth hormone, which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Researchers also believe that the body’s immune system is repaired during this stage. Slow wave sleep is particularly critical if you’re an athlete. You’ll often hear about professional athletes like Roger Federer or LeBron James sleeping 11 or 12 hours per night. 

Age-Related Sleep Changes

According to Harvard Medical School researchers, “As people age, it takes longer to fall asleep, a phenomenon called increased sleep latency. And sleep efficiency – the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed – decreases as well.”

Learn how to sleep better by understanding sleep cycle changes and age

Based on my calculations of the above data, the average 80-year-old gets a whopping 62 percent less slow wave sleep than the average 20-year-old (20 percent of the average sleep cycle versus 7.5 percent). There are many factors that impact the aging of body tissues and cells, but it stands to reason that if your body gets less slow wave sleep to restore itself each night, then the aging process will accelerate as a result.

In other words, it seems reasonable to say that getting good sleep is one of your best defenses against aging quickly.

The Circadian Rhythm

What is your sleep-wake cycle dictated by?

Answer: the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a biological cycle of different processes that happen over a time span of about 24 hours.

Learn how to sleep better by understanding the circadian rhythm

Here are some key points in the typical 24-hour cycle:

  • 6 A.M. Cortisol levels increase to wake your brain and body
  • 7 A.M. Melatonin production stops
  • 9 A.M. Sex hormone production peaks
  • 10 A.M. Mental alertness levels peak
  • 2:30 P.M. Best motor coordination
  • 3:30 P.M. Fastest reaction time
  • 5 P.M. Greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength
  • 7 P.M. Highest blood pressure and body temperature
  • 9 P.M. Melatonin production begins to prepare the body for sleep
  • 10 P.M. Bowel movements suppressed as the body quiets down
  • 2 A.M. Deepest sleep
  • 4 A.M. Lowest body temperature

Obviously, these times are not exact and merely display the general pattern of the circadian rhythm. The exact times of your circadian rhythm will vary based on daylight, your habits, and other factors we will discuss later in this guide.

The circadian rhythm is impacted by three main factors: light, time, and melatonin.

Light. Light is probably the most significant pace setter of the circadian rhythm. Staring into a bright light for 30 minutes or so can often reset your circadian rhythm regardless of what time of day it is. More commonly, the rising of the sun and light striking your eyes triggers the transition to a new cycle.

Time. The time of day, your daily schedule, and the order in which you perform tasks can all impact your sleep-wake cycle.

Melatonin. This is the hormone that causes drowsiness and controls body temperature. Melatonin is produced in a predictable daily rhythm, increasing after dark and decreasing before dawn. Researchers believe that the melatonin production cycle helps keep the sleep-wake cycle on track.

The 2-Process Model of Sleep Regulation

In 1982, Dr. Alexander Borbely published an article in the journal Human Neurobiology describing something he called the 2-process model of sleep regulation. This conceptual framework for sleep describes two processes that occur simultaneously to regulate sleep and wake states.

Process 1 is sleep pressure. Basically, sleep pressure mounts from the moment you wake up, to the time when you go to sleep. While you’re sleeping, pressure decreases. If you get a full night of sleep, you start the next day with low sleep pressure.

Process 2 is wake drive, which counteracts sleep pressure and is controlled by a 24-hour rhythm that repeats in a wave-pattern.

It’s important to understand this process because it helps reveal an important point about sleep in our modern world that I learned from sleep scientist Dan Pardi:

For millions of years, humans and our ancestors have evolved to sleep at night (when it is dark) and wake during the day (when it is light). However, in the modern world, we work inside all day, often in areas that are darker than the outside world. And then, at night, we look at bright screens and televisions. Low light during the day, more light at night: It’s the opposite of naturally occurring cycles and it seems quite likely that it could mess up your wake rhythm and circadian rhythm.

III. How to Sleep Better

How to Fall Asleep Fast

Develop a “power down” ritual before bed. The light from computer screens, televisions, and phones can hinder the production of melatonin, which means your body isn’t preparing the hormones it needs to enter the sleep phase. Specifically, it is the blue wavelength of light that seems to decrease melatonin production. Developing a “power down” routine where you shut off all electronics an hour or two before sleep can be a big help. Additionally, working late at night can keep your mind racing and your stress levels high, which also prevents the body from calming down for sleep. Turn off the screens and read a book instead. It’s the perfect way to learn something useful and power down before bed. (Another option is to download an app called f.lux, which reduces the brightness of your screen closer to bedtime.)

Use relaxation techniques. Researchers believe that at least 50 percent of insomnia cases are emotion or stress related. Find outlets to reduce your stress and you’ll often find that better sleep comes as a result. Proven methods include daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, and keeping a gratitude journal (write down something you are thankful for each day).

How to Improve Sleep Quality and Duration

If you want to know how to sleep better and boost your performance there are 3 levers you can “pull” to give yourself a boost.

  1. Intensity
  2. Timing
  3. Duration

Intensity refers to how well you sleep. The percentage of sleeping time you spend in slow wave sleep and REM sleep largely determine the quality of your sleep each night. 

Daily Habits for Better Sleep

Next, let’s talk about how to sleep better by harnessing the power of a few simple, daily habits.

Get outside. Aim for at least 30 minutes of sun exposure each day.

Turn out the lights. When it gets dark outside, dim the lights in your house and reduce blue or full-spectrum light in your environment. F.lux, a free software app for your computer, makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.

Avoid caffeine. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, eliminating caffeine from your diet is a quick win. If you can’t go without your morning cup of coffee, then a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is “No coffee after noon.” This gives caffeine enough time to wear off before bed time.

Stop smoking or chewing tobacco. Tobacco use has been linked to a long line of health issues, and poor sleep is another one on the list. I don’t have any personal experience with tobacco use, but I have heard from friends who have quit successfully that Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking book is the best resource on the topic.

Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. Is your bedroom designed to promote good sleep? The ideal sleeping environment is dark, cool, and quiet. Don’t make your bedroom a multi-purpose room. Eliminate TVs, laptops, electronics, and clutter. These are simple ways to improve the choice architecture of your bedroom, so that sleep is easier and distraction is harder. When you go to the bedroom, go there to sleep.

Natural Sleep Aids

Exercise. There are too many benefits to exercise to list them all here. When it comes to sleep, exercise will make it easier for your brain and body to power down at night. Furthermore, obesity can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns. The role of exercise only becomes more important with age. Fit middle-aged adults sleep significantly better than their overweight peers. One caveat: avoid exercising two to three hours before bedtime as the mental and physical stimulation can leave your nervous system feeling wired and make it difficult to calm down at night.

Temperature. Most people sleep best in a cool room. The ideal range is usually between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius).

Sound. A quiet space is key for good sleep. If peace and quiet is hard to come by, try controlling the bedroom noise by creating “white noise” with a fan. Or, use ear plugs (here’s a good pair).

Alcohol. This one is a slippery slope. It is true that having a drink before bed — a “night cap” — often does help people fall asleep. However, while it makes it easier to fall asleep, it actually reduces the quality of your sleep and delays the REM cycle. So you fall asleep faster, but it’s possible that you’ll wake up without feeling rested. It’s probably best to improve your sleep through other methods before resorting to alcohol to do the job.

Final Thoughts on How to Sleep Better

Cumulative sleep debt is a barrier between you and optimal performance. If you want to know how to sleep better, the answer is simple but remarkably underrated in our productivity-obsessed culture: get more sleep.

All Sleep Articles

This is a complete list of articles I’ve written on sleep. Enjoy!

  1. The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness
  2. How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?
  3. Functional and Economic Impact of Sleep Loss and Sleep-Related Disorders
  4. The remaining 5 percent are due to genetic variations that allow them to perform optimally on less sleep. Obviously, it is unlikely that you or I have been dealt such a favorable genetic hand.
  5. My image of the bucket was inspired by the original idea of the stress and recovery bucket mentioned in Paul Chek’s book, How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!
  6. Thanks to Mark Watts for originally sharing with me the idea that stress is cumulative.
  7. More on that study in this article: Can You Ever REALLY Catch Up on Sleep?
  8. Don’t you find it interesting that many of the best athletes in the world sleep at least 10 hours per night? Wouldn’t you assume that if anyone had access to the latest biohacking technology and advanced sleeping tactics, it would be the world’s greatest athletes? If there was any group of people who could afford the research and money to purchase the best ways to hack their sleep and get more done in less time, it would be this group. They could use this time for increased training, additional practice, and so on. And yet, sleeping more is what provides them greater value. I mention this because it can be easy for us to look for a quick fix, a “biohack” that allows us to somehow master the puzzle of sleep and get more done. But when you look at the world’s greatest performers you see that the answer is very simple: sleep more
  9. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players
  10. More in the first half of this article by Dan Pardi
  11. Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest, a Harvard Medical School publication
  12. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players
  13. Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest, a Harvard Medical School publication
  14. Thanks to Dan Pardi for telling me about the 3 levers of sleep.


This Zen Concept Will Help You Stop Being a Slave to Old Beliefs

I played baseball for 17 years of my life. During that time, I had many different coaches and I began to notice repeating patterns among them.

Coaches tend to come up through a certain system. New coaches will often land their first job as an assistant coach with their alma mater or a team they played with previously. After a few years, the young coach will move on to their own head coaching job where they tend to replicate the same drills, follow similar practice schedules, and even yell at their players in a similar fashion as the coaches they learned from. People tend to emulate their mentors. 

This phenomenon—our tendency to repeat the behavior we are exposed to—extends to nearly everything we learn in life.

Your political or religious beliefs are mostly the result of the system you were raised in. People raised by Catholic families tend to be Catholic. People raised by Muslim families tend to be Muslim. Although you may not agree on every issue, your parents political attitudes tend to shape your political attitudes. The way we approach our day-to-day work and life is largely a result of the system we were trained in and the mentors we had along the way. At some point, we all learned to think from someone else. That’s how knowledge is passed down.

Here’s the hard question: Who is to say that the way you originally learned something is the best way? What if you simply learned one way of doing things, not the way of doing things?

Consider my baseball coaches. Did they actually consider all of the different ways of coaching a team? Or did they simply mimic the methods they had been exposed to? The same could be said of nearly any area in life. Who is to say that the way you originally learned a skill is the best way? Most people think they are experts in a field, but they are really just experts in a particular style.

In this way, we become a slave to our old beliefs without even realizing it. We adopt a philosophy or strategy based on what we have been exposed to without knowing if it’s the optimal way to do things.

Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind

There is a concept in Zen Buddhism known as shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” Shoshin refers to the idea of letting go of your preconceptions and having an attitude of openness when studying a subject.

When you are a true beginner, your mind is empty and open. You’re willing to learn and consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time. As you develop knowledge and expertise, however, your mind naturally becomes more closed. You tend to think, “I already know how to do this” and you become less open to new information.

There is a danger that comes with expertise. We tend to block the information that disagrees with what we learned previously and yield to the information that confirms our current approach. We think we are learning, but in reality we are steamrolling through information and conversations, waiting until we hear something that matches up with our current philosophy or previous experience, and cherry-picking information to justify our current behaviors and beliefs. Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.

The problem is that when you are an expert you actually need to pay more attention, not less. Why? Because when you are already familiar with 98 percent of the information on a topic, you need to listen very carefully to pick up on the remaining 2 percent. 

As adults our prior knowledge blocks us from seeing things anew. To quote zen master Shunryo Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

How to Rediscover Your Beginner’s Mind

Here are a few practical ways to rediscover your beginner’s mind and embrace the concept of shoshin.

Let go of the need to add value. Many people, especially high achievers, have an overwhelming need to provide value to the people around them. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing. But in practice, it can handicap your success because you never have a conversation where you just shut up and listen. If you’re constantly adding value (“You should try this…” or “Let me share something that worked well for me…”) then you kill the ownership that other people feel about their ideas. At the same time, it’s impossible for you to listen to someone else when you’re talking. So, step one is to let go of the need to always contribute. Step back every now and then and just observe and listen. For more on this, read Marshall Goldsmith’s excellent book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (audiobook).

Let go of the need to win every argument. A few years ago, I read a smart post by Ben Casnocha about becoming less competitive as time goes on. In Ben’s words, “Others don’t need to lose for me to win.” This is a philosophy that fits well with the idea of shoshin. If you’re having a conversation and someone makes a statement that you disagree with, try releasing the urge to correct them. They don’t need to lose the argument for you to win. Letting go of the need to prove a point opens up the possibility for you to learn something new. Approach it from a place of curiosity: Isn’t that interesting. They look at this in a totally different way. Even if you are right and they are wrong, it doesn’t matter. You can walk away satisfied even if you don’t have the last word in every conversation.

Tell me more about that. I have a tendency to talk a lot (see “Providing Too Much Value” above). Every now and then, I’ll challenge myself to stay quiet and pour all of my energy into listening to someone else. My favorite strategy is to ask someone to, “Tell me more about that.” It doesn’t matter what the topic is, I’m simply trying to figure out how things work and open my mind to hearing about the world through someone else’s perspective.

Assume that you are an idiot. In his fantastic book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb writes, “I try to remind my group each week that we are all idiots and know nothing, but we have the good fortune of knowing it.” The flaws discussed in this article are simply a product of being human. We all have to learn information from someone and somewhere, so we all have a mentor or a system that guides our thoughts. The key is to realize this influence.

We are all idiots, but if you have the privilege of knowing that, then you can start to let go of your preconceptions and approach life with a beginner’s mind.


  1. Occasionally, you’ll hear about this system-focused behavior in the elite levels of sport as well. “He coached under Bill Belichick and learned the Patriots’ system.” Or, “He was an assistant under Urban Meyer and learned his way of doing things.”
  2. Hat tip to Richard W., a reader of this website, for explaining to me why you need to pay more attention once you are an expert. He noticed that after reading many books on a certain topic, you know it so well that you can’t just skim through similar books. Most of the information will be repetitive, so you need to read line-by-line to discover the one insight you haven’t heard before.
  3. Thanks to Sam Yang for his article on shoshin, which influenced my thinking.