If you look at any decent list of the things you need in order to get a good night’s sleep, pretty much every single one of them is compromised by living a nomadic lifestyle. It’s almost uncanny.
And let’s face it – If you’re a knowledge worker, you owe it to yourself to look after your sleep. Lack of sleep dims your cognitive processes, affects your judgement and can lead to depression and other health issues. Oh, and it makes you feel really, really tired. Which, you know, isn’t nice.
So, yes, it’s important to look after your sleep. But whilst some people could go to sleep with their head resting on a pneumatic drill, others have more trouble. If you’re a digital nomad, and you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some of the mostly likely causes.
Table of Contents
- 1 Drinking Too Much Coffee
- 2 Having a Lack of Control over Environmental Factors
- 3 Staring at Screens
- 4 Using the Bed or Bedroom For The Wrong Things
- 5 Eating at Strange Times
- 6 Working the Graveyard Shift
- 7 Getting too Little Exercise
- 8 Sleeping on the Go
- 9 Jetting About
- 10 Drinking Alcohol
- 11 Travel Stress / Travel Excitement
Drinking Too Much CoffeePhoto Credit
A lot of digital nomads use the cafe as their office. And a lot of these call it ‘the coffice’ without any hint of irony. The latter group can’t be helped.
The traditional way of paying for a desk in a coffice (sorry – I’m one of them) is via the repeat purchase of products derived from the seeds of the coffea shrub. And if you do a full-day shift, then that’s a lot of caffeine.
But guess what – caffeine consumption can have a detrimental effect on sleep, especially as bedtime approaches. One study has found that even afternoon coffee can be an issue.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) suggests stopping at least four hours before bedtime – so set yourself a stop time and stick to it.
Having a Lack of Control over Environmental Factors
We’re not always in control of light, sound and temperature, and these can all have a big impact on the ability to sleep. Night-time exposure to light, for instance, suppresses production of the hormone melatonin, which is responsible for your sleep-wake cycle (aka circadian rhythm). Ideally, in fact, we should sleep in total darkness.
The problem is that if you’re sleeping in a dorm, you’re at the whim of other people, and their own ideas of when it’s a good time to turn the light on, open or close windows or just play a drunken game of bunkbed pinball after a heavy night out. When Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” he was almost certainly thinking about dorms.Photo credit
Even if you’re renting an apartment there can be problems. It may only be once you’ve moved in that you find that the curtains don’t block out the light, that there are early morning road-works outside or that your neighbours routinely host the local late-night chainsaw meet.
If you’re staying in hostels, perhaps consider choosing ones with names like ‘Quiet Night’ over ones called ‘Party – WOOHOO!’ Also, consider carrying a hammer for ‘snoozing’ other people’s alarms. I’m joking about the hammer. Kind of.
A black-out eye mask can work wonders, and if you double that up with earplugs then you won’t be able to hear everyone laughing at how you look.
If staying in an apartment, check it out for things that might disrupt sleep, and try to spend at least one night there before committing to a longer term stay.
Staring at Screens
Digital Nomads are often great lovers of technology, and most can’t do their jobs without it. But when the gadgets make their way into the bedroom, or even the bed, then there’s a problem.
The short-frequency ‘blue’ light from smartphones, laptops, LCD screens is particularly effective at suppressing melatonin and thus has a measurably bad effect on sleep. Not only does it make it harder to get to sleep, but it also affects the quality of that sleep.Photo Credit
Stop using your gadgets for at least a couple of hours before you go to sleep, and if at all possible, ban gadgets from the bed. If you lack the self-control for that then there are always amber-tinted glasses.
Using the Bed or Bedroom For The Wrong Things
If you’re working in the same room as you’re sleeping – or even worse, on the bed itself – then you may find you stop associating it with sleep. Ideally, the only things you should be doing in your bed are the things we usually associate beds with. And Candy Crush isn’t (normally) on that list.
I met a successful travel writer in a hostel in Morocco who would write and submit her copy from her laptop whilst sat on her bunk bed. She was able to get away with it – she slept like a baby in fact (albeit with less gurgling) – but not everybody can.
Don’t work where you sleep – find somewhere else to get your work done, be it a café, library, co-working space or a comfortable and well-appointed park bench. Or maybe even work on someone else’s bed, then watch them become mystified as to why they suddenly can’t sleep at night. Actually, it might not work like that.Or you could get your work done in a hammock!
Eating at Strange Times
In some places, the local culture may be to eat at a different time. For example, in Seville, Spain, it’s not uncommon to eat after 10pm. But unless you sleep better whilst with both hands on your stomach, belching, then you may have yourself a problem. Being too hungry before you go to bed is also unhelpful.
Even if you eschew the local times, you could have problems with your own routine – or the lack of. Let’s face it: if you’re a solo traveller, no-one is likely to say to you “It’s 9pm now – perhaps you should close that browser window and get some food”. Unless they’re the owner of the café you’ve been sat in all day without buying anything.In countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay you will not only end up eating late, but it will be heavy food such as barbecued meat! (BBQ joint in Montevideo, Uruguay)
Don’t eat too late in the evening, but do eat. Some sources suggest you can help yourself by consuming the right things, like a warm glass of milk (as it contains tryptophan, and amino acid which is ultimately converted into melatonin), or a carb-rich snack an hour before (which may indirectly increase melatonin levels), although the evidence seems thin on the ground.
Working the Graveyard Shift
Routine helps your body prepare for sleep via the circadian rhythm, but the very nature of being on the road means that just when you’re getting into a routine you’re likely to break it again.
But even if you’re staying in one place there can be a problem. Natural light helps regulate wake and sleep, but if you’re your own boss it’s easy to get up later and later. And if you do this in a time and place when the hours are limited anyway (e.g. winter in Europe), you may end up with scant sunlight to aid with that regulation, or even none at all.
Once, in a hostel, I met a cyclist who was on a round-the-world cycling trip. Except he wasn’t. He was actually on a watching-youtube-until-5am-in-the-same-hostel-for-weeks trip. The poor guy had been going great guns, but then he’d got injured and had to stop for a number of weeks and by the time I met him he had a girlfriend and an inverted night and day. He could still be there now for all I know.
Try and maintain a regular routine by getting up and going to bed at roughly the same time every day. Simple!
Ha – if only.
Getting too Little Exercise
Travelling can be a surprisingly sedentary activity at times. You’re sat on your backside on the train, then you’re sat on your backside in a café, then you’re sat on your backside in your short-term rental apartment reading a blog post about being sat on your backside in various locations.
People who exercise regularly report better quality sleep, but it’s tough to get into a gym habit or join a sports club if you’re never staying in a place more than a month.
If you’re on the move more then maybe seek out the more energetic local activities, like hiking the local volcano.
If you’re staying in one place for a while then it’s a bit easier. Find a local gym. Hire a city bike. Walk instead of taking public transport. Put on some quality running shoes then taunt an aggressive-looking dog. In other words, variations on a theme of exercising something other than just your mouse-clicking finger.
But avoid exercise close to bedtime as this can have the opposite effect.
Sleeping on the Go
“If I take an overnight coach, I won’t have to pay for accommodation for that night!”
Great idea. But there’s a reason most bedrooms don’t consist of upright seats that randomly throw you around like an angry dog mauling a teddy bear. And, as a knowledge worker, it’s a false economy if you then take a day or more to recover from your journey.
A whole bunch of things can make travel and sleep a difficult combination. Just for starters, there’s the comfort of the seat/bed itself, the need to safeguard your luggage and the potential for your shoulder being used as a pillow by an adjacent passenger.
Possibly the worst thing in sleep terms, though, is knowing you have to get off early in the morning at a location which isn’t the terminus. You think “I’ll just set my alarm for 6am – it’s no biggie” but then you spend the whole night awake in nervous anticipation of potentially missing your stop. And then vow ‘never again’.
And then do it again a month later.On a night bus in Vietnam.
If you value your sleep then try to travel during daylight hours, especially for short journeys (if your night bus is 6 hours, then how much sleep will you realistically get that night?)
But if you have to travel by night, then don’t be a hero just to save a few pennies or score some backpacker kudos – give your body the respect it deserves. Pay the extra for e.g.the sleeper compartment on a train.
If you have no choice but to be upright, then bring a blanket, earplugs, eyemask and do a good job of securing your stuff so you don’t end up with one eye open guarding it.
If you’re doing some serious travelling, then there’s a good chance you’re jetting about, with the associated impact on your body clock. Your body might be in Southeast Asia, but if your circadian rhythm is still seven times zones east or west of there then you might have a problem.
For most people, this is only a real problem if you’re travelling west to east, and by more than three time zones. What you need to do (assuming you’re sticking around for more than a few days) is to try to align your sleep cycle with the local time zone as quickly as possible. One way of doing this involves seeking light during certain times of day, and avoiding it during others, in a method summarised quite neatly in this Wikipedia article.
If you’re travelling, there’s a good chance you’re making new friends all the time. And if you’re doing that there’s a good chance you’re out collecting material for future humorous anecdotes, generally with the help of alcohol.
Unfortunately, alcohol can have a negative effect on sleep. People tend to get off to sleep easier, but then wake up again in the night, especially at higher doses.
There’s no point in me suggesting you should think about drinking less and/or less often. But hey – maybe you should think about drinking less and/or less often. You should consult a healthcare professional if you plan to make significant changes to your intake.
Travel Stress / Travel Excitement
Travel is freaking exciting! At least until you’ve been doing it too long and become a burnt-out joyless husk of a person who writes guest posts on far-too-sensible topics like ‘getting enough sleep’. So maybe that’s why you’re rolling around in bed sleeplessly – you’re just pumped up with the whole experience.
You could mitigate this by only ever visiting boring places. But, in reality, if ever there was a good reason to lose sleep, it’s this one.
(NB I’m not a qualified medical specialist or a scientist or anything like that. If you have a sleep condition, seek professional help.)
Neil Bennion is a writer from Lancashire, England. His first book, about overcoming his dance-floor failings by dancing his way round Colombia, is available now – Dancing Feat: One Man’s Mission to Dance Like a Colombian. He blogs about writing, travelling and general mucking about at Wandering Desk.