For most of us, getting enough sleep isn't a life-or-death kind of thing. Sure, we might make poor decisions, but our being sleepy at the marketing meeting tomorrow is not going to get someone killed.
During WWII, though, the U.S. military quickly got hip to the fact that if fighter pilots didn't get sleep, their poor decisions had dire consequences. Their mishaps included errors that resulted in their being shot down--or shooting down guys on their own side.
Helping combat pilots get good rest fast became a priority.
So the military brought in naval ensign Bud Winter to develop and test a scientifically designed method of "teaching" sleep. Winter was previously a successful college football coach who had collaborated with a psychology professor to form techniques to help athletes relax and excel under pressure.
The relaxation hack Winter designed worked: After just six weeks of practice, 96 percent of pilots could fall asleep within 120 seconds. Even with distractions like gunfire in the background. Even after drinking coffee. Even sitting up.
If it works for combat pilots, it will work for you, regardless of how stressed you are about that meeting tomorrow.
Here's how to do it:
1. Get into a comfortable position.
Obviously, if you're in your bed, this is a non-issue. But if you're out and about, get into the most comfortable position that's feasible (i.e., lean your seat back if you're in your car; find the most comfortable chair in the conference room if you're napping at work).
2. Relax your face.
This is key to the whole thing. You have 43 muscles in your face, and they're a big part of how your body knows whether you're stressed. When you fully relax your face, you send a physiological signal to your body that all is well. It's safe to sleep.
So close your eyes and relax your whole face: forehead, cheeks, tongue, and jaw. Let it all go slack. You'll notice as you do this that your breathing naturally starts to deepen and slow.
Now make sure your eyes are fully relaxed. You have six muscles in your eye sockets; feel them all go limp.
3. Drop your shoulders.
Let them get heavy, and then let them go completely, as if they were falling down toward your feet. Let the back of your neck relax and go limp. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly, releasing any remaining tension there (most people store most tension in their shoulders, necks, and jaws).
Now your arms: Feel them get heavy and relax, starting with your dominant side. If you're right-handed, start with your right bicep and feel it relax. If it's not, tense it fully and then let it go slack. Repeat the process with your hands.
4. Let your legs go limp.
Feel your right quad sinking down, getting heavier and heavier. Next your right calf, ankle, and foot. Repeat on the other side.
5. Clear your mind for 10 seconds.
Now that you've fully relaxed your body, all it takes to fall into a deep sleep is to turn your brain off. (This is like that moment after you switch your iPhone off when it takes another few seconds for it to fully power down.)
What you really want to avoid are any thoughts that involve movement ("I've got to pick up that drycleaning tomorrow"; "Did I remember to put out the recycling?"). These thoughts actually prompt involuntary movement in your body. You don't realize it, but just thinking about something causes micro-contractions in certain muscles.
Winter has some tips for what to "think" of instead--and remember, you're holding this for 10 seconds straight:
First, we want you to fantasize that it is a warm spring day and you are lying in the bottom of a canoe on a very serene lake. You are looking up at a blue sky with lazy, floating clouds. Do not allow any other thought to creep in. Just concentrate on this picture and keep foreign thoughts out, particularly thoughts with any movement or motion involved. Hold this picture and enjoy it for 10 seconds.
In the second sleep-producing fantasy, imagine that you are in a big, black, velvet hammock and everywhere you look is black. You must also hold this picture for 10 seconds.
The third trick is to say the words "don't think . . . don't think . . . don't think," etc. Hold this, blanking out other thoughts for at least 10 seconds.
And that's it. When you have a fully relaxed body and a mind that's still for 10-plus seconds, you will fall asleep, period.
Remember that the pilots practiced the method over and over, and 96 percent of them achieved success after six weeks of practice. These weeks of practice are a worthwhile investment, because once you have it down, you can nap and sleep anywhere, which will dramatically improve your quality of life.