It was about 4 a.m. when I finished the shift at my bar. After a few drinks, I found comfort lying across four chairs, eventually passing out. The cleaning crew came in at 8 a.m., swung the door open, and — surprised to see me — quickly shut it.
This is no way to sleep.
As a bartender — and later, a bar owner — my life had become pretty vampiric, with long nights trailing into my days. While everyone else was winding down or getting ready for bed, I was still wide awake. When many were sleeping, I was announcing “last call” for drinks, closing checks, and wiping down the bar. Like other nighttime shift work, bartending and managing a bar require you to be both physically and mentally active into the early hours of the morning — making it hard to get to sleep immediately after.
I often left my shift wondering, did I close that check, restock the beer, properly count the drawer? As much as I would have liked to leave and go right to bed, the very idea of lying still was panic-inducing. It was often hours before I could actually sleep. And sometimes, the only way for me to get sleep involved alcohol or drugs — or waiting the night out until I finally succumbed. While a combination of exhaustion and alcohol might have done the job for a night or two, it eventually wore me down. After three decades, trouble sleeping became a nightly (or, more accurately, early morning) affair.
As I said, this is no way to sleep.
Even though sleep felt impossible under these circumstances, I knew I needed to find a formula that worked for me. And after 30 years in the industry, I did. It wasn’t one, or even two, things that helped me get more rest. It was realizing that sleep sometimes requires as much preparation as you would give to any other segment of the day — morning, afternoon, or night. After all, it shares equal billing in terms of hours (or it should).
Here’s how I get my best sleep:
1. The single best “pill” you can take for sleep
If you could take one pill that helped you sleep, gain more restful sleep, and generally improve your health, would you take it? Of course, you would! For me, that pill is exercise. According to Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director at John Hopkins Center for Sleep, as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day can affect the quality of your sleep at night. I like to do some yoga or light conditioning throughout the day, or fun activities with my son, like skateboarding or soccer.
Doomscrolling is something we all do. But right before bed, it does compromise your ability to sleep. After fighting it for a long time, I decided it was time to buy an alarm clock, charge my phone elsewhere in the house, and grab a good book. Twenty pages in and it’s usually snooze-ville. It’s the opposite of doomscrolling; “snooze-scanning,” maybe?
3. Eat breakfast for dinner
Eating right before bed isn’t a very good idea, but after an eight-to-10-hour shift, you’re inevitably hungry. If you must eat, avoid spicy foods, protein-rich foods, and anything that requires your body to put in extra effort to digest. Complex carbohydrates work for me. Sometimes, I just eat breakfast for dinner, having a big bowl of oatmeal.
4. Take a shot and some pills
Bartenders have always been known for hard drinking and partying, so shots and pills are nothing new. But this is the healthier kind. I take a shot of sour cherry juice and a few tablets of magnesium. Sour cherry juice contains melatonin and helps increase the body’s natural melatonin production. Magnesium is an important part of sleep regulation. This shot-and-pill combo might not be Hunter S. Thompson-level, but it does feel a touch rebellious, if not familiar.
5. Body check and mindfulness
Mindfulness is a wonderful practice in general for reducing stress, increasing resilience, and being present in your everyday life, which is otherwise often overrun with distraction. But it’s not always convenient after work, especially if you feel wired and a sitting meditation seems particularly torturous — death by squirming! Try lying in bed and doing a body scan, paying close attention to how each body part feels as you move your focus from head to toe. It’s less formal than a sitting practice and your focus is shifting throughout your body, not sticking to just one thing.
6. Be a disruptor
Being grateful might just seem like a nicety, but it’s so much more. Every night before bed, I think of three things that went well throughout the day. By focusing on the positive, it interrupts the usual mechanisms of negativity — the tracking of things that went wrong, the things you wish you hadn’t said or did, and the mistakes that no one else seems to really notice but incessantly bother you. Positivity is about disrupting rumination or negative loops.
All these habits have worked for me, but none of them alone — they’re a formula that set me up for better sleep. While developing this sleep routine, the most important thing for me was trial and error. Let’s say being awoken by the cleaning crew was an early error. And we could rightfully call drinking alcohol a forced error. (Re-adjusting my relationship with alcohol was another critical part of finding good sleep.)
Fortunately, it’s been a while since I last slept in the bar. Come to think of it, that’s one more thing I’ll add to my list of what went well today: waking up in my own bed after a good night’s sleep, nestled under the covers.
Now that’s how you sleep.