How do I mix a nightmare commute with good sleep hygiene?
March 24, 2009 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Due to circumstances out of my control, I have a nightmare commute once or twice a week for the next two months. The commuting itself is tolerable, but the disruptions to my sleep cycle aren't. Please help!

Some background: I can't move closer (I'm finishing school). This is some part-time work at a company where I interned for almost a year. The tacit understanding is that this short-term stint will be lead to a full time job come June (yay!) The work itself is not physically demanding in the least, but it's mentally exhausting at times. In this field, people routinely put in 10+ hour days. Since this is basically an extended job interview, there's a decent amount of pressure to be first in / last out, etc.

The commute is 2 hours each way on a good day. I use public transportation so I can read / zone out, which helps. In order to catch the first leg, I have to be up by 5:30. I often get home at 10 or later. I have done this full time, for short periods, and it absolutely wiped me out. For several months, I worked on Fridays, giving me the weekend to recuperate. Now it's going to be Wednesdays and some Fridays, and I have classes (with homework, papers, etc) on Thursdays and some Fridays. I have to be functional, and even get some work done Wednesday nights.

I generally require a lot of sleep (8+ hours) to be on top of my game. I have struggled with sleep issues in the past, and it has not been pretty. I'm big on sleep hygiene, and I'm afraid that this is going to totally wreak havoc on my system. For example: tomorrow is the first day of this. It's 10pm, and I'm still wide awake. I can feel the clock ticking towards wakeup time, and it's freaking me out.

What can I do to ameliorate this situation? Should I try to switch my whole sleep schedule over to "early to rise?" What about supplements? Melatonin? A way to tweak my caffeine intake? What's the best way to avoid falling into the "coffee and doughnuts to get through the next 8 hours" trap?

I very much appreciate any insight you have into this sort of situation, MeFites. Commuting tips also welcome!

I do know a lot of people have worse commutes every single day, and props to them. I really don't need to hear how wimpy I am in comparison.
posted by charmcityblues to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
is there any chance you can either drive or catch a ride, so you don't have to wake up so early and get home so late? it would be so totally worth the extra $$$ for both your mental and physical well-being.
posted by lia at 7:20 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: Benadryl or Gravol make you drowsy but are non-addictive & have no serious side effects. Pop one an hour or so before bedtime, maybe even during the commute home a couple nights a week, so you get home & kind of fall into bed.

Try to pack work stuff the night before- lay out clothes, stuff, lunch, put water in the kettle & a teabag in your cup, leave bread in the toaster, whatever.

Buy really delicious breakfast foods to help motivate your butt out of bed. I had uncharacteristically early mornings last weekend, and knowing there was a Pillsbury Toaster Strudel with extra icing made a big difference.

Keep the apartment clean. Pay someone to do it for you, perhaps- it's good for your sanity. And treat yourself to lots of easy to prepare, non-perishable comfort food groceries that you look forward to eating (for me, this means Corn Pops cereal, baby carrots, Triscuits with melted cheese, yogurt, Cheez-strings, tuna, english muffins- that kind of convenient, single-serving food).

Use commute time to get some work done if possible.

Drink lots of water.

Sleep with a fan on (as a white-noise buffer so you won't be woken up by slight noises).

If you know you're really wiped at the end of a week, treat yourself to one cab a week (if not more!) and schedule it at bedtime the night before, arranging for the company to give you a wake-up call.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:31 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try to wake up at the same time each day. It's ok (for me) to take naps, or even to sleep in once every two weeks, but more than that throws off my sleep cycle.

Work your commute out that you have as few changes as possible. Sleep on the bus. I found commuting 1h by car significantly more tiring than 1h by public transit. If you do not have one, buy yourself an ipod. I like audiobooks for public transit.

If you wear makeup or contact lenses, put those on once you get to work, and take it off before you leave. Putting them on gives me a "you're awake!" boost, no need to waste it on public transit. Also I feel grimy otherwise.

Get outside at lunch time. Every day. (Or more, but at least once.) You need to see the sky.

Make enough food on, say, Monday to carry you through the week. If you like cookies, for instance, make refrigerator cookies so you can bake one in the morning as a treat. (Get a toaster oven.)
posted by jeather at 7:42 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: Fortunately I don't have a commute like that, but I do travel regularly between time zones. The best advice I have is to plunge into the new schedule as quickly as possible.

On commuting days, you have to get up at 5:30, and you get home at 10 or later, so you'll need to go to sleep ASAP. Have dinner ready when you get home, or even better, find a way to eat something before you leave on the evening commute if it's routinely that late. Go to bed as early as possible. If you work late on Wednesdays and you have homework for your Thursday classes, do it before Wednesday, or do it Thursday morning after you get up at 5:30.

On non-commuting days, you still need to get up at 5:30, so set an even earlier bedtime - 9 or 9:30 - to ensure you get the total sleep you need. If you don't fall asleep, get up, do something necessary but boring for 15 minutes (tidy up, wash dishes, bag recycling, etc.) and then try to fall asleep again. I find it helps to think of wake-up time as non-negotiable. I also find it helps to allow 15-30 minutes more than my minimum morning routine. If I have to leave by 7, and I need 30 minutes to be ready to head out the door, I try to get up by 5:45 so I can take the time to read a couple newspapers and think about what I want to accomplish during the day before I have to leave and face it.

If you are getting enough sleep on days you don't commute, then you can suffer a small sleep deficit a couple days a week. Don't cheat on the wake-up time, though. That's key. I'd advise keeping it even on the weekends.

If conditions permit, you can also try a short nap (20-40 minutes) after lunch. You can nap at work, too, if you can fit it into lunch/break time. If I've had a bad night's sleep, I try to nap. Less than 20 minutes is generally not much help, and more than 40 minutes is bad because you can get into deep sleep and be really confused for a while after you wake up. People who nap sometimes report that they feel drowsier afterwards than before, but studies show that they are objectively more alert (quicker response times, etc.). Again, though, don't let a short nap keep you from going to bed at your new bedtime.

And if you get the job in June, move closer!

On preview: if you can do any part of the commute by human power (walking, cycling), try to work it in. Light exercise in the morning is a great way for many people to wake up.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:51 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: What helps for me, when I have done this:

Get up at the same time every day, no matter what. Weekend, weekday, commute day, not commute day, whatever. Take the earliest time, and use that one. The other days, get fully ready to leave the house as if it were an early day, then do household things until it's time to really leave. On non work days, do the same thing, then do errands.

Get physical exercise. That helps you go to sleep when you go to bed and not lie around with your eyes open. The fan noise also helps a lot more than it sounds like it would.

You can't "bank" sleep, or "catch up," in my experience. If you stay up too late and only get an hours' sleep, just tough it out until bed time and get the normal amount the next time. Trying to catch a nap or sleep all day on a weekend just makes me feel ten times worse. Other people swear by naps, but I can't ever get going again after one.

This is the most important, but the most difficult: on days you have extra time - don't have to be there so early, get home "early" for a change - don't take advantage of that by plopping down on the couch and relaxing (right away). That's the day to do laundry, clean the bathroom, whatever else. Because any other day is going to cut into sleepy time, and things like that left undone make your mind feel guilty and make it difficult to sleep with a clear conscience. I'm sure you know this, having done this somewhat before, but it's double important when your chances for time off are limited.

Keep telling yourself it's only two months, not forever. You can do it.
posted by ctmf at 7:57 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: Sleep on the bus/train on your way to work. I know you'll be thinking about work or school or whatever, but if - as you said - you're the type who needs 8+ hours, you should get that 8+ hours. It will also be easier to get out of bed in the morning knowing that you can go right back to dreamland once you're on your way. Seconding all the other wakeup tips re: breakfast.

I'd say most nights I force myself to sleep rather than fall asleep. Set yourself a strict bedtime. Turn out all the lights, turn off all but white noise, get into whatever your most comfortable sleep position is and do everything you can to take your mind off of sleeping; that should help calm your anxiety. Think about what you're going to have for breakfast or that project you've been working on. Before you know if, you'll be sleeping like a baby. I don't like the idea of taking sleeping pills/supplements because even if they're not addictive, they may be habit forming in that from now on when you need to get up early, it'll be that much easier just to reach for the medicine cabinet.

Do your future employers know the hoops you're jumping through? If you can let them know without sounding complain-y (you won't have a problem with this; I admire how well you're taking it already) they may find it in their hearts to give you some leeway.
posted by battlebison at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2009

If you have a drivers license, using Zipcar/Flexcar or another car sharing service in your area for the 1-2 days a week you need to go to work would be well worth the money to significantly shorten your commute. Or perhaps there's someone you can carpool with?
posted by zachlipton at 8:33 PM on March 24, 2009

Can you commute to the town you work in on Tuesday evening, crash on someone's couch and go into work at a normal time in the morning? Spreading the commute out over 2 days will make your life so much easier.
posted by junkbox at 8:56 PM on March 24, 2009

I'd talk to your doctor and see if they can prescribe Ambien. It's quite good and there are cheap generics available. I'd also look into junkbox's idea of couch surfing or getting a motel room once or twice a week.

Sleep deprivation is awful. I don't recommend powering through it or trying to get by with coffee & donuts.
posted by chairface at 9:01 PM on March 24, 2009

posted by zentrification at 9:28 PM on March 24, 2009

Safe, no known toxic dose, one of the most potent anti-oxidants we know of. Keep chewing the little 1mg sublingual pills around 9 and you should be out by 10, with 8 solid hours of sleep behind you.
posted by zentrification at 9:30 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: I think all of the advice above makes a whole lot of sense, and if you CAN make yourself get up at 5:30am every day that probably would be the best since that would allow your body to adapt more quickly and sort this problem out on its own (before I had a 2-hour commute (several years in the past now, happily), I didn't think I could ever fall asleep at 9pm, or sleep on the train during my commute, etc, but because I HAD to live by a crazy commute schedule my body pretty much took charge and got its sleep when it could, never mind the fact that I'm a night person by habit).

However, personally I have to admit that when I don't absolutely have to get up crazy-early, I don't do so no matter how wise it would be in the long run. If you're in the same boat and just can't drag yourself out of bed at 5:30am when you don't have to, maybe your best bet would be to focus on the fact that you'll only be enduring this for a little while? You said you might have to do this once or twice a week for the next two months - so that means, what, 8 days tops? This isn't the ideal situation but if nothing else works, maybe you could focus on counting down the days and reminding yourself that these messed-up sleep patterns will soon be over and done with. Heck, maybe you could even shift your focus to the more sleep-accommodating days to come by starting to look for a new place to live closer to work and thinking about how much shorter your commutes will be then?

Eh, again I realize this isn't the best approach, but for me, at least, it would probably be the most realistic. Seems to me that a lot of things can be handled more easily when you see that it won't be forever - and if you can refocus your thoughts on something you can actually look forward to (such as that new apartment and the short commute you'll have from it!), so much the better. Count those days down, catch what few z's you can on the bus/train now as a stopgap measure, but keep reminding yourself at your most depleted moments that you're doing this for a purpose and that soon these commutes will be nothing more than an interesting war story to tell the next generation of damn whippersnappers who think they have it bad with a one-hour commute and don't know what a REAL commute is ... by cracky!
posted by DingoMutt at 9:39 PM on March 24, 2009

I used to have a hellish commute: 2.5 hours one way via walking, train and then car. I survived for a year on roughly 6 hours of sleep each night. Then my work hours got longer: 7:30am to 11pm for two weeks, straight. The only way I survived that was to stay at a hostel. I ended up 'living' at the hostel five nights a week (I was working six day weeks at the time).

If the city where your internship is is big enough, there might be a cheap hostel (consider the cost of the hostel vs. the cost of not doing well on the job and not getting the job!). I know of a hostel in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn if you need pointers, send me a MeMail!
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 9:48 PM on March 24, 2009

don't rely on booze or pot to ease the sleep shift. if you can, squeeze in a workout or something at lunch - something that will burn calories physically as well as mentally. Set your alarm for 5:30 am every morning - even weekends - and get up at that time. It will only take a week or so until you fall into bed as soon as you arrive home and only open your eyes at 5:30.

No fun at all, actually, but it works.

I realize that's not groundshattering advice.

I feel like I must interject with an observation: I know more than a few people who commute from central Seattle to Redmond and back via public transport. They routinely work 12 and 14 hour days, as the Very Large Software Company who employs them intends and has designed their work environment with an eye to encouraging. The commute out is 1.5 hours, the commute back is about 2 hours.

Get used to the schedule, it's not temporary.

My own worst commute involved a twice weekly 2am wakeup to fly from Seattle to San Jose, and then to be driven over the mountains to Scotts Valley, put in my 10 to 12 hours, and go back to the airport to arrive home in Seattle around midnight. It did not put hair on my chest and I commend the experience to no living being.
posted by mwhybark at 9:49 PM on March 24, 2009

This may be a completely useless suggestion, but can you get a cheap motel room or stay with someone closer to your destination?
posted by davcoo at 11:09 PM on March 24, 2009

Seriously? Get off caffeine.

You're jacking yourself up in the mornings and probably in the afternoons too. That's leading to sleeplessness in the evenings. The first few days on de-caf suck, but you'll adjust quickly and once you do your sleep and your alertness in the mornings will all improve. If you're like most people the process of drinking coffee is 80% the act of consuming a warm beverage and 20% caffeine dependence anyway, so it's not as shocking of an adjustment as you may think.

The other thing I can suggest is routine aerobic exercise. If you can hit the gym for 30 minutes or more of elliptical or running, then you're really going jump start your metabolism. That translates into good natural tiredness at the end of the day and quality sleep.

Seriously, it seems like you're pushing yourself hard now, but it's only because you have lousy lifestyle habits. With a good diet and exercise you can stroll through 14 hour work days like nothing (I mean, they still suck, but you'll be better able to cope...)
posted by wfrgms at 11:25 PM on March 24, 2009

Melatonin is a good idea but personally, though effective, it makes me feel like crap for 24 hours or more every time I take it.

If that doesn't work I used to use pseudophedrine / Sudafed for getting to sleep quick (one of the ingredients in Nyquil that you can also get in straight tablet form.) I don't think that a doctor would recommend this use of it because I guess it spikes up your blood pressure quite a bit. (Obviously IANAD.) But if you don't have blood pressure or cardiac problems and you follow all of the instructions on the package I would expect you won't be taking any inordinate risk to use it once or twice a week temporarily.

Also, it's quite possible that if you go to a doctor and explain the circumstances they'll give you a one-time prescription for a sleep aid. I take Zolpidem / Ambien, which is designed to only affect you for five or six hours. That's my experience with it, it starts working within a half hour and then I don't feel it at all if I get up after eight hours.
posted by XMLicious at 11:54 PM on March 24, 2009

I would suggest cold/flu medicine like Benedryl rather than melatonin. Both are non-habit forming, but in my experience, melatonin can leave you waking up feeling like you need another 8 hours of sleep.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:23 AM on March 25, 2009

I'll second the getting off of caffiene, and also any other artificial stimulants that you can - ie. avoid really sugary or "empty" carby foods (white bread, white pasta, mash potato).

These sorts of things set your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride and can really interfere with your sleeping patterns if they feature heavily in your diet, or if you are particularly vulnerable to sleep disturbance or insomnia.

to illustrate - i do a week's quasi-fast every autumn, only eating raw fruit and veg for 5-7 days. after the 3rd day, i tend to experience a few nights of the best sleep i've ever had! makes it all worthwhile :]
posted by greenish at 5:46 AM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Similar sleep needs, and for a while was working full time and going to grad school in the evenings in ways that complicated life.

1) Is taking public transit really better for you? For me, it wires me up, and it takes me much longer to relax when I get home. Driving myself, I have a lot more control over things, and it's generally been faster, too.

2) Good sleep hygiene is about timing, but also other patterns. Establish patterns that tell your brain you're going to be going to sleep in a short while, and follow them every night. Things I do include not using overhead lights after a certain point at night (just dimmer table lamps), having a hot bath (both relaxing + causes an internal temperature drop that mimics natural drops when we fall asleep), and avoiding being online after my bath if at all possible.

I use some scented oils as a trigger as well. Lavender is classic, but there are a number of others (and honestly, anything that works for you is fine). Smell's also a powerful trigger to our brains, so associating a particular smell with "Going to be asleep now" can work really powerfully. Linen spray, etc. works nicely, or a small herbal pillow tucked under your regular pillow.

3) Habits the rest of the day help a lot - I'm with everyone else who says knock off the caffeine and other stimulants - if you can't manage all day, try for at least 8-10 hours before you want to be asleep.

4) Can you schedule one day each weekend (or earlier in your week?) when you don't plan *anything* that involves going outside the house? I've been doing this this winter due to long hours and some stress at work in taking over a new role, and it's been saving my life. There are days I get up and get a lot done - and there are days I get up at 8, putter, go back to bed at 10:30, nap for 5 hours, and then am back in bed again at 8:30, because I'm just that tired. It's making the rest of the week a lot more manageable to know that time is there if I need it.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:48 AM on March 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions!

The commute is between Baltimore and DC. Although I have a license, I don't have a car, and I don't think that battling beltway traffic would speed things up considerably anyway. My sister lives in DC, but it's hard for me to get down there on Tuesday / Thursday nights, because I have an evening class. (Great scheduling, eh?)

I'm going to hit the gym after I get home, hopefully that will make sleep easier tonight. As to the suggestion that I can't handle this because I have lousy habits, that's what the crux of the question was; how do I keep the good habits (gym, sleep, diet) I already have in the face of this icky situation?

Today went ok- I had forgotten that Wednesday is massage day, yay- and I think this situation will be doable. It's also easier now that it's not the dead of winter. I can totally handle this, at least for a limited time.Thanks for the perspective on that; last night it seemed impossible. I think part of the problem is that, after my last stint, I told myself I wouldn't have to do this anymore. Oh well, I absolutely love my job and I'm very happy to be back.
posted by charmcityblues at 2:49 PM on March 25, 2009

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