The evening routine essentials of the most productive people

Wake up. Shower. Coffee. Journal. Check email. Head to work. You’ve probably given some thought to how you start your day. And for good reason. A proper morning routine helps you set priorities, start off on a positive note, and show you’re in control of how the day will go.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? By the time you get home, have dinner, and start to unwind you’ve most likely used up your willpower for the day, making it too easy to fall into bad habits like binge watching TV or checking emails late at night.

Sure, you deserve some relaxation after a long day at work. That’s not the problem. However, these haphazard evening routines can have serious effects on our sleep. And that’s a real issue.

Poor sleep has been shown to negatively impact our memory, health, cognitive ability and can even put a strain on your relationships and social life. While the right evening routine helps us wind down, relax, and get into a deep, restorative sleep—making us refreshed and ready for tomorrow.

So, what should an evening routine optimized for quality sleep look like? We can learn a lot from the habits of prolific high-achievers like Tim Ferriss, Bill Gates, and Arianna Huffington.

Before we dive in… Evening routines are just one of the many tools we have for effectively managing our time. Download our free Guide To Managing Your Time And Fitting More Into Every Day here

The science of sleep: What happens when we close our eyes?

science of sleep

We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep. Sleep is as vital to our wellbeing as the food we eat and the air we breathe. When we close our eyes for the night, our mind cycles through different stages of sleep:

  • Light sleep: Which is most similar to being awake
  • REM (or Rapid-Eye-Movement): Where our minds are asleep but active and where dreams are most likely to happen
  • Deep sleep: Where our mind is in “regeneration” mode

It’s this deep sleep that’s so important to being a high-functioning individual. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, some 47 million adults do not get a restorative night’s sleep.

“When we don’t get the deep sleep we need, it inhibits our ability to learn and for our cells and bodies to recover,” explains sleep researcher Dan Gartenberg, in his TED talk on The brain benefits of deep sleep.

“Deep sleep is how we convert all those interactions that we make during the day into our long-term memory and personalities.”

So many things can get in the way of us reaching deep sleep, from stress and burnout to late-night screen usage, eating late, and physical issues. It isn’t just the quantity of sleep we get that matters, but the quality. And to make sure we reach our deep, restorative sleep, we need a proper evening routine.

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The productive evening routines of Tim Ferriss, Bill Gates, and Arianna Huffington

evening routine main

Far from being unproductive, the one-third of our lives we spend sleep can dictate how energetic and successful we are in the other two-thirds. To help us get the most out of our shuteye time, here are some evening routines taken from the most successful people:

Transition out of work mode with a “closing ritual”

How many times have you turned off the lights and gotten into bed only to have your mind start racing? Or, you start mentally composing an email you forgot to send?

“For most of us it is the mind, rather than the body, that disrupts restorative sleep,” explains Professor Meir Kryger in his new book, The Mystery of Sleep. To cleanse our mind of the leftover responsibilities of the day, we need to bring a mental wind down into our evening routine.

For 4-hour work week author Tim Ferriss that means skipping late-night work and emails in favor of a “closing ritual” for your mind.

A former insomniac, Ferriss has spent the last few years devising a strict evening routine involving drinking decaffeinated tea with apple cider vinegar and honey, taking a bath, and reading fiction (not non-fiction, which he says keeps his “problem-solving apparatus in 6th gear).

Creating a “closing ritual” like this not only helps us disconnect from work and get ready for bed, but puts our mind at ease so we can more quickly get into restorative sleep.

As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered, we only remember two things about an event: the emotional peak (whether it was good or bad), and how it ended. So, by creating your own calming “closing ritual” you’re essentially rewriting each day with a happy ending.

Prep for tomorrow’s goals

Your evening routine doesn’t simply need to be about relaxation, however. The reason those thoughts keep our brains active long into the night is usually because we feel some aspect of our life is out of our control.

Both American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Leo Babauta of the Zen Habits blog suggest spending time in the evening to write down your 3 MITs (Most Important Things) for tomorrow.

An MIT is a task that you must complete tomorrow and that you want to tackle first thing in the morning.

“Do I get a lot more done than three things? Of course. But the idea is that no matter what else I do today, these are the things I want to be sure of doing. So, the MIT is the first thing I do each day.” – Leo Babauta

Mark Twain called this “swallowing the frog,” because no matter what else happens in the day, you know that the hardest task is already done.

This isn’t the only way you can prep for the next day, however. Babauta suggests adding other preparations to your evening routine such as checking the weather and picking out your clothes for the day, packing your lunch, and tidying up a bit so you wake up to a clean house.

Reflect on the day with a gratitude journal

evening routine journal

Your evening routine is a fantastic place to not only look forward to a productive tomorrow, but reflect on what you did today—a simple practice that can have real benefits to our well-being and ability to sleep.

In her book Thrive, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington explained how researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida found that writing down a list of positive events at the close of a day—and why those events made us happy—lowers stress levels and gives us a greater sense of calm at night.

Huffington wasn’t the first person to champion the power of reflection and gratitude. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin discussed how every night he would ask himself the same self-improvement question: “What good have I done today?”

This sort of journaling is a powerful way to empty your mind of stress. In a study on new employees, researchers found those who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.

Additionally, writing lets you expel all those little ideas floating through your mind and keeping you up at night. By simply removing the thoughts from your head and putting them on paper, they’re less likely to pop up as you’re trying to drift off.

Ditch the screens and pick up a book

It can be tempting to curl up on the couch and disappear into a Netflix binge at night. However, not only does the blue light emitted from our digital devices disrupt our sleep patterns and lower the quality of sleep we get, but excessive exposure to screens can cause physical pain, eye strain, and headaches.

This doesn’t mean your evening routine shouldn’t include some entertainment. You just need to pick a healthier option such as reading.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is an avid reader, spending an hour each night before bed reading. While former president Barack Obama—a self-professed night owl—spends at least half an hour a night reading to decompress from late-night work sessions.

Reading isn’t simply a way to distract yourself from TV or other screen-focused activities. A 2009 study from the University of Essex revealed that reading for as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by up to 68%.

However, if you do want to indulge in your favorite series or watch a movie at night, try to work it into your schedule earlier in the evening. The goal should be to leave at least an hour or two before bed where you’re screen-free.

And if you still can’t fall asleep?

evening routine can't sleep

Sometimes despite running through our evening routine, we still end up restless and unable to drift off. In these cases, here are a few tips on how to create the most optimal sleep environment.

  • Stick to a regular bedtime: Going to sleep at a consistent time is an important part of our “sleep hygiene”—the practices that insure we get regular, deep sleep. Commit to a daily bedtime and waking time and try not to waver too far from them (even on the weekends).
  • Take advantage of the time to be creative: In 2006, Vera Wang told Fortune that her nightly routine includes, “a fair amount of designing—at least conceptually if not literally.” While a study from Albion College revealed that, “tasks requiring creative insight was consistently better during their non-optimal times of day.”If you can’t sleep, you can at least use the time productively.
  • Go for a walk or do some light stretching: Exercise during the day can help us get more quality sleep but it can also be a great part of our evening routine. Buffer CEO, Joel Gascoigne likes to unwind with a brisk walk right before bed. He uses his walks to turn off his thoughts about work and slowly transition into a “state of tiredness.”
  • Ditch the alcohol and late-night snacks: While I’m sure most of us know that alcohol can help you fall asleep, the National Institute of Health found that it robs you of quality sleep. When you drink or eat late-night snacks, it keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep and prevents you from falling into deeper, more restorative sleep. In most cases, you want at least a few hours between your last drink and your bedtime.
  • Change up your sleep environment: If you can’t sleep, it might be your room’s fault. Excess noise and light can of course keep us awake, but temperature also plays a big role. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal temperature for shut-eye is around 65 degrees.
  • Get out of bed: When you lie in bed thinking for long periods of time, you teach your brain that this behavior is OK. As a result, you may start to automatically go into “thinking” mode rather than “sleeping” mode when you lie down. To break this connection, don’t try to fall asleep in bed for longer than 10–20 minutes. If you pass this threshold, get up, go into another room, and do something relaxing like reading or meditating until you feel sleepy again. Repeat this process as many times as necessary.

A productive evening routine helps us relax, unwind, and prepare ourselves mentally and physically for a productive tomorrow. So remember, if you want to get a deep, restorative sleep, run through these steps:

  • Use a “closing ritual” to disconnect from work and get into sleep mode
  • Prep for tomorrow and put your mind at ease
  • Reflect on your day and practice gratitude
  • Put down your phone and pick up a book

What works for you? Let us know your evening routine tips in the comments.

Photos by Asique AlamSam SolomonMuhammad Raufan YusupHS LEE

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.