I just finished re-reading Dr. Dement's The Promise of Sleep, which was good since I needed to learn different things from it now than when I last read it several years ago. I highly recommend this book to pretty much everyone, since I agree with Dr. Dement that sleep is one of the least understood but most important aspects of our physical and emotional health. The quality of your sleep affects so many other parts of your life.
What prompted this re-reading for me was coming back from my vacation last month with a severely screwed up sleep schedule/ability. Between jet lag, dance camp, Harry Potter, and various kinds of stress, I was a wreck. I had three days in a row at one point where I only slept a scattered handful of hours, and even after that I'd have nights where I was exhausted but unable to fall asleep for hours. Then I'd alternate nights of no sleep with nights of sleeping like a rock. So I started experimenting a bit with my sleep schedule (what did I have to lose at that point?) and also started reading this book to see if what I was doing made any sense. Luckily it did.
What I started by doing was just moving my bedtime later by one hour every night, while still getting up at the same time in the morning. Ever since I took Dr. Dement's "Sleep and Dreams" class in college, I've tried to be very aware of my sleep debt and of allocating enough time to keep it low. The problem is that sleep debt can actually be too low, to the point where it negatively affects your sleep efficiency, and allows other causes of insomnia (of which I have plenty) to come in and take over. My alternating nights of good sleep weren't erasing all my sleep debt, but just enough to cause this problem, given the state I was in. My idea with the first stage of this experiment was to try to regain/maintain a regular sleep schedule, but not let myself get quite enough, so that I could still fall asleep before my mind starts running away with me each night. After adjusting for a little while, this was fairly successful. (Moderately improving stress levels have helped as well.)
The downside to this, of course, is feeling sleepier than I'd like during the day. In the current phase of the plan, I'm alternating nights again, but in a much less dramatic way than when I had no control over it. I just switch between staying up the extra hour or not, so it's not a huge difference, but so far it seems to be balancing well between getting more rest and still falling asleep without too much trouble. There's also the plus that I can time my later nights so that I get more dancing (like the fact that I actually stayed at FNW all the way to the end last night). This does go against the standard advice of maintaining a rigidly consistent schedule of sleeping and waking, but Dr. Dement does stress in the last chapter of his book that it's really just important to understand the principles, and that different things will work for different people. My original idea was to eventually work back to having a fixed schedule, but I'm starting to reconsider this. If this alternating pattern continues to work out well, I may just tweak it a bit to make sure the total sleep time is enough, but then leave it there. We'll see.
Another thing I've been doing -- independent of but beneficial to the sleep times experiment -- is working out and running more. Dr. Dement recommends regular exercise as being good for sleep, but adds that it's best to do it more than 3 hours before bedtime, so as not to keep you awake. This is another case, though, where it's important to really understand how I personally react to it. My favorite time to go running recently has been about 10 PM. Luckily, this not only helps tire me out, but it can be incredibly relaxing. Running is very meditative for me. Nowadays, my mind -- my sleep nemesis -- is never as calm as when I'm running. And when I'm done and cooled down, I can continue relaxing myself for a while afterwards and maintain much of that feeling until I'm ready to go to sleep. So for 3 or 4 nights a week, that's very helpful.