Meg Harrell: Blogging and Tiny Living on Night Shift

Meg Harrell, 32, is a CDICU nurse and the lifestyle blogger behind MegForIt. She lives in a tiny house with her family of four in North Carolina. Here, she shares her preferred work schedule, her tricks to fall asleep after a busy shift, and why screen time can be the enemy of daytime sleep.

–– As told to Lauren McGill. Edited for clarity and conciseness.

What do you do for work?

I am a RN and I’ve worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in CDICU (Cardiovascular ICU) for the past three years. I also tutor nursing students online and write e-books and resources to help new nurses and nursing students.

Tell me about your schedule.

I try not to do night shifts in a row, so I divided my schedule so it would be one weekend shift, one Tuesday shift, and one Thursday or Friday shift. Depending on my husband’s schedule, if I don’t get to sleep too much, it’s just not healthy to drive to work with no sleep for nights in a row.

Was your management accommodating about your preferred schedule?

Management was great and super nice about it. We had a big influx of new nurses and so we were well-staffed with a lot of the new people trying to pick up shifts. Also, I told my manager that if I got nights in a row, I might not sleep at all, so I needed my schedule broken up or I would not be a safe nurse.

I think that if night shift works for you, you should stick with it. 

Why did you make the switch to night shifts?

The main reason was my kids (ages 4 & 6). Childcare was difficult. It was nice when we were living with family and I could just drop them off at my mom’s or drop them off at my in-laws. But then once you don’t have that, it’s hard with younger kids. I would trust a sitter if my kids were a little bit older, but when my kids were little babies and they couldn’t go to school yet, it’s hard and it was also expensive. 

How do you coordinate childcare with your husband?

Usually, I will go pick up my husband when he’s done work and then we’ll do the switch-off with the kids. He’ll take the kids, drop me off at work and then I’ll work all night. He’ll put the kids to bed, sleep all night, and then he’ll come and get me in the morning and we’ll switch off the kids again.

Sometimes I will drop him off at work in the morning and I’ll have the kids. Other times he can come home and watch the kids for a couple of hours while I sleep, or he comes home early and I sleep a couple of hours before the shift. While I’m sleeping, my husband will take my kids to the library, the pool, or the playground. 

Besides working as an RN, what else do you have going on? 

I run the lifestyle blog Meg For It. I am also a travel writer, so I get hired by brands, resorts, and companies that want me to travel to places and write about what is happening there. Next weekend, I am flying to Disney! They have something coming out over there and I get to bring my kids, which is great.

Tell me about your living arrangements. 

I live in a tiny house that is 360 sq ft. with my two kids and husband in a tiny house community in the Smoky Mountains. Our bed raises up to the ceiling, so when it’s on the ceiling I have a living area, and when we bring it down we have a bedroom.

How do you sleep during the day in a shared tiny house?

I close all the blackout curtains and do a bit of meditation and some special deep breathing techniques to come down a little bit. I feel like when I’m at work, my adrenaline is running and I can’t just switch it off. I have to bring myself down a couple of levels to finally be able to relax and fall asleep.

Any advice for shift workers transitioning over to tiny house living?

Be vocal about your needs to your partner – if you need them to be quiet, or you just don’t want to be touched. Blackout curtains are also a must because sunlight messes with your sleep. And depending on noise levels, use ear plugs. Good quality ones are worth investing in because they’ll help you go into those deeper levels of sleep.

Be vocal about your needs to your partner – if you need them to be quiet, or you just don’t want to be touched.

What are some of the pitfalls with working nights?

I think you have to be very particular with how you schedule yourself. You have to value sleep. If you have an opportunity to sleep, don’t give it up to watch a movie. Sometimes you have to cancel your plans, because sleep is so important. As life evolves, you have to find a way to value sleep and value time. Don’t waste it!

Also, you cannot waste time on social media. If you want a good sleep pattern, you have to schedule your screentime. You can’t be scrolling through Instagram when you’re about to fall asleep because you won’t be able to just transition.

You have to value sleep. If you have an opportunity to sleep, don’t give it up to watch a movie.

Any final thoughts about working nights?

Night shift is not easier. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, everyone is sleeping.” No! Everyone is not sleeping. Healthcare is an industry that never sleeps so don’t think that night shift is going to be easier if you’re thinking of getting into it. 

And if you’re thinking of leaving night shift, remember that day shift can be challenging with more people coming at you, like management and more doctors, etc. There are always pros and cons. I think that if night shift works for you, you should stick with it. 

Thank you, Meg, for sharing your adventurous approach to life with us! Be sure to follow Meg’s fun-filled IG @meg.for.it and grab a copy of her super helpful Nursing Resource e-book here >>>> https://www.megforit.com/downloads/complete-rn-resource-ebook/.

How to Schedule Sleep for Night Shift

It’s pretty simple. The best sleep schedule is the one that works for you! Everyone’s sleep needs and circumstances are different. The main thing is to get enough sleep.

Sometimes I read articles on how to sleep while working nights that dogmatically dictate a certain sleep schedule. But, realistically, the same thing just doesn’t work everyone. And if you’re new to shift work or have been struggling to get adequate sleep, you might need to try a few different sleeping patterns to see which is best for you.

You need to figure out what works for your body and circumstances and then stick to it consistently. This will let your body adjust and help you build some routine into your life. It will also help you sleep during the day more easily by training your body when it should be asleep vs. awake.

How to build your sleep schedule

Take the time to plot out exactly what hours you need to sleep, either digitally or on paper. Mapping out your sleep plan will help you find potential flaws in your well-intentioned ideas. When plotting out your sleep schedule, consider:

  • Your scheduled shifts (8 hrs? 12 hrs? start time? end time?)
  • Your individual sleep requirements (7 hrs of shut eye? 9 hrs or more?)
  • Your family responsibilities (children to be dropped off/picked up?)
  • Social engagements (PTA meetings, dinner dates, etc.)
  • Other commitments (soccer practice, doctor’s appointments, etc.)

Sample sleep plans

Want to see the schedules of some of my co-workers? These different sleeping schedules show you that successful daytime sleeping doesn’t need to look exactly one way to be effective.

The fitness buff

Some of my athletic co-workers follow this schedule:

  • Leave work as the sun rises, eating breakfast before they go
  • Work out at the gym & shower
  • Hit the sheets by 10 a.m.
  • Sleep til about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
  • Eat dinner
  • Head into work

These folks admit that this only works for them if they go directly to the gym. Stopping at home is deadly for as it inevitably leads to crawling between the sheets and never making it back out.


The school sleeper

Many of my co-workers are parents. Here’s how they work their sleep schedule:

  • Leave work
  • Get home in time for the breakfast parade and lunch-making lineup
  • Pop kids on the bus and/or deliver them to school
  • Head straight to bed
  • Sleep until school is over
  • Do homework and eat dinner with the kids
  • Give bedtime kisses
  • Head into work

If you need more sleep than this schedule allows, it may be possible to arrange after-school daycare or babysitting.


The split sleeper

I have other co-workers who cannot stay asleep for one long spell during the day. These folks do the following:

  • Leave work
  • Eat breakfast
  • Head straight to bed
  • Sleep for a 3+ hour nap
  • Have lunch / putter around / do some housekeeping
  • Sleep for another 3+ hour nap
  • Drive to work
  • Eat dinner in the staff room and head into their night shift

My schedule

Here’s what works for me:

  • I have a small breakfast near the end of my shift.
  • I head straight to bed after work and sleep for several hours.
  • I invariably snap awake at 1 p.m. so I drink a tall glass of water and pad around my apartment for a few minutes.
  • I get back in bed, do some reading and head back to sleep until late afternoon.
  • I eat dinner, grab a large coffee, and drop off my dog before heading into work. (I try to get to work 15 mins before shift start to settle in and relieve my coworker early.)

Could any of those sleep plans work for you? Do you already have a sleep schedule that works for you? Please share below so we can learn from each other!

Sleep Schedules for Shift Workers

The Best Trick to Fall Asleep

A few months ago I was having trouble falling asleep after night shifts. I’d arrive home, absolutely exhausted, but too amped up to fall asleep. The mental countdown of how many hours until the next night shift just made things worse.

Then I remembered a little trick I’d discovered years ago. It was so simple and effective that I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about it. The trick? Reading!

Reading fiction for 15 minutes at bedtime works better than anything else I’ve tried.

Why reading?

I discovered reading as a powerful stress-buster while working a high octane job. During that period, I’d come home feeling wired and tired. Then I’d sit like a zombie in front of the TV. I’d lose hours but not feel any more relaxed. I knew I needed to do something different to transition home.

That is when I learned about the superpowers of reading. DYK that just a few minutes of reading can actually slow your heart rate and ease muscle tension? This makes it an amazing anxiety antidote.  And it’s cheap, easy, and at your fingertips!

Instead of tuning into the TV to relax, I committed to reading for 15 minutes after I came home. I couldn’t believe how quickly it calmed my nerves and set me up for a more relaxed time at home. What an easy and great trick to turn off the stress.

Why fiction?

I might look like a grownup, but I can still benefit from a good bedtime story. (Or, at least a chapter or two.) Any kind of reading can help soothe frazzled nerves, but fiction is a perfect escape for sleepytime.

Bedtime is definitely not the time for stimulating books that get your mind revved up. You’ve probably had enough of that on your night shift! So no self-help books, investment guides, or career-related reading before snoozeville. Bedtime is a perfect time to dive into a great story, giving your mind something lowkey to mull over.

Why 15 minutes?

Fifteen minutes is doable. Even when I come home exhausted, I tell myself, “Just 15 minutes. You can do 15 minutes.” Within no time, I am usually totally relaxed and ready to drift off.

What about you? Do you relax by reading at bedtime?

Night Shift Wellness The Best Trick to Fall Asleep

Daytime Sleeping for the Night Shift

How well do you…. Think? React? Work? Learn? Interact? All of these things hinge on the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Sleep is vital to good health and well-being. Getting enough quality sleep protects your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and job competency. It even affects your immune system’s ability to work properly.  How well you feel while you’re awake greatly depends on the quality and quantity of your sleep. During sleep, your body works to support healthy brain function and maintain our physical health.

The benefits of sleep are:

  • Improved memory skills
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Better problem-solving skills
  • Hormonal regulation
  • Sharper attention
  • Reduced stress

After reviewing that list of benefits, who could possibly afford not to max out their sleep time? Good sleep is critical for optimal functioning. On the other hand, the damage from sleep deficiency can occur suddenly (like a crash from falling asleep at the wheel) or slowly accrue over time (like type 2 diabetes). Many of the chronic and serious health problems linked to night shift work may actually be explained by the sleep deprivation many night shift workers report, rather than the actual nocturnal hours they keep.

Some shift workers report that their brain feels like is working hard both day and night which is, frankly speaking, exhausting. Living both in day and night can be overwhelming at times. It’s important to learn how to shut off your brain when it’s time for restful sleep.

Prioritize sleep

Good sleep must be the main priority in your life if you are going to survive – and thrive – on the night shift. Your sleep time must be vigorously protected. This means letting others know that you are not available during your sleep hours. Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door, put your phone on silent, and arrange for others to look after deliveries, pick up the kids, or look after carpool. Just as you would not reasonably expect a friend or family member to be available to you at 2 AM, you cannot be available to others at 2 PM. This your precious sleep time and you must value it. Good sleep is critical to keeping your job and your good health.

Have a sleep room

Your sleep room may or may not be your bedroom. Whatever room you use will need to be dark, quiet, and dedicated to sleep. Why call it a sleep room and not just call it a bedroom? Because you need to have one mission for this room: sleep! It cannot also be your home office, or your kids’ jungle gym, or your spouse’s wardrobe planning area. It must be set aside exclusively for your sleep during your night shifts.

Be consistent

Stick to a schedule as much as possible to keep a steady sleep routine. Sticking to a set sleep schedule establishes a routine to make sleep during the day easier. Try different patterns of work and sleep to see which is best for you.

As soon as you get your schedule, look ahead over your next set of shifts and mentally plan how you can maximize your sleep time.

If you have an erratic work schedule, you might consider anchoring your sleep. This means making sure you log the same four hours of sleep every day. For example, make sure you’re in bed from 1 to 5 p.m. every day, then add as many hours as you can before/after that period of time. But your body can count on the fact that you will always be in bed during those hours.  This sleeping pattern adds some sort of regularity to an otherwise chaotic schedule.

Make it dark

Use blackout blinds or heavy curtains to block out as much sunlight as possible. A dark room is essential for a good day’s sleep. Blackout blinds can work wonders for instantly darkening a room. If you find light creeping in around the edges, add blackout curtains as well. It’s worth investing in true blackout material- it has a thick, opaque layer of fabric on the back side that cuts out all light. (Bonus: blackout blinds are energy efficient and can help with heating and cooling costs!)

Disconnect

Leave the electronics off as their interruptions can prevent deep sleep. Make time for quiet relaxation before bed. You can try muscle relaxation, breathing techniques or mental imagery. And if you cannot sleep, don’t stress. Read a book or listen to quiet music.

Block sound

Use a fan, vaporizer or sound machine to muffle outside noises. Protect your sleeping space from household noises by closing your bedroom door. Turn off all of your devices off or put them on silent. Consider adding a “do not ring the doorbell” sign for your front door. Try using a white noise machine to drown out outside noises that you can’t control.

Aroma-therapize

Use tranquillizing scents to trigger relaxation and help you fall asleep faster. There are many studies proving the sleep-inducing, calming effects of lavender oil. Inhaling lavender has shown to reduce sleep disturbance, improve quality and duration of sleep, fight insomnia and improve overall well-being. Plus, unlike most sedative drugs, lavender does not cause any unwanted side effects. (This goes without saying… but avoid using candles to avoid any fire risks! An essential oil diffuser will do nicely.)

Keep it cool

A separate window air conditioner is a good idea to keep your sleep room a little bit cooler than the rest of your place. Our circadian rhythm naturally cools our body during sleep and getting that slightly cooler temp is an important part of successful daytime sleeping. (Bonus: An a/c unit can provide white noise. But if the condenser loudly bangs on and off, then it might be best to opt for a fan instead.)

Daytime Sleeping for Night Shift

 

How to Keep your Bedroom Dark

Absolute darkness is essential to deep sleep, whether it’s daytime or nighttime. Your brain can detect even tiny amounts of light through closed eyelids, which can disturb your sleep cycles. The goal is to make your sleep room pitch-dark.

If you share your bedroom with a nighttime sleeper, they too will appreciate your efforts to make your bedroom completely dark. Some street lamps now use energy-efficient LEDs, which emit light in the blue part of the spectrum, which is considered the most sleep-sabotaging kind of all. So blocking out all outside light – during both the day and night – can result in better sleep for everyone.

Use blackout blinds and curtains

Use a combination of blackout shades and opaque curtains to block all light from outside. The best way to make the room absolutely dark is by installing an inside-mounted blackout blind/shade inside the window frame. Then hang outside-mounted blackout curtains on a curtain rod that extends several inches outside the window frame on both sides. The point of doubling up is to ensure total darkness. Even high-end blackout products may allow a tiny bit of light to creep in the sides. A combination of a shade and curtains provides the maximum effect.


How to choose a blind

Cellular shades are the best for blocking out the light. Blinds allow can allow a small amount of light to seep in between the horizontal slats. Roller blinds often eventually curl up and become less effective. Choose the cordless cellular shades, as there’s no chance then of the cord malfunctioning.

Start by measuring the inside dimensions of your window frame. The width of the shade should be slightly narrower than the widow of your window frame- about ¼ to ½ inch. The length of the shade should be long enough to reach the very bottom of your window. If it’s a bit longer, no worries.

How to choose curtains

You definitely want to choose the ones specifically marked as “blackout” and not just “light filtering” or “room darkening.” We’re going for NASA level technology here. The curtains should be long but shouldn’t pool on the floor– you can hem them with hemming tape or bring them to a tailor. Use enough curtain panels… if you think you need one on each side, consider doubling that so you get good thickness and they fully cover every possible inch.

How to choose a curtain rod

You don’t want any light seeping out on either side of the window. There are two options:

  1. Buy a wraparound rod that curves at the ends so that the curtains can be drawn all the way back to the wall.
  2. Buy a curtain rod that is at least a foot wider than your window frame. Then draw curtains fully across the windows all the way to the edge of the curtain rod for full coverage.

Go analog

Swap your digital alarm clock for an analogue one. (Stuck on having a digital clock? Switch to red. Digital clocks with red numbers are considered less disruptive than ones with white or blue digits. Just turn it so it is facing away from you.)

Unplug/cover up electronics

Unplug whatever you can. Use small dots of black electrical tape to cover up any lights on electronics.

Use a “snake” at the door

Block out any light spilling in underneath door frames by placing a snake across the bottom of your doorframe. They are like long, skinny bean bags filled with rice and were often used in old homes to block out drafts. A snake will block out light and muffle outside noises that might sneak in.

Eye mask

Here’s the easiest peasiest solution of them all: Buy a sleep mask that fits your face perfectly.

Night Shift Wellness How to Keep your Bedroom Dark

 

How to Stay Awake During the Night Shift

Staying awake for your entire night shift is probably the difference between keeping your job and losing it. In school, you might have pulled the occasional all-nighter to finish an assignment or crunch for an exam. But the experience of working the graveyard shift, night after night, is entirely different.

If you’re a lucky duck, you may have designated breaks and a comfy place to crash for a cat nap during the night, but you’ll still need to figure out how to stay awake and alert most of the night. And of course, it’s easier to stay awake when there is lots of action. It’s the slow nights without much to do that present the real brute of a challenge. Here are some tips on how to pull it off.

Stimulate your mind

If you’re faced with lots of downtime, find ways to keep your brain busy. Keeping your mind busy is the best way to avoid accidentally snoozing.  Bring crosswords, sudoku, or other brain teasers. Listen to podcasts or energizing music. Work on a personal project, plan a vacation, browse the flyers, figure out your weekly meal plan, etc.

Engage with other humans

If you have coworkers around, chat it up. At my work, we have our best chats in the wee hours of the morning while we are struggling to keep our eyes open. Chatting makes the time fly until we have more work to do, or the day shift arrives to relieve us.

Keep it lit

A well-lit workspace plays a big role in keeping awake all night. If you work in a dim work environment (eg to keep patients asleep in a hospital ward) then at least take your breaks in full light to perk you up.

Drink lots of water

It’s healthy and it’s a natural diuretic. All that peeing can actually help you stay awake! Drinking lots of water will also help your body run at optimum levels and is especially important if you’ve been sipping coffee, which might dehydrate you a bit.

Keep moving

Move around as much as possible. Perpetual motion fights off that urge to go to beddy-bye. Kick it up to the next level with some on-the-spot fitness. Climbing three or four flights of stairs will kick up your heart rate and give you a great boost to awake. 

Chill out

Warmth can make you feel cozy and comfy and snoozy. Keep your work area a tiny bit cool to keep awake. I liked to dress in layers to accommodate fluctuating temperatures. A small desk fan circulating cool air can be helpful too. Sip cool drinks if you feel sleepiness start to overcome you.

Freshen up

Breathing in fresh air is an instant pick-me-up that can last for hours. If you can get outside during your shift -even for just a few minutes- the outside air can freshen you up. And the change of scenery is mentally refreshing.

Eat carefully

Eating meals high in carbs and low in protein can make you feel extra sleepy (think bagels, doughnuts, muffins, etc). Avoid too much caffeine, heavy meals, fast foods, sugar highs, high-fat snacks from vending machines. They offer little nutritional value and can make you extra drowsy. 

Chew minty gum

Freshen your breath and give yourself a little jolt of awakeness with a fresh stick of minty gum when you feel yourself nodding off. Spicy cinnamon gum works well too.

Sleep enough

It might seem obvious but it’s worth repeating- if you get enough Zzzzz’s during the daytime before your shift, then you won’t be as plagued by sleepiness during your shift. Check out my article Daytime Sleeping for the Night Shift for more help.

DYK? Some of the worst man-made catastrophes have been attributed to mistakes made on the night shift: the BP oil leak in Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill, the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, the nuclear disaster at  Chernobyl and the cyanide chemical spill in Bhopal, India. Avoiding critical errors is an important reason to stay alert all night long.

How to Stay Awake on Night Shift