Here’s something I never thought I’d write: I was looking at a piece of wall art in Arianna Huffington’s bedroom yesterday morning when she asked me how I sleep. When I turned back to face her, the media mogul, self-styled good-living guru, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post gave the chunky bronze necklace I was wearing a light tug. “I love this!” she said.
There are stacks of books everywhere. A candle burns next to a Fiji bottle on a bedside table stacked with even more books. Everything smells like peonies, or what I think peonies smell like. Eventually, we adjourn to her living room to sit on a newly fluffed, rose-colored chesterfield-style sofa. Classical music plays as Arianna offers me a tea or coffee, which I decline, and rests her arm on one of the velvet pillows lining the sofa. “Your sleep routine,” she commands again, so I tell her my worst habit is scrolling Instagram on my phone in bed. I tell her, “I use my laptop right before sleep. Sometimes I even fall asleep with my laptop in my bed.” I say this knowing that engaging with screens right before lights out violates Huffington’s sleep doctrine.
“Honestly, this is the one ground rule. It will transform how you feel during the day,” she tells me, a pep in her voice I’ve always lacked — a distinction I am now convinced is the result of our contrasting sleep patterns. “I speak as someone who has done that for years. It’s not like I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a very recent convert.”
Arianna Huffington is giving me a one-on-one sleep consultation in her enormous Soho apartment. For a second I wonder if maybe I am still sleeping. On the settee at the foot of Huffington’s bed sits a pillow scrawled with Sleep Your Way to the Top, which suddenly seems like an ominous dream-time red herring.
But no, I really am in Huffington’s room, which is surprisingly modest. Her canopy bed is backed by an enormous mint-green headboard, and an armchair in the corner seems like a decent-enough place to recline and relax. She has a bed with several upright pillows, a detail that reminds me of fancy hotels. The sheets are not satin, as I thought they’d be — I forget to ask about their thread count, perhaps because of the commonplace nature of it all. The most advanced touches in Arianna’s room are dimmable lighting and blackout curtains, plus a stunning city view. And while it’s strange to me that any wealthy person would ever let me in their bedroom, stranger still is that I won’t be the last ruffian to get in: In a promotion for Huffington’s new book, and in conjunction with Airbnb, one lucky contest winner will get to sleep in this very room for a night. It seems like the kind of place where one would sleep very well.
Sleep is Huffington’s latest cause, one she details at great length in The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time. “We take better care of our smartphones than we do ourselves,” Huffington tells me, and I look down guiltily at my battered iPhone. “We are very aware of how much battery remains on our phones. Maybe it gets below 13 percent and we get a little anxious, we feel that we have to plug it in. We don’t feel the sense of urgency or panic about ourselves. The same way we need to plug in our phones, we need to unplug ourselves.”
This is, of course, easier said from a canopy bed in a palatial apartment where duvet covers would never deign to be hauled to the neighborhood wash-and-fold, but it’s nonetheless intoxicating to imagine. I ask Huffington to detail her elaborate nighttime rituals, the ones that help her sleep royally, and it begins to sound like a lullaby.
“I turn off the phone, take them outside the room to charge — the phone, the iPad, everything, no TV, everything that involves a screen. I lower the lights. No overhead lights, just the nightstand.” Then comes an important step in Huffington’s nighttime routine: “I have a very hot bath with epsom salts and some lavender oil and a flickering candle, just something very relaxing. I found that if I was particularly stressed or worried about something, I would prolong the bath because there’s something incredible about the water, it’s almost like washing away the day. Your mind begins to slow down.”
Huffington came to see sleep as an essential contributor to her daily happiness after she collapsed in her L.A. home in 2007. She had an echocardiogram and an MRI to find out if she had a brain tumor or some other health issue she didn’t know about. Her doctor, instead, determined her diagnosis was “sleep deprivation and burnout.” “It was a very alarming wake-up call,” she says now. “Maybe I needed that.”
That’s when Huffington got to work on making slight changes to her sleep schedule. “I’m a big believer in microscopic manageable steps, instead of ‘I’m going from four hours to eight’ overnight.” Around the time of her collapse, Huffington was getting between four and five hours of sleep a night, but would gradually introduce an extra 30 minutes when and where she could, and eventually she made it to eight.
Adding an extra half hour every couple of months feels like an easy-enough transition, but nothing in life is ever that simple. Intention is a big buzzword in Huffington’s bedtime revolution, and if we plan to think about sleep differently — as an essential factor to a happy and well-lived life — we must at least attempt to adapt accordingly. “The biggest difference is that I am fully present in what I’m doing,” she says. “If I’m here, I’m present. I’m enjoying it. And bringing that into what I’m doing, which for me is so important. It’s not just about getting stuff done.”
Another important change was dressing in “clothes that are just for bed.” When we go to sleep in our old ratty gym clothes, she says, the brain receives a conflicting message: “Are we going to the gym? Or are we powering down?” Now she’s learned to love simple nightdresses from Journelle. “I didn’t used to, I used to sleep literally in the same stuff that I’d wear to the gym. I would pick up a T-shirt and go to bed. Now, for the people who want to go to bed in T-shirts, just have different T-shirts. You may not care about lingerie, but just pick a different T-shirt.” Once in bed, Huffington will pick up a book of poetry or philosophy (nothing too heavy or related to media or politics; “It’s really like having a demarcation line between your day life and the time to sleep and recharge”) and will frequently fall asleep with the book in her hand.
“On the days when I don’t have to get up early to do something, I choose to organize the day differently,” she says about her wake-up routine, adding that more than occasionally she does not have to set an alarm because she wakes up naturally on time. This is where I’m the most incredulous. Before I can even ask her if the same policy of “organizing the day” applies to her likely overworked and overtired employees at the Huffington Post, she reads my mind. (Is this a trick I will learn once I am also getting eight solid hours every night?)
“It’s completely accepted and encouraged for people to write in and say, ‘I was out late and doing whatever, or my child was sick, or whatever happened and I’m going to get in late,’” she says. “That is never frowned on. We want you to come in recharged and be your best and most creative self, rather than clock in at nine, exhausted and drugging yourself, sitting at your desk and updating your Facebook. It’s not like I can do this because I’m the editor-in-chief; it’s totally encouraged among everybody. I can show you emails from people on my own team who are like, ‘I’m coming in at 11, I had a bad night.’” She laughs. “We encourage each other. We’re taking away the stigma. And the nap rooms in the office help. In the middle of the afternoon, when people get that lull, instead of going to have a third cinnamon bun or a coffee, you can go have a nap.”
I dream of cinnamon buns momentarily as my time with Huffington begins to wind down. I’m getting sleepy myself, thinking about silk pajamas and lavender baths and books. I pose what seems like an obvious question: How does this sleep revolution include the millions of Americans who are socioeconomically deprived of a good night’s sleep? Those who work too many hours to make time for a lavender-infused ritual? As a comprehensive CDC study found this year, white, college-educated Americans sleep better and more.
“A lot of things need to be done in terms of providing better jobs, in terms of increasing the minimum wage,” she says pointedly, but sticks to her argument that sleep is equally available to all. “One thing that is in our own power to change — and is free — is how much sleep we get. It’s not going to change if we don’t recognize its importance.”