Nothing can stand in for a good night’s sleep, so instead of discussing how we might scrape by with less sleep, we’re going to help you reboot your sleeping habits so you get the sleep you need (and deserve).
And who wouldn’t want more sleep? We live in a 24/7 world where our jobs can continue after it gets dark and begin before the sun rises again. Even when we’re done with work there are a million-and-one needs and distractions to keep us up well into the wee hours of the night, keeping us from a good night’s sleep. This guide aims to help get your sleep cycle back in order and start getting the rest you need. It’s a long one, so here’s a quick outline if you want to jump straight to any section:
- Effects of Sleep Deprivation
- Short Term Recovery: Getting the Ship Back On Course Before It Crashes
- Long Term Recovery: Charting a Proper Course
A few things need to be said before we go any further. First, sleep deprivation isn’t a badge of honor. It’s a very American/Protestant-Work-Ethic attitude to believe that being so busy and stretched thin that you must go without sleep is something to be proud of. If you insist that abusing your body with sleep deprivation is virtuous and a necessary part of being a working adult, then you’re not in the right frame of mind to take this advice to heart. Going with little sleep is sometimes an unfortunate necessity, but it shouldn’t be adopted as a way of life or point of pride. (You certainly wouldn’t brag to your friends how awesome you are malnourishing yourself.)
Second, if you read through this guide, take the advice to heart, and still see no positive change in your sleeping patterns, you may very well need to see a doctor. There are a multitude of medical reasons for why you might not be getting a good night’s sleep, including things like sleep apnea. Conditions that interrupt your sleep slowly shave years off your life and decrease the quality of life in the ones you have left. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor and see a sleep specialist.
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Finally, there isn’t a tip in this guide I haven’t personally used. Between being a student, parent, educator, writer, and for one horrible year doing it all in addition to working 12-hour graveyard shifts, there isn’t a whole lot about sleep deprivation and putting your “sleep life” back together that I haven’t experienced. Sleep deprivation is brutal, and I hope whether you’ve been short-changing yourself an hour of sleep a day or eight of them, that you take something away from this guide that helps get things back on track.
An important part of getting your sleep schedule back under control is understanding the negative impacts of not getting enough sleep. Your body is a complex machine that evolved over millions of years to the state it’s in today. Our modern coffee-swilling, go-go-go, work-until-the-crack-of-dawn-and-collapse culture has only been around for the tiniest fraction of the history of the human species. We haven’t adapted to less sleep, and we’re likely not going to adapt any time soon. You need as much sleep today as your greatest of great grandfathers needed in 2010 BCE.
What happens when you don’t get enough sleep? Everyone is familiar with the common side effects, like being tired the next day, sore muscles, and general irritability. Sleep deprivation also has a myriad of side effects you don’t see as easily as yawning or a snippy attitude. Sleep deprivation increases your risk of heart disease, impairs memory retention, increases risk of diabetes and obesity (adequate sleep is required for proper glucose processing and insulin regulation), increases risk of depression and other mental illness, and the list goes on. Sleep deprivation can have similar effects to being outright intoxicated. Most people would frown on someone showing up to work drunk every day, but we often act as if sleep deprivation is simply the way it has to be.
Sleep is a critical part of your body’s maintenance routine, and depriving yourself of it is the same as running a machine with no down time for preventive care and repairs. You can do it, but eventually something breaks, and sometimes catastrophically.
Let’s get a big misconception out of the way: You don’t have a “sleep bank.” If you’ve gone for the last year chronically sleep deprived, you can’t refill some sort of sleep tank in your tummy in order to start feeling normal again. You can start doing things today to increase the sleep you’re getting and start feeling better immediately. It takes weeks of consistent and restful sleep to shake the after effects of sleep deprivation. But don’t despair, you won’t need to “sleep off” all 1,498 hours of sleep you shorted yourself over the last year.
Another misconception is the amount of sleep people require. The reality is, the best person to judge the amount of sleep you need to be happy and alert is you. Studies come out year after year saying a certain number of hours is best—eight hours to feel most rested, seven hours to live long, six hours and you’ll die young—but sometimes the best expert is the way you feel. We’ll return to the topic of how much sleep you need and how to measure it in a moment; for right now let’s focus on what you can do tonight.
Sleep hygiene is similar to your end-of-day personal hygiene. Just like you wash your face and brush your teeth before bed, sleep hygiene is an umbrella term that covers all the things you do leading up to sleep that help or hinder restful sleep.
Good sleep hygiene involves getting your body ready for a good night’s sleep, and not overstimulating it just before bedtime. How can you practice good sleep hygiene? Start by shifting your perspective on what bedtime and sleep really are. Bedtime isn’t just the point where you collapse from working hard and staying up late; bedtime is the start of a block of time very important to your body. You need good sleep and you should treat your bedtime with proper respect.
Dependent on age, gender, and other physiological factors, the half-life of caffeine in the body is roughly five to 10 hours. In other words, that cup of coffee you drank at 7 p.m. is still with you at midnight. Nicotine is another common stimulant; you should quit or make your last cigarette of the day well before bed.
Alcohol is a depressant and will help you fall asleep, the problem is that it depresses everything in your system, including your metabolism. Alcoholics report having no dreams because alcohol disrupts REM sleep, a critical sleep phase for both brain and body health.
Exposing yourself to the glow of a screen before bed will keep you awake. Your body is hardwired to wake up when light is bright and go to sleep when it gets dark. If you shine a bright light in your face before bed, you’re telling your body it’s time to perk up and be alert. If you absolutely must use a computer or mobile device later in the day, at least turn the screen brightness way down to semi-counter the effect of the light.
Your body drops in temperature as you drift off into sleep. You can trick your body by simulating this temperature shift. In the colder months, take a hot shower or bath late in the day, as your body temperature will rise and then fall again as you cool off from the shower, helping make you sleepy in the process. It’s harder to do this in warmer weather, but you can substitute the hot shower with a cold one. While a cold shower seems terribly unpleasant—and trust me, it’s not as fun as a hot bath on a winter night—it will also induce a temperature swing that can help make you sleepy.
As you ease yourself into a new sleep routine, it’s especially important to minimize external distractions. Have a cat that jumps on the bed at 3 a.m.? Toss them out of the bedroom before bedtime. Neighbor starts up their diesel truck at 4 a.m. for work? Wear ear plugs. Spouse gets up before you and turns on the lights to get dressed? Sleep with a sleep mask on—this one is amazingly comfy.
Later on when you’ve ironed out the details of your sleep cycle, you may find that a power nap early in the day is great for you. Right now though, we’re focused on rebooting your sleep cycle, which means limiting naps. You need to go to bed at the end of the day when you are tired, not at a later time because you snuck an overly long nap.
No computers, television, balancing your checkbook in bed, reading over those damn TPS reports…prioritize sleeping. If you have a television in your bedroom that you rarely turn on, don’t break your back hauling it down to the basement, but if you’re a chronic bedroom channel-flipper, consider getting it out of the room. Your bedroom should be a place your body associates with sleep.
You didn’t drink any coffee, turned off the computer at 7 p.m., lugged the TV down to the basement, you put in ear plugs, and pulled the shades, but it’s 11 p.m. and you’re still tossing and turning. Don’t torture yourself by laying in bed frustrated. Get out of bed and do something that will relax you. Don’t go watch television, play video games, or anything else that will stimulate your brain into thinking it is time to wake up. Go sit in a comfortable chair and read a book for a little while. Sort through magazines you’re going to toss in the recycling bin. Do something low-stress and relatively boring for 20-30 minutes, and then lay back down again. You don’t want to get in the habit of thinking of bedtime as unpleasant and stressful.
Your initial energy should be focused on making bedtime pleasant, preparing for bedtime well before the bedtime hour, and making sure to limit stimulating activities (exercise, coffee drinking, action movie watching) to earlier in the day. You need to start doing these things right now. Reading this at 5 p.m. after getting home from work? Put that cup of coffee down right now. Stop telling yourself you’re going to get around to finally getting a good night’s sleep and start getting one.
Good sleep isn’t accidental. It might seem counter-intuitive since sleep looks like the most passive sport around, but preparation is key. Once you’ve started with the basics outlined above, it’s time to get serious about the big picture of your sleep needs and measuring how effective these strategies are for ensuring you get enough sleep.
Do you know how much sleep you actually need? Could you tell someone with certainty that you’re happiest after seven hours of sleep? Do you wake up when the alarm goes off, or do you wake up before it and turn it off on your way out of bed? There’s only one good way to find out how much sleep you need, and that’s going to bed earlier than you think you need to. Creep your bedtime forward by 15 minutes every few days until you start waking up on your own in the morning. When you start waking up before your alarm clock consistently—for a minimum of one week, weekends included—you’ve found your optimum sleep window.
Waking up shouldn’t be a jarring affair that involves you jabbing your finger on your phone alarm and growling. I’ve been waking up ahead of my alarm clock and let me tell you, it feels awesome to wake up on your own and not to the sound of a buzzer. “Beating” the alarm clock every day is like a little victory right out of bed.
I can’t tell you what your perfect routine is. Maybe your routine is banning coffee after 3 p.m., dimming the lights around your apartment at 7 p.m., and reading in bed for 20 minutes at 9 p.m. before it’s lights out—or maybe it’s none of those things. What is important is that you find a routine that works for your schedule and stick to it. You might not be seven years old anymore but your adult body appreciates a routine bedtime just as much as it did when you were a kid. Whatever routine you decide on, stick with it long enough to see if it works, tweaking it gently with one thing at a time if it doesn’t.
Sometimes lack of sleep is one hundred percent unavoidable—somebody in your family gets in an accident and you’re up all night at the hospital, or you get snowed in at the airport and you just can’t sleep well on a plastic bench—but most times we see an event coming that will cut into our sleep cycle. If you know you’re going to be up late, take a power nap in the afternoon. If you’re coming off a late night bender, make sure to adjust your bedtime the day after to get you into bed sooner. Short term sleep deprivation can be quickly remedied with adequate rest. Don’t let a wild weekend throw off your sleep schedule for the rest of the month before you recalibrate your sleep schedule.
You don’t have to tell me how hard it is to get your sleep schedule back on track. After I got off third shift I wondered if I’d ever stop feeling like a zombie and start feeling like a normal person again. It’s hard to do and easy to screw up. Take the above advice to heart though and you’ll be sleeping deeply, waking refreshed, and wondering how you ever got by on caffeine and grit alone.
This post was originally published in 2010 and updated on October 14, 2020 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.