- How to Use this Guide
- Are You Sleep Deprived?
- Why Do You Want to Improve Your Sleep?
- Record Your Progress
- Consistency is King
- Know your Chronotype
- Bedtime Routine
- Use Your Bed for Sleep Only
- Increase Sleep Efficiency
- If You Can’t Sleep Get Out of Bed
- Limit Napping
- Exercise 3-6 Hours Before Bed
- Practice Deep Breathing
- Change Your Thoughts
- Sleep environment
- Sleep equipment
- Food and Drink
- Sleep Medication
- Over the Counter Sleep Aids
- Test for Sleep Apnea
How to Use this Guide
This guide is for everyone who has had a hard time sleeping and doesn’t know how to improve their sleep. It will give you practical strategies you can implement immediately so that you don’t have to wake up feeling groggy and tired every day.
I’ve struggled with getting good sleep for most of my life, and through my own research and helping clients suffering from insomnia I’ve compiled the essential information into this article. The recommendations provided are primarily based on the book Say Goodnight to Insomnia. It outlines the proven method for improving sleep developed at Harvard medical school.
This is an interactive guide. You will get more out of it if you engage in exercises. I recommend that you purchase a small notebook or journal to use alongside this guidebook to get the maximum benefit from it. The journal will be used to monitor your progress, record your goals and remember the tips you learn.
Are You Sleep Deprived?
Since you are reading this, I assume that you want to improve your sleep. It’s important to ask yourself a few questions to determine if you really need to get help with sleep or not. Write down your response to these questions in your sleep journal. Do you need an alarm clock to wake up? Do you habitually sleep late on weekends? Do you frequently fall asleep during meetings? Lectures, boring or sedentary activities? If you answer yes to any of these questions it’s likely you aren’t getting enough sleep.
why do you want to improve your sleep?
If you want to have success in improving your sleep it’s essential to reflect on why this is important to you. Sleep is a habit and like any habit it’s very difficult to change behaviors that you’ve been doing for years. In order to keep up your motivation when the going gets tough you need to keep returning to your why. For me, the biggest motivation to improve my sleep was when I had a son.
After continuous sleepless nights I was exhausted in the morning and I wasn’t able to be present to him. He would wake up at 5am and I would lie on the couch barely conscious while he hit me with books asking for me to read to him. I wanted to be there for my son so I was motivated to start going to bed at a consistent time, and that routine has stayed with me to this day.
What is your why? Write it down in your journal right now. Imagine what your life would look like if you could get a good sleep every single day. How would it improve your energy, relationships, work and mental health? In addition to writing this in your book, write your why on a sticky note or a piece of paper and put it on your bedside table. This will help you remember your why when you are tempted to give up.
Record Your Progress
In order to improve your sleep, you need to be able to measure your progress. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The first step is determining your baseline pattern. There are many different ways to monitor sleep. I use a Fitbit, some people use Apple watches, and there are apps that you can put on your phone that will tell you generally how long you’re sleeping. If you’re not tech savvy, you can simply write down when you go to bed, fall asleep, wake up and get out of bed.
The time between going to bed and getting out of bed is your sleep window. The window between when you fall asleep and when you wake up is your hours of sleep. You will use these datapoints to determine your sleep efficiency which is the best measure of sleep quality. To calculate your sleep efficiency divide hours of sleep by sleep window and multiply by 100. For example:
6 hours of sleep / 8 hours sleep window x 100 = 75% sleep efficiency.
Good sleepers have a sleep efficiency of 80% or greater, poor sleepers are between 60-80%, and insomniacs are usually below 60%. Use your total sleep hours, and your sleep efficiency to track your progress. Keeping records is vital because without tracking your sleep daily you may not notice small improvements and give up. This is a process that takes time so don’t expect your sleep to radically improve within a few days. You will likely notice positive changes after 1-2 weeks, but it may take longer.
Consistency is King
The number one most important rule for improving your sleep is going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every single day. Most people have difficulty with this because they sleep in on weekends. Each night of lost sleep during the week creates a sleep debt which results in oversleeping on the weekend. You can spend the whole week getting your sleep schedule back on track only to go back to square one on Saturday.
Most adults need 6-9 hours of sleep. If you take the amount of sleep you need and subtract from when you need to wake up that is your ideal bed-time. Once you have determined your ideal sleep and wake times, commit to sleeping and waking at these times consistently. Another important factor in your ideal sleep and wake times is your chronotype.
Know Your Chronotype
In his book The Power of When Dr Michael Breus outlines how knowing your chronotype can drastically improve your sleep.
Your chronotype is the biologically programmed optimal sleep time and cannot be altered. Some people are night owls and won’t feel tired until around midnight or 1am. Others are early birds and go to bed before 9pm waking around 5am. The majority of people fall somewhere in the middle getting sleepy at 10pm and waking around 7am.
It is possible to shift your sleep schedule slightly later or earlier than your chronotype. If you deviate from your chronotype significantly you will have extreme difficulty with getting a good sleep. If you have a partner whose chronotype is significantly different than yours, consider sleeping in different beds or different rooms. This will mitigate disturbing each-others falling asleep and early waking.
Having a consistent routine before bedtime is crucial to improving your sleep. The importance of this is twofold. Having a routine is an opportunity to wind down and help your body to relax before bed. Secondly it creates a powerful cue for your mind and body that bedtime is upcoming. Dr. Michael Breus developed a simple template for a bedtime routine which I borrow here.
This routine involves three 20 minute segments of activity immediately prior to bed. In the first 20 minutes do chores or tasks that need to get done. The second 20 minutes provides time to shower, brush your teeth and address hygiene needs. In the last third engage in a calming activity to wind down. In your journal write down what activity you will do to help you relax before bed.
It could be reading, meditation/prayer or any other activity that is not too strenuous physically or mentally. Over time your bedtime routine will become a powerful signal to your brain that sleep is imminent.
Use your Bed for Sleep Only
In addition to a bedtime routine, refrain from using your bed for anything other than sleep. When you lay in your bed to watch TV, or scroll on your phone it weakens the association between your bed and sleep. Your brain will come to associate your bed with waking activities.
If you want to lay down and rest, use the couch. The goal is to get your brain to associate your bed with ONLY sleep. By limiting activities and time spent in bed awake you can re-train your brain to fall asleep quicker.
Increase Sleep Efficiency
Insomniacs often spend a lot of time lying in bed awake which results in poor sleep efficiency. Lying in bed awake causes frustrations which makes it more difficult to sleep. Poor sleep efficiency also results in a weakened association between your bed and sleep. To improve sleep efficiency, reduce your sleep window to the point where sleep efficiency is at least 80%. For example if you go to bed at 10 and get out of bed at 6, and sleep 4 hours your sleep efficiency is 50%.
To increase your sleep efficiency to 80% reduce your sleep window to 5 hours. You could go to bed at 1 and wake up at 6. This may seem counterintuitive. To get more sleep, sleep less? Sleep restriction works because it will break the association between your bed and wakefulness. It also makes you more tired temporarily. This will result in deeper sleep the following day.
Sleep restriction should only be used temporarily and only if your sleep efficiency is less than 80%. Never restrict your sleep to less than 5 hours as this is the core amount of sleep required for basic functioning. As your sleep efficiency increases, gradually increase the sleep window until it reaches the desired level.
If You Can’t Sleep Get Out of Bed
Lying in bed unable to sleep is deeply frustrating and counterproductive. If you are unable to fall asleep for 30 minutes, get out of bed. Do something relaxing until you feel drowsy and try sleeping again. Tossing and turning for hours won’t give you restful sleep and it weakens the association between sleep and your bed. This principle goes for falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night, or waking too early.
Napping can aggravate sleep problems by reducing sleep pressure. The longer you are awake the greater the desire to sleep becomes. If you sleep during the day this will reduce the pressure and make nighttime sleep difficult. If you must take a nap do so between 12pm-4pm and don’t sleep longer than 20 minutes. This will give you the benefits of increased energy and focus but prevent you going into a full sleep cycle which negatively impacts nighttime sleep.
Exercise 3-6 Hours Before Bed
Exercise is a proven way to improve your sleep quality. People who exercise sleep better and deeper. Don’t exercise in the last 3 hours before bed because it increases your core body temperature. When you sleep your core body temperature drops so exercising will make falling asleep more difficult. Exercising 3-6 hours before bed is the optimal way to get the related benefits.
Practice Deep Breathing
Stress and anxiety from the day winds you up making it more difficult to fall asleep. The solution is training your body to relax. Deep breathing creates a relaxation response in the body which helps to calm down the nervous system. There are many different breathing patterns that create this response and a commonly used one is square breathing.
In square breathing you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and repeat. Before you get into bed sit in a chair, close your eyes, and do this practice for 5 minutes. Notice how you feel before and afterwards. Doing this practice daily is a powerful sleep inducing habit to add to your bedtime routine.
Change Your Thoughts
Negative sleep thoughts can impair sleep by increasing frustration. Common ones are “I’m going to feel exhausted tomorrow!”, “Why can’t I sleep?!” or “I can’t sleep”. These thoughts will make you feel discouraged and angry, the opposite of relaxed and ready to doze off.
If you change these thoughts you can increase your odds of falling asleep. Some other thoughts that could be helpful include “I will fall asleep eventually”, or “as long as I get 5 hours I can function”, or “I can’t improve my sleep by worrying”.
In your sleep journal write down the negative sleep thoughts and come up with some positive ones to replace them. Write the positive ones on sticky notes and put it by your bed so you remember. Your thoughts have a lot of power over your behaviour. To better understand how your thoughts impact you check out my article Why do I do that? How to Understand Your Own Behaviour. By thinking about your sleep differently you will reduce frustration and improve your sleep.
The environment you sleep in will influence your sleep quality. An ideal sleep environment is dark, quiet and cool. Use blackout blinds or an eye mask to reduce light in the bedroom. To reduce noise use earplugs or white noise or both. Finally opening a window, using air conditioning or a fan can help reduce the temperature to a comfortable level for sleeping.
Your bed, pillow, and blanket are important factors in your sleep. Make sure your bed is firm, and comfortable. If you have neck pain or tension in the morning it could mean your pillow is not the right size, or needs to be replaced. Your blanket should be the right thickness so that you are not too hot at nighttime. If you are always pulling the covers off at night it probably means your blanket is too thick.
Turn Down the Lights
Light entering your eye suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin in your brain, delaying sleep. The advent of electricity, TV’s, and computers has compounded sleep problems by artificially extending people’s wakeful period. In the hour before bed, refrain from using any screen (phone, computer, TV, tablet).
The blue light emitted from these devices mimics sunlight and will keep your brain awake. When it gets dark outside, dim the lights in your house to a low level. This will signal to your brain that it is night time and trigger melatonin making you drowsy.
Turn Up the Lights
When you wake up try to get sunlight or bright light exposure. Getting bright light early and often triggers your body’s wakefulness which strengthens your circadian rhythm. If you work inside without natural light consider getting a sunlight therapy lamp. Use it periodically throughout the day to help promote mental health and a good sleep cycle.
Food and Drink
What you eat and drink during the day and before bed can significantly impact your sleep quality. You may have heard it said to avoid eating before bed. This is generally true but a light high carb snack right before bed can help make you sleepy. Refrain from drinking caffeine 7 hours before bedtime. Caffeine is in coffee but also in many soft drinks and even ice cream. Avoid sugary foods before bed as they will increase your energy and make you more wakeful.
Many people with sleep difficulties take prescribed medication to induce sleep. Sleeping pills are only moderately effective in treating insomnia and can lead to other problems like dependency. The most effective intervention for insomnia is CBT which is what this article is based on. If you are extremely sleep deprived, sleep pills may be a good short-term solution to get you some needed rest.
Evidence shows they are not as effective long-term because they don’t treat the root cause of insomnia. If sleep pills must be used low-dose antidepressants are a safer option than Benzodiazepines. They do not produce physical dependence or bounce back insomnia.
Experts suggest that sleep medication is most effective in short term use to break the cycle or anxiety produced by insomnia, or to prevent short-term insomnia from developing into long-term insomnia. Talk to your Doctor about what will be best for you and your situation.
Other the Counter Sleep Aids
Over the counter sleep medication has become very popular but there is virtually no scientific evidence that they are more effective than a placebo (sugar pill). Whereas Melatonin has been shown to help sleep in normal sleepers, the results for insomniacs were inconsistent. Melatonin should be used with caution as it may constrict blood vessels (problematic for people with heart problems). High doses may also inhibit fertility in women.
Test for Sleep Apnea
If you are constantly tired despite getting enough sleep it’s possible you may have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition where the soft tissue in your airway collapses while you sleep causing you to stop breathing and wake up throughout the night. You won’t fully wake up so the only way to determine if you have it is through testing. Ask your doctor for a referral for testing. If you do have sleep apnea there is medical equipment that can be used at night to ensure you breathe normally and freely.
I hope you found the information in this article in your efforts to improve your sleep. If you are feeling stuck, put your question in the comments and I’ll respond. Remember that changing sleep habits is a process and takes time. You will learn what works and doesn’t for you. The biggest key is consistency. Good luck on your sleep journey!