6 questions that can transform your sleep
Question #1: How long will you sleep?
Each day, our brain and body accumulate a need for a certain amount of sleep. This isn’t the same for everyone, but the vast majority of healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
To figure out how many hours you personally need, consider the routine you tend to settle into after a few days of vacation. How many hours do you usually get when you don’t bother to set an alarm clock—and when you wake feeling rested? That’s the number of hours you’ll want to shoot for every night.
Question #2: What time will you (consistently) wake up?
If you want to reprogram your sleep pattern, this question is crucial.
That’s because the strongest signal to your biological clock is when you wake. When your get-up time is consistent, your internal clock will recognize that as the time to start producing circadian alerting signals.
There’s another good reason to start with your get-up time: You have less control over it. Based on your daily responsibilities, there’s probably a limited range of possible rise times. Once you choose one, you can then work backward to figure out your bedtime (Question #3).
In selecting the time you wake up, it’s critical that you consider your own natural tendencies.
If you’re a “night owl,” a 5 a.m. run might not be the best plan. On the flip side, if you enjoy mornings, getting up for a workout might be a great start to your day.
In any case, don’t try to make a drastic shift all at once.
Start with your current usual rise time—that is, the time you actually get up. Then move it a half-hour earlier every three to four days. This approach makes it less likely that you’ll have trouble falling asleep at your new bedtime.
Once you’re awake, expose yourself to light right away.
If you tend to feel sluggish in the morning, combine the light exposure with some movement. It doesn’t need to be a full workout: Walk your dog around the block or just do some simple chores.
Question #3: What time will you go to bed?
After you’ve established your planned wake-up time, think about how much sleep you need.
Take the number of hours of sleep you need to feel fully rested, and count backward from your planned rise time. Let’s say you plan to wake at 5 a.m., and you know you need 7.5 hours to feel rested. That means your bedtime should be 9:30 p.m.
If you get to this point, and think, ‘Are you kidding me? This bedtime is impossible!’, go back to Question #2, and reconsider your rise time.
For example, let’s say you need eight hours of sleep and want to get up at 5 a.m. But there’s a problem: You have to pick your kid up from theater practice at 9 p.m., so the math doesn’t work.
You now have two choices: Find a ride home for your child, or set a later rise time. While getting up later may not be ideal for your goals, it may be the practical tradeoff you need to make.
And if you still can’t make the math work? The truth about naps (below) gives you another option.
The truth about naps
You might’ve heard naps are good for you.
But as usual, the real answer is, “It depends.”
When naps are good: If they’re part of your sleep plan. My favorite example: The South of Spain where they nap every day. Businesses close, people go home, and a daily siesta is a normal part of their lifestyle and culture.
When naps aren’t so good: If they’re used to make up for a tough night of insomnia. This will lower your sleep drive, and make it harder to fall asleep and/or stay asleep the following night.
The big questions: Can you build napping into your routine consistently? And do you need to?
Most people can’t accommodate a daily nap because workplaces don’t shut down, and protecting the time for sleep isn’t easy.
But there are exceptions. For instance, perhaps you’re a personal trainer who sees clients in the mornings and evenings. Your work schedule may make it difficult for you to fully recharge overnight.
Or you might be a parent with young children who nap. Getting up early to work out, and then taking a nap when your kids do, might be a great solution.
So, in some cases, it can be both realistic and smart for you to schedule an afternoon nap as part of your daily sleep routine.
If that’s your situation, take your nap about eight to nine hours after your rise time. Most folks feel better after a short nap (about 20 minutes) or after a long nap (90 minutes), but not in between. (This has to do with sleep stages.)
Remember, though: The longer your nap, the more it will lower your need for sleep that same night. So plan ahead, and use with caution.
Question #4: What can you do to make your bedtime a reality?
When making decisions about how you spend your time each evening, think about how your choices impact your sleep.
One hour before bedtime
Avoid activities that get you energized or “amped up.” For most people, this isn’t the best time to pay bills or read the news.
On the other hand, folding laundry, editing photos, or online shopping are probably fine.
Note: If you plan to use a device during this time window, consider blue-light blocking lenses (or using “night mode” on your devices) to limit blue light exposure this close to bedtime.
You also want to avoid activities that make you fall asleep too early.
The chart below provides some general guidance, but pay attention to your own experiences and act accordingly.
One half-hour before bed
Develop a routine for winding down and putting the day to rest. You might choose any of these activities:
Change into your pajamas
Brush your teeth
Talk to your partner
Read a book
Listen to music
Set out your clothes for tomorrow
Prepare your next day’s lunch
This sends your brain and body a message that it’s time to “disconnect.” During this window, avoid technology as much as you can.
Question #5: Can you stick to this schedule 6 out of 7 nights?
We all make exceptions to our healthy habits. We enjoy cake on our birthday, eat fast food when we travel, and can’t always (or ever) say “no” to Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies.
None of this means we have “bad eating habits.” The most important factor is consistency over time. Think about sleep in a similar way.
If you can stick to your plan six nights a week, it’s okay to make exceptions for a late night out, a sunrise hike, or lounging in bed on Sunday mornings.
But if you find yourself struggling to follow your plan even three or four nights each week, you’ll need to adjust.
Because there’s no point in setting yourself up for failure, try the following exercises before you start.
Confidence test your sleep schedule.
On a scale of 0 (no way) to 10 (too easy), rank your confidence that you’ll follow through on your sleep plan.
Honesty is super important here!
Is the answer “9” or “10?” You’re good to go.
But anything less? You need to scale back the proposed plan, and ask again.
“What does it take to get to a 9?”
Write down your “why.”
What are three reasons you want to improve your sleep? Jot them down and remind yourself of them each day. Examples:
I’ll be a better parent or partner
I’ll get more done at work
I’ll feel more energetic
I’ll be more likely to exercise
I’ll be less likely to binge eat
Mainly, what will sleeping better do for you?
It sounds like a small thing, but based on preliminary research I’ve done, this exercise seems to help people stick to their sleep schedule.
Question #6: Who will be affected by your plans?
Most of us don’t live (or sleep or work) alone. As a result, our decisions about sleep habits and routines impact others. What’s more, their routines impact our ability to sleep.
Start by thinking about your partner. If you plan to change your schedule, how will it affect them? And how will your partner’s sleep schedule affect yours?
For example, if you go to bed an hour before your partner, what can you both do to ensure your partner doesn’t wake you up? And if you get up an hour before, what can you do to ensure your partner continues to sleep?
If you have kids, how does your plan align with their schedule? Will you really be able to go to sleep at 9:30 if your toddler sometimes goes to bed at 8:30—but then sneaks out 23 times to proclaim, “I’m not tired!”?
What commitments can you shift around to create more time in the morning and/or at night?
One way to approach this issue is to share the reasons you’re making these changes. Try saying this:
“I’ve been feeling pretty tired lately, and I think part of the problem is my sleep habits. I don’t consistently get enough, and it makes me [grumpy, frustrated, miss workouts]. I want to try making some changes to my routine for a couple of weeks, and see if it helps. Could you work with me on this for the next two weeks, and then we can re-evaluate?”
Once everyone is on board, you can brainstorm a range of solutions, such as:
If you go to bed first, maybe your partner agrees to use the flashlight feature on their phone to guide their way to bed rather than flipping on the lightswitch.
If you get up earlier than everyone else, perhaps you quietly close everyone’s bedroom door before you go about your morning. Maybe you also gather up your work clothes the night before—so you don’t have to loudly search for them in the morning while your partner is trying to sleep.
You might agree to take morning toddler duty if your spouse handles bedtime, or vice versa.
If one of your children struggles with sleep, they might benefit from a good sleep plan, too. Perhaps you can make this a family habit change?
How to sleep better: Your 14-day plan
Using your answers to the six questions above, decide how you’ll change your sleep routine. As a refresher:
Choose what time you’re going to get up. Strive for consistency here, even on the weekends. A few pointers:
You might find it easier to get up if you sleep with the blinds open—allowing natural light to stimulate Process C (your circadian rhythm).
Get activated early in the day, by making your favorite coffee, taking a shower, walking the dog, etc…
If you plan to shift your morning routine by more than an hour, do it in 30-minute increments, every three to four days.
As you shift your wake time, shift your bedtime. There’ll be a delay of a day or so, but they should go together. Otherwise, you’ll be sleep deprived.
Lower your stress levels near bedtime. (No news or work email!)
Line up support from family. Consider what you can do to ensure you can easily stick to your plan six days out of seven, and remember the three reasons why improving your sleep matters to you.
Try the plan for two weeks, and re-assess. Do you fall asleep easily, drifting off within 20 minutes or so? Have your middle of the night awakenings become a rare occurrence? Can you get out of bed without smashing the snooze button countless times? Do you feel more rested and energetic?
If you answered yes to all those questions, great job. You’ve just figured out a sleep routine that works for you.
If you answered yes to some, that’s great, too. Keep up the good work! Some people never feel full of pep when they wake up (especially if it’s still dark), but ideally, you should feel better than before. (And better is better.)
By continuing what you’re doing most of the time, your sleep schedule will stay pretty consistent throughout your life. So even if you experience temporary changes—jet lag, a new job, a newborn—you can get yourself back on track pretty easily by going back to the routine that works for you now.
If you’re still struggling, however, you may need to make a few more changes. We’ll explore what to do in the next section.
What if I’m doing everything right, and I’m still exhausted?
So you made some changes with your sleep, but it didn’t seem to help. Where do you go from here? There are two possible reasons why this might happen.
1. You didn’t go far enough. You may need to get even more sleep than you originally thought. In that case, keep a sleep log for a week, and see how it matches up to your schedule.
If you’re sticking to your plan, try extending your time in bed by 15 minutes. If that doesn’t work, add another 15 minutes. If you’ve added 30 minutes and still don’t feel rested, move on to option 2.
2. There’s a different reason you’re feeling tired. Has your primary care doctor ever asked you how you’re sleeping? Chances are they haven’t. Sleep disorders are under-recognized and as a result, they’re often left untreated. If you feel like you’ve made significant changes to your sleep habits but still feel tired or fatigued during the day, talk to a healthcare provider.
The most common sleep disorders are:
Insomnia: a condition where people can’t sleep well even if they do everything “perfectly.” It’s best treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Sleep apnea: a condition in which breathing is interrupted while a person sleeps (even though they may have no trouble breathing when awake). There are multiple treatments, and a sleep medicine specialist can help identify the best ones for a given person.
Restless legs syndrome: a condition in which a person’s legs feel “twitchy” and unsettled when they lie down to rest. It’s more common in women because it’s sometimes related to low iron levels. A doctor can check ferritin levels, and discuss medication treatment options.
What to do next
Maybe you’re thinking: All this advice sounds so simple.
Well, that’s the point.
When it comes to sleep, you can often do more by doing less.
An entire industry caters to people who struggle to fall and stay asleep. Each year, people spend countless dollars on special bedding, sheets, teas, supplements, and apps.
Yet many folks could address their issues more cheaply and effectively—by first aligning their sleep/wake cycle with their biological sleep tendencies.
Often, paying more attention to your sleep habits and routines, then making small sustainable changes, will be enough to get a better night’s rest.
And the real payoff? Every other part of your life gets better, too.