I love sleep, but sleep doesn’t love me back. I am constantly tired, wake up multiple times every night, experience both night sweats and stress dreams, and multiple attempts to become a morning person have ended in shambolic disaster. I recently decided to stage an intervention on myself, to get my act together and form some healthy sleep habits.
I researched sleep hygiene, which is basically a set of habits you can adopt to maximize healthy sleep. I also took a hard look at my recent sleep habits, with the help of my Apple Watch and Sleep++ app.
I started by tracking my sleep for nine nights to get a handle on my current sleep patterns.
The results were… not great. My husband and I are serious night owls, so we are rarely in bed before midnight. I’m a freelancer and make my own schedule, so I get up late and work late because I focus much better at night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between 24 and 65 get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. I thought I was hitting that, but a quick review of my sleep app data shows otherwise. My bedtime ranged from 11:20 P.M. to 2:30 A.M. (oops) and my nightly time asleep ranged from 5 hours and 35 minutes to 10 hours and 26 minutes.
My sleep definitely isn’t terrible, but it’s nowhere close to ideal, either. I hoped that following sleep hygiene rules would get me on a better sleep schedule, which would ideally keep me alert and productive throughout each day.
Before I embarked on this quest, I called up an expert to help me with the rules of good sleep.
Roy Raymann, Ph.D., a sleep science expert, laid out the five things I’d need to do to practice proper sleep hygiene.
Rule #1: Have a set bedtime and wake-up time—and stick to them.
Raymann tells me that waking up at the same time every day is crucial to setting a consistent sleep-wake schedule. Experts say it’s even more important than going to bed at the same time every night. Therefore, your ideal bedtime totally depends on your habits and when you need to get up. Raymann recommends that you plan to spend at least 7 hours and 45 minutes in bed every night, allowing you to hit that recommended minimum of 7 hours. “It takes some time to fall asleep, and during the night you will wake up a few times but you don’t recall it the next day,” he explains, accounting for the extra 45 minutes. To make things easy, I decided on a midnight bedtime and 7:45 A.M. wake-up time.
Rule #2: Avoid screens before bed.
“Being exposed to bright or LED light tells your brain it’s time to be awake,” Raymann says. “That can get in the way of really falling asleep. You might want to dim your room after sunset as much as possible, and avoid using screens.” I love scrolling through Instagram before I go to sleep, but pledged to ditch that habit for this experiment. I also pledged to stop using all screens by 11 P.M., giving my brain time to wind down before bed.
Rule #3: Lay off the caffeine, and lighten up on alcohol, too.
“[How you react to] caffeine is very personal, but we advise to cut down on it at least 8 hours before you go to bed,” Raymann says. He also says that even though alcohol makes you feel sleepy, it contributes to poor quality sleep during the night. So I vowed to stop guzzling caffeinated drinks at 4 P.M., and to cut myself off from alcohol around 10 P.M. on any nights out.
Rule #4: Optimize your bedroom for sleep.
According to Raymann, your bedroom should be dark, cool, and quiet. With the help of blackout shades and an extremely loud air conditioner that doubles as white noise, I’m already set up on this front. I also spruced up the bed with comfortable sheets and removed all stressful clutter.
Rule #5: Use some time to “wind down” right before bed.
Raymann says that a bedtime routine can help quiet your mind and cue your body that it’s time for bed. Some people like to meditate before bed; others might write in a journal, listen to a podcast, or read a good book. I decided that my bedtime routine would involve putting on actual pajamas (instead of a giant, ratty t-shirt), then reading a physical book or working on a paper crossword.
Going into this experiment, I knew that the set bedtime and wake-up time would be the hardest thing for me to stick to, particularly on the weekends. I was also a little worried about quitting caffeine at 4 P.M., because I usually work after dinner and didn’t want my concentration to falter if my energy dipped. I endeavored to make a note every time I felt crazily sleepy during the day, woke up feeling awful, wanted to nap, or actually napped. I also kept a close eye on my mood and productivity during the week.
With my goals set, I started my week of good sleep hygiene. Here’s what happened.
The first few nights were much easier than I anticipated. I did feel some FOMO when my husband came home and asked if I watched to watch an episode of Game of Thrones at 10:57 P.M., three minutes before my self-imposed screen cut-off time. But I actually enjoyed sitting in bed with a book. When I turned off my light at midnight, I did not feel tired. Like, at all. Usually I would read or browse Instagram or hate-read Twitter until I fell asleep with my phone on my face, so lying in the dark with nothing to occupy me felt really weird. As it turns out, I must have been sleepy after all because I was asleep within minutes.
Over the weekend, things got a bit hairy. On Friday night I got to bed on time, but waking up at 7:45 A.M. on a Saturday morning was… a grim experience. After an hour of feeling quite sorry for myself, I hit up an early spin class, then we went to my in-laws house outside the city and spent the afternoon swimming, enjoying the sun (with copious sunscreen of course), and playing with dogs. After all that, I was wiped… and I took a long, delicious nap. I also fell asleep at 11:30 that night and blissfully slept until 9 A.M. the next morning, with no regrets.
Getting back on schedule for the week was a mixed bag. On Sunday night, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep, and I felt super groggy and out of it on both Monday and Tuesday mornings. I also really wanted to nap on Monday afternoon, but talked myself out of it.
I learned a couple surprising things from this experience.
First of all, it turns out I’m not that good at knowing when I’m tired. On multiple nights I turned out the light thinking “welp, I’m not sleepy at all,” only to fall asleep very quickly. Clearly, my mind doesn’t always know when my body needs rest. The second major lesson is that I can definitely live without caffeine after 4 P.M. My energy levels were fine, as was my concentration. Cutting off alcohol at 10 P.M. wasn’t hard either, with the exception of one weekend evening where we ate dinner really late and I wanted another glass of wine with dessert.
Going forward, I hope to stick with my bedtime, wake-up time, and caffeine cutoff time. That said, I won’t beat myself up over the occasional weekend lie-in. My hope is to get adequate, consistent sleep the majority of the time—while wearing my satin pajamas, of course.