How many days of the week do you manage to go to bed and get up at the same time?
Do you find that the time you go to bed and fall asleep varies wildly from one night to the next?
If you have responsibilities such as young children, caring for someone or changeable shifts at work it’s understandably very hard to have a stable routine.
And naturally many people find it hard to resist the temptation to stay up later at the weekend and enjoy a lie-in.
But if you have sleep problems like insomnia, ideally you should try to keep as stable a sleep pattern as possible, even at the weekend.
Having a regular sleep schedule is arguably the best self-help techniques for insomnia and a fundamental principle of good sleep hygiene. So if you only try one thing to deal with your insomnia, make it this one.
It’s also useful to have an idea in mind of how much sleep you really need. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours sleep on average.
The exact amount comes down to your own judgment about how much you need to feel refreshed and at your best the next day.
In this article I’ll be looking at 2 different ways to fix your sleep schedule if it’s currently a mess. Whichever technique you decide to try, hopefully it will help you get the sleep you need.
Did you know?
If your sleep schedule is regularly disrupted by travel, you can beat jet lag with some clever planning. By adjusting your sleep schedule before you travel you can sync with the new time zone. You can find a step by step guide to doing this here:
Approach 1 to changing your sleep schedule
Later on in the article I’ll be looking at sleep restriction therapy. It’s very effective, but can be quite difficult to put yourself through.
So first let’s look at a more gentle way to get your sleep pattern back in line.
The key concept is to always wake up and get up at the same time every day. It’s hard to control when you fall asleep, but controlling when you wake up is achievable.
First of all you need to decide what your ideal sleep schedule actually is. Let’s imagine the following example schedule:
- Go to bed at 10pm and read for half an hour (if you enjoy reading).
- Turn the lights off at 10:30pm and fall asleep soon after.
- Wake up at 07:00am and get up soon after.
Going to bed, reading and waking up can all be controlled. The unpredictable part is actually falling asleep. So the secret is to try and be consistent in the timings of the other parts.
The idea is that eventually you’ll also start falling asleep at a more regular time.
If your current sleep pattern is very different from your ideal one, then it may be better to work towards it slowly. Adjust your timings by 15-30 minutes per night over a week or two until you hit your target schedule.
The most important point though is that you always wake up at the same time. No matter how bad a night’s sleep you have, always make yourself wake up at that time.
Don’t lie awake in bed getting stressed
You may find that you’re just not sleepy when it’s your scheduled bedtime. Or worse still, you try to go to sleep but find yourself wide awake.
So what do you do if this happens? There are 4 different approaches you can take, and you may need to experiment a little to see what works best for you:
1. Only go to bed when you feel sleepy
If you don’t like reading in bed, this may be the best option for you. Otherwise you might just find yourself lying awake and getting frustrated.
2. Read until you do feel sleepy
Even if your schedule says 30 minutes of reading, if you want to you can continue until you feel sleepy.
3. Do some relaxation exercises
Sometimes doing breathing or relaxation exercises in bed can help you calm your mind and drift off to sleep.
4. Get out of bed if you don’t fall asleep
It takes 20-30 minutes for most people to fall asleep. So if you’re still awake after this time, get up and go into another room for a short while and try again later.
The most important point is not to allow yourself to lie in bed suffering from stress or worry that you won’t be able to sleep. If you have to, you can even repeat part of your relaxing bedtime routine.
Approach 2: sleep restriction therapy
Sleep restriction therapy is about maximizing the amount of time you spend in bed asleep compared to how much time you lie awake for.
It can be a tough process to go through, so it’s best if you have a sleep specialist to help you.
If you don’t have access to a specialist though, there’s nothing to stop you from trying yourself.
Step 1: Keep a sleep diary
First of all you need to keep a sleep diary for two weeks. In your diary record the following:
- The total hours you’re physically in bed for each night (not including reading time).
- The total hours you think you were actually asleep, as best you can work out.
After 2 weeks you can work out the average amount of time you’re actually asleep each night.
Step 2: Only be in bed for the time you usually sleep for
The next step involves only being in bed for the amount of time you’re sleeping for. Even if it’s not the amount of time you’d like to sleep for (that comes in step 4).
Let’s imagine for example that you slept for 6 hours per night on average during the two weeks.
You might find though that you were actually in bed for 7.5 hours, spending 1.5 frustrating hours trying to fall asleep.
So now you know you sleep for 6 hours you need to decide on a regular time to wake up and work backwards from there.
Let’s say that you want to wake up every day at 8am to get ready and go to work. 6 hours before then means that your bedtime is going to be 2am initially.
You should aim to be asleep for 90 percent of that time in bed. So if you’re going to bed at 2am and falling asleep by 2:15am you’re doing well.
In reality, it might take a few days to adjust to this time, and that’s quite normal. Don’t give up too soon though, as you will adjust to it.
And remember this is just the first step, so even though it might sound unusual, you will eventually go to bed earlier.
Step 3: add 15 minutes to your time in bed
When you’re able to sleep for 90% of your time in bed successfully 2 days in a row, you can add 15 minutes more to the time you’re in bed. So using the same example, the next night you would be in bed at 1:45am.
You may find it takes a few days to achieve that 90% sleep time and that’s fine. Just keep trying and eventually your body should adjust to the schedule.
Step 4: gradually work towards your desired amount of sleep
You should have in your mind a target amount of sleep that you feel you need to feel refreshed and at your best. That might be 8 hours for example, meaning that the 6 hours you were sleeping for on average clearly isn’t enough. So now you can slowly start working up to that time.
Each time you start to fall asleep easily with the new 15 minutes increase, you can add another 15 minutes the next night. Eventually you’ll add enough 15 minutes to have reached your target amount of sleep.
Again, if it takes a few days to get used to the next increase in time, that’s alright. Just keep going with the new time until you’re falling asleep easily. Then add another 15 minutes once you’ve adjusted to the new time.
Some people may find they only need to add 15 minutes a couple of times to reach their target amount of sleep. Others who have severe insomnia may find they need many steps. It all depends on how many hours you need and how many you’re currently getting.
Whilst you’re doing sleep restriction therapy you need to avoid having a nap in the daytime, no matter how tired you feel. Don’t allow yourself any lie-ins either, even when you can’t sleep at night during the process.
Protect your sleep schedule
Once you’ve decided on your new regular sleep pattern, it’s also important to see it as a priority in your life.
Your bedtime shouldn’t just be something you hope happens at the end of the day. You really need to keep to it and not allow other things to invade that time.
Of course there may be exceptions, such as childcare responsibilities or health needs.
But there are things which eat into your sleep time which you could choose to change. For example:
- If watching a film or your favorite TV episode, pause it and finish it tomorrow.
- If you’re catching up on some work, put it aside before the late evening. Finish it off in the morning.
- If playing computer games, pause when you can. Don’t start any games you’re locked into and take hours to complete.
In reality we all know that social activities are also important to your overall well-being. But perhaps you could try to limit how often social events interrupt your schedule whilst you’re trying to get it back in line.
Enlist the help of others in your house
If you live alone, developing a good sleep schedule and sticking to it is entirely under your control. But if you live with family or friends it may be a little harder to implement.
Try talking to your family or friends to let them know that this is something you really need to do to overcome your sleeping problems. Ask for their understanding and support.
Is your partner keeping you awake?
Sometimes the thing keeping you from falling asleep may seem out of your control. For example, your partner.
There are many ways a partner can disturb your sleep: their temperature, snoring, teeth grinding, fidgeting, sleep talking, hugging you in an uncomfortable way or taking up too much space, to name just a few.
Sometimes they may not even be aware how much of an effect they’re having. If snoring doesn’t keep them awake, then why would they need to do something about it?
It’s your responsibility to talk to your partner openly and honestly about this. Preferably at a suitable time in the day rather than in a grumpy moment at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Explain to them nicely, and in a non-critical way, that you need to address every possible factor contributing to your sleeplessness.
You can phrase it in a positive way so that you make them feel they can help you and that you’re working on it together. This is much better than just accusing them of being the main reason you can’t fall asleep at night.
They may also need to be willing to talk to a medical professional or take self-help action themselves. For example if their snoring keeps you awake, they may need to find ways to deal with it.
Do you wake up in the middle of the night?
Many people find they fall asleep with no problem, but then they wake up in the middle of the night. It can be quite upsetting to be awake at 3am; time seems to go so very slowly at that hour.
But you may be surprised to hear that there’s scientific and historical evidence to suggest that this isn’t actually harmful; for some people it could even be beneficial.
Medical professionals usually call this sleep maintenance insomnia. But there are other theories suggesting it’s quite normal and that you can make good use of the time.
If this happens to you and is the reason you’re concerned about your sleep schedule, have a read of the article about sleep maintenance insomnia
What’s your sleep schedule like at the moment? If it’s out of sync, what do you think is causing it?
Which of the ideas in this article do you think would be most useful? Do you have any other techniques for stabilizing your sleep schedule?
I’d love to hear your story and ideas, so feel free to share them in the comments below.