Do you go to bed and get up at the same time most days, or does your sleep schedule vary wildly from one day to the next?
If you have responsibilities such as child care or work shifts, it’s not always easy to keep to a consistent sleep routine. And let’s face it, life would be boring if we never had a good Saturday night out!
If you’re not the world’s best sleeper though, it can be helpful to stick to a regular sleep pattern as much as possible
Even when you’re aware of that concept
Approach 1 to changing your sleep schedule
The key concept is to set your alarm for the same time every day, and get out of bed at a regular time too. It’s hard to control exactly when you fall asleep, but controlling when you wake up is more 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 10 p.m. and read for half an hour (if you enjoy reading).
- Turn the lights off at 10:30 p.m. and fall asleep soon after.
- Wake up at 7 a.m. and get up as soon as your brain, eyes and body are ready.
The time you go to bed, the length of time your read, and the time you set the alarm can all be controlled. The unpredictable part is actually falling asleep.
The secret is to try and be consistent in the time you wake up – the element you can control with a good alarm clock. The hope is that eventually you’ll also start falling asleep at a more regular time.
If your current sleep pattern is far from ideal, however, it might be better to work towards it slowly. Adjust your timings by 15 to 30 minutes per night over a week or two until you hit your target schedule.
The most important point is that you try to wake up at the same time as often as possible.
One caveat is that if you really have a terrible night’s sleep, you might need to catch up if possible rather than struggling through the day on two hours’ sleep!
Don’t lie awake in bed getting stressed
You may find that you’re just not sleepy when it’s your scheduled bedtime. Worse still, you try to go to sleep but find yourself wide awake.
So what do you do if this happens? There are four different methods you can try, and you may need to experiment a little to see which 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 become frustrated by all the time lying awake in bed.
2. Read until you do feel sleepy
Even if your schedule says 30 minutes of reading, it’s fine to continue until you feel sleepy enough to drift off.
3. Do some relaxation exercises
Doing relaxation exercises in bed can help calm your mind and body. It also helps by distracting your brain from any worries or stressful thoughts.
4. Get out of bed if you don’t fall asleep
It takes 20 to 30 minutes for most people to fall asleep. If you’re still awake after this time, some people find it helps to get up and go into another room for a short while and try again later.
The important point is to avoid lying awake for too long, worrying about falling asleep or how tired you’ll be tomorrow. If you have to, you can go back a step and repeat part of your relaxing bedtime routine if you have one.
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’s usually undertaken during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy under the guidance of a therapist. I’ll describe how it works, but I also recommend discussing it with your doctor and doing more research into how it works.
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 (it can be helpful to use a sleep tracker for this part).
After two weeks, you then calculate 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 four).
Let’s imagine that you slept for six hours per night on average during the two weeks. Perhaps you were actually in bed for 7.5 hours though, spending 1.5 frustrating hours trying to fall asleep.
So now you know you sleep for six hours, you need to decide on a regular time to wake up and work backward from there.
Let’s say that you want to wake up every day at 8 a.m. to get ready and go to work. Six hours before that time means that your bedtime is going to be 2 a.m. initially.
You should aim to be asleep for 90 percent of that time in bed. So if you’re going to bed at 2 a.m. and falling asleep by 2:15 a.m. you’re doing well.
In reality, it might take a few days to adjust to this time, and that’s quite normal. Remember this is just the start, 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 for two 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 1:45 a.m.
You may find it takes a few days to achieve that 90% sleep time, and that’s fine. Just keep trying and your body should slowly 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 eight hours, for example, meaning that the six 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 another 15 minutes enough time to have reached your target amount of sleep.
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.
When you do sleep restriction therapy, avoid having a nap in the daytime, no matter how tired you feel. Don’t have 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. However, there are things that eat into your sleep time that 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 video 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.
Ask family or friends to be understanding
If you live alone, developing a good sleep schedule and sticking to it is entirely under your control. If you live with family or friends it can be a little harder to implement.
Talk to your family or friends to let them know this is something you need to do to overcome your sleeping problems. Ask for their understanding and support.
Is your partner keeping you awake?
Sometimes, what stops you from falling asleep may seem out of your control. Perhaps it’s your partner that unintentionally disturbs your sleep.
There are many ways a partner can disturb your sleep: their temperature, snoring, moving a lot, sleep talking, hugging you in an uncomfortable way, 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?
So 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 a.m.
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 try self-help. If they snore loudly, for example, it’s worth talking to their doctor to check there isn’t something more serious behind it such as sleep apnea.
Finally, you might even like to consider sleeping in separate beds. A surprisingly large number of couples do this, and it can be very beneficial for your sleep.
Do you wake up in the middle of the night?
Many people fall asleep with no problem, but then wake up in the middle of the night. It can be quite upsetting to be awake at 3 a.m. – 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, and for some people it could even be beneficial.
Medical professionals usually call this sleep maintenance insomnia. But there are other theories suggesting that you can make good use of the time.
What’s your sleep schedule like at the moment? Which ideas in this article do you think would be most useful? Let me known in the comments.