Do you go to bed and get up at the same time most days, or does your sleep schedule vary wildly from one night to the next?
If you have responsibilities such as child care or you have to do shift work, it can be difficult to keep to a consistent sleep routine. And let’s face it, life would be a little 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
In this article, I’ll share two specific methods for adjusting your sleep schedule to the times you’d like. But first, let’s take a look at some important daily habits that can influence the likelihood that your sleep schedule works.
Daily tips for resetting your sleep routine
The following tips all form a part of good sleep hygiene. I recommend doing as many of them as possible alongside the sleep schedule adjusting methods coming up below. You might even find that they are all you need to improve your sleep.
Spend some time in natural light every day
Sunlight influences your circadian rhythm in a key way, which sleep is a part of. Research has shown that when exposed to natural light only, and no artificial lights, the internal body clock synchronizes to the cycle of sunset and sunrise.
Dim the lights and screens in the evening
I know it’s not always easy to disconnect from your phone, tablet, computer, or television. Try an experiment for a week though and turn them off for an hour before going to bed. You might be surprised to see your sleep schedule is easier to stick to. Use a lamp in the living room rather than intense downlights before going to bed to soften the lighting and prepare your mind for sleep.
Have a relaxing bedtime routine
If you repeat the same bedtime routine each night, your brain will eventually start to associate the routine with the idea that sleep is coming up next. This is the time to do a relaxing activity or two instead of having more screen time.
keep daytime naps short
A daytime nap can be helpful for some people if they need to recharge their batteries. But long naps (more than 30 minutes) or naps late in the evening might be disruptive to the main sleep event.
Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake
Many people will find that caffeine or alcohol disrupts their sleep. It’s best to quit or reduce your intake of both, especially in the evening.
Do some exercise
Physical exercise is good for sleep, and is also a good excuse to get outside for some fresh air, either to do the exercise or to travel to a place to do sports. Even going for a walk during the daylight hours can be beneficial as you’ll also be helping your circadian rhythm with the light.
Make your bedroom right for sleep
Cool, dark, and quiet will work well for many people. Make sure you have a comfortable bed and bedding. Try not to spend lots of time in the bed or bedroom in the evening if you have access to other rooms in the house to relax. Only go to bed when it’s time to sleep or read quietly in bed.
Talk to your doctor
This isn’t a daily habit like the previous tips, but important to mention. If the quality of your sleep is affecting your daily life or responsibilities, or causing you distress, talk to your doctor about it. If they can’t help directly, they can refer you to a sleep specialist if they think it’s necessary.
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 looks like. Let’s imagine the following example schedule:
- Go to bed at 10 p.m. and read for 30 minutes (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 you feel ready.
The time you go to bed, the length of time you read for, 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 exception is that if you have a terrible night’s sleep, you might need to catch up if possible rather than struggling through the day with no energy.
Don’t lie awake in bed getting stressed
It’s possible that you just won’t feel particularly sleepy when it’s your scheduled bedtime sometimes (or often!)
So what do you do if this happens? There are four different methods you can try, and you may need to experiment to see which works best for you.
1. Only go to bed when you feel sleepy
If you don’t like reading in bed, it might be best to only get into bed when you’re definitely feeling sleepy. 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’s normal for it to take 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep. If you’re still wide awake after this time though, it might be better to do something relaxing in another room for a short while and try to sleep a bit 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 the basic steps, 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, use the diary to 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 physically lying 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 for 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% of that time in bed. So if you go to bed at 2 a.m. and fall 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 – even though it might seem counterproductive to intentionally stay up later, you will eventually be able to 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. Using the example from above again, the next night you would be in bed at 1:45 a.m instead of 2 a.m.
You might find it takes a few days to achieve that 90% sleep time again, 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’ve been sleeping for on average clearly isn’t enough. 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 times to reach 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, try to avoid napping in the daytime if possible. 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 exact bedtime shouldn’t just be something you hope happens at the end of the day. Try your best to stick to the sleep schedule and don’t allow other things to encroach on it.
Of course, there may be exceptions such as childcare responsibilities or health needs. However, there are activities that eat into your sleep time that you could choose to change. For example:
- If you’re watching a film or series, 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. Is one more beer really worth an hour less sleep?
Ask family or friends to be understanding
If you live alone, developing a good sleep schedule and sticking to it is mostly under your control. If you live with family or friends, it’s sometimes harder to implement.
Talk to your family or friends to let them know this is something you need to do to overcome your sleep 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.
They might not even be aware of how much of an effect they’re having. If snoring doesn’t keep them awake, why would they need to do something about it?
Talk to your partner openly and honestly about any issues affecting your sleep – preferably at a suitable time in the day rather than at 3 a.m. in a grumpy half-asleep mood.
You can phrase it in a positive way to 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, they should consult their doctor to rule out 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 easily enough, but wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall asleep again. It can be quite upsetting to be awake for long periods of time at 3 a.m. Time seems to go so very slowly at that hour.
I’ve had this problem many times over the years, and there are three things that have most helped me that I recommend doing:
- Don’t let it stress you out. Tell yourself that you will fall asleep again eventually, and that you’ll be fine the next day. Some positive thinking goes a long way in combatting the worry that tomorrow will be a disaster.
- Focus on how cozy and relaxing it feels to be in bed. Take the time to simply enjoy the feeling of being in your little cocoon. If you can’t sleep, relax instead.
- If it goes on for too long, get up for a bit and do something relaxing. If I’m still awake after 20-30 minutes, I like to make a decaf tea and read a book for a bit. That usually does the trick and I’ll fall asleep easier again once I’m ready.
What’s your sleep schedule like at the moment? Which ideas in this article do you think would be most useful? Let me know in the comments.