I dedicate a lot of time to testing and reviewing sleep products, both here on this blog and on my YouTube channel.
But no matter how much sleep ‘stuff’ I now have crammed into every cupboard, wardrobe, and drawer in my house, I still need to get the basics right if I want to consistently sleep well.
It’s no good having an expensive mattress if I’m just not tired. Fancy sleep tech won’t help if I’m wired from too much coffee.
And the latest breathing exercise on a mindfulness app probably won’t knock me out if my anxiety levels have been rising for an entire year because of a global pandemic (it might help a bit though, so don’t be put off trying).
Yes, it’s great to have effective solutions to specific problems. Earplugs for noise. A big enough bed. An appropriate mattress style. The right bedding for extreme temperatures.
But at the end of the day, thousands of pounds, dollars, or euros worth of sleep tech and bedding will only get me so far. I still need to ‘do things’ to sleep better.
So I wanted to put together a list of the points that I feel are most important for me personally. They might not all be right for you, but I think they are worth thinking about – maybe there will be something here you haven’t tried before.
And keep in mind that I try to do all of these, as often as possible. And that’s the secret for me – it’s not a case of ‘trying something’. It’s a case of working out what things help, and then doing all of them.
1. The bedroom cave: cool, dark and quiet
I sleep best when I think of my bedroom as a cave. Not a ‘man cave’ with an Xbox. Just a cool, dark and quiet cave. So I pay particular attention to how the bedroom and bedding are set up as the seasons change, and even on a daily basis.
I turn off anything that makes noise, assuming it’s ok to turn off. For all other noise, I use well-fitting earplugs with a high noise reduction rating (around 33 dB).
I turn the heating off in the bedroom long before going to bed, and never use warm bedding in the summer (I’m mindful not to be too cold in the winter though).
I always have a very quick shower before going to bed, even if I had one in the morning. It feels good to freshen up, and it also feels cooler when you get out of the shower and go to bed.
And I always make sure the sunlight is blocked out, especially in the summer when it rises early.
Remember that word, if nothing else from this article.
2. Tired body + tired mind = better sleep
My insomnia was at its worst in my early
In my later 20s, I started a much more mentally challenging job and got into weight training and swimming. What I found was that on the days when my brain and body were both tired, I would usually sleep well.
So to this day, I try to tire out both my brain and body every day. Even if I’m having a rest day from more strenuous exercise, I’ll at least go for a long walk and spend plenty of time outside. It makes a huge difference.
Even when I was in lockdown for months on end during the pandemic, I did my best to exercise at home most days. Sure, some days I just couldn’t be bothered because it’s kind of hard to consistently motivate yourself to do exercise when you’re stuck indoors in such stressful times. And it’s okay if you just can’t find the energy some days.
But for me, it always helps to remind myself of a simple concept that’s deceptively easy to forget:
If I don’t put the work in to tire myself out, I can’t expect easy sleep for free.
3. Less lazy Sundays
A key technique for better sleep is to maintain a regular sleep pattern. For many years, I’d get up at a regular time during the week to go to work. However, I had no set bedtime – it could be anything between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
And at the weekend, like many young people, I’d often stay out late on a Friday, Saturday or both. And then have a long lie-in on Saturday, Sunday or both.
It wasn’t unusual for me to wake up on a Sunday with a hangover, watch movies and eat pizza (like a normal person). But then I wouldn’t be tired enough to sleep well on Sunday night, which in turn would knock my whole week out of sync.
The answer? Unless I’m feeling particularly sleep-deprived and need to recharge my batteries, I go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day of the week.
And if I do stay up later at the weekend one night, I still set my alarm for a reasonable time the next day, making do with a bit less sleep but keeping my schedule on track.
“Boooooring!”, I hear you say. And I get it. If your social life is more important than your sleep right now, then so be it. But if you’ve just slipped into the habit of staying up late for no particular reason and then sleeping in late too, this might be an adjustment that reaps real rewards.
4. Read yourself to sleep
It’s simple, but this is one of my favorite techniques. Every night, I read until either I can’t even focus on the words, or I wake myself up with the book dropping out of my hand.
It’s important to note that whilst in an ideal world you’d go to bed at the same time every night and fall asleep instantly, it doesn’t usually work that way.
Instead, it’s better to do one of two things:
- Only go to bed when you feel tired, or
- Go to bed at a regular time and read until you feel tired enough to sleep.
The first method can work well if you have bad insomnia, and are fed up of lying in bed tossing and turning. However, I personally prefer the second method. At least you’re in bed relaxing, and letting your body and mind know that it’s bedtime.
If you’re not a fan of reading books, there are a couple of other options you could try:
- Do a relaxation exercise in bed until you feel sleepy.
- Play a simple game on the phone or tablet until you can’t focus on the screen. I know it goes against the standard advice of not using electronic devices in bed. However, if you have the screen dimmed and use a blue light filter, it might work well for you.
5. Keep calm and carry on
For many years I was my own worst enemy when it came to dealing with insomnia – and I didn’t even know it.
I used to think I should be able to fall asleep immediately (20 to 30 minutes is actually quite normal). And when it didn’t happen within a few minutes, I’d start stressing about being awake.
Even if I did fall asleep, I’d often wake up in the night or long before my alarm was due to go off. This would then trigger anxiety that the next day would be awful because of a lack of sleep.
My self-defeating stressing was pointed out to me one night by my partner. She was fed up with being woken by my constant position changing and random grumbling noises.
I eventually decided to try what she suggested – just stay calm. By making the decision to change my attitude, I believe there was a positive shift in my mind. And I started falling asleep a little quicker, no matter what time of the night it was.
By accepting the fact that sometimes I won’t sleep right through the night, and by understanding that the next day won’t be as painful as I feared, it’s much easier to keep the late night anxiety at bay.
6. Watch what you eat and drink
I don’t think anybody really knows what the perfect diet for sleep looks like, despite ongoing research into what does or doesn’t affect our sleep.
Nevertheless, there are a few key factors which seem to help me:
- I don’t drink caffeine after lunch.
- I try not to drink alcohol on weeknights or on Sundays as it affects my sleep even more than caffeine. That leaves Friday and Saturday for a cold one (or two).
- I try to eat a big lunch and a lighter dinner.
- I try not to eat chocolate, sweets, or cake late at night. Obviously, I use the word ‘try’ somewhat loosely. I’m not suggesting you live like a monk – just keep an eye on how much junk food you eat too close to bedtime maybe!
7. Don’t take stress to bed
Stress, anxiety, worry, thinking. Whatever you want to call it, switching your mind off at night isn’t always easy. But I think it’s good to find a (healthy) way to do so.
I believe that it’s important not to allow your bed time to be your thinking time, especially if you have major worries at the moment.
Here are a few of the things I do to keep this in check:
- I try to allow time earlier in the day to sit quietly for a moment and think about important stuff. It’s also another really good reason to go for a walk if I have a lot on my mind. That way, I don’t feel I have to solve all my problems in the dark with my eyes closed.
- If I have lots on my mind, I write a quick list of things I need to do, plan or even think about – before getting into bed. Then I can relax knowing that I can pick it all up again in the morning with a fresh outlook.
- When my mind is overactive, I do simple breathing exercises in bed to distract myself.
- My partner and I renamed our bedroom ‘The Temple’ (feel free to laugh or rolls your eyes!). In the temple, no difficult or emotionally charged conversations are allowed. It’s a place for relaxation and sleep, not a place to fix personal problems or argue about dog training.
8. Allow enough time for sleep
Sleep is crucial to our physical and mental well-being, yet we so often sacrifice it for other activities.
I used to push my bedtime right up until the start time of what would be my ideal amount of sleep. So if I felt I needed eight hours to be at my best and had to get up at 8 a.m. for work, I’d go to bed at 12 a.m.
The problem, however, is that this can then trigger that feeling of stress if you get into bed and don’t fall asleep straight away. You’re setting yourself up to fail.
Nowadays, if I want eight hours sleep, I go to bed at least eight and a half hours before my wake up time. If I’m watching a film, I pause it. If I’ve got work to do, I leave it until the morning.
Don’t allow unnecessary things to erode your precious sleep time. Give yourself a chance to go to bed feeling relaxed about how long you have to sleep.
9. Big bed or sleep alone
A few years ago, my partner and I experimented with sleeping in separate bedrooms. Not other people’s bedrooms – just separate rooms in our house.
And it made a significant difference to our quality of sleep. We both had loads of space in bed, we didn’t disturb each other when we had a bad night’s sleep, and we could have the room temperature and covers exactly how we wanted.
After a year, we decided that it was a bit sad to sleep apart. So we decided to buy a king-sized bed and squeeze it into the bedroom. And it made a massive difference.
So my theory now is that if you have any suspicion that you and your partner are disturbing each other’s sleep, try getting a bigger bed. If that doesn’t work, have a backup spare bed you can slink off to if their snoring is driving you crazy.
And failing all that, just have separate beds. You won’t be the only couple saving your sleep that way.
10. Stay positive
It’s easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of worrying about not sleeping well. So often we go to bed dreading that our sleep problems will happen again.
I think it’s important to recognize that this can happen, and do your best not to fall into the trap of worrying about sleep. Try to see every night as a fresh start and tell yourself that you’ll sleep better tonight. Even if you do sleep badly again, don’t give up. Keep that positive thought in your head every time you go to bed.
If you have problems sleeping night after night, it can be good to shift your focus. For me, if I’m not feeling that tired when I go to bed, I just read my book and try to think about how cozy, warm, and relaxing it is to just be in bed.
And if I wake up in the night, or early in morning, and can’t fall asleep again, I try not to worry. I just relax, think about how nice my bed feels and focus on the pleasant physical sensations instead of being at the mercy of my endless thought train.
I know it’s easier said than done. But perhaps just be planting the thought seed in your mind that it’s even possible to think happy thoughts when you can’t sleep, you might find that it slowly but surely starts to happen.
It’s important to get a professional opinion if you have ongoing problems with your sleep. If, for example, you snore or have any kind of breathing irregularities in your sleep, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it.
If your sleep problems are impacting on you or your family’s well being, it’s worth seeking a medical opinion and advice. There could be an underlying health condition that needs treating, and there could be a sleep disorder that can be managed.
Do you have any experience of the tips in this article? Do you have any techniques of your own that you’d like to share?
Feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.