Improving the quality of your sleep is one of the important things that you can do. Better sleep will improve your moods, the quality of your relationships, as well as the efficiency of your learning. It can also extend your life. If you are not sure what’s getting in the way of good sleep, start with our threats to sleep survey.
#1. Start a sleep schedule and routine.
The first and most important strategy is to commit yourself to start a sleep routine that will get you 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep most nights, if not every night. The research shows that for learning, the optimal bedtime is between 11 pm and midnight, and not getting up before 7 am. As you can see in the figure below, people who are sleeping less than 7 hours are missing out on the last cycle of REM sleep which is critical for learning. The last cycle of REM is the longest. Missing that one means that you can miss out on almost 30% of REM.
To maximize the benefits of REM, you need to go to bed and stay in bed. That can be really hard if you are not used to it. Sleeping is a habit and a skill that you can get good at. For 14 days, aim for 8 hours each night. Think of it as an experiment or a new routine in the gym. For 14 days and nights, you are going to try to get 8 hours of sleep. If you wake up, don’t get up. Stay in bed. Do the eight hours. With practice, you will get better at staying in bed. Train your body to stay in bed, even if you feel like getting up.
What if I go to bed at 03:00 am and get 8 hours of sleep? Does that count? A research study of over 7000 young people found that the best outcome for learning was to go to bed before midnight and get 8 hours of sleep.
#2: Interrupt your worries, what-ifs and to-do lists.
Thinking about what you didn’t finish during the day, about what you have to get done tomorrow, or about what might happen to you if you don’t get it done will interrupt your sleep. Any kind of worry or negative thought can keep you up, wake you up or make it hard to get back to sleep. Whether you are running an unfinished to-do list or running worries and what-ifs over and over in your head, you need to interrupt that and get back to sleep. Relaxation breathing and mindfulness are one of the most effective strategies to help you fall asleep and get back to sleep if you wake up. Next time you are running a to-do list or ruminating on a negative thought, stop and breathe. Relaxation breathing works to relax your body. Mindfulness helps you to focus on your breathing (and not on your worries, what-ifs and negative thoughts). There’s not much you can do about your to-do list in the middle of the night. If you find yourself planning how to tackle that list in the middle of the night, you are better of to switch to relaxation breathing and mindfulness, get a good night’s sleep and tackle that list in the morning.
#3: Go for a 20-minute walk in the evening before bed.
It is well-known that exercise at any time of the day will improve health and will make it easier to sleep at night. If you are not already exercising, try going for a walk after your dinner for just 20 minutes. Remember, it doesn’t have to an intensive work-out (and shouldn’t be). Going for a walk an hour or two before bed will help you fall asleep. There’s even research that shows that the cooler air during the night will help you sleep better. If you want to get the full benefit of the cool air, try opening a window or cooling down your room an hour or two before going to bed.
Resources: Please download the worksheet before the seminar and complete the surveys after the seminar.
#4: Reduce before-bed screen time, caffeine and alcohol.
As the sun goes down, our bodies release melatonin, which tells us it is time to go to sleep. Bright lights, such as street lights, phone screens, and television just before bed, signal to us that it is not getting dark up, which can interfere with the role that melatonin has in telling us to go to bed, which will make it harder. You will improve your sleep if you turn off the screens before going to bed. If you have streel lights outside your window, blackout curtains. If you like to read, try using a device with a backlit screen.
Caffeine interrupts a different hormone called adenosine, which is what makes you sleepy (but doesn’t tell you what time to go to sleep). Caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to neurons, which makes your brain think that you are not that tired. But adenosine is still building up, and as soon as the caffeine wears off (and it will), your brain will figure out that you are, in fact, really, really tired.
Although alcohol can make you feel relaxed and sleepy, it will disrupt your sleep cycle and make sleep less restorative and interfere with what you have learned during the day. If you really want a drink before bed, limit it to one drink that you have at least an hour before bed.
#5 Keep at it and get help when you need it.
This last tip isn’t that simple. But it is really important. Improving your sleep can and will take time. That can be frustrating because you need to sleep now, but it will be worth the effort in the end. Without adequate sleep, everything gets harder. So, the fifth tip is to keep at it.
But, if you don’t get the improvement you need or want, talk to your health provider or a sleep specialist about what you can do. Many people wait far too long. Sometimes the factors that are affecting your sleep are really complex. There are a number of things that can affect how you sleep and how restorative your sleep is. You may need the help of other professionals like a psychologist or a physician.
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Hysing M, Harvey AG, Linton SJ, Askeland KG, Sivertsen B. Sleep and academic performance in later adolescence: results from a large population-based study. J Sleep Res. 2016;25:318–24.
Walker, M. (2018). Why we sleep. Penguin Books.
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