How to Sleep When Normal Sleep Rules No Longer Apply

Regular advice about sleep hygiene is often not practical with our current reality. Here’s how to tackle some of the common hurdles.

Woman on laptop at night in bed

Updated on April 20, 2021.

We all know the rules of good sleep hygiene: Don’t work in your bed. Don’t look at screens late at night. Make sure you get some sunlight a few times a day.

But if you’re like millions of other Americans whose homes have turned into their workspace, best practices like those have gone right out the window.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are still working from home. For parents, a lack of consistent childcare or schooling has resulted in a flipped schedule, where work is pushed off until late evening. Many are feeling on-call at all hours, unable to set proper work-life boundaries. Getting a good night’s sleep can feel next to impossible at the moment.

But we need slumber, now more than ever, for the sake of our physical and mental health. Here’s how to work around these hurdles, and still get a good night’s sleep.

The rule: Your bed is only for sleep or sex
The reality: Your bedroom is now your office

If you’re working from home, you may have no choice but to set up your office in your bedroom, especially if you live in a small space.

Just make sure your work area is something other than the actual bed, advises Michael Stein, PsyD, a therapist with Anxiety Solutions in Denver, Colorado. Doing other things in bed— whether working or using other electronic devices—can interfere with your sleep. “It trains your brain to be alert and awake in bed,” he explains, “which is not what you want.”

Stein found this to be true for himself: At one point, he played video games while in bed and consequently had a hard time sleeping. But once he simply moved to a chair in his bedroom to play those games, his normal sleep returned.

It’s also important to find a way to hide your work area or electronics from the view of your bed. That could be putting up a curtain, a dressing screen or simply stashing your work stuff out of sight when office hours are over.

“If you see it right there, you think about it,” says Karl Doghramji, MD, medical director of the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. “If you don’t see it, it’s out of your mind.”

The rule: No screens before bed
The reality: You can only work at night

If you find yourself working past bedtime, try blue light filter glasses, says Dr. Doghramji, and put them on two hours before your designated bedtime.

“Blue light filters absorb the blue spectrum, which is the one we think bothers our circadian rhythms,” he says, referring to our body’s responses to lightness and darkness that keep us on the correct day/night cycle. While studies about the effectiveness of blue light glasses have been mixed, it may not hurt to give them a shot. 

Doghramji also suggests starting to reduce the amount of light overall in your environment between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Lower shades and dim or turn out lights as evening approaches. Diminished levels of light signal your body that it’s time to get ready to rest for the night.

The rule: Get regular outdoor exercise
The reality: Busy days don't leave time for physical activity

Getting outside for exercise a few times a day, even if it’s just for a walk, “exposes you to light, which is important for your circadian rhythms and sleep,” says Teresa Ward, RN, PhD, professor and chair in child, family and population health nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Sleep Self-Management in Seattle. Block off time in your calendar when you know you can squeeze in a short workout doing an exercise you enjoy.

Getting any sunlight exposure, especially earlier in the day, helps regulate your circadian rhythms and keep your sleep schedule on track. Open curtains or blinds when you first wake up to let light in or simply stand by your window a few times per day.

To get your heart moving, Ward recommends exercising using free online workouts. “COVID-19 has brought out the creativity in people with respect to exercise,” she says. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it may keep you awake.

The rule: Make your bedroom as quiet as possible
The reality: There’s a lot more noise than you’re used to

Many households are simply more boisterous now than they were before. Kids of all ages aren’t getting the exercise they’re accustomed to and aren’t following their usual school schedules, which means regular bedtimes are shot and kids are staying up later and later.

It is still possible to manage your stress and how you think about the reality of our current situation, Doghramji says. But sorting through your thoughts regarding the pandemic can take a while when the focus should be on getting sleep. Blocking the noise trigger as much as possible is probably your best bet.

Doghramji suggests trying earplugs and/or a white noise machine. Ward recommends trying a fan or playing links to white noise audio tracks found on YouTube. One or a combination of these can help quiet your environment and help you get some sleep.

Don’t forget these sleep basics

If you’ve worked through the issues above, but still find yourself unable to sleep, focus on the other foundations of good sleep hygiene:

  • Limit caffeinated beverages after noon.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime.
  • Keep your room at a cool and comfortable temperature.
  • Make sure your room is dark and all light sources are covered.
  • Take a shower or bath before bed.
  • Don’t take naps during the day. If you must, limit your time asleep to 20 to 30 minutes.
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A Shechter, EW Kim, MP St-Onge, AJ Westwood. “Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial.” Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2018;96:196–202.
K Janků, M Šmotek, E Fárková, J Kopřivová. “Block the light and sleep well: Evening blue light filtration as a part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.” Chronobiology International. 2020;37(2):248–259.
LA Ostrin, KS Abbott, HM Queener. “Attenuation of short wavelengths alters sleep and the ipRGC pupil response.” Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics. 2017; 37: 440– 450.
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