The Surprising Way You're Sabotaging Your Sleep

The Surprising Way You're Sabotaging Your Sleep

This sleep hack can give you better, more restful sleep.

It’s 11:30 pm. You’re awake and you have to be up in six and a half hours for a killer day ahead, but instead, you’re staring at the ceiling. Your brain starts to loop, “Wow, I’m not going to sleep and tomorrow is going to be a disaster.” Now, you’re not just awake, but you’re awake and freaking out.  So, the next night, you go to bed an hour earlier. Except you don’t fall asleep any sooner—you just have an extra hour to stay awake, annoyed, frustrated and anxious.

You’re not alone. Even though sleep specialists consider 10 to 20 minutes to be the “healthy” length of time it takes to fall asleep (called “sleep latency”), the American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that 35% of Americans have occasional symptoms of insomnia, with 10% having chronic insomnia. Women are even more likely to have trouble getting shut-eye—especially women with children.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, there could be two main causes: Habitual brain stimuli and, possibly, inadequate sleep debt. What does that mean? Habitual brain stimuli refers to the routines and conditioning the brain develops over time. In an ideal world, your brain would associate your bedroom and bed with sleep, so the mere act of getting to bed catalyzes a series of steps that leads to zzzz’s—in only 10 to 15 minutes. But if you’re habitually going to bed with your brain “on,” which is easy to do in our hyper-stimulated, checking-Facebook-at-11pm world, then your brain, over time, will associate getting into bed with lying awake and scanning social media for an hour—not with sleeping. 

And what’s sleep debt? Our brain has two cycles that dictate sleep: the circadian rhythm (process C), or the sleep debt (process S). If those two things aren’t aligned, you won’t be able to sleep, no matter how fatigued you feel. Getting into bed before process S says you’re ready guarantees a night of tossing and turning. Sleep (and Sharecare) expert Dr. Michael Breus explains: “Sleep is like a baseball game—if it starts at 8 and you get there at 6:30, they don’t start the game early. You just watch batting practice.”

To take back your sleep, you need to break the brain habit that’s keeping you awake, which includes practicing better sleep hygiene, and taking a bedtime reset. You can also work to reset your circadian rhythm, but I’ll discuss sleep hygiene and resetting your circadian rhythm in a future blog.

Here’s today’s hack: Go to bed later. It may sound counter-intuitive (or even overly simplistic), but if you take an hour to toss and turn, I do not want you to go to bed earlier. No more batting practice!

To calculate your new, later bedtime:

1. Determine what time you have to get up. Say, 6:30 am.

2. Estimate your average amount of actual sleep, not including time lying in bed awake. Say that’s just six and a half hours. That puts your sleep onset time at midnight. Add in 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, and voila: 11:30 pm is your bedtime the first night. 

3. If you’re tracking your sleep using the Sharecare app, you’ll start noticing patterns in amount of sleep, sleep latency and time you fell asleep. You can adjust your bedtime the next night, but only in 15 minute increments. The key is to find the sweet spot where you’re sufficiently tired enough to fall asleep in 10 to 20 minutes, but not overly exhausted. 

Try this tonight, and for the week to come. You may feel a little sleepier at first, but you should also notice that your sleep latency (or how long it takes you to fall asleep) is improving.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

Do Early Birds Live Longer Than Night Owls?
Do Early Birds Live Longer Than Night Owls?
Q: I hear people who are night owls aren’t as healthy as morning people. My mom rarely went to sleep before 1AM and died at the age of 65, and I have ...
Read More
What should I do if I can't fall asleep?
Dr. Michael Breus, PhDDr. Michael Breus, PhD
One of the most frustrating things about the inability to fall asleep is that it can actually get wo...
More Answers
How can I get a good night's sleep without medication?
Univ. of Nev. School of Medicine, Family MedicineUniv. of Nev. School of Medicine, Family Medicine
To get a good night's sleep without the help of medication, work on developing good sleep habits. Tr...
More Answers
The Best Ways to Prepare for Bed
The Best Ways to Prepare for Bed