Sleep Tips Part 3 – Establish a Regular Bedtime

Nightfall PanoramaPreviously in this series on getting better sleep, I covered a list of sleep tips and the importance of establishing a regular waking schedule.  Today we are going to cover the next step toward improving your sleep:

2.   Establish a regular bedtime that works with your new waking schedule

Now that we have a regular waking schedule planned, the next step is to determine when we need to go to bed in order to get the necessary amount of sleep.  Let’s first discuss plans to make this work, then we’ll talk about how much sleep we really need.

Example Sleep Scenario:

We will start with an example that assumes an 8:00 am job, which is common to most everyone here in the US.  We will also assume a 25 minute commute to (and from) work – which is the average commute time according to 2009 data from the Census Bureau.  If our morning routine requires one hour of preparation time (waking, showering, breakfast, etc), that means we need to be awake by at least 6:30 am to arrive at our job on time.  To accomplish 7 hours of sleep in a night, that means we need to be sleeping by 11:30 pm the evening before.  Simple, right?  Not so fast…

Establishing a Regular Bedtime:

Our example above allows for pretty simple math:  11:30 pm + 7 hours = 6:30 am.  But keep in mind that this is hours of sleep, not hours in bed.  Depending on how long it takes us to fall asleep (everyone is different), we may need to be in bed 15 – 30 minutes earlier.  This puts our bedtime at 11:00 pm or 11:15 pm.

Now we are still missing one last, critical piece – the amount of time required for our bedtime routine.  To do this, add up the amount of time necessary to get ready for bed:  brushing teeth, taking out contacts, washing up, etc.  The important thing here is to be honest with ourselves about how long this takes – if we shortchange our estimate, then we’ll run behind schedule every night.

If we assume that our bedtime routine takes 30 minutes, then from our example above we need to start getting ready for bed at 10:30 pm.  Suddenly we have a much earlier target time to keep in mind!

Establishing a regular bedtime requires that we know:

  1. When we need to wake up
  2. How many hours of sleep we need
  3. How long it takes us to get to sleep (or at least allow some time to fall asleep)
  4. How long it takes us to get ready for bed

That’s the easy part.  Now to confront the realities of life…

Maintaining a Regular Bedtime:

Our goal for any average day should be to maximize our body’s natural wake/sleep rhythms.  Going to bed at a regular time will allow us to maintain this rhythm, achieve quality sleep, and wake up prepared for a productive day in the morning.  The trick, for most of us, is achieving a bedtime that is the same from day to day.  Busy schedules, children, television, phone calls, text messages and the internet all fight against us and can prevent this from happening.

As with any lifestyle change, maintaining a regular bedtime first requires that we resolve to do so.  We need to make a conscious decision that we want to get to bed on time every day, while understanding that it may require some minor sacrifice on our part and may include some bumps along they way.  Next, we do our best to eliminate those “bumps”.

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Facebook? A distraction? No….

To help confront the realities that make a regular bedtime difficult, we need to take note of common distractions that might interfere with this process and think of ways to avoid them.  Does the internet tend to suck us in late at night?  Or do we often find ourselves watching the late show after the local news is finished?  Finding ways to phase out or eliminate these distractions is the most difficult part of maintaining a regular bedtime.

I personally find myself reading blogs or news sites late in the evening… one always seems to lead into another.  I solved this by stepping away from the computer earlier in the evening and transitioning over to magazines or print articles at night.  That fills my need to read something, but doesn’t leave me clicking from link to link.

Again, it helps to be brutally honest with ourselves here.  Do we really need to check Facebook one last time?  Probably not.  How about office e-mail?  This can almost always wait until morning – especially since a good night’s rest will help us deal with them more quickly.

Calls and texts?  Stop answering them after a set time of night.  Notify friends and family that you are working on getting to bed earlier and ask them to stop calling late.  They may give you a hard time, but ignore that and move forward with your plan.  Turn down the notification volume on your phone, if it becomes necessary – or silence it altogether.

Changing a daily routine can take several weeks to become habit, so we will probably need forced reminders for the first few weeks.  Set an alarm in your phone that goes off at 10:30 pm (or whatever time you calculated above).  When the alarm goes off, we know that we need to finish up what we’re doing and start our bedtime routine.

With a bit of work and willpower, this will start to come naturally and we will soon be getting much better rest!

Yawning BabyFor those of us with children, it is impossible to maintain our own evening schedules if our kids do not first have their own.  In that case, we need to first get our kids into a nightly routine – and get them to bed on time – before we can consistently manage our own bedtime.  The positive effect that this will have on them should create a double-benefit for us – when kids are consistently well-rested, it makes life a whole lot easier… freeing up a lot of our parenting time!

Maintaining a regular bedtime requires the following:

  1. Determine the nightly distractions that may interfere with our schedule
  2. Make plans to avoid those distractions
  3. Set alarms and reminders to help keep us on schedule
  4. Keep up the schedule until it becomes routine!

Summary:

Establishing a regular bedtime requires a bit of simple math.  Know when you want to wake up, how many hours you want to sleep, how much time it takes you to fall asleep, and how long your bedtime routine takes.

Maintaining a regular bedtime can be difficult, but that is normal at first!  Create a plan for avoiding distractions at night, and stick to it until it becomes habit.  Be honest with yourself about the distractions you deal with and work to set those aside!  If necessary, change your bedtime incrementally so it is less of a major change for yourself and those around you.

How many hours of sleep do I really need?

This is the magical question we all ask, and almost every source of data you find will prescribe the usual “7-9 hours daily”.  In truth, every one of us is different and requires slightly different sleep needs.  To top that off, our sleep needs can change as we age and as our lifestyles change.

The only real answer is that we each need to determine for ourselves how much sleep we need.  Start by aiming for 7 hours each night, maintain that consistently for a week or two and see how you feel each morning (the goal is to wake up feeling generally well-rested each morning).  Vary the time up or down as necessary, maintaining each change for a week or two to determine how your body feels after it adjusts to the new schedule.  Take down daily notes throughout this experiment, if that helps!

Keep in mind that if you can manage a daily nap during lunch, you can probably get by with slightly less sleep at night.  However, if your daily routine includes an intense sport or workout session, your body will likely need a bit of extra sleep to rebuild and recover.  Your experiment with different hours of nightly sleep will help take this all into account.

One caution is that too much sleep can be bad for you also – in terms of both your long term health and your ability to wake up feeling rested.  Don’t mistake the lethargy caused by too much sleep as a requirement to sleep more!  If you are sleeping many hours each night but still wake up feeling tired – especially if you are not physically active during the day – try cutting back your time incrementally and see if things improve.

Once you settle on the number of hours of sleep that your body needs, you can plug that in to our plans discussed above!

Enjoy, and sleep well!

To repeat the lesson of the day:

2.   Establish a regular bedtime that works with your new waking schedule

And read on to the next post in our list of sleep tips:

3.   Take short naps, if necessary (20 – 25 minutes at most) (coming soon)

What are the distractions that get in the way of your regular bedtime schedule?  How did you get around them?  Let us know in the comments below!

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