Three Common Bedtime Habits Destroying Your Sleep
Why going to bed early and sleeping in are keeping you awake
Let me guess. You’ve read all the sleep hygiene articles, turn off your screens at bedtime, drink plenty of sleepytime tea, and yet your nights are still restless.
Maybe you struggle to “shut off your brain” and fall asleep. Maybe you wake up frequently throughout the night, unable to go back to sleep. Or maybe you just feel lousy in the mornings, unrested and without energy.
If you suffer from consistently poor sleep, implementing standard sleep hygiene tips like lower room temperature, less light in your bedroom, and avoiding screens may help, but likely won’t be enough. To make real headway, you must identify and correct the underlying sleep habits that are producing poor sleep in the first place.
Three of the most commonly disruptive (yet counter-intuitive) sleep habits are:
- Sleeping in on weekends
- Getting into bed too early
- Not having a long enough sleep runway
As a psychologist who specializes in insomnia and sleep problems, I work with clients to identify the underlying dynamics and habits that cause sleep problems, and help discover what it takes to correct them. In this comprehensive (yes, it’s long) article, I’m going to teach you to do the same.
I’ll walk you through the pitfalls of these three common, insomnia-inducing habits and offer some very specific advice about how to break these habits and build better ones.
Bad Habit #1: You try to ‘catch up’ on sleep by sleeping in on the weekend
One of the most common mistakes people make is sleeping in on the weekend in an attempt to “catch up” on sleep and pay off their “sleep debt.”
Although it seemingly makes sense to try for a few extra hours’ rest on the weekends (or your days off) to make up for less sleep during the week, these attempts are misguided and almost never worth the cost.
Contrary to what pop psychology may tell us, there’s no scientific evidence that people build up any kind of long-term sleep debt, no matter if they’ve suffered significant sleep losses.
Consequently, though it may feel good, the benefits of sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday to catch up on lost sleep during the week are slim to none. But, there are noted downsides that go along with it, including social jet lag and low sleep drive.
Sleeping in leads to jet lag just as much as jets do.
We suffer from social jet lag when our internal biological clock is mismatched with the actual time but the cause is a bad sleep schedule rather than a flight across different time zones.
If you stay up three hours later than usual on Friday and Saturday night and wake up three hours later than usual on Saturday and Sunday morning, the social jet lag you’ll experience for the next few days (when you return to your normal schedule) is the same as if you had just crossed three time zones!
Simply put, sleeping in leads to jet lag just as much as jets do.
The second problem with sleeping in as a way to “catch up” is that it depletes your sleep drive.
Sleep drive is the body’s need for deep, restorative sleep. Being awake and active throughout the day builds it up so that when bedtime rolls around, your body has a strong need for deep sleep. A strong sleep drive results in a faster time to fall asleep and deeper, more restful sleep throughout the night.
When you sleep in, you have less time over the course of the day to build up sleep drive. This makes you less sleepy at your normal bedtime, and more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep. In other words, low sleep drive leads to low sleep quality.
The good news is that both of the above problems — social jet lag and low sleep drive — can be cured by breaking the habit of sleeping in. The solution? Don’t do it. Wake up at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends, holidays, and vacations and even if you didn’t sleep well the night before or had a stressful or exhausting day.
When you keep your waking time consistent, you avoid social jet lag because your schedule remains constant. You also give yourself plenty of time to build up sleep drive over the course of the day so that you’re sufficiently sleepy when bedtime rolls around.
Bad Habit #2: You get into bed too early
Turning in early before a big day is the flip side of playing sleep catch-up. In both cases, by trying to modify your sleep routine in order to rest more, you end up with worse sleep in the long run. When you turn in early before a big day, you often end up laying in bed awake instead of falling asleep.
The crucial error in this line of thinking is that the degree to which you feel rested and perform at your peak potential has far less to do with your quantity of sleep and far more to do with the quality.
Think about it this way: Would you rather get 6 hours of high-quality sleep or 8 hours of fitful, restless sleep?
When you try to turn in early before a big day, you can end up doing more harm than good because your body is not ready to fall asleep. As a result, you lay in bed for a long time — awake. This sets you up for two major sleep problems: sleep anxiety and problematic sleep conditioning.
Sleep anxiety kicks in when you’re in bed but not sleepy. You’re laying in bed, and your mind starts working — in this case, thinking, because there’s nothing external to work on. Right away, this thinking increases your overall level of arousal and signals to your body that sleep drive should be suppressed because it’s time to work.
Instead of drifting off, you find yourself even more awake and alert. This leads to an uncomfortable thought: “What if I can’t sleep? How will things go tomorrow if I’m groggy and out of it? I need to fall asleep NOW!” And so begins sleep worry and anxiety, which takes your already aroused brain to new heights of arousal (the challenge of a to-do list or presentation are mildly arousing but the anxiety of being sleep deprived is majorly arousing). By worrying about the effects of not sleeping, you end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps you awake. And often, all of this stems from getting into bed too early.
Another downside of going to bed too early is that it can cause problematic sleep conditioning. This occurs when you teach your brain to associate arousing activities with the act of laying down in bed. If every time you lay down in bed, you start reviewing your to-do list and worrying about your quality of sleep, your bed is going to become an unconscious cue for anxious feelings and mental arousal, and by extension, suppressed sleep drive.
In other words, being in bed when you’re not truly sleepy is doubly harmful. In the moment, it creates arousal and sleep anxiety which make it harder to fall asleep. Over time, it also establishes an unconscious association between your bed and arousal, which turns the act of getting into bed into a signal to wake up!
No matter how tired you are, if you’re not sleepy, you should not get into bed. If you do, chances are you will start to worry, problem-solve, and generally activate yourself, and create or strengthen all sorts of arousing associations with your bed — all of which interfere with falling asleep.
The foolproof way to know when you’re truly sleepy (and not just tired) is droopy eyelids. That’s the sign that it is time for bed!
So, how do you tell the difference between tired and sleepy? They definitely aren’t the same thing. Tired is a broad umbrella term for fatigue or exhaustion. Sleepy is a very specific term for when your body is ready to fall asleep. When people cross the finish line of a marathon, they’re often quite tired, but I’ve never heard of anyone falling asleep at the finish line. Similarly, after a long day at work with multiple physical, mental, and emotional stressors, you may feel extremely tired, but that fact is often independent of sleepiness. The foolproof way to know when you’re truly sleepy (and not just tired) is droopy eyelids. That’s the sign that it’s time for bed!
Bad Habit #3: Your ‘sleep runway’ is too short
Many people sleep poorly as a result of expecting their minds to quiet down as soon as they get into bed. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.
You’ve probably spent all day with an active, energetic mind helping you be productive, solve problems, and get things done. Doesn’t it seem a bit unrealistic to think that all of that will instantly shut down at the drop of a hat?
Your mind before bed is like a jet before landing: the bigger, more powerful the jet, the longer a runway it needs to land and come to a complete stop. In other words, the more mentally active and stimulated you are during the day, the more time you need to gradually slow your mind down in the evening before falling asleep.
If you face the common problem of getting into bed only to encounter a mind racing with thoughts, worries, to-do list items, and memories, it’s probably because you haven’t given yourself enough time to transition from alert and aroused to relaxed and sleepy.
In order to fall asleep quickly, you need a transition period of relaxation that bridges work and rest. Specifically, your mind needs time to switch out of problem-solving work mode into relaxed rest mode. This dedicated time you give yourself to unwind and relax is called a sleep runway.
By intentionally creating space and time for relaxation before bedtime, you allow your mind to slowly and organically shift gears into a sleep-promoting state of relaxation. If you’re not doing this already, it may take some deliberate thought and planning on your part. By implementing and sticking with a consistent sleep runway, you’ll also create reliable and powerful cues for sleep that will serve as unconscious signals to your mind that it’s time to fall asleep. This will make the actual act of falling asleep easier and more effortless.
To create an effective sleep runway, schedule an hour or so before your anticipated bedtime where you do no work at all. And the term “work” here is broad — you should abstain as much as possible from any kind of goal-directed or striving activity.
Reading the news, for example, is a good way to subtly put your mind into work mode. After all, the news is — almost by definition — a long series of problems and crises to which your mind will naturally respond with worry and problem-solving. And when you start worrying or problem-solving, you put your mind in work mode, which is arousing and inhibits your sleep drive and increases sleep anxiety.
The key to good sleep runway activities is to think of things that hit the sweet spot of being interesting or enjoyable enough to hold your attention but not so exciting that they become arousing or goal-oriented.
Reading is typically a good choice and often fiction is better than non-fiction. A good trick is to re-read a favorite novel or story. This tends to hit that sweet spot of interesting and enjoyable but also not arousing since you’ve read it before and there aren’t any surprises.
Other good sleep runway activities include:
- TV Shows. A lot of people report success with nature documentaries like Planet Earth or old favourite sitcoms like Cheers or Seinfeld. And don’t worry about “blue light” impacting your sleep. The science of this is shaky at best, and even when some studies have shown a negative effect of blue light on sleep, the effects are typically quite small — much less influential than, say, worrying and getting anxious about not sleeping because you went to bed without being sleepy.
- Stretching or yoga
- Meditation or formal relaxation practices like Progressive Muscle Relaxation or Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Puzzles or other non-competitive games
- Certain hobbies may have aspects that are non-stimulating and would, therefore, be appropriate sleep runway activities. For example, sketching ideas for a new watercolor painting, or simply listening to music without doing anything else.
Creating New Habits
When it comes to getting consistently good sleep, sleep hygiene has its place. But it’s your deeper habits around sleep that matter most. If you commit to waking up at the same time every day, going to bed only when sleepy (heavy eyelids), not just tired, and maintaining a sleep runway of at least an hour before bedtime that includes no “work,” you’ll be well on your way to better rest.