What Good Sleepers Don’t Do
When it comes to restful slumber, there is no try
you somehow identified the 100 most well-rested people in the world, rounded them all up, and asked them how they manage to get such consistently excellent sleep, you’d probably walk away surprised — and a little frustrated. In all likelihood, there’d be no mention of sleepy-time teas, blue light blockers, high-tech sleep trackers, expensive blackout shades, or even 20-pound blankets. Instead, you’d probably get a bunch of shrugs and people saying they don’t try to sleep at all — it just happens.
If you have trouble sleeping, this might not be the response you want to hear. (“Isn’t there anything I can get on Amazon Prime?” you might ask.) But the fact is, to become a better sleeper, you need to stop trying to sleep.
There’s a concept that psychologists call sleep effort, which happens when people try to force themselves to fall asleep. Anyone who’s ever attempted to will themselves into REM knows the maddening outcome: We just can’t do it.
Because sleep is an involuntary physiological process, any attempts to control it are likely to make matters worse. When we put effort into anything, we signal to our brain to become more aroused. And while kicking our minds into hyperdrive may be useful if we’re trying to ace an exam, score the game-winning shot, or, say, escape a saber-toothed tiger, it’s the exact opposite of what we need to fall asleep.
If you can stop trying so hard to sleep, your quality of sleep will improve — and so will all the other things that depend on a well-rested mind, from emotional regulation to productivity. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Ease up on fixed bedtimes
This is a controversial one, but: Don’t force yourself to go to bed at a fixed bedtime. It’s a classic poor-sleeper mistake. You’re naturally going to be sleepy at different times each night due to all sorts of factors, from your sunlight exposure to how much you exercised that day.
It’s also normal and fine to get different amounts of sleep each night. Instead of forcing yourself into bed at an arbitrary bedtime, only get into bed when you’re truly sleepy.
Don’t try to sleep in
While it’s smart to be flexible with your bedtime, it’s important to be rigid with your wake-up time. Sure, it’s tempting to shoot for an extra hour of sleep after the alarm goes off, but fight the urge. Getting up early on the weekdays and then sleeping in on the weekends, for example, confuses your body’s internal clock and leads to a phenomenon called social jet lag.
This is a major reason for the Monday blues — you spent the last two days telling your body to expect to get up at 8:30 a.m., and now you’re trying to get up at 6:30 a.m. Social jet lag is also tied to all sorts of consequences, including worse moods and poor health.
Don’t try to shut off your noisy mind
There are few things more discouraging than finding yourself wide awake at 2:00 a.m., your mind racing with worries, to-dos, and the occasional bout of existential terror. The biggest mistake people make in this situation is staying in bed and trying to shut down their thoughts. Instead of counting sheep or ruminating about the unfairness of your sleep problems, simply get out of bed, put on a mindless sitcom, and return to bed when you’re sleepy. If thoughts arise, let them.
Do not turn to Google
After a particularly restless night, it’s only natural to want to hop on the internet and start looking for advice. But whether you’re lurking on insomnia forums, scouring WebMD, or digging into research papers, you’re probably doing more harm than good.
If you have serious sleep problems that aren’t resolving on their own, go see a professional. Start with your primary care doctor to rule out physiological conditions such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy, and then find a provider who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, the gold-standard treatment for psychological sleep issues like insomnia.
And be patient. Your body knows how to sleep, and it wants to. But when you try too hard to get there, you’re only making it harder for your body to do its job. Ease up on the effort, and trust that your body knows how to do what it’s programmed to do.