Can You Fix a Poor Sleep Schedule?
A sleep expert weighs in.
The idea of putting yourself on a sleep schedule might remind you of a toddler fighting a bedtime routine, but a consistent sleep pattern can help you feel more rested no matter your age. "Most adults do best with a consistent sleep schedule," says Dr. Sara E. Benjamin of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep. Here, she shares three ways to improve your shuteye by creating a sleep schedule—and provided tips to help your body adjust to it.
First thing's first: Be consistent.
Your sleep schedule is primarily impacted by two factors: when you wake up and what you do before you fall asleep. "The most important part is having a set wake-up time," says Dr. Benjamin, noting that your weekend sleep schedule is a big player on this front. If you're having trouble sleeping during the week, don't allow yourself to spend all of Saturday morning dozing; if you do feel rested most of the time, then allow yourself a little extra snooze. "If a person is not having trouble sleeping, they can vary the wake time by up to two hours," says Dr. Benjamin. "For example, if someone consistently gets up at 5:30 a.m. on workdays, waking up at 7:30 am on weekends is reasonable."
The second factor—your evening routine—should also remain constant, with a standard lights-out cut-off each night (and a hard stop on your before-bed news and social media scrolling). "One should plan to engage in relaxing activities that promote sleep in the 30 to 60 minutes before falling asleep," says Dr. Benjamin. "This means avoiding the bright light of screens and avoiding reading about controversial topics. Use the time to truly relax."
Find your natural rhythm.
Your brain's internal clock tells your body when it's time to sleep and wake up in a pattern known as circadian rhythms. "Unfortunately, some people have a natural circadian bio-rhythm that does not match up with their schedule, and it makes it much harder to sleep well and to consistently feel refreshed," says Benjamin. To figure out the schedule that works for you, plan a few free days and get into a routine without an alarm. "One can determine their natural rhythm if they are lucky enough to have a week or more off on vacation with unscheduled time. Then they can see what time they go to bed and wake up and thereby see if they feel better rested on that schedule," says Benjamin.
Move your bedtime.
Most patients with sleep problems are night owls who have trouble waking up in the morning, says Benjamin. "The overall approach to this is to keep a set wake up time and have bright light or natural light exposure for an hour in the morning, and less bright light in the evening," she says, "so turn off the electronic screens and read with a reading lamp or listen to an audiobook or relaxing music before going to bed." Move your bedtime earlier by about 15 minutes every night, but don't force it: "If, without watching the clock, it seems like you are up for more than 20 minutes during the night," says Benjamin, "you should move to another room and sit and return to the relaxing activity until you feel you are ready to go back to bed to sleep."