I've written about sleep for a year—here's how mine has improved
My nightly habits might not be perfect, but they've gotten a whole lot better.
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I started writing about sleep for Reviewed a year ago this week. (Yes, I can check “starting a new job during a global pandemic” off my 2020 bingo card.) In that time I’ve spoken to sleep experts on everything from bedding fabrics to mattress certifications to whether you should let pets in your bedroom overnight. But I haven’t just written about sleep, I’ve personally tried all sorts of products that claim to facilitate better rest, such as sleep podcasts and stories and 10 (and counting) different mattresses in a box.
After spending so much time thinking, learning, and experimenting with sleep, my personal habits were bound to evolve. Here are the biggest changes I’ve made (and kept) and my takeaways on what’s worked for me, one year later.
1. I found a nightly routine, and it makes all the difference
Before writing about nighttime routines last summer, I underestimated their importance and how much they can change the quality of sleep. Even after writing the article, I continued to downplay the difference they can make, simply because I wasn’t able to find one that I jived with. (My cat, in contrast, has had an enviable nighttime routine since we moved to Boston together three years ago: I scoop his litter box, mix a bit of moist food with some water as a late-night snack, and we go into my room for the night.)
This winter I honed a nightly wind-down that works great for me. I follow the same formula night after night: Around 10:30 P.M., I brush my teeth, set my phone aside, and write in my journal for about an hour. First I reflect on my day and my life in general, then I finish by writing down anywhere from a sentence to a couple pages on what I’m feeling grateful for. It’s something I started after reading that gratitude journaling can improve your sleep—and let me tell you, it’s been an absolute revelation. Without fail, this part of my nightly routine puts me in a great mood and allows me to go to bed with a clearer mind. I’ve been at it for a couple months now and really feel as though it’s improved my sleep. Who’s to say exactly why—it could partially be a placebo, I sleep well because I believe I will sleep well. Regardless, the net gains are the same.
Sleep will never be one-size-fits-all. Gratitude journaling won’t work for everyone. Some folks may find that writing is too stimulating late at night, or that adding something else that feels like “work” to their to-do list is stressful. But it's amazing for me, and that’s the key thing: You don’t need a picture-perfect nightly routine, you just need one that suits you.
2. When I try something new in my sleep routine, I give it time before quitting
Sleep is fickle. Sometimes I’m exhausted, and when dusk rolls around, I’m pumped to go to bed. Yet I toss and turn all night, and wake up feeling even more tired than the day before. Other nights, I’m keyed up and feel far from tired, but I lie down and within seconds my eyes are at half-mast. There’s no rhyme or reason. That said, if I’m implementing something new into my sleep—whether I'm testing out a physical product or a new habit—I try to give it time to take effect. Instead of expecting to feel a difference within one night, I take at least a week to acclimate and ensure that I don’t misattribute positive or negative changes to the new variable.
It took me about two weeks of consistent journaling for that habit to start impacting my sleep, and it’s taken a couple weeks for me to adjust to new mattresses, which I rotate in and out for testing every month. Sometimes the effects of new products or practices are more immediately noticeable, as was the case when I started using Headspace’s sleep content. Even then, I give it a bit of time to make sure the effect is real. It can feel tedious to put in so much effort before passing judgment, but I promise it’s worth it when you find something that really works.
3. I keep a consistent sleep schedule
Yet another thing I underestimated was the importance of dozing off and waking around the same time every day. In my family, we talk about sleeping like it’s a skill, and I’m the one that’s a “good sleeper.” I’ve always slept fine even when my schedule is wonky, but after I became more consistent, I noticed a difference.
My goal now is to fall asleep and wake up within the same hour each day. Admittedly, the pandemic has helped with this endeavor. There’s less to do in the evening and fewer reasons to stay up at night. It’s far easier to be in bed and winding down, even as a self-proclaimed night owl, at a reasonable hour, like 10:30 P.M. Maintaining a regular schedule means I can allot the right amount of time to sleeping each night, too. Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep. I fall on the higher end of the spectrum and function much better with nine—any less, I feel lackluster. Nine hours just feels like so much of my day, but it’s easier to swallow when you just magically feel sleepy around the same time and wake up when your body wants you to. (To be clear: It’s not magic. It’s my sleep schedule.)
I didn’t realize just how consistent I'd gotten until daylight saving time rolled around this spring and I struggled to shift just an hour. More than a week later and I’m still up too late for my liking most nights. At this point, I may have to start incrementally shifting my schedule by just 15 minutes each night over several nights per increment to get it back to where it was. But I know when I return to my typical night’s sleep of 11 P.M. to 8 A.M., I’ll be happy as a lark each morning.
4. I use my phone’s settings to make the most of each night
I’m all about the spirit of exploration and experimentation. So, while writing about phone settings that can improve sleep, like Night Shift, Do Not Disturb, and Bedtime Mode, I tried them all. Since writing that article six months ago, my iPhone’s settings haven’t changed. I enabled Night Shift from sunset to sunrise to tint the screen orange to decrease blue light. Do Not Disturb automatically turns on each night at 10:45 P.M. so that I don’t get distracted by late night calls or texts. And all my apps have limited access after 11 P.M., which makes me feel a little guilty—but also appropriately dissuaded—every time I open my phone to try and dawdle around when I’m supposed to be screen-free.
Aside from Do Not Disturb, I can’t tell you for certain that these things help with my sleep. (There’s very limited research on the actual effect of Night Shift, after all.) But for me, that’s not the point. The visual reminder of opening my phone to find all the apps grayed out and having to request permission to use them (from myself, byway of entering a passcode) is enough of a nudge to remind me that I don’t want to be on my phone and make me think about why I’m reaching for it to begin with. The password hassle itself is also a deterrent.
My eventual goal is to reach the gold standard of leaving my phone and other electronics outside my bedroom. I just need to buy an actual alarm clock and motivate myself, somehow, to have a closed door between me and my phone for nine hours or so. I’ll get around to it eventually.
5. If I’m sleeping well, I try not to question it
There’s so much advice about sleep: Don’t watch TV before bed; put away screens; avoid anything stressful after dinner; use your bed only for sex and sleep and never do work in your bedroom; don’t eat this or drink that too close to bedtime; and the list goes on. In one interview, an expert said something that’s stuck with me ever since: If you’re sleeping well and you don’t feel overly tired during the day, don’t worry about any “bad habits” too much. It came up when I mentioned my terrible sleep hygiene of watching Netflix on my iPad in bed sometimes, despite feeling as though I sleep fine.
I took that advice to heart because sleep is so inherently personal that making a list of prescriptive actions and telling someone that following that specific guide will help them sleep better is a drastic oversimplification. There are things that should help you sleep better. Putting away your phone and setting aside social media is a clear one. (Guilty, I know.)
But on the whole, getting good sleep is about finding what works for you, and what you can realistically sustain. If you're feeling tired during the day, maybe it’s worth considering what you’re eating each night before bed, or if your bedding is giving sufficient comfort and support. If you wake up with aches and pains, you might consider if it’s time to replace your mattress or get a new pillow. But if you’re already sleeping well and don’t feel bleary eyed in your waking hours? You do you and keep up whatever’s working.
6. If my sleep isn’t perfect, I don’t freak out
I write about sleep, but by now you can tell my habits are far from perfect. It continues to be a work in progress. Getting stressed about whether or not your sleep is impeccable is counter-productive. Instead, all you can do is take small steps to improve it and make it a goal to try new things one at a time until you find something that clicks. Your efforts will eventually pay off, come the following morning, once you make your sleep a priority.