How to Get Better Sleep: The Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Sleep Deprivation

On February 13, 1972, Michel Siffre climbed into a cave in southwest Texas. It would be six months before he saw daylight again.

Siffre was a French scientist and a pioneer in chronobiology, which is the study of biological rhythms. The most well-known of these biological rhythms is the circadian rhythm, which controls the human sleep-wake cycle, and Siffre was on a mission to learn how, exactly, it worked.

Siffre’s life in the cave was spartan at best. He lived in a tent that sat on a small wooden platform with a bed, a table, a chair, and a phone that he could use to call his research team above ground. His underground home was equipped with a single lightbulb, which provided a soft glow to the piles of frozen food and 800 gallons of water nearby. There were no clocks or calendars, no way for him to discover what time it was or whether it was day or night. And this was how he lived, alone, for six months.

Within a few days, Siffre’s biological clock began to take over. He would later recall his experiments by writing, “My sleep was perfect! My body chose by itself when to sleep and when to eat. That’s very important. We showed that my sleep-wake cycle was not twenty-four hours, like people have on the surface of the earth, but slightly longer—about twenty-four hours and thirty minutes.” [1] On several occasions, Siffre’s body transitioned to a 48-hour sleep-wake cycle where he would stay awake naturally for 36 hours and then sleep for 12 hours. [2]

Siffre’s work, along with the experiments of a handful of other researchers, helped kickstart a scientific interest in sleep that has resulted in sleep performance centers at major universities like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Given that we spend almost 1/3 of our lives sleeping, it’s hard to believe the topic has only gained a large scientific following in recent years.

In this article, I’ll share the science of sleep and how it works, discuss why many people suffer from sleep deprivation without knowing it, and offer practical tips for getting better sleep and having more energy.

Let’s get started.

Lack of Sleep: How Much Sleep Do You Need?

How much sleep do you really need? To answer that question, let’s consider an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington State University.

The researchers began the experiment by gathering 48 healthy men and women who had been averaging seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Then, they split these subjects into four groups. The first group drew the short straw. They had to stay up for 3 days straight without sleeping. The second group slept for 4 hours per night. The third group slept for 6 hours per night. And the fourth group slept for 8 hours per night. In these final three groups — 4, 6, and 8 hours of sleep — the subjects were held to these sleep patterns for two weeks straight. Throughout the experiment the subjects were tested on their physical and mental performance. [3]

Here’s what happened…

The subjects who were allowed a full 8 hours of sleep displayed no cognitive decreases, attention lapses, or motor skill declines during the 14-day study. Meanwhile, the groups who received 4 hours and 6 hours of sleep steadily declined with each passing day. The four-hour group performed worst, but the six-hour group didn’t fare much better. In particular, there were two notable findings.

First, sleep debt is a cumulative issue. In the words of the researchers, sleep debt “has a neurobiological cost which accumulates over time.” After one week, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at random times throughout the day. After two weeks, the six-hour group had performance deficits that were the same as if they had stayed up for two days straight. Let me repeat that: if you get 6 hours of sleep per night for two weeks straight, your mental and physical performance declines to the same level as if you had stayed awake for 48 hours straight. [4]

Second, participants didn’t notice their own performance declines. When participants graded themselves, they believed that their performance declined for a few days and then tapered off. In reality, they were continuing to get worse with each day. In other words, we are poor judges of our own performance decreases even as we are going through them. In the real world, well-lit office spaces, social conversations, caffeine, and a variety of other factors can make you feel fully awake even though your actual performance is sub-optimal. You might think that your performance is staying the same even on low amounts of sleep, but it’s not. And even if you are happy with your sleep-deprived performance levels, you’re not performing optimally.

The Cost of Sleep Deprivation

The irony of it all is that many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation so that we can work more, but the drop in performance ruins any potential benefits of working additional hours.

In the United States alone, studies have estimated that sleep deprivation is costing businesses over $100 BILLION each year in lost efficiency and performance. [5] As Gregory Belenky, Director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, puts it: “Unless you’re doing work that doesn’t require much thought, you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.”

And this brings us to the important question: At what point does sleep debt start accumulating? When do performance declines start adding up? According to a wide range of studies, the tipping point is usually around the 7 or 7.5 hour mark. Generally speaking, experts agree that 95 percent of adults need to sleep 7 to 9 hours each night to function optimally. [6]

Here’s another way to say it: 95 percent of adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep on a routine basis will experience decreased mental and physical performance. According to Harvard Medical School, “The average length of time Americans spend sleeping has dropped from about nine hours a night in 1910 to about seven hours today.” And according to Dr. Lawrence Epstein at Harvard Medical School, 20 percent of Americans (1 in 5) get less than six hours of sleep per night.

Most adults should be aiming for eight hours per night. Children, teenagers, and older adults typically need even more.

How Sleep Works: The Sleep-Wake Cycle

The quality of your sleep is determined by a process called the sleep-wake cycle.

There are two important parts of the sleep-wake cycle:

  1. Slow wave sleep (also known as deep sleep)
  2. REM sleep (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement)

During slow wave sleep the body relaxes, breathing becomes more regular, blood pressure falls, and the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, which makes it more difficult to wake up. This phase is critical for renewal and repair of the body. During slow wave sleep, the pituitary gland releases growth hormone, which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Researchers also believe that the body’s immune system is repaired during this stage. Slow wave sleep is particularly critical if you’re an athlete. You’ll often hear about professional athletes like Roger Federer or LeBron James sleeping 11 or 12 hours per night. [7]

As one example of the impact of sleep on physical performance, consider a study researchers conducted on the Stanford basketball players. During this study, the players slept for at least ten hours per night (compared to their typical eight hours). During five weeks of extended sleep, the researchers measured the basketball players accuracy and speed compared to their previous levels. Free throw shooting percentage increased by 9 percent. Three point shooting percentage increased by 9.2 percent. And the players were 0.6 seconds faster when sprinting 80 meters. If you place heavy physical demands on your body, slow wave sleep is what helps you recover. [8]

REM sleep is to the mind what slow wave sleep is to the body. The brain is relatively quiet during most sleep phases, but during REM your brain comes to life. REM sleep is when your brain dreams and re-organizes information. During this phase your brain clears out irrelevant information, boosts your memory by connecting the experiences of the last 24 hours to your previous experiences, and facilitates learning and neural growth. Your body temperature rises, your blood pressure increases, and your heart rate speeds up. Despite all of this activity, your body hardly moves. Typically, the REM phase occurs in short bursts about 3 to 5 times per night.

Without the slow wave sleep and REM sleep phases, the body literally starts to die. If you starve yourself of sleep, you can’t recover physically, your immune system weakens, and your brain becomes foggy. Or, as the researchers put it, sleep deprived individuals experience increased risk of viral infections, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, and mortality.

To summarize: slow wave sleep helps you recover physically while REM sleep helps you recover mentally. The amount of time you spend in these phases tends to decrease with age, which means the quality of your sleep and your body’s ability to recover also decrease with age.

Age-Related Sleep Changes

According to Harvard Medical School researchers, “As people age, it takes longer to fall asleep, a phenomenon called increased sleep latency. And sleep efficiency–the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed–decreases as well.”

sleep cycle changes and age

Based on my calculations of the above data, the average 80-year-old gets a whopping 62 percent less slow wave sleep than the average 20-year-old (20 percent of the average sleep cycle versus 7.5 percent). There are many factors that impact the aging of body tissues and cells, but it stands to reason that if your body gets less slow wave sleep to restore itself each night, then the aging process will accelerate as a result.

In other words, it seems reasonable to say that getting good sleep is one of your best defenses against aging quickly.

How to Recover When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

At any age, most adults need seven and a half to eight hours of sleep to function at their best. Since older people often have trouble attaining this much sleep at night, they frequently supplement nighttime sleep with daytime naps. This can be a successful strategy for accumulating sufficient total sleep over a 24-hour period. However, if you find that you need a nap, it’s best to take one midday nap, rather than several brief ones scattered throughout the day and evening.”
— Harvard Medical School [9]

As it turns out, the body is incredibly adept at making up for a short-term lack of sleep. In fact, even if you got a brutal 2 or 4 hours of sleep last night, your body can usually recover fully if you get a solid 9 or 10 hours of sleep tonight. Your body will simply spend more time in REM and slow wave sleep cycles the second night to make up for the first. In other words, the two main sleep cycles are largely influenced by the amount and type of sleep you had during the previous night.

There is no need to worry about optimizing how much REM or slow wave sleep you get. Your body is smarter than you are and because it makes adjustments based on previous sleep cycles, you can’t really force yourself to get more REM sleep, for example, during a particular sleep session. All you can do is make sure you get enough sleep and then let your body do the rest. This is particularly important as you age because the percentage of time spent in REM and slow wave sleep decreases as you get older. As an example, a 60-year-old may need to sleep for 10 hours to get the same about of REM sleep that a 20-year-old can get in 7 hours. To put it simply: there is no substitute for sleeping.

There is a limit on this recovery process, of course. Your body will do the best it can, but it will never be able to turn a deficit into a surplus. If you want to recover from a night of little sleep, you need to follow it with more sleep than usual.

The Circadian Rhythm

What is your sleep-wake cycle dictated by?

Answer: the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a biological cycle of different processes that happen over a time span of about 24 hours.

circadian rhythm

Here are some key points in the typical 24-hour cycle:

  • 6 A.M. Cortisol levels increase to wake your brain and body
  • 7 A.M. Melatonin production stops
  • 9 A.M. Sex hormone production peaks
  • 10 A.M. Mental alertness levels peak
  • 2:30 P.M. Best motor coordination
  • 3:30 P.M. Fastest reaction time
  • 5 P.M. Greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength
  • 7 P.M. Highest blood pressure and body temperature
  • 9 P.M. Melatonin production begins to prepare the body for sleep
  • 10 P.M. Bowel movements suppressed as the body quiets down
  • 2 A.M. Deepest sleep
  • 4 A.M. Lowest body temperature

Obviously, these times are not exact and merely display the general pattern of the circadian rhythm. The exact times of your circadian rhythm will vary based on daylight, your habits, and other factors.

The circadian rhythm is impacted by three main factors: light, time, and melatonin.

Light. Light probably the most significant pace setter of the circadian rhythm. Staring into a bright light for 30 minutes or so can often reset your circadian rhythm regardless of what time of day it is. More commonly, the rising of the sun and light striking your eyes triggers the transition to a new cycle.

Time. The time of day, your daily schedule, and the order in which you perform tasks can all impact your sleep-wake cycle.

Melatonin. This is the hormone that causes drowsiness and controls body temperature. Melatonin is produced in a predictable daily rhythm, increasing after dark and decreasing before dawn. Researchers believe that the melatonin production cycle help keep the sleep-wake cycle on track.

How to Sleep Better

Now that we understand how sleep works, let’s talk about some practical strategies for getting better sleep.

Avoid caffeine. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, eliminating caffeine from your diet is a quick win. If you can’t go without your morning cup of coffee, then a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is “No coffee after noon.” This gives caffeine enough time to wear off before bed time.

Stop smoking or chewing tobacco. Tobacco use has been linked to a long line of health issues and poor sleep is another one on the list. I don’t have any personal experience with tobacco use, but I have heard from friends who have quit successfully that Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking book is the best resource on the topic.

Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. Is your bedroom designed to promote good sleep? The ideal sleeping environment is dark, cool, and quiet. Don’t make your bedroom a multi-purpose room. Eliminate TVs, laptops, electronics, and clutter. These are simple ways to improve the choice architecture of your bedroom, so that sleep is easier and distraction is harder. When you go to the bedroom, go there to sleep.

Natural Sleep Aids

Exercise. There are too many benefits to exercise to list them all here. When it comes to sleep, exercise will make it easier for your brain and body to power down at night. Furthermore, obesity can wreck havoc on your sleep patterns. The role of exercise only becomes more important with age. Fit middle-aged adults sleep significantly better than their overweight peers. One caveat: avoid exercising two to three hours before bedtime as the mental and physical stimulation can leave your nervous system feeling wired and make it difficult to calm down at night.

Temperature. Most people sleep best in a cool room. The ideal range is usually between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius).

Sound. A quiet space is key for good sleep. If peace and quiet is hard to come by, try controlling the bedroom noise by creating “white noise” with a fan. Or, use ear plugs (here’s a good pair).

Alcohol. This one is a slippery slope. It is true that having a drink before bed — a “night cap” — often does help people fall asleep. However, while it makes it easier to fall asleep, it actually reduces the quality of your sleep and delays the REM cycle. So you fall asleep faster, but it’s possible that you’ll wake up without feeling rested. It’s probably best to improve your sleep through other methods before resorting to alcohol to do the job.

How to Go to Sleep

Stick to a regular schedule. The body loves ritual. The entire circadian rhythm we laid out earlier is one big, daily routine. Go to bed and wake up around the same time each day.

Develop a “power down” ritual before bed. The light from computer screens, televisions, and phones can hinder the production of melatonin, which means your body isn’t preparing the hormones it needs to enter the sleep phase. Specifically, it is the blue wavelength of light that seems to decrease melatonin production. Developing a “power down” routine where you shut off all electronics an hour or two before sleep can be a big help. Additionally, working late at night can keep your mind racing and your stress levels high, which also prevents the body from calming down for sleep. Turn off the screens and read a book instead. It’s the perfect way to learn something useful and power down before bed. (Another option is to download an app called f.lux, which reduces the brightness of your screen closer to bedtime.)

Use relaxation techniques. Researchers believe that at least 50 percent of insomnia cases are emotion or stress related. Find outlets to reduce your stress and you’ll often find that better sleep comes as a result. Proven methods include daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, and keeping a gratitude journal (write down something you are thankful for each day).

Use strategic naps. Generally speaking, one nap in the early afternoon is the best way to adding napping to your sleep cycle. This is particularly useful if you aren’t getting enough sleep each night as your body may be able to make up the deficit during your nap.

How to Have More Energy in the Morning

The best way to have more energy is to get enough sleep, but you can also…

Drink a large glass of water in the morning. Your body just went 6 to 8 hours without any liquid. If you are feeling lethargic and groggy in the morning, you may often be slightly dehydrated. The first thing I do when I wake up is drink a large, cold glass of water.

Start the day in the sunlight. Sunshine is the new coffee. Getting sunlight in your morning routine is critical for establishing your circadian rhythm and waking your brain and body for the day. This is why, in the words of my friend Ben Greenfield, “You may find you need none or very little coffee in the summer or in times of high sun exposure, but you’re a complete monster if you don’t get your morning cup of coffee in the grey winter months.” [10]

Final Thoughts on Sleep

Cumulative sleep debt is robbing companies of billions of dollars in revenue. It’s robbing individuals of shaper mental performance. It’s preventing athletes from performing at their best. And it’s a barrier between you and optimal performance.

The answer is simple, but remarkably underrated in our productivity-obsessed culture: get more sleep.

The ideas in this article offer a variety approaches on how to get better sleep. If you’re looking for more practical strategies on how to create better sleep habits (or better habits in general), then read my free 46-page guide called Transform Your Habits or browse my other articles on behavior change and habit formation here.

You owe it to yourself to develop better sleep habits. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

Sources

  1. Caveman: An Interview with Michel Siffre
  2. Siffre, Michel. “Six Months Alone in a Cave,” National Geographic (March 1975), 426-435.
  3. The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness
  4. How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?
  5. Functional and Economic Impact of Sleep Loss and Sleep-Related Disorders
  6. The remaining 5 percent are due to genetic variations that allow them to perform optimally on less sleep. Obviously, it is unlikely that you or I have been dealt such a favorable genetic hand.
  7. Don’t you find it interesting that many of the best athletes in the world sleep at least 10 hours per night? Wouldn’t you assume that if anyone had access to the latest biohacking technology and advanced sleeping tactics, it would be the world’s greatest athletes? If there was any group of people who could afford the research and money to purchase the best ways to hack their sleep and get more done in less time, it would be this group. They could use this time for increased training, additional practice, and so on. And yet, sleeping more is what provides them greater value. I mention this because it can be easy for us to look for a quick fix, a “biohack” that allows us to somehow master the puzzle of sleep and get more done. But when you look at the world’s greatest performers you see that the answer is very simple: sleep more.
  8. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players
  9. Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest, a Harvard Medical School publication
  10. The Last Resource You’ll Ever Need To Get Better Sleep, Eliminate Insomnia, Beat Jet Lag and Master The Nap by Ben Greenfield

Thanks to Sam Sager for his tireless help researching this article and to Scott Britton for his slideshow on sleep strategies.

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63 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post James. Maintaining a productivity-oriented sleep pattern (or lack thereof) is something I’ve struggled with since 2001.

    I’ve brazenly declared myself to be a ‘night owl’ throughout late high school, college, and most of my professional life (overly social party lifestyle definitely not conducive either). Only recently have I really begun to appreciate and enjoy the benefits of sleeping/waking up early.

    Saw that you mentioned the effect of blue light waves. Wanted to give a tip off to an awesome app called Flux (https://justgetflux.com/). It’s a free app geared toward night owl computer users by adjusting the blue light levels emitted from the screen.

    Admittedly the yellow tinge tends to feel so odd after prolonged use that it prompts me to just drop what I’m doing and get to sleep early :).

    Again, thanks for the post.
    Cheers!

    • Thanks Tim! I mentioned Flux in the post. I’m glad to hear that your experience with it has been positive.

    • Thanks James, great article as usual.

      Flux sounds like a great idea for a computer screen – I must try it at some point. For people who lay awake in bed with the blue glow a smartphone on their face, there is the twilight app – one that works very similar to flux I believe. It has helped me doze off on many a sleepless nights, especially as I tend to read articles on websites which seem to all have a white/light coloured background.

      For readers of kindle and google books apps, they have a setting to enable night mode, or sepia mode, which reduces the bright lights to either a dark background or a sepia coloured one, which helps reduce the blue light again.

      TV’s, tablets and computers and a no-no in the bedroom for me. Also I find that by disabling notifications after 11pm on your phone (and in my case, getting rid of social networking apps on your phone completely) – helps me to not only sleep better, but enjoy the smaller things in life much more, rather than staring at a feed of images of what other people are having for lunch or cute cats, memes/vines or whatever the latest craze is.

      And finally, light blocking curtains are a must have for me, especially if you have lots of street light seeping in through your curtains.

  2. Very informative James! People nowadays have too much information overload (feed, news, gadget, works, relationship) and it’s hard to manage good sleep. Your article is an eye opener. I took 6-7 hours recently and didn’t feel very energetic. I’ll try to stick with 8-9. Keep up the good article, and thanks for sharing.

    Regards from Indonesia.

  3. Great article… as I read this with a bout of insomnia at 2:30 A.M.! You definitely gave some tips in there I will certainly try.

  4. Very interesting article and good references. I find sleep and time to be very fascinating subjects. I stopped using clocks and alarms (for waking up) about 15 years ago. Now I only wake naturally, I get about 8 hours during winter and 7 during summer. And I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can do this (don’t have to be at the office at a specific time). But it’s something I recommend for everyone that can, it radically improved my sleeping and productivity during day time.

  5. Great research!

    Is it more ironic that you posted this late at night (or was that intended to hit the right target audience?) or that I’m reading it in the wee hours of he morning when I should be sleeping. :)

    I always enjoy your post James!

  6. Thank you for your another wonderful article, James. It made me think about my youth, when I was in high school, my teachers often told us “if you sleep 4 hours, you will succeed in your exam, but if you sleep more than 4 hours, you will definitely fail”, they need to read this, ha, ha.

  7. Hey it’s an amazingly awesome article because it provides detailed insight of sleep deprivation and how to get out of it. I have suffered a lot because of sleep deprivation and i know how it feels like and what life becomes….

  8. Such a timely post. Was feeling burnt out, so I took some of my vacation time and basically spent a week sleeping (a few nights, 12-14 hours). I can’t remember when I felt better.

    Back to work now and feeling it start all over again. I’ve put everyone on notice that I may be a lot less visible from here-on-out, as I intend to put into practice (FINALLY! after years of being fussed at by my friends about burning my candle on both ends and in the middle) getting more sleep. Thank you, thank you for laying it all out. :-D

  9. Wow! Taking a few months off has really made a difference with the quality of your articles. You always write informative blogs that are enjoyable to read. But its been a long time since I’ve seen one from you that is SO informative and well-documented. Well done!

    Or did you just get a decent nights sleep? ;-)

  10. Great work James!

    Really appreciate your commitment to produce works of great quality and useful information. How do you manage to keep the momentum going?

  11. I was guilty of deleting f.lux but after reading your article James I reinstalled it. Your my conscious pricker when the guy on the shoulder gets ignored!

    Great reminder about the benefits/importance of sleep and preparing for it which can really get neglected.

    Don’t want to sound ‘picky’ but I think you will take it in the right context.

    You mention drinking a ‘cold’ glass of water when you get up in the morning. I used to do that until I read somewhere that it might not be so great for the internal organs so now I drink a warm glass of water. You may want to verify that.

    All the best.

    • Thanks Graeme. And interesting point about the water. I hadn’t heard that. I’ll see what I can find on that.

  12. Hey man, glad you’re back from your break. Hope you found it as beneficial as I found this article!

    Reading about the devastating effects of sleep deprivation has lit a fire under my ass or, perhaps a more apt metaphor, put a pillow under my head.

    I regularly only sleep for 5.5-6.5 hours while cramming late-night browsing and writing in-front of the TV then waking early to get more done. The fear that I don’t have time to do everything I want to (opportunity overload!) That keeps me glued to this schedule.

    Having read this I see how detrimental the effects of my late-night, early-morning schedule are to my overall health and productivity. I’m going to set an alarm for 9PM to remind me to turn-off my PC and get some sleep from now on!

    Cheers,

    Andy

  13. Ah, sunlight. I once wrote a very grouchy letter to Folgers about all these people in their commercials waking up bathed in a pool of sunlight streaming across their pillow, or standing in a sunny kitchen.

    I have never met these people.

    My dad left for work in the dark; my mother left for work in the dark; I dropped out of high school math at the end of a semester of 6:30 A.M. algebra in the dark, and I continue the tradition of flailing around for the alarm clock in the dark. I have the luxury of shifting my work schedule later so that I do get to drive as the sun is rising, but that’s only in the high summer months.

    Yes, this is just a rant – I don’t expect the schedule of the world to change for me but oh, how lovely it would be to allow myself to wake up in the light. Has anyone out there found any effective light boxes or other habits to get some morning light?

    Thanks for the article, James – your posts are always informative and thoughtful.

    • My guess is that there are multiple factors (I like the researcher’s suggestion that it’s partially genetic), but from what I have researched on sleep I would say that it definitely plays a role. On average, we get less sleep now than we did 100 years ago. That should mean, on average, that we are reacting slower.

  14. Excellent article, lots of great information in one place. I’ve been personally astounded at the efficacy of putting on some red- or orange-tinted blue-blocking safety glasses about an hour before bed. Whether it’s a placebo effect or whether it truly does promote the production of melatonin, I find I fall asleep faster on normal nights and experience far fewer deleterious effects on nights where I need to work with a computer or lights later than I’d like. Reading with some dim light and those babies on puts me right out.

    I will warn anyone who tries it though, that your eyes will water like nobody’s business while you’re wearing them. Not sure why this is, but it’s a minor price to pay for better sleep.

      • I couldn’t find exactly the ones I have, but I found them on Amazon. A search for “blue blocking safety glasses” turns up some sub-$10 options that look similar. I’d recommend getting a pair with some flexible, soft, rubbery-ish frames in case you fall asleep with them on :)

  15. Great article James. I coach adults with ADHD and sleep is a big issue us. It’s always helpful to be reminded of the science behind sleep and to face the fact that sleep deprivation does affect performance. Thanks.

  16. Another thoughtful, well researched post. I have a good morning ritual, but am working on developing my evening “power down” ritual – thanks for reminding me of its importance. I’m trying to switch from podcasts to books so that I can avoid screen light. Getting some separation is generally pretty important for me since I live in a studio and often work from home.

  17. Very informative post! I have heard of the sleep debt and I always assumed that it accumulated in the hours you missed and I thought how could one recover all those hours missed over time? It makes much more sense that the body will recover this “debt” with more sleep cycles rather than needing to make up for it in the exact number of hours.

    I’m also wondering how the sunrise-simulating alarm clocks that brighten your room work. From mixed reviews, I’m not sure how well they work in actually telling your body the sun is up. They would definitely help in the winter when people still have to wake up at fixed hours for work before the sun is up.

  18. Thank you for this wonderful, informative article on a subject I struggle with daily. I will try and institute as much as I can into my waking (sleeping) life!

  19. Thanks for the post.

    Very detailed. Probably the most prolific, erudite post from you.

    Absolute delight to read.

  20. BEST sleep article EVER. Sharing with my little daughter as this is both fascinating and clear as can be. Can’t wait to discuss it with her!

  21. This article could not have come at a better time! I’m 57 and find it difficult to maintain sleep once I am asleep, waking up during the night and lying in bed, staring into the darkness. It’s fascinating about the athletes’ sleep times; as a parent I’ve always said after seeing my kids play hard, “They’re going to sleep good tonight!” I have set up a routine for myself that includes going off the computer and/or television around 10, getting ready for bed, then reading a book and/or journaling. Sometimes, I’ll drink a cup of herbal tea: chamomile helps promote relaxation and is considered gentle on the body for anyone. Plus the warmth helps as well. Last night I stayed up way past my “sleeptime” of 11:00. Something else that is beginning to work for me is using methylcobalamin-B12, recommended by Dr. Peter D’Adamo as a way of “improving the quality of sleep” and “help shift the peak of cortisol secretion, helping to place your cortisol clock back on schedule” for Blood Type As. (Live Right For Your Type, p 179-80). Thanks again for the article, I’m taking the points into consideration for my own “sleep health” routines.

  22. I just finished reading your guide on habit forming a few days ago, and getting better sleep was the first keystone habit I want to develop. Lo and behold, you publish this– very timely, and thank you.

  23. Thanks for the informative article. Wanted to ask you a question.

    What do you think about a supplement – melatonin?

    I’ve heard people taking it before sleep and having good sleeping nights. Hope to hear from you about this issue.

    Thanks.

  24. Wow, great article. Thank you!

    I have a question about sleep temperature. I assume the ideal temperature range of 65 to 70 is for room temperature, and not ‘under the covers’ temperature.

    What kind of bedding should you use. Would sleeping under a heavy blanket offset any value of sleeping in a room that’s 65-70?

    • Thanks! Yes, from what I can tell those numbers are for room temperature. Feel free to bundle up under the sheets!

  25. Great article…Very Important in today’s busy life’s context. You have mention earlier to form a trigger so it will be easy to stick to a habit. Now, before going to sleep I am taking heavy dinner (trigger). Then within 5-10 mins am going to sleep.

    My question is whether should I wait for half an hour before going to sleep or do this sleep ritual as it is… Thanks in advance…

  26. Thank you for putting all of this research together into this well written article. You’ve given me, an insomnia plagued night owl, much to consider.

  27. James – Great article! One of your best. Like you said, 1/3rd of our life is spent sleeping and there just isn’t enough good information out there about it. So much useful insight to take from this read, I’ll certainly be passing it along.

    Also – I really enjoyed you diving into the Circadian Rhythm. Looking at that its got me thinking on a more strategic approach to when I exercise.

    Thanks man and hope the June Sabbatical went well!

  28. I need to learn more about the 48 hour sleep cycle, as that is what I go through for about half my week. If I can get the 12 hours sleep to catch up, I feel fine, but most days I only get 7 hours, which leads me to being tired. I have been trying a relaxation method, which has been working great, this month anyway. It’s a constant battle. Not sure if should just force myself to stay up the 36 hours and be done with it, if that’s what my body wants. It’ll require a major schedule adjustment!

  29. Thanks! I could definitely use this. I have been staying up till midnight for the past two weeks, which of course is hugely detrimental to my overall mental and physical performance. I feel constantly drowsy, my eyes ache from staring at too many screens, and I haven’t got the energy for anything. On top of that, I have to work 8 hours a day full time. This guide will definitely help me!

  30. Another fantastic and very informative article. Do you have any advice for those of us who are shift workers? My insomnia and sleep debt and constant fatigue are getting so bad to the point where I’m very reluctantly considering a career change. I know for sure that my productivity and mental clarity have suffered, I hope not irreparably. Any advice is welcome.

    Thank you again.
    Mary

  31. I am finding that sleep interruption is just as debilitating as lack of sleep. I am a new father with an 8 month old that still doesn’t sleep through the night. He only wakes to eat (he doesn’t cry incessantly or wake up to play in the middle of the night thankfully) so the time from waking, feeding him a bottle, to back to sleep is only 15-20 minutes. So while I might be in bed from 9pm to 7am with one or maybe two interruptions, when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I hadn’t slept at all.

    We’re doing some things now to help my son sleep better through the night (that is a whole other world of info) so that will definitely help all of us. But after 8 months of this intermittent sleep pattern, I’m feeling more and more like a zombie. I’m sure I’d fail all of those physical and mental performance tests!

    Hopefully it won’t take 8 months of regular sleep to catch up!

    • I’m with you Jay. I felt like a zombie with our first child. After 6 of them and about 11 years of getting woken up through the night, I think I have gotten used to it.
      If you want to get the best sleep you can it’s hard with external distractions but I think you do adapt a little over time. Rest assured you won’t be a zombie forever. :)

      When you are a parent you just have to get your catch up sleep and reset your sleep debt whenever you can. A Sunday afternoon nap on the couch is always nice!

      I’ve read a few articles now (sorry I don’t have links to anything specific) that say how you feel you wake up has a lot to do with where in the sleep cycle you are when you wake up. If you wake up in the wrong part of a cycle you feel like you’ve barely slept.

      This used to happen to me all the time – even with a solid 8 hours sleep (albeit with a couple of wake ups during the night). I read about the sleep cycles and set my alarm for half an hour earlier. Low and behold I woke up feeling great and ready to go with half an hour less sleep!

      Over the years I’ve casually monitored my sleep and wake times and have found right now in my 30s 7hours and 40mins is pretty optimal. Any less and I’m a bit groggy, too much more and I feel tired and lethargic all day.

  32. Great article James,

    Have you got some suggestion about waking up? I find it really hard. I sometimes put my alarm clock and I just keep sleeping for some time (from 30 minutes to 1 hour sometimes). How can I increase my willpower in this situation?

  33. James:

    Welcome back! I hope you’ve had a wonderful vacation.

    Thank you for your new articles. I must say you work is getting deeper and more insightful. Great job!

    Concerning that glass of water in the morning: this is a very good piece of advice. Some people enjoy a cold glass of water and other people (myself included) a slightly warm one. One should drink the water consciously and with short breaks in between.

    Have a good day! Greetings from Bavaria.

  34. Fantastic piece James. I’ve been looking for research like this for a long time. And need to get my ass to bed!

  35. While I acknowledge your research, James, I also notice this. A most successful pop singer/songwriter/celebrity Madonna has said she (WISHED) she had (time to ) sleep more.

    And the greatest songwriter of his age, Irving Berling was said to be 20 years short of sleep–when he died at 100+. So, lack of sleep did not stunt HIS production. (He had to work, and he had to write all those songs, etc. etc.–very busy while getting only 4 hours a sleep.) So, they must be some exceptions to your rule.

    While I have other examples, I am just saying that there appear to me some exceptions to the, admittedly, great ideas you are offering. Very likely most people should follow your researched suggestion of getting more sleep.

    [I'm just saying all of this greatly because I, for one, am certainly trying to be as productive as a pretty, 25-year old coworker. That coworker--who has the greatest attitude in the world tells me "I have so much to do that I only get a minor amount of sleep (4-5 hours)".]

    But I still am applying your “Transform Your Habits” ebook. Thank you for having put that together for us!

  36. I just wanted to say that this truly opened my eyes (no pun intended). And also exceptionally well written. Wholly captivating from beginning to end. Could not stop reading. I’d like to request that you write more articles on sleep based on further research. Many thanks.

  37. Thank you for all that information, but how can you get a longer night of sleep? It takes me 5-10 minutes to fall asleep, but I wake up several times after 2am and I can get back to sleep. Also, I always wake up 1 hour to 1.5 hours before my alarm goes on. Anything I should do?

  38. James,

    This article is an absolutely stellar piece. I’ve done my own exploration into improving my sleep, and your article sums up the months of research I’ve done and one ups it. Thank you for writing this.

    Steven

  39. What about meditation as a way to make up for lost sleep or to balance that sleep deficit? Great articles and site, btw. Just found it and am grateful. Keep up the great work.

    FS

  40. Good article and synopsis. But my question is: What makes us wake up. Falling asleep is easy. Staying asleep is harder and since you are asleep, you have little control over what wakes you up. I wake up after five hours independent of when I fall asleep or whether or not I have had a nap (Age 75). So what makes a person wake up when they do? When I wake up I’m still tired, so why do I wake up after so little sleep?

  41. Hi James,

    I read your article when you first published it, and came accross once more today. (Actually I think it would be kind of a good habit, reading your articles twice, so that I don’t miss anything ;) )

    I have a (very self centered) question, which has been troubling me for the past few weeks, and I’d be very thankful to have your ideas on it!

    As a student I used to sleep an average of 6 hours (I used to measure that with an app). I’ve started working 3 years ago (I’m at one of “the Big Four”). I now sleep an average of 7+ hours, but feel incredibly more tired. As a student maybe 6 hours weren’t enough – and I wasn’t coasting through university, but now I have days when during 1 or 2 hours in the afternoon my brain is not operating. I feel completly finished, intellectualy and physically at the end of the day. (Before I forget to write it: I’m 26)

    I am thinking and reflecting about what could explain such a change, and any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks – and keep up the good work!
    André

  42. A m a z i n g !

    Hugs to James ! He’s been always so graceful in finding out the key ways of a theory/studies.

    Just worth reading, and it’s 5 in morning. Been awake all night.

    I really needed a way, as being a student; You all know the lifestyle we have.

    Thanks again,
    Love from India.

    And yes I’ve already got flux on my laptop and it’s good for everyone though I messed up :)

  43. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I’ve been battling sleep deprivation for about seventeen years. It got so bad that I would fall asleep driving. Since I must drive daily I decided to try a sleep lab last year. Through many test and with the help of some excellent doctors, I now get an average of six hours sleep per night. Even though this is much better, I’m working on the suggested Nine hours my doctors feel I need and your article enforces the need as well as a few suggestions I will add to my routine. Thank you for sharing!

    Kathy Dugger

  44. Great article! I have struggled with insomnia off and on since high school. I went through a sleep study and got diagnosed with paradoxical insomnia. Not fun! I definitely need to do a better job of turning off screens by 9/10 pm. Thanks for the reminder!

  45. Very useful information, thank you so much. I live in Japan and I was surprised to see people sleeping on buses and trains, the library seemed like a sleep center rather than a learning center. Slowly, though, and with the help of the information here I understand why, they get so little sleep. For instance, a few people I know go to sleep at 1 a.m. or later and get up at 6, or even earlier. I think there is a cultural stigma attached to having a good sleep in this country – which is fascinating. My probably is trying to get to bed earlier, I heard that 10 was the best time but I go to sleep around 12 ish. Thank you for this page. Will check in regularly.

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