Trying to figure out how to reset your sleep schedule is one of the most frustrating parts of being a human.
You can’t deny that you just need to sleep a certain number of hours and get a certain quality of rest every night.
But however hard you try to get a goodnight’s sleep on a consistent basis, even if you succeed for a while there’s just ALWAYS something that eventually comes along to mess it up.
Maybe you get sick, or you go to a late movie showing, or you procrastinated on a project, or you eat too much, or you have too much to drink.
It’s always pretty annoying when just one bad night completely turns your sleep cycle upside down so that every waking moment of every single day thereafter feels like the most intense, excruciating agony you’ve ever experienced in your entire life.
For me, it’s when daylight saving time begins or ends.
Freaking. Daylight. Saving. Time.
The trouble with ignoring a messed up sleep schedule is that it often gets worse over time.
You’re already staying up late, so what different does it make if you stay up just 10 minutes later?
Before you know it, your body clock is out of whack and even when you try to go to bed early, you end up lying there wide awake for two hours.
How to Reset Your Sleep Schedule the Wrong Way
The most common way people often try to reset their sleep schedule is the “quick and dirty” way.
It goes something like this:
- Stay up late, obviously, because you’re not going to be able to fall asleep anyway if you try to go to bed at 9:00 p.m. so what’s the point?
- Go to sleep when you feel like it (which could be anywhere from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) but of course set an alarm (or maybe two) to wake you up at some ungodly hour.
- Force yourself to get up when that alarm goes off.
- Fight through the pain of sleep deprivation all day.
- Pass out early for the night (maybe even as early as 7 p.m.) with the expectation of getting up early the next morning and every morning after that.
Now there are three typical outcomes for the following morning:
- Wake up early again with an alarm, but this time it feels doubly hard.
- Wake up early again with an alarm and actually feel refreshed, but struggle to go to sleep early again that night.
- Totally sleep through the alarm because sleep compensation is needed to make up for sleep deprivation.
This is the type of quick fix strategy that simply doesn’t work in the long-term.
And you know what?
It applies to almost any major change you want to make — from forcing yourself to go on a diet, to pushing yourself to hit it hard at the gym.
Too much change made too fast usually ends up backfiring.
The truth is that all major habits take time to develop and become hardwired into your mind and body.
So I’m proposing a much more practial and effective technique for how to reset your sleep schedule.
It’s not instant.
It takes committment.
But if you do it, it will work.
Step 1: Determine whether you’re more of a morning person or a night owl.
I think most people probably have a pretty good idea about which one the are.
If you don’t, take a moment to think about when you feel the most alert, the most creative, the most productive, and the most motivated to actually do stuff.
You’re probably a morning person if:
- You wake up naturally in the morning, even if you went to bed late, and even on weekends.
- You don’t need to rely on coffee to feel energized in the morning.
- You find it easy to make the best decisions and do your best work before noon.
- You find it hard to keep working or doing anything productive in the evening hours.
- When you do go to bed, you’re out like a light pretty quickly.
On the other hand, you’re probably a night owl if:
- You rely on at least one alarm to get you up in the morning and it feels difficult to get up every day.
- You sleep in on weekends.
- You rely on coffee to feel alert throughout the morning.
- You feel sluggish in the morning and prefer to do easy tasks until you feel more awake.
- You make your best decisions and do your best work in the afternoon or evening.
- You find it relatively easy to be productive in the evening hours.
- You have a hard time going to bed at a decent hour and hardly ever fall asleep within minutes.
There’s real science suggesting that the night person/morning person thing isn’t just all in your head — it’s part of your unique biological composition.
Everything from your blood pressure to your hormones work to influence your circadian rhythm, otherwise known as the the cyclical changes your body goes through over a typical 24-hour period.
It was only recently discovered that a person’s genes actually affect their circadian rhythm, thus suggesting that changing your habits to force your sleep cycle a certain way isn’t as easy (or ideally healthy) as you’ve probably been led to think.
So what am I getting at here?
My point is that not everybody is going to benefit from forcing themselves to get up earlier or stay up later, and that should be something important to consider when designing your ideal sleep cycle.
If you already know that your alertness sweet spot lies between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m., then working a typical 9-to-5 schedule isn’t going to line up so great with the way you’re naturally wired.
If there’s something you can do to maybe start working even just an hour later (or earlier — whatever floats your boat), then it can make all the difference in your performance AND your health.
To use myself as an example, I’m a classic night owl, and I discovered that getting up at 5 a.m. is usually not optimal for me — even though I’m hugely attracted to the idea of being one those mega early birds.
It’s too hard on my body clock, and I struggle with it even when I get a good eight hours of sleep.
Fighting your body’s natural rhythm can cause unnecessary stress, so as a result, I’ve adjusted my own personal wake-up time to about 7:30 a.m., and it’s made all the difference.
Lucky for me, I have the flexibility and natural hermit-like lifestyle habits of being a freelancer so I can design my schedule the way I want.
I realize that people who have to start working at a specific time or people who have kids will have the hardest time with this, but just like everything you want to change in your life, effort and sacrifice are almost always involved, so YOU have to decide how bad you want it.
If you’re sick of feeling completely out of it all day and can’t stand being wide awake anymore when you should be asleep, it’s time for you to stop letting all the things in your life be your lame excuse for your rotten sleep habits and find a way to balance both life and your sleep as best you can.
Step 2: Determine how much sleep you need on average per night.
This is pretty easy, because the National Sleep Foundation released a whole bunch of recommendations based off a whole whack of research studies.
If you’re an adult, which I assume that you are, then you need anywhere from 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.
Keep in mind that this is just a guideline, and what really matters is identifying your own best number of hours to sleep.
It will probably fall somewhere between that 7 to 9-hour range anyway.
How do you figure it out to know for sure?
If you seriously have no idea, all you need to do is start tracking your sleep and your energy levels.
You can do this simply by using a regular notebook or journal to record the times you go to bed and wake up along with some notes on how you feel during the day — alert, drowsy, unfocused, needed to nap, etc.
On the other hand, you could take advantage of all the awesome technology we have access to nowadays and use a sleep tracker app on your phone to see all the interesting details of how good (or bad) your sleeping really is.
These types of apps track your motion throughout the night so you can get a closer glimpse at your sleep patterns via the trend graphs it shows you.
After I started tracking my own sleep, I discovered that I’m the most alert, focused and energetic when I get 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep a night.
Nine hours is usually way too long and I’ll really only sleep that long occasionally if I’m sleep deprived.
On seven hours of sleep or less, my performance levels during the day are noticeably impaired.
Some people might find that seven hours are enough.
Other people might realize that they need at least nine hours to feel fully rested.
Try tracking your sleep for at least 30 days and see what you discover about yourself.
Sidenote: Even if you get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, remember that quality of sleep always trumps quantity of hours.
I’ve had some really crappy nights where I slept 8 or 9 hours yet still felt like I got hit by a truck the whole next day.
Time in bed with your eyes closed isn’t enough.
About 25 percent of the time you spend asleep should be in the REM (rapid eye movement) state, which is that magical time when your brain and body quietly go through a biological repair process to be refreshed and fully rejuvenated for the next day.
The best ways to maintain good quality sleep is to stick to the same schedule as closely and as often as possible every night (even on weekends, God bless you), turn off all glowing screens about 1 to 3 hours before bed to avoid blue light exposure (which keeps you awake), and do something relaxing (like meditate, read a book, or take a hot shower) to shut off all those thoughts and anxieties flying around your head.
I know, easier said than done, right?
1. Stick to a routine sleep and wake-up schedule at least six days of the week and give yourself one day off to stay up late or sleep in, with the promise and commitment of getting right back into your routine the next day.
(We all gotta get out there once in a while to live and have some fun, right?)
2. Buy a pair of blue light blocking glasses to wear a couple hours before bed if you can’t tear yourself away from the TV, computer screen, or your smartphone.
I use these, which are not only stylish (and come in a variety of colours), but also affordable.
3. Download a free guided meditation app to follow every night you can’t seem to shut your mind off.
Yes, I use all three of these strategies to improve my chances of getting a better quality of sleep.
No, I don’t look normal at all when sitting cross-legged and wearing orange glasses in the dark with my iPhone.
But it’s worth it if it means I’ll have enough energy in the morning to work out, I’ll be able to fulfill the creative demands of my work, and I won’t have to put layers of concealer underneath my eyes to cover up the bags.
Alright, so, you now know how to identify your personal sleep rhythm and determine about how many hours of sleep you need a night.
Now comes the fun part — changing your sleep habits when they’re kind of screwed up.
Step 3: Commit to going to sleep one minute earlier every single night, or alternatively five minutes earlier every week.
Your wake-up time should be adjusted accordingly (one minute earlier with the daily strategy, or five minutes earlier with the weekly strategy).
Why does this work?
Well, remember, your body follows a 24-hour rhythm.
If you’ve been sticking to relatively the same rhythm for a while, give or take an hour or so, then it should be no surprise that your brain and body aren’t going to cooperate when you decide to drastically change the cycle its used to all of a sudden.
But people these days want instant results, so that’s what they do.
If you want to design proper sleep cycle habits that feel natural and are long lasting, then you need to make small changes over a longer period of time.
There’s nothing exciting or heroic or impressive about it, but that’s how it’s done.
So, here’s EXACTLY what you would to do to achieve this, using an example:
1. You’re going to spend at least a week tracking your current sleep habits.
For one week, track the time you wake up and the time you go to bed, plus extra details like how easy or hard it was to wake up/fall asleep.
2. Next, you’re going to take the data you got from that app or journal you used to track your sleep and wake-up times, and you’re going to average them out.
3. You can use this Time Calculator to input your wake-up times in the Time Value Entry fields.
You’ll get your average wake-up time automatically calculated for you in the Average Time Entered field. (Do the same with bedtimes.)
4. You need to shave back your bedtime by a full hour and 45 minutes.
Let’s say that on average you usually go to bed around 11:45 p.m. and get up on average at 7:15 a.m., but you really need to be going to bed at 10 o’clock to feel good to wake up at 6:30.
5. You commit to going to bed at 11:44p.m., then 11:43 the next day, 11:42 the next day, 11:41 the next day, and so on.
Likewise, you also commit to waking up at 7:14 a.m., then 7:13, the next day. 7:12 the next day and so on.
6. Alternatively, you could do it weekly using increments of five minutes.
So you would go to bed at 11:40 p.m., every day for seven days, then at 11:35 every day for seven days, then at 11:30 every day for seven days.
You’d also wake up at 7:10 a.m. every day for seven days, then 7:05 every day for seven days, and so on.
And no, sorry, you don’t get a break on weekends.
You keep shaving off a minute per night (or five minutes per night for a week) until you reach your desired bedtime and ideal wake-up time.
Not only does this gently shift your body into better a sleep pattern over time, but it also becomes a habit as you do it.
With this kind of strategy, the hard part isn’t forcing yourself to go to sleep early or wake up early.
The hardest part is actually committing to doing this every night for as long as it takes.
If you take the one-minute route to shift your bedtime from 11:45 to 10 o’clock, it could take you three or four months to fully establish your new sleep cycle.
I didn’t say this would be easy; I only said that it would work if you did it.
So, given the fact that this is indeed a long-term commitment to take on, I’d suggest you do everything you can to motivate and remind yourself to actually do it each and every day.
If that means setting an alarm every single night to remind you of the exact minute you need to be in bed with your head on the pillow and your eyes closed with all the lights out, then so be it.
Your sleep should never be something that gets placed on the back burner of life.
Humans can’t stay alive without sleep.
Putting work and all of life’s responsibilities first before a proper night’s sleep is not only detrimental to your own health, but it even affects the people you interact with on a daily basis.
I think that society has discounted the importance of sleep too much in place of living a full and busy life, and only now are we beginning to openly discuss how bad it is for us to try and live on such little sleep.
Now my challenge for you is to try it out for yourself.
If you have a partner or a family, challenge everyone in the household to do the same!
Because seriously, no late night Netflix binge-fest or 4 a.m. half-marathon run will ever feel better than a great night’s sleep and an alert state of mind so you can enjoy your fabulous day.