Sleep Microhabits: 23 Small Steps to Improve Your Sleep
We know that deep, rejuvenating sleep can jumpstart your day and greatly improve performance in many areas of your life. Whether it’s getting enough sleep or improving the quality of your sleep, maximizing and optimizing your sleep is key to feeling better and making the most of your time while awake.
The following Microhabits are designed to help you experiment and find ways to get better sleep. Try one, some, or all of them and see what works for you. Remember to stay disciplined and don't try to overwhelm or do too much at once.
- Charge your phone in an adjacent room, not your nightstand. How many times have you wanted and tried to go to bed, but instead scrolled endlessly on Buzzfeed, BoredPanda, imgur, or a social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Reddit? Take away the temptation to go on one of these bottomless-pit platforms and put your phone charger in another room. When you’re ready to go to bed, put your phone there so that you won’t be tempted to scroll through an endless amount of content that just wastes time and steals your hard-earned sleep time.
- Turn on blue light blockers for your computer and phone. So-called light pollution makes it harder and harder for people to fall asleep on time. Blue light is a feature of artificial sources of light, such as computer and smartphone screens, which interfere with your melatonin production from the pineal gland (a gland in the brain). Because of how many screens are incorporated into the modern American lifestyle, exposure to blue light is almost unavoidable. By looking at blue light sources while in bed, the brain receives a signal that it is still daylight outside, making it more and more difficult to actually fall asleep. Luckily, blue light blockers are now built into iOS (bottom pull up menu, same place where flashlight and timer live) and for your computer you can get the f.lux plug-in for both MacOS and Windows.
- Read a book right before bed. Novels or biographies are good choices. If you're reading off of a device, make sure the blue light is turned off (more details on this above). As you relax in bed with your book, reading can help you get drowsy and fall readily asleep. If your body is ready for it, just a few minutes of reading can get you feeling sleepy. If you're wired, reading for 30 minutes or an hour can do the trick.
- Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room. Make it harder to hit the snooze button by putting your alarm clock on the other side of the room. Better yet, install an app like SnapMeUp which forces you to take a picture in order to turn the alarm off. This makes it easier to resist the urge of falling back into bed since you’re already up and out of it!
- Tell yourself what time you are going to wake up in the morning before going to bed. This method won’t work if you’re exhausted, drunk, or otherwise deliriously sleep deprived, but such mental priming is recommended by Sleep.org and others.
- Set a bedtime and then be in bed 30 minutes beforehand. By being in bed before you actually have to be there, it gives you the opportunity to wind down and takes away any excuses for not going to bed on time (you’re already physically there). This method does not work as well when you have a TV or other electronic device in your room. You need to couple this microhabit with the microhabit of charging your phone in a different room and staying away from or modifying the settings on blue light emitting devices.
- Set out your clothes and pack your work bag before you go to bed. Have you ever stood in front of your closet or dresser and spent precious morning time struggling to decide what to wear? Has this behavior ever made you even more late than you already were? By laying out your clothes and packing your shoulder, work, or gym bag before bed, you eliminate the need to exert cognitive effort in the morning, conserving it for later in the day. You also greatly reduce the probability of forgetting something important by prepping the night before–trying to remember critical items while rushing out the door is a recipe for disaster!
- Reduce and reorganize your clothing to further minimize cognitive load. As a first step, get rid of everything you haven’t worn in the past year. Donate it to Goodwill or pack it up and send it to the attic so there are fewer non-viable choices (stuff you know you don’t want to wear) clogging up your clothing selection process. Then further simplify this process by organizing the clothes in your closet by type (pants, collared shirts, jackets) and subsequently organizing those sections by color (rainbow order, ROYGBIV) to make clothing identification faster. This microhabit takes a little bit of preparation and setup, but the returns are well worth it. You’ll have to spend some time doing the first set of organizing, but after that it becomes much easier to continue the habit. How many times have you been late because you couldn’t find the matching jacket and pants or the shirt you wanted to wear? No more morning mishaps. Having a system also makes it easier to organize your clothes after you do the laundry or when your dry cleaning gets returned; you no longer have to decide where to put things, since everything has its place, and you no longer have to search for things since you know where they are. Want a good book on this? Check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.
- Before you brush your teeth at night, take a vitamin. If you ever forget to take your daily vitamin, this will change that habit around. While most people take a vitamin in the morning, our mornings are usually rushed enough that sometimes the vitamin falls by the wayside. By coupling the vitamin with teeth brushing (which we probably do more regularly than taking the vitamin), we set up a cue and transfer the cognitive load from morning to evening.
- When you wash your face every night, change your pillowcase. Your pillowcase is dirty and you don’t know it because you can’t see it. All of the dirt, grime, oils, and dead skin on your face and in your scalp winds up on your pillow, and this detritus might be the cause of breakouts. Many people wash their face at night to prevent skin breakouts, but what if that treatment is counteracted by all the stuff on your pillowcase? While this microhabit takes a lot of pillowcases– which you can buy cheaply at Walmart or Amazon–this will improve your skin dramatically.
- Always make your bed in the morning. While this microhabit seems really rudimentary, it does one thing really well: it prevents you from going back to bed After all, who wants to mess up an already-made bed? You don’t have to even make it well–just throw the cover to completely cover the bed. At a minimum, it gets you out of bed, which reduces the chances of you falling back to sleep and hitting snooze again!
- End your morning shower with a 10-second blast of cold water. There’s scientific evidence that cold showers can make you more productive and healthy by releasing mood-boosting endorphins, opening up your skin pores, increasing your circulation rate, and jumpstarting your metabolism. But not many people can handle an entire shower in chilly water, nor do they actually want to. Cold showers might be dangerous for people with heart conditions, too. Instead of going all-out with a cold shower, try ending your shower with a 10-second blast.
- Give yourself the "golden hour" before nodding off. Once you know what time you'll be going to bed, commit to not using any electronics or watching television for an hour before doing so. Use the hour for other activities such as personal hygiene, reading a book, chatting with a family member, preparing for the following day. This hour gives your brain the time to wind down and make it easier to get to sleep on time.
- Embrace a pre-bedtime tea ritual. A couple of hours before you hit the sack, try making tea a daily part of your routine. Make sure it’s a non-caffeinated tea. Explore different flavors and find one that works well for you. We’re not going to state that any tea has magical effects that’ll put you into a deep slumber (chamomile has been lauded by some as a great “sleep tea” but there is not enough hard data to support this), but the activity of making tea and enjoying a warm drink close to bedtime can have relaxing effects and signal to the brain that it’s time for bed. Our favorite nighttime teas: rooibos, cinnamon, mint, and turmeric ginger.
- Wear a sleep mask. Even a sliver of light peaking through your window may be disruptive to your sleep. Try wearing a sleep mask to bed and see if it makes a difference for you. We’ve had varying degrees of success with the sleep mask. Some of us swear by it and rely on it every night to fall asleep and stay asleep. Others have trouble keeping it on and don’t find it helpful. If you think your sleep could use help, give it a go and see if it’s a microhabit worth keeping.
- Use an ambient noise generator. If you live in a city where there's constant noise, consider using an ambient noise generator to mask those distracting sounds. One of the popular brands, Marpac Dohm, works really well and the Dohm now has a portable companion for when you're away on a trip, called the Rohm. You can also experiment with free apps from your Android or iPhone app store.
- Try aromatherapy for better sleep. Have you tried everything to fall asleep but can't? Consider aromatherapy. By tying the aroma to sleepiness, you'll likely associate the two and reap the rewards of better sleep. Consider using more neutral smells such as lavender and vanilla.
- After getting into bed, with the lights off and eyes closed, take 10 deep breaths. Be sure to make them slow and keep your mind focused on the quality and feeling of the breath. Try your best not to get distracted. If you find yourself thinking about something else, reset and start over. Try this until you get to ten. You should feel more relaxed and your mind more willing to fall asleep.
- Recall your entire day, from the moment you woke up to your current moment, in bed. This is an incredibly powerful exercise for getting your mind ready for sleep. With your eyes closed and body relaxed in bed, replay the entire day and try to remember every little thing you did since the moment you woke up that morning. What did you do when you got out of bed? What did you have for breakfast? How many times did you use the bathroom? What did you read on your phone? Who did you talk to throughout the day? What emails or text messages did you write? What did you laugh about? What made you uncomfortable? Before you know it, you'll feel your mind shutting down and lulling you to sleep.
- Don't drink coffee or caffeinated beverages after 3PM. Studies show that caffeine has a half-life of close to 6 hours, which means it takes about 6 hours for 50% of caffeine to leave the body (while the rest takes longer to process). Having too much caffeine stored in your body before bedtime will make it harder for you to fall asleep. Adopt a microhabit in which all caffeine consumption takes place earlier in the day, and at least 6+ hours before you're scheduled to go to bed.
- Use separate sheets/comforters/blankets. If you share a bed with a partner, consider having two sets of sheets, comforters, or blankets. This may not seem romantic, but it may save you from sleep interruptions that occur when a partner inadvertently hogs the comforter on a chilly night. This arrangement will also give each partner greater flexibility in how much or little they want to be covered at night.
- Fast at least 3 hours prior to sleep. Eating close to bedtime will stimulate your digestive system, awakening your body as you try to go to bed, not to mention other harmful health effects that can come from late-night eating. Adopt the microhabit of not eating at least 3 hours prior to sleep. If you go to bed at 11PM, finish eating no later than 8PM. This will give you the time to digest and relax before laying up for the night.
- If you must drink, limit the amount and drink early. Alcohol may make you drowsy and help you fall asleep quickly, but it impacts the quality of sleep by reducing restorative REM sleep and potentially waking you up before you are fully rested. If you find it impossible to cut alcohol out of your routine, limit the amount you consume (remember that 2 drinks of alcohol is enough to disrupt your sleep pattern) and give your body some time (at least 4-6 hours) to metabolize. It's not enough to get the alcohol fully out of your system, but it'll be better than going straight to an alcohol-induced slumber that won't leave you well-rested.