Here’s a question that’s coming my way a lot these days:
Dr. B, how can I sleep better when my regular schedule is totally off course these days?
Life around the country continues to open up, but not much has returned to “normal” for most of us. We’re working from home. The kids are out of school, not going to camp, staying home from daycare. Even if it’s open, plenty of us are not going to the gym. Our pre-pandemic schedules, as imperfect as they were, are still out of reach, and likely will be for some time to come.
Sleep thrives on consistency and routine. Those two things are in short supply for a lot of us right now. Here are five steps you can take to find routine within the daily chaos, and improve the consistency and quality of your sleep when life feels pretty out of control.
Use your chronotype throughout the day and night
I wrote recently about how our individual chronotypes can be a big factor in how we’re coping with all the upheaval in our lives, including the havoc on our sleep routines. If you don’t yet know whether you’re a Lion, a Bear, a Wolf or a Dolphin, take my quiz right now to find out, then come back and learn more about how your chronotype has a lot to do with creating a successful sleep routine.
Okay, you’ve taken the essential first step, to identify your chronotype. Now you need to put that knowledge into deliberate action. That’s when you’ll see the most powerful impact on your health, performance and well-being. There’s almost nothing you undertake in your waking life that isn’t affected by your chronotype, including everything about your daily routines. If you can’t get to bed at the same time every night these days, try to stay within 30 minutes of your optimal bedtime:
For Lions, that extra 30-minute window means an 11 p.m. bedtime.
For Dolphins, adding an extra 30 minutes to bedtime gets you to about midnight.
Wolves, try not to stay up past 12:30 or 1 if you can manage it.
Bears, start your shut eye by no later than 11:30 if possible.
But don’t just pay attention to chronotype at bedtime! Your whole day is affected by your individual chronobiology. Start using it to your advantage and I promise, the feeling of being adrift without a solid routine will diminish greatly. I wrote a long piece about the best times for each chronotype to eat, exercise, relax and be productive during social isolation. You can also read up on the vast influence of chronotypes over our sleep, health, relationships and performance in my book, The Power of When.
Set a new daily wake time—and then work backward
For a lot of us, the routine of getting up and heading into the office for work is still on pause. Same with school-run mornings, or the drop off at camp and daycare. This can be a boost for sleep—no rushing out the door in the morning feeling exhausted, no setting an alarm so early that you’re hitting the snooze button three times. (Here’s what I have to say about the snooze button, and why it’s never a good idea to use one.)
But the lack of a morning schedule can throw off the whole day. If you’re in a position to have some flexibility around your wake-up time right now, use that to your advantage. Back when things were “normal,” wake-times for most of us were determined by factors outside our control: how long it took to commute to work, what time the kids needed to be at school. Now, that those socially determined wake times have been suspended, it’s up to you to take action to set the right time for your individual chronobiology and your life circumstances. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to think about sleep routines by starting with wake-up times, even without the external social pressures. Bedtime can be really easy to mess around with—most of us don’t mind staying up late if we’re doing something fun. (I’m a Wolf (aka a night owl), so I would say this. Lions ([aka early birds] might disagree with me.) But who wants to wake up any earlier than they have to?
Using your chronotype as a starting point, along with whatever your morning obligations and responsibilities are right now to set a wake time that you’ll stick to every day, including weekends. (I know, for a lot of us, myself included, weekdays and weekends are almost indistinguishable these days. Getting to the weekend matters a lot less when you’re mostly at home every day.)
Lions, your optimal wake time is 5:30 to 6 a.m.
Dolphins, a perfect wake time for you is 6:30 a.m.
Waking at 7:00 a.m. is just right for Bears
Wolves, you need some flexibility with wake time—shoot for between 7:30-8:30 a.m.
The same principle applies to wake time as it does to bedtime: if you can’t be entirely consistent or optimal in your scheduling right now, do your best. If you can, stick within 15 minutes on either side of these wake-up times.
After you’ve determined you know your chronotype and have figured out your optimal wake time—or if not optimal, the closest to optimal that you can stick to every day, use my bedtime calculator to help you map out your ideal sleep routine for these unsettled, unstructured days.
Finally, set up a pre-bedtime routine
Back when your days had a stronger, better defined shape to them, maybe you could coast through to bedtime without too much structure in your pre-bed routines. For good and even so-so sleepers, that’s often the case. (Though I will say that sleep can always be improved upon, and bedtime rituals are an easy, feel-good way to elevate your sleep.)
But these days? We all need to be paying a lot of attention to our before-bed routines. And for a lot of you, that may mean creating a pre-bed routine for the first time. Does the idea of creating pre-sleep routines from scratch leave you feeling at a loss for options? Here’s a quick and easy way to approach it.
First, set aside at least 60 minutes (90 if you’ve got the time), for your Power Down Hour. Schedule all your streaming, internet surfing, and social media scrolling to end before this hour begins. Of your 60 minutes, set aside 20 for hygiene and grooming—brushing and flossing, putting on night cream, changing into pajamas (or out of your clothes if you sleep in the nude), taking any medications that you are supposed to take at bedtime. (Remember, there’s an ideal time of day to take most medicines—I talked about that recently in this article.) With the remaining 40 minutes, devote 10 minutes each to:
Something for your mind. Maybe this is meditation. That’s an excellent addition to a power down hour. But it could also be 10 minutes of reading for pleasure (no bright reading lights, please—and wear your blue light blocking glasses if you’re using an e-reader). Or listen to a funny, relaxing, or inspiring podcast, or some music that relaxes you.
Something for your body. Yoga, tai chi, light stretching, a walk around the block with the dog before lights out. Carve out some time to pay attention to relaxing your body and releasing the tension you’ve built up through the day. Especially when so many of us are being shortchanged on exercise, some light, modest movement at the end of the day will feel extra welcome. If you like to have a shower or bath before bed (I do, and so do a lot of my patients), shoot for 90 minutes before lights out in order to maximize the sleep-inducing benefits of your nightly soak.
Something for your stomach. I am a pretty notorious nighttime snacker (it comes with being a Wolf, but we’re not the only bio types who like a treat before bed). A small snack before bed is fine—just don’t let it turn into a whole other meal, or your sleep will suffer. My rules for a pre-bed snack are to keep it at about 250 calories, a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate, and to steer clear of the sugar bombs so many of us tend to want at night. (Here’s what sugar does to your sleep.) A bowl of low-sugar cereal, a piece of toast with almond butter, a whole-grain muffin (a small one, not those mega sized ones from the bakery) are good choices. And there’s my favorite evening beverage: a cup of magnesium-rich banana tea (you can make it at home!).
Something for your senses. Too often, we forget about touch and smell as sleep influencers. Essential oils (in your tub, used in a diffuser, or rubbed on your skin) can be potent sleep promoters. I wrote about my favorite essential oils for sleep. Spend a few minutes of your Power Down Hour in the company of sleep-promoting scents, if you’re able to. And use the power of touch to relax, de-stress, and elevate your mood before bed. I just wrote about how to practice reflexology at home to enhance your sleep—give it a try. Have you and your partner take turns giving each other simple massages—or start some self-massage practices. There are some good, simple ones here.
Create rituals and reminders around what you can control
Some of us have had our routines more turned upside down than others. If your life is really chaotic right now, give yourself a break and start with the smallest possible steps toward anchoring yourself with a routine. Meditate in the shower every day. (I do this all the time, and have for many years.) Set a timer to remind you that it’s time to eat dinner (so you don’t eat to late), or that it’s time for bed (so you don’t stay up scrolling on your phone and half-watching Netflix). Have your favorite healthy foods on hand—the stuff you like that’s also easy to put together—and stick to a routine of your favorite simple, nourishing meals. You’ll find that these small changes start to have a ripple effect on your mood, and soon you’ll likely feel able to make larger commitments to daily routines. All of it—even the smallest rituals that are soothing and health promoting—will benefit your nightly rest.
Know your sleep-deprivation triggers—and tend to them
We’re all vulnerable to the same sleep-depriving forces: too much stress, not enough exercise, a noisy sleep environment, eating too much too close to bedtime, getting too much exposure to light at night. But as with so much that influences sleep, we’re all affected by these factors in different ways, and to different degrees. You might be able to replace a rigorous daily workout with a couple short neighborhood walks and not see a big difference in your sleep, while your spouse is bouncing off the walls without his morning racquetball game. Meanwhile, he can fall asleep while the neighbors are still hamming it up on your porch to 80s tunes—and you’re kept painfully awake by the sound of Madonna’s greatest hits on repeat. The point is: identify the biggest culprits in your struggle to sleep well, and focus your attention there.
I do strongly recommend that everyone avoid excessive light exposure at night. Even if you feel you’re able to sleep after a 40-minute browse through Instagram, or a streaming binge that stops right before bedtime, the light you’ve been exposed to has suppressed your nightly rise in melatonin, which can have cascading negative effects on the quality and amount of your sleep as well as on your ability to maintain a consistent sleep routine. Blue light blocking glasses are an effective way to have your nightly Netflix without it hurting your sleep. Here’s how blue light blocking glasses work, and the story of why I spent a bunch of time over the past few years developing a pair of blue light blockers that I’m really proud of—they eliminate nearly 100% of blue wavelength light, which is especially aggressive in disrupting sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™