Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but many people fall far short of this. Sleep deficiency can lead to problems associated with learning, concentration, and reaction times. People who do not get enough sleep may also struggle to make decisions and control their emotions.
Keeping regular sleep and wake times is integral for improving sleep, but establishing a sleep schedule and integrating it into your daily routine can be challenging at first. We examine why a sleep schedule is important and share sleep hygiene tips to help you adhere to a healthy schedule.
What Is a Sleep Schedule?
A sleep schedule is a daily routine consisting of fixed times for falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning. This schedule is not limited to the work week. According to sleep hygiene guidelines, people should maintain their sleep schedule on days off as well.
Because habits and routines often drive human behavior, people can become conditioned to a set sleep schedule through consistency and repetition. Over time, the idea is that following this schedule will essentially reorient your brain and make it easier for you to stick to the routine.
Why Having a Sleep Schedule Is Important
Current research supports an association between irregular sleep schedules and lower sleep quality.
Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by two systems. The circadian rhythm depends on cues like sunlight to trigger sleepiness at regular points within a 24-hour period. In turn, the homeostatic sleep drive increases feelings of sleepiness the longer we stay awake. Going to bed and waking up at the same times every day can help align the circadian rhythm with the homeostatic sleep drive, making sleep easier.
It can take a few days for the body to settle into a new schedule, which may be why irregular sleep schedules are associated with lower-quality sleep and poorer daytime performance — even when total sleep time is no shorter.
You should plan your bedtime accordingly in order to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep.
Tips for Creating and Maintaining a Healthy Sleep Schedule
As with any new routine, adapting to a sleep schedule may require some time and effort. Sleep hygiene guidelines that can make it easier to establish a healthy sleep schedule include:
- Establish an Evening Routine: Most people get ready for sleep by brushing their teeth, washing up, and changing into sleep attire. In addition to these tasks, you can also add healthy, relaxing activities to your evening routine. These might include a warm shower or bath, reading, or breathing exercises.
- Turn Your Bedroom Into a Sleep Sanctuary: For optimal sleep, the bedroom should be cool, dark, and quiet.
- Do Not Spend Too Much Time in Bed: If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and go to another room until you start to feel tired.
- Cut Down on Your Screen Time: Televisions, smartphones, laptops, and tablets all have screens that emit blue light, which can deceive your brain into believing it is still daytime. Avoid these devices in the leadup to bedtime.
- Exercise During the Day: Working out during the day can help you feel more tired in the evening, though you should avoid exercising too late if you find this interferes with sleep.
- Avoid Sleep Deterrents: Consuming caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol close to bedtime may make it harder to fall asleep or interfere with sleep quality.
- Limit Naps During the Day: Naps can make you feel less tired in the evening and reduce your sleep duration that night. If you nap, try to limit naps to 30 minutes or less.
It is normal to need adjustments as you work to adopt a regular sleep schedule. However, sleep problems or daytime sleepiness that persist for two to three weeks may indicate you have a sleep disorder. Talk with your doctor or a sleep specialist about other ways to improve your sleep.
Sleep Schedules for Shift Workers
Shift work refers to a job that requires you to work outside a standard 9-to-5 schedule. This includes shifts at night or in the early morning, rotating shifts, and split shifts. Roughly 26% of U.S. employees work a non-day shift.
Irregular shift work schedules can give rise to a unique set of sleep problems known as shift work sleep disorder, which is characterized by insomnia, excessive daytime tiredness, and loss of sleep. People with shift work disorder are considered at higher risk for workplace accidents, vehicle collisions caused by drowsy driving, and depression.
Establishing a sleep schedule is especially challenging for shift workers. Following sleep hygiene guidelines is a good starting point. Additional sleep schedule tips for shift workers include:
- Time Sleep Accordingly: Some shift workers are able to get enough sleep by waking up shortly before their next shift begins, as opposed to immediately falling asleep once they arrive home. Others follow a split-sleep schedule that involves two long naps, the first when they get home and a second that ends close to the start of their next shift.
- Make Your Bedroom Conducive to Sleep: Sunlight and loud noises can make sleeping during the day difficult. Consider investing in an eye mask, blackout curtains, ear plugs, or a white noise machine. Leave your phone in another room to prevent disruptions, and ask other household members not to disturb you while you are in bed.
- Moderate Your Caffeine Intake at Work: Many shift workers rely on caffeine to stay alert on the job, but caffeinated drinks and foods can still interfere with your sleep if consumed too close to bedtime. Try consuming small amounts of caffeine every 1 to 2 hours during your shift, rather than consuming large amounts.
Whether you work during the day or at night, the key to perfecting a sleep schedule is consistency. There is no universal sleep schedule that works for everyone, so make adjustments to your routine as needed to ensure you get enough sleep on a daily basis.
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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!