Updated: Oct 8, 2020
This is the fifth and final article of the five-part Get Started series. This series guides you through how to understand, respond to, and prevent sleeplessness.
Now that you understand why you can’t sleep and you know what you can do in the moment, what can you do so that you are less likely to be faced with sleeplessness in the first place?
There are two broad categories of what you can do--
1. Build enough sleep potential for the right time
2. Deactivate for your ideal time for the right time
Recommendation #1: Build enough sleep potential for the right time
In the moment, if you don't have enough sleep potential, there isn't much you can do other than wait.
If the timing of when you have adequate sleep potential is consistently problematic, however, then changes are needed to build sleep drive and/or shift the timing of your body clock so that you have enough sleep potential at the right time.
For example, if you need to wake-up for work or school at 7 am, you may want enough sleep potential by 11 pm.
To build sleep drive
To have enough sleep drive, you need to have been awake long enough and you need to have been active enough.
You can ensure that you have enough time to build up sleep drive by waking up earlier and cutting out daytime sleep (i.e. naps or episodes of dozing). If you must nap, it's best to keep the naps short and earlier in the day.
Any increase in physical activity is helpful. If you are inactive, take small steps and start with something achievable and that you can do consistently.
If you are anticipating a difficult night due to stress or another cause for sleeplessness, make an extra effort to obtain more physical activity that day.
Cutting out naps: When am I at high risk for napping? Where am I at high risk for napping? How can I make it harder to nap? What fun things can I schedule ahead of time to avoid napping? What challenges will I face in the moment and how can I plan for them?
Waking up earlier: What time do I need to wake up in order to have enough sleep drive? What activities or commitments make it easier to wake up? What fun activities can I schedule or what commitments can I make to help me wake up earlier?
Boosting physical activity: How can I increase physical activity, if even just by a small amount? What activities have I enjoyed in the past? How can I build physical activity into my daily routine?
To better match your body clock
Typically the body clock issue driving low sleep potential at bedtime is a clock that is running too late for your daily routine and responsibilities.
Shifting the clock
While your underlying clock preference (i.e. night owl vs. early bird) needs to be considered, you are able to shift the timing of the clock (just like when you travel between time zones).
For more detailed instructions on how to shift you clock, please see this article (coming soon).
In general, the clock is shifted earlier by increasing exposure to morning bright light, reducing exposure to evening and nighttime light, and gradually shifting the wake-up time earlier no faster than an hour per day.
After shifting the clock, waking up at a consistent time, obtaining lots of bright sunlight in the morning, and being careful about the amount of light obtained in the evening and during the night will help to anchor the clock's new timing.
To get a lot of bright morning light, open up curtains in the morning, avoid wearing sunglasses, and, if having to be indoors all day, take little breaks to obtain sunlight throughout the day.
Increasing morning (and daytime) light: What might be preventing me from getting morning (and daytime) light (ex. a dark room, sunglasses)? How can I increase the dose of bright light that I receive in the morning? How can I obtain more bright light throughout the day?
Reducing evening & nighttime light: How can I reduce the dose of light that I receive in the 3-5 hours before sleep? At what time can I realistically cut off the use of screens? How can I use harm-reduction strategies to reduce the amount of light I receive in the evening and during the night?
Maintaining a consistent wake-up time & shifting the clock: What may have contributed to the shifting of my clock (sleeping in, electronics use in the evening/nighttime, not enough morning/daytime light)? What would a plan to shift my clock look like? What challenges can I anticipate and how can I plan for these changes?
Shifting the schedule
Alternately, you can change your routine and responsibilities to better accommodate your body clock's 'preference’.
For example, you can schedule classes and/or work so that you are able to consistently wake up at a later time and, therefore, can afford to fall sleep at a later time as well.
While this may not be possible, if the timing of your clock is resistant to change with the strategies described above, building your schedule around your natural tendency may be a more effective and sustainable approach.
Making changes to the schedule: What sustainable and realistic changes can I make to my schedule to better suit my clock's preference?
Recommendation #2: Deactivate in time
There are a various things you can do to increase the likelihood that you will be deactivated in time for a good night's sleep.
Reduce the impact of activating and/or sleep-disruptive drugs, medications, and foods
Avoid caffeine for at least 8 hours before sleep
Reduce or cut out food & drink intake a few hours before your bedtime
Reduce or cut out nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis
Take alerting medications like stimulants as early as possible in the day and at a consistent time (speak with your physician before making any significant changes)
Optimize your sleep environment
Make your sleep environment pitch black by installing blackout curtains, by using dim night-lights in the hallways and bathrooms to avoid turning on bright lights, and/or by using a comfortable eye mask
Speak to your family and roommates about reducing noise by a set time. Use a white noise machine or a fan. Wear comfortable earplugs.
Keep you sleep environment at 18-19 degrees Celsius (65F).
Optimize your bedding and pyjamas to suit the temperature
Ensure that your mattress and pillow are comfortable and supportive
Reduce the dose of light you receive in the few hours before sleep
Dim lights and turn off unnecessary lights in the evening
Install blue light filters on all personal electronics and schedule the filter to start 3-5 hours before your anticipated bedtime and to end at your wake-up time (for ex. 7pm-7am)
Opt for screens that are further away (i.e. watch a dimmed TV screen instead of watching videos on a smartphone or laptop). Dim the backlighting and brightness of screens as much as possible.
Use amber tinted blue-light blocking glasses (look for a high percentage of blue-light filtration and avoid glasses designed for eye strain) a few hours before bedtime and during nighttime awakenings. Do not use these glasses in the morning and during the daytime.
Use lightbulbs and night lights that interfere less with sleep
Use a reading light that interferes less with sleep
Designate another space in your home where personal electronics will be docked for the night and set a specific time to power down electronics
Use apps like Freedom or OurPact to limit screen time
Set up an alternate place to go and relaxing things to do when you are not yet sleepy and/or can't sleep
If you have a history of being awake in bed a lot (either due to insomnia or because the bed is used for other activities), it is common for the bed to become associated with a state of alertness and high activation.
The bed becomes a cue for sleeplessness. This is the reason why you may feel ready for sleep but then, as soon as you are in bed, you body becomes alert and your mind becomes active.
Stimulus control strategies retrain the body and mind to associate the bed with low activation, sleepiness, and sleep. The strategies are as follows:
Reserve the bed for sleep only.
Only get into bed when sleepy.
Get out of bed if activated or if awake in bed for more than 15 minutes (at the beginning, middle or the end of the night).
It is much easier to follow-through on these recommendation if you have prepared and alternate place to be and enjoyable, relaxing activities to do.
This spot needs to be easy to access and as appealing as your bed. In teens, I often recommend that this spot be in their room so that they can still have privacy from their family.
Options for an alternate spot include a comfortable chair, a bean bag chair, a second mattress (this can be tucked under the bed during the day), or a pile of pillows on the floor
Lay out a blanket, housecoat, and/or slippers nearby
Have a dim light source to use in the evening and in the middle of the night
Have relaxing activities ready to do in this space (books, a notebook, magazines, craft items, music, a musical instrument, etc.)
Implement a wind-down/deactivation period and reduce activating cues
Set an alarm to start winding down 1 hour before you desired bedtime; as some need more or less time to successfully deactivate, adjust the amount of time required as you figure out what works
Get others on board with winding down by a set time
Power down all devices if possible
Turn off notifications on your devices
Prepare relaxing activities ahead of time so that you do not ‘default’ to activating activities
Listen to podcasts, look at photos (printed), have a shower or bath, have a relaxing conversation, listen to music or play music, put on a relaxing show (dim the TV screen), journal, answer writing prompts, draw, do other art, read (book, magazines, printed articles), play a board game, build something
If possible, reduce triggers for strong (positive or negative) emotions close to bedtime (ex. scary movies or shows, cliffhangers, video games, heavy discussions or arguments, upsetting or exciting online content)
Addressing activating medications, substances, food & drink: How can I remember to take activating medications as early in the day as possible? Do I need to discuss possible medication changes with my physician? How can I reduce or cut out unhelpful substances, food & drink too close to bedtime.
Preparing and optimizing the environment: What steps do I need to take to create a quiet, dark and comfortable sleep environment?
Preparing an alternate spot: What steps do I need to take to set up an alternate spot that is comfortable, easily accessible and as appealing as my bed? How can I encourage myself to use this spot instead of my bed during the day and when I cannot sleep?
Preparing alternate activities: What activities (that are not activating) would I enjoy when I'm not able to sleep? What ideas can I try? What do I need to gather or prepare to make it easier to choose these activities when I cannot sleep?
Reducing activating cues & activities: Is my bed a cue for an activated state? How much time to do I spend awake in bed in a typical day? Which other environmental factors, behaviours, people, activities, situations, people, etc. trigger a state of high activation?
Cutting back on screen time: What steps can I take to cut off screen time at an earlier time? How can I reduce the harm of screen time before sleep?
Creating a deactivation ritual (wind-down): How much time do I need to deactivate? What time do I need to start this process for an ideal bedtime? How can I remind myself to start this process on time? What activities have helped me wind down and relax in the past? What else can I try? Are there any tools I can use? Who can I ask to do this with me? How can I prepare ahead of time so that I am more likely to follow through with this routine?
Two things may have come up for you as you read through this article:
The first is that following the recommendations in this article will be a struggle. The following Sleep Strategies articles may be helpful (coming soon):
Strategies for waking up
Strategies for being ready for sleep on time
Strategies for productivity
Strategies for reducing electronics use
Strategies for managing fatigue and sleepiness (and avoiding naps)
Strategies for shifting the body clock
The second is that you know all the things you should do and how to do them, but that you think it's unlikely that you'll follow through on these recommendations.