How to Stop Sacrificing Sleep and Get the Rest You Need

Many of us have a push-pull relationship with slumber. We like feeling rested—we just don’t always like going to bed. Nighttime is when the kids are asleep and things finally quiet down. We can watch a movie, read a book, work on our hobbies, or just relax. And the thought of giving up this personal time to go to bed can feel like a waste.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified that feeling by 100. “Sleep has taken a nosedive at this point,” says Lee Ritterband, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Adds W. Chris Winter, M.D., a neurologist in Charlottesville, Virginia and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, “We’re so smashed right now with stress and work, people long for time for themselves.”

Sure, we know that we’ll feel and work better if we get to bed early and are well-rested, but we still won't shift our schedule; and, too often, our sleep is sacrificed. Something has to give. The good news is that the decision of how much nightly sleep to get isn’t based on hard rules. Each of us has unique sleep needs, and, as such, it’s up to each of us to decide what works best for us. Here are four strategies that can help you figure out the best plan.

Find Your Sack-Time Sweet Spot

The American Heart Association warns that getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night may increase the risk of cancer and early death for people with high blood pressure or diabetes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adults ages 18 to 60 get seven or more hours of sleep a night. But, your personal needs may vary. Some people are fine on seven hours of sleep a night, while others may find they need at least nine to be at their best. And, interestingly, getting more shut-eye than our body requires doesn’t do us more good.

Ritterband points out that staying up late isn't necessarily a bad thing. But when you do it habitually, and still stick to an early wake time, you may be fooling yourself about how fresh and ready to go you really are in the morning.

One way to find out is to run a simple test. Stay up late for three consecutive nights, says Ritterband, and each following day write down how much energy, concentration, and moodiness you have. Then, for the next three nights, go to bed earlier and do the same. You might discover a huge difference, or one that is negligible. Think back to the outcomes the next time you're tempted to stay up late reading another chapter or catching up on the late-night talk shows. You'll have a better idea of what staying up late will cost you the next morning—and whether it's worth doing.

Take Small Steps

While we might find that going to bed earlier is better for us, the challenge is actually shutting down and getting into bed at a reasonable hour. Winter suggests thinking of the goal to get more sleep as similar to a doctor recommending losing 20 pounds. Nobody could do that over a weekend. The same goes for sleep. Break the big goal into smaller, incremental steps. If, for example, we want to eventually go to sleep two hours earlier, we should start by going to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier the first week, then slowly stretch out that length of time to an hour, or so, earlier. “That’s more achievable,” Winter says.

It may also help to give ourselves a signal. At night, when we’re comfortable and zoning out with a show, it’s easy to lose track of time. Set an alert for 15 to 30 minutes before the time you want to go to bed as reminder that it’s time to start the wind-down process. We still might ignore the alert; but, as Winter says, the alarm is a subtle prompt to prevent bedtime “creeping up on you.”

Go for Bragging Rights

Instead of kicking off a round of one-upmanship with friends over how little sleep you got the night before, turn getting adequate rest into a competition. Text some friends, “Who’s ready for the sleep challenge?” Chances are, many people you know would love to get more shut-eye. Set whatever goal you want, and each morning, ask everybody to get on the thread and record his or her number of sleep hours. While it may sound preposterous to think that your friends will compete on sleep, a little peer pressure can sneak in and be a motivating factor. This friendly competition can also help us start to pay more attention to the structure of our days and start actively shifting aspects around in order to be ready for an earlier bedtime, points out Winter.

Use All 24 Hours

If your desire for personal time is what's getting in the way of you getting enough sleep, it might help to seek out other pockets of time during the day to do the activities you've been putting off until what should be your bedtime. Winter suggests teaming up with a partner or friend to be each other’s efficiency officer, helping each identify spots in our days where we're losing time. We can even support each other by pitching in with small chores, or encouraging the other to squeeze them in during the day, to save up minutes, even half- and full evening hours where you can be free to listen to music, go for a walk, or just relax and recharge. Or schedule some me-time activities, like a hot shower, call with a friend, or calming walk in the daytime hours.

With all these possibilities, the part that might reduce stress the most is remembering that nothing is permanent. “We can make choices, and we can change our choices,” says Ritterband, adding that the fundamental reminder is to be kind to ourselves. “We’re in unprecedented times. Appreciate that life is especially challenging right now, and we don’t have to be perfect.” Try some changes out, and see how it goes.

This article was reviewed by Happify's Director of DTx Product Design Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep specialist.

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