A surprising amount of us aren’t getting the sleep we need, which means that we could all benefit from better sleep habits and an upgraded bedtime routine. Exactly how sleepless are we? Well, over a quarter of American adults struggle with sleep most nights, and 68 percent have trouble with sleep at least once per week, according to a Consumer Reports survey.
You probably don’t even need those numbers to know that many of us are running on caffeine-induced fumes. We speak from experience here; we’ve been there too. But you’re not doomed to live the life of deprivation—there are plenty of science-backed ways to take back control of your sleep. And we’ve pulled the best of them into a simple and organized bedtime routine. For adults.
The Best Bedtime Routine, According to Science
A bedtime routine for adults? We know. But here’s the thing—the science backs it up and so does our personal experience. Simply put, bedtime routines work. And they’re important for everyone, regardless of age. It’s time to give your own sleep the priority it demands so you can get the productivity you desire. Your end goal is to get your work done, improve your focus, and hit your goals. Sleep helps with all of that. And a good bedtime routine helps with sleep. Win-win.
But First, What is a Bedtime Routine?
Before we jump into steps and strategies, let’s take a second to define what we actually mean here. A bedtime routine is a set of repeated behaviors that prep your mind and body for good sleep. Over time, your brain recognizes these behaviors as precursors to sleep, which makes it easier once you get into bed. Our bedtime routine includes strategies to set up your brain, body, and bedroom for optimal sleep.
3 Steps to the Best Sleep Ever
…and a bunch of ways to accomplish them. For maximum sleep success, put all the strategies for each step into place. But truthfully? Even one will help. Besides, we know now that trying to make too drastic of a lifestyle change reduces your likelihood to stick with the behavior. So try one step at a time until these are second nature.
Step 1: Set up your environment for sleep success
One simple way you can make sleep easier? Build the best setting to make it happen. It goes back to behavior change; the more conducive your environment is to your goal behavior, the easier it is to accomplish it. And easier is good.
This checklist for a sleep-friendly bedroom is the first, and perhaps easiest, step of your new bedtime routine.
Keep out the noise
Noisy environments interrupt your sleep and reduce its quality, even when you don’t realize that it’s happening. Studies show that these effects occur without your awareness and result from things like occasional traffic, a train passing, a dog barking, your partner’s incessant snoring. Translation: It takes way less noise than you think to disrupt your sleep.
How: Reduce the noise with earplugs and/or mask it with consistent white noise such as a fan. Both are proven techniques for protecting your sleep quality. And both are pretty easy to incorporate into a bedtime routine.
Keep out the light
How: Purchase a set of blackout or light-blocking curtains. Even easier? Use a sleep mask instead.
Keep out the heat
Your body naturally lowers its temperature as you go to sleep, by a pretty drastic two to three degrees Fahrenheit. To support this process, experts agree that a cooler sleeping environment is better, with an ideal temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit or below for most people.
How: Sleep in and on breathable fabrics like cotton or linen. Turn the thermometer down a notch before crawling under the covers. And now for a seemingly contradictory strategy—take a warm bath about an hour before bed. Your body temp cools down as the water evaporates. The key word here is warm. If it’s too hot, you risk the opposite effect.
Keep out everything else
The last way to protect your sleeping environment is to resist the urge to let any other activities in it. In other words, save the bed for sex and sleep. If you’re working in bed or snacking in bed, you’ll start to associate the bed with a workplace or a snack spot or literally anything other than its real purpose—sleep.
How: No laptops, no TV, and even no smartphones, if you want to take your sleep hygiene seriously. More on those devices later.
Step 2: Set a schedule—and stick with it
A key part of this whole bedtime routine thing is the routine. Having one preps your brain for what’s coming next and helps you wind down from the pace of your day. Without the disruptions of modern life (e.g., tech, electricity), your body actually has its own rhythm. The goal is to try to get closer to it.
Here are some strategies for capturing that rhythm, or any rhythm, in your normal bedtime routine.
At any time of day: Exercise
There’s very solid evidence that physical exercise improves sleep, but for years it always came with the caveat that you shouldn’t exercise too close to bedtime. It turns out those worries were unfounded—several recent studies have found that exercise close to bedtime doesn’t have a negative effect on sleep. In fact, it might even improve sleep quality. The takeaway is simple: Exercise whenever it suits your mood or schedule.
In the afternoon: Cut the caffeine
A 400 mg dose of caffeine—almost exactly the amount in a 16 oz Blonde Roast from Starbucks—significantly disrupts sleep even if you drink the coffee up to six hours before bedtime. It takes a really long time for that delicious stuff to work through your system.
Two hours before bed: Put the gadgets away
The blue wavelength light that comes from electronics and some bright lights is terrible for your sleep. One of the latest studies found that exposure to blue light before bed decreases total sleep time, suppresses melatonin, and makes you more likely to wake up during the night. The safest strategy is to just put all the electronics away in the evening, or at the very least, about 30 minutes before bed. But there are also some apps and features such as iOS’s Night Shift that can help.
Whenever you grab a nightcap: Limit your alcohol
It’s scientifically true that drinking alcohol before bed helps you fall asleep, but it comes at the cost of your overall sleep quality. The more alcohol you drink, the longer it will take you to reach REM sleep and the fewer total hours of REM sleep you will likely enjoy. So even if a cocktail helps you fall asleep faster, it won’t help you stay in that good, deep, necessary sleep. We say limit your nightcaps if you want the best sleep you can get.
Step 3: Quiet the mind
Now that you’ve straightened out your bedroom and schedule, it’s time to confront the final thing in the way of your nightly sleep goal: the racing mind. We know the feeling all too well. It goes something like this—the racing thoughts compound into new stress about the sleep you’re missing, distributed over the x hours until your next opportunity to sleep, multiplied by the number of unread emails in your inbox. To better your chances of hitting your goal, here are some scientifically-backed strategies for quieting the mind.
Wind down gradually and steadily
Be strategic about the order of your evening activities. Try to make it so the most mentally intense tasks are done as early as possible to give your brain the space to relax. Simple tweaks—like checking email one last time for the night before, instead of after, digging into your new novel—can make all the difference.
Leave your work at work—or at least in another room
Although it might not be possible anymore to physically leave your work at the office, you should still set a strict cutoff time from work. And then actually stick to it. That means physically leaving your work phone or laptop in another room, closed or turned over, to minimize side glances at your screens.
Figure out what relaxes you and do it regularly
Give yourself 20 minutes before bed for that one thing that calms you down. Maybe you read a book, do a guided meditation, sketch, or have some tea. It’s really up to you. Whatever it is, you want to make it a habit; it will help your body recognize that sleep is on its way.
Mix and match strategies for an adult bedtime routine that works for you
We hope you’ll use these strategies to set up your bedroom, schedule, and mind to give you your best sleep ever—tonight and every night. We know you’ll find what works for you. Keep trying until you do.
Your turn: What’s essential in your bedtime routine? Tell us more in the comments.
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Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.