It just drives me crazy how my husband can lay down and be asleep AS SOON AS HIS HEAD HITS THE PILLOW! Of course, I lay in bed for an hour and a half before I even start to feel sleepy.
I hear this a lot. Especially when I’m working with clients who have insomnia. In fact, the number one sleep goal I hear from people over and over again is that they want to be able to fall asleep faster.
Unfortunately, many of the tips and tricks we hear from friends, relatives, the Internet, and even our doctors is actually terrible advice. As I wrote about in The Problem With Sleep Hygiene, most of the things we do to try and get better sleep usually end up backfiring and keeping us awake.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good solutions out there. But unlike all the sleep hygiene tips that are pitched as being simple and easy solutions for better sleep, the solutions I’m going to recommend are simple but not necessarily easy—at least not in the beginning.
But fear not. Along with an explanation of each tactic, I’ll also discuss what makes them difficult for most people and offer some specific techniques for overcoming these obstacles.
There’s one more thing to be aware of, however, before we dive in there’s one very simple but very powerful idea we need to consider. And really, it’s the only thing you need to know and remember about falling asleep fast: If you want to fall asleep quickly, you must be sleepy.
Seems obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how often we get in bed hoping or expecting to fall asleep easily despite not actually being very sleepy.
Consequently, both of these suggestions are based on the one premise that the greater your sleepiness, the greater your ability to overcome just about any barrier to falling asleep such as worry, stress, noises, light, etc.
Okay, let’s dive in.
Sleep Tactic #1: Get up earlier.
Because of the magic of Sleep Drive, the longer we’re awake throughout the day, the greater our drive or need for sleep will be when bedtime rolls around. And the greater our need for sleep, the more likely it is we will fall asleep quickly, even in the face of other obstacles.
By waking up early, we extend the amount of time we’re awake, increase our sleep drive, and make it easier to overcome obstacles to falling asleep quickly. Like most new habits, however, once is probably not enough; you’ll need to try this at least a few times in a row to really see a meaningful effect.
If possible, try to get up significantly earlier than usual for 3 nights in a row. I recommend at least an hour earlier, preferably two.
Of course, simply getting up a couple hours earlier is not the easiest task for many folks. When giving this recommendation to people I work with, there are two obstacles that tend to derail peoples’ good intentions when it comes to waking up early:
- They believe a little more sleep will help them feel more rested during the day. The truth is, the degree to which we feel well-rested after a night’s sleep is primarily a result of the amount of deep sleep that we get not total hours of sleep. Because our bodies prioritize deep sleep during the first half of the night, most of our sleep in the second half of the night, and especially the early morning hours, won’t actually contribute very much to a feeling of restedness. Consequently, if you intend to get up early but have trouble resisting the siren’s call of the snooze button, remember that while rolling over and getting another hour of sleep may feel better for a few seconds before you drift off again, it’s unlikely to meaningfully improve how you feel throughout the day.
- They don’t have anything enjoyable or interesting to do early in the morning. Most people have a hard time waking up early in the morning because their mornings are exclusively full of morning or unpleasant things: deciding what to wear and getting dressed, feeling rushed and worrying about being late, sitting in traffic, eating crappy fast food on the way to work because you didn’t have time to make a good breakfast at home, tackling the first of 45 unpleasant items on your to-do list at work, etc. Instead, what if you had a whole hour at the very start of each day to do something you loved or were fascinated by. Wouldn’t it be great to start your days off with a little morning meditation or reflection followed by a nice cup of freshly ground coffee at your kitchen table? What if you allowed yourself 45 minutes of some guilty pleasure like playing video games or watching a show on Netflix? Or maybe you got ready and headed to work an hour early so you could stop by the cool new coffee shop on the way and spend a leisurely 30 minutes reading the paper and enjoying a freshly-baked blueberry scone? In other words, waking up early is a lot easier if you’ve made a plan for doing something enjoyable or interesting in the morning.
Sleep Tactic #2: Go to bed later.
We can maximize our Sleep Drive (and thus our odds of falling asleep quickly) by staying up a little later than we normally would. Just like waking up earlier allows you to be up longer during the day and accumulate more sleep drive, going to bed later adds to the effect on the other end. While most of us know it’s a good idea not to get into bed until we’re actually sleepy, you can take that idea a step further by not getting into bed until you’re really sleepy. Like heavy eyelids, doing-the-head-nod-in-class-during-a-borning-lecture sleepy.
After you’ve successfully gotten up earlier than usual for three nights in a row, try staying up an hour or so later than usual on top of getting up earlier in the morning. If you’re doing it correctly and not cheating (i.e. sleeping in or snoozing), you’ll start to notice that you’re getting very sleepy by the time the latter half of the evening arrives. The trick at this point is to continue to remain awake without doing anything overly stimulating or arousing.
Most people get into trouble with this tactic because they end up falling sleep too early while they wait for their new extended bedtime to roll around. This is especially true if they’ve been waking up early for a few days. Below are two of the most common mistakes I see people make here and how to avoid them.
- Falling asleep on the couch. Watching a movie or TV in the evenings before bed time is usually a good idea. And it still can be even if you’re trying to increase your Sleep Drive so that you can fall asleep more quickly. The trick with this challenge is to add a small dose of discomfort to your TV watching. As an extreme example, I had a client once who watched TV standing up for the final hour before bed. That’s a little much, if you ask me, but a good alternative is to sit on the floor while you watch rather than the couch or chair. This seems to hit the sweet spot of being uncomfortable enough to keep you awake but not so uncomfortable that you just go back to sitting on the couch.
- A lack of options besides TV. Another challenge people face when it comes to staying up later than usual is a lack of interesting alternatives to TV. Either because they can’t find anything good to watch, or they can’t agree with their spouse on a show, or any of the handful of other reasons, it’s often useful to have an alternative to TV for an evening activity. Something that’s enjoyable but also not so arousing that it will interfere with your sleepiness. Board games and puzzles are two really good options. But a word of warning: Think outside the box. Don’t just spring for Monopoly or that dusty 500 piece puzzle of an oceanscape; instead, make a special trip to Target and look for a new interesting game or puzzle that looks really appealing. This will increase your odds of actually utilizing this strategy significantly.
The main idea is that if you want to fall asleep quickly and easily, you must be sleepy—preferably very sleepy. And the best way to be very sleepy by the time your head hits the pillow is to have been awake for a long time prior to that. To that end, if you can wake up earlier and go to bed later than usual, you will have accumulated increased Sleep Drive and your need for sleep will be high enough to override many of the common things that prevent us from falling asleep easily.