The 7 Habits of Exceptionally Good Sleepers

Ironically, most great sleepers don’t try very hard to sleep: They don’t read lots of articles about sleep hygiene or constantly experiment with new evening routines or even talk all that much about their sleep. It’s just something that sort of happens.

Of course, this is incredibly annoying if you’re one of those people who has trouble sleeping well:

I try so hard to sleep and it only seems to be getting worse. Meanwhile, my husband passes out the minute his head hits the pillow!

Here’s the thing: Even if most great sleepers aren’t aware of why they sleep well, they’re still doing something right.

What follows are 7 habits of exceptionally good sleepers. Obviously, not all good sleepers do all of these things. But if you struggle with sleep, they’re a very good palce to start getting things backc on track.


1. They go to bed when they’re sleepy, not just tired

Tired is not the same thing as sleepy.

You’d be tired after running a marathon, but I’ve never heard of anyone falling asleep immediately after crossing the finish line—no matter how grueling a race it was.

One of the biggest mistakes people make with their sleep is assuming that they have to get into bed at the same time every night.

False. You should get into bed when your body is actually ready to fall asleep—when you’re feeling sleepy, not just tired.

If you get into bed when you’re tired but not actually sleepy, you’re going to have trouble falling asleep, then start to get frustrated and anxious about not falling asleep, both of which will only wake you up more and make it harder to fall asleep.

So how do I know if I’m actually sleepy, not just tired, and ready to get into bed?

There’s one fool-proof sign that you are in fact good and truly sleepy: Heavy eyelids.

If your eyelids are getting heavy, that’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re ready to get into bed and fall asleep.

2. They don’t worry in bed

I get that this one sounds kind of glib, but hear me out…

In 6+ years working as a sleep psychologist, I never met someone with sleep troubles who didn’t also spend a lot of time in bed worrying about not sleeping.

Well obviously! If you have sleep problems you’re going to worry about not sleeping!

True, but the causality goes both ways…

Your sleep struggles may very well have led to your sleep worries initially. But there’s a very good chance that your sleep worries are the very thing maintaining your sleep struggles now.

If you struggle to fall (and stay) asleep, let this be your golden rule: Never worry in bed.

In other words, if you find yourself awake and worrying in bed—either before you’ve fallen asleep initially or after waking up in the middle of the night—get out and do something else until you’re no longer worrying and feeling sleepy again. Then get back in bed.

The more time you spend in bed worrying, the more you train your brain to associate the bed with worrying. Do this enough, and your bed becomes an unconscious trigger for your brain to start worrying!

To break the cycle, simply don’t allow yourself to worry in bed. Easier said than done, of course. But critical nonetheless.

Learn More: Tools & Resources for Managing Worry and Anxiety

3. They get out of bed at the same time every morning

When it comes to getting into bed and getting out, most people have got it backward: They assume they should follow the clock and get into bed at the same time every evening but listen to their body and not get out of bed until they feel rested in the morning.

In reality, you should do the exact opposite:

  • When it comes to getting into bed in the evening, forget about the clock and listen to your body (see #1).
  • When it comes to getting out of bed in the morning, forget about your body and listen to the alarm clock.

The reasoning is actually pretty straightforward:

  • If you want to be sleepy at bedtime and get a solid night’s rest, you have to have been awake long enough for your body to build up enough sleep drive.
  • But if you’re constantly sleeping in, you’re shortening the amount of time you have between waking up and going to bed—which means you will consistently have a hard time falling asleep.
  • And if you struggle to fall asleep later and later, you’re going to want to sleep in more and more. See where this vicious cycle is heading?

Now, you could try to get in bed earlier—the idea being that you’ll have more time to fall asleep and get enough sleep so that you’ll wake up feeling rested. But as we discussed, you can’t control whether your body is ready for sleep.

On the other hand, you can control when you get out of bed, even if it’s difficult sometimes.

If you want to reset your bad sleep habits and start training your body to sleep consistently and well, start by setting and sticking to a consistent wake up time each day (yes, that means weekends too). Everything else will follow from that.

4. They don’t catastrophize poor sleep

Everybody gets a bad night of sleep sometimes.

And while it’s understandable that you would worry about those bad nights of sleep (and the effects they might have on you) it’s utterly counterproductive.

For example:

  • You get woken up multiple times in the middle of the night by your sick child. As a result, you wake up feeling pretty rough.
  • Throughout the day, you spend a lot of time thinking about how bad you feel and worrying about how really bad you’re going to feel tomorrow if you don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight.
  • As bedtime gets closer and closer, you start worrying more and more about sleeping well.
  • Unfortunately, the more worried you are the more aroused you are. And the more aroused you are, the less likely it is for you to fall asleep initially and stay asleep throughout the night.
  • Worrying about your poor sleep has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No matter how bad your sleep is, worrying about it will only make things worse.

Instead, get in the habit of validating your poor sleep (that is, reminding yourself that, yes, it does suck to not sleep well) but then not dwelling on it or catastrophizing about what might happen as a result.

Remind yourself that everyone gets bad sleep sometimes. And even though it feels rough, your body knows how to sleep and will get better sleep tonight as long as you don’t interfere by worrying more about it.

5. They exercise regularly

Sleep happens because our bodies build up sleep drive.

Similar to other biological drives like hunger, the longer you go without sleep the more your body will want to sleep (i.e. the higher your sleep drive). And the more your body wants to sleep, the greater the odds that you A) fall asleep quickly, and B) stay asleep throughout the night.

So if you want to sleep well, maintaining good sleep drive is essential.

The most important way to do this is to simply be awake long enough for your body to build up enough sleep drive. But you can accelerate your body’s accumulation of sleep drive by being more physically active during the day.

Which makes sense if you think about it: Even if your “normal” amount of sleep is, say, seven and a half hours, your body is probably going to need more than that if you spent all day doing hard physical labor. On the other hand, if you lay around watching Netflix all day long, your body probably won’t need the full seven and a half.

So if you want to fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply, make sure you’re exercising regularly.

6. They protect their “sleep runway” in the evenings

Your mind is like a jumbo jet: It’s powerful, fast, and hard working. Using your mind all day long at work to solve problems and get things done is like a jet flying at 30,000 feet.

But here’s the thing about jets… They’re very particular about how they land.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, jets don’t just fly as fast and as high as they can until they’re immediately above the airport, then slam the brakes and dive bomb to the gate. Obviously, that wouldn’t lead to a very smooth or safe landing 🙂

So what do they do? They have a gentle, slow landing procedure: About 30 minutes before arrival, the plane starts gradually descending toward the airport. Then it lands, but it lands on a long runway that gives it plenty of time to slow down. Finally, even once the plane has come to a stop, it then slowly taxis to the gate.

I use this analogy because the reason a lot of people struggle to sleep well—and to fall asleep, in particular—is that they don’t give their minds time to unwind and slow down. They assume they can be go-go-going at full speed and then just flip a switch and pass out.

Sorry, your brain doesn’t work that way.

Like a jumbo jet, it’s a high-flying piece of machinery that needs time to slow down before it’s ready to call it a night. And one of the best ways to do this is to create (and protect) your “sleep runway” in the evening.

Your sleep runway is the hour or two before bedtime. Ideally, it should be free from intensely analytical, stressful, or problem-solving type activities (think responding to work email or having serious life conversations with your spouse).

If you want an easy, smooth transition into sleep, protect your sleep runway. Watch tv, read, flip through magazines, do puzzles, knit, whatever. Just make sure whatever activities you’re doing before bed are encouraging your problem-solving brain to slow down rather than speed up.

7. They Don’t Try to Sleep

This final point is actually the most important. And if you take only one thing away from this article, it should be this:

You can’t try to sleep.

The harder and more effortful you try to sleep, the more aroused your brain becomes. This is true of anything from trying hard to win a debate to trying hard to solve algebra equations. Effort leads to arousal. And the more aroused your brain is, the less likely it is to relax and fall asleep.

So even if your goal is sleep, if the road you’re taking to get there involves effort, it’s simply not going to happen.

Now sleep effort can take all sorts of forms:

  • Reading articles in bed about better sleep hygiene.
  • Worrying about whether you’ll be able to perform well tomorrow at work if you don’t get enough sleep.
  • Yelling at yourself with lots of self-critical and judgmental self-talk about why you have to get to sleep.
  • Telling everyone you meet about your insomnia problems and struggles with sleep.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

The more time you spend obsessing over, working on, and generally exerting effort around sleep, paradoxically the harder it becomes to simply fall (and stay) asleep.


All You Need to Know

Your body’s ability to sleep is like its ability to breathe: It can do it perfectly well without you. 90% of sleep problems are the unintended result of trying to make your body do something it already knows how to do; and as a result, causing more harm than good.

Instead of trying to make yourself sleep, commit to a few of the above habits and trust that your body will take care of the rest:

  1. Only get into bed if you’re sleepy, not just tired.
  2. Never worry in bed.
  3. Get out of bed at the same time every morning (regardless of whether you slept well or not).
  4. Don’t catastrophize poor sleep.
  5. Exercise more.
  6. Protect your sleep runway.
  7. Stop trying to sleep.

4 Comments

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Thank you, this is the best sleep hygiene article I’ve ever read. The analog you used is so relatable, now I know exactly why after an evening shift (10 pm) I can’t fall asleep right away. Instead of being tired, my brain is hyper-aroused because the work activities were usually analytical, stressful. I am so glad to learn that it is a “thing” and I am not alone. I used to think it’s because I am one of the “Highly sensitive people” and always attributed my hyper-stimulation to that. Now I have a better understanding of the causalities and problems: any high-flying machines need to slow down before they can land, and my mind needs to unwind before I can feel sleepy.
Another thing is I’ve realized even before reading this article: those without sleeping issues never worry about sleep, they seem to have so much confidence. My sleep is actually not that bad, however, my apprehension might have fueled this worry and created this identity in me, which led me to self-label as someone with poor sleep. Now I am going to focus on my good nights and stop dramatizing and telling others that I don’t sleep well.
I’ve printed this article to re-read it later and continue reminding myself.
Thank you so much again for such wonderful sights and mindsets, I’ve gained a good understanding of this problem and I feel this long-term issue of mine is 90% solved right away!

This was a good article, but it didn’t cover things such as people who wake up in the wee hours and have trouble getting back to sleep. What do we do then?

You get out of bed same as if you couldn’t fall asleep in the first place. Frustrating I know but laying in bed “trying” to fall back to sleep doesn’t work. So get up, go read or watch something mindless on TV. Also check out Martin Reed at insomniacoach.com. Found him through a podcast with Nick.

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