How to Stop Sabotaging Your Sleep

This is an excerpt from Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.

According to a 2016 study by the University of Michigan, Americans spend around eight hours in bed every night, as do folks in Britain, France, and Canada. But despite what seems like a decent amount of time in bed, most of us still don’t get enough sleep. What the heck? Sleep quality is more important than quantity, and our world is full of barriers to getting good sleep — from screens to schedules to caffeine.

When you don’t take care of your body, your brain can’t do its job. If you’ve ever felt slow and uninspired after a big lunch or invigorated and clearheaded after exercising, you know what I mean. If you want energy for your brain, you need to take care of your body. And that means prioritizing sleep.

For our prehistoric ancestors, bedtime would have marked the end of an hours-long process to remove mental stimuli gradually and shift into sleep. Their evenings followed a predictable rhythm: They slept in the dark, and they never lay awake fretting over email.

We, on the other hand, have a very different bedtime ritual that generally involves some sort of screen. But whether it’s social media, email, or the news before bed, our modern routines are sabotaging the process of falling asleep. Instead of winding down, we’re revving up our brain. An annoying email or distressing news story can make our minds race and keep us awake for hours. Here are a few easy tips (taken from our new book Make Time) to adopt prehistoric habits to rest better, feel better, and think better.

Fake the Sunset

When we see bright light, our brains think, “It’s morning. Time to wake up!” This is an ancient and automatic system. In prehistoric times, the system worked great: People fell asleep when it got dark and woke when the sun rose. The natural cycle of the day helped regulate their sleep and energy. But for modern humans, this poses a problem.

Between our screens and our lightbulbs, we’re simulating daylight right up until we climb into bed. It’s as though we’re telling our brains, “It’s day, it’s day, it’s day, it’s day — WHOA, IT’S NIGHT, GO TO BED.” No wonder we have trouble sleeping.

We’re not the first to point out this problem. For years, people have been saying you should avoid looking at your phone or laptop in bed. That’s good advice, but it’s not enough. You need to fake the sunset.

Here’s how:

  1. Starting when you eat dinner or a few hours before your ideal bedtime, turn down the lights in your home. Switch off bright overhead lights. Instead, use dim table or side lamps. For bonus points, light candles at the dinner table.
  2. Turn on your phone, computer, or TV’s “night mode.” These features shift screen colors from blue to red and orange. Instead of looking at a bright sky, it’s like sitting around a campfire.
  3. When you go to bed, kick all devices out of the room. If this is too hard to do, keep your chargers anywhere but your bedroom. Permanently.
  4. If sunlight or streetlight is still sneaking into your bedroom, try a simple sleep mask over your eyes. Yes, you will feel and look a little silly, but they work.

Don’t Jet Lag Yourself

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we fall behind on sleep. We have a busy week, an ill-timed flight, or some stress or worry that keeps us up at night, and we find ourselves with that all too familiar feeling of being overtired.

We were talking about sleep challenges with our friend Kristen Brillantes, who’s one of the most ambitious and productive people we know. In addition to her day job as the head of design operations at Stripe, she’s a food-truck owner and a life coach for all kinds of entrepreneurs and young professionals.

“It’s tempting to try catching up by sleeping late,” Kristen said. “The problem is, it doesn’t work.”

She told us that sleeping late on weekends is basically like giving yourself jet lag. It confuses your internal clock and makes it even harder to bounce back from the original deficit. So just as you would when traveling to a different time zone, she recommends resisting the temptation to oversleep and trying to stick as closely as possible to your regular schedule.

“Sleep debt” is a real thing, and its bad news for your health, wellness, and ability to focus. But one Saturday of sleeping until noon — glorious as that is — won’t do much to pay off your debt. Instead, you need to chip away at it, using these tactics to help you catch up by sleeping well in day-by-day installments. To keep your battery charged, leave the alarm set to the same time every day whether it’s a weekday, weekend, or holiday.