I used to have the bad habit of staying up longer than I should in the evenings, sometimes a fair bit past midnight. I’d be running on fumes and caffeine, and by the time the fumes ran out and I got to bed, I would be completely exhausted. Still I often had problems falling asleep, and often slept badly.

I would wake up in the morning, after 5-6 hours of sleep, snooze a few times until I absolutely had to get up in order to not be late for work, feeling about as tired as the day before. I’d take a long warm shower to wake up, rush off to work (often slightly late), and hit the coffee machine as soon as I got there to properly wake up.

My arrival time at work was highly random, depending on how much sleep I got and other factors — luck definitely being one of them. One thing was always true, however — I was always tired. It was not uncommon for me to feel like the day had not properly begun before lunch — after lunch I started being much more productive and focused. Naturally, people would tell me “you need to get more sleep” — but that is a gross simplification of how sleep works. In this article I will tell you a bit more about how sleep works, and what I have changed in my life.

Tired and sleepy

Let me start by taking a look at a couple of words that we use to describe our state of energy: tired and sleepy. Sleepy means feeling drowsy, a specific signal that the body uses to signal to you, “hey, I need rest”. Tired, however, is the general feeling of mental and physical fatigue brought on by long activity without rest.

There are many things you can do to manipulate feeling sleepy, the most common one being caffeine. Caffeine shuts out the sleepy signal, preventing it from reaching your brain. There’s not much you can do about feeling tired, however (short of narcotic substances, but those are unlikely to have a good effect on you long-term).

As you grow more tired, your brain partially shuts down, causing you to be less productive in what you do, make more mistakes, and enjoy what you do less. Tiredness is also a major part in determining what mood you are in.

How long should I sleep?

The amount of sleep you get is much less important than most people think in feeling rested or tired. Many people will tell you: “The amount of sleep each person needs is individual, but adults need between 8 and 9 hours of sleep”. This is an extremely simplified way to view sleep.

What you need is a certain amount of high-quality sleep — specifically the REM stage of sleep you might have heard of (more on sleep stages later in the article). I think the reason different people need different amounts of sleep is most likely that some people simply sleep better, making up for the fact that they also sleep less. The actual amount of high-quality sleep an adult person needs is likely a lot less than 8 hours.

Sleep quality

Many people feel intuitively like they can’t affect their quality of sleep. You lay down, fall asleep, and then wake up hoping you will feel rested. What happens in-between can feel like magic, since you have no conscious choices to make about it. Though sleep has some magic qualities to it, there are lots of things you can do to affect your quality of sleep.

How rested you feel when you wake up is the result of a number of factors, including what state your body was in when you went to bed, the sleeping environment, and the state your mind was in when you woke up. These are all factors that you can change. It is true that once you fall asleep, there is little you can do to change things, but there are many things you can do prior to going to bed.

Falling asleep

The first thing you should look at is how you fall asleep. Being able to fall asleep when you go to bed is important to getting a good night’s sleep. Make sure you have a quiet environment to sleep in, make the room as dark as you want it by shutting what blinds or curtains you have.

The human body is wired to fall asleep when it is low on energy. It makes sense then to not fill up on energy just before you go to bed — stay away from that evening snack. The best time to eat is around 3-4 hours before you go to bed. This will let your body process the food, but it will still not be empty enough on energy to make you feel hungry.

The number one factor for many people (including myself) in having problems falling asleep is caffeine. Remember how I mentioned that caffeine stops that “sleepy” signal from reaching your brain? If you don’t watch your intake of caffeine, it may stop you from falling asleep easily.

It takes one hour for caffeine to reach full effect in your body, and 3-4 hours for it to lose half of its effect. That means that after 6-8 hours you will have a quarter of the effect still in your body. Eating or drinking anything with caffeine in it after lunch is a really bad idea if you want to be able to fall asleep easily. Just the fact that you drank a cup of coffee in the morning may actually have some impact (though not a large one) on your sleep the coming night.

Sleeping soundly

There are many factors to sleeping soundly. Some are beyond our control, but many are possible to change. The factors I mentioned above: energy level and caffeine both affect not only how easy it is to fall asleep but also how soundly you sleep. Getting those factors right have a double positive effect on your sleep!

Another factor that come into play is how well hydrated you are. You need to keep your hydration level up well before you go to bed — drinking lots of water just before you go to bed is a bad idea as well. Alcohol is known to prevent your body from absorbing water properly, which is part of why you can get hung over.

Finally, many people snore. You may not have considered this as a factor you can affect, but there are plenty of things available over-the-counter that can reduce your snoring. Snoring can actually be an indication of serious problems, but the basics of snoring is that the sound comes from parts of your body vibrating because something is blocking your breathing. Not strange that you don’t feel rested if you can’t breathe well during sleep! If you snore, check with your doctor about it. There may be easy solutions that can dramatically increase the quality of your sleep — and your life.

Waking up and getting up

The most important factor in how tired you feel is how you wake up. The first thing to note is that you need to know how the body’s sleep cycle works in order to understand how to wake up the best way. Let us have a look at that:

hypnogramAs you sleep, you go through a number of “sleep stages”: Stage 1-4 of NREM (non rapid eye movement) sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each cycle is about 90 minutes long on average. Your body goes through the four stages of NREM sleep into progressively┬á deeper sleep, comes back out of deep sleep into a period of REM sleep. This is where you dream.

The longer you sleep, the less time you’ll spend in deep sleep, and the more time you’ll spend in REM sleep. During some of the REM-periods you may also experience short periods of micro-awakenings where your body essentially awakes but immediately falls back asleep. To wake up during one of these periods of REM-sleep, or micro-awakenings is the most comfortable. To wake up from deep sleep leaves you drowsy. The difference between waking during in deep sleep and during a micro-awakening is incredible.

With sleep cycles averaging out at 90 minutes, this means you should try to set your alarm as close to a multiple of 90 minutes as possible. To end up close to normal lengths of sleep, you thus get either 6 hours, 7 and a half hour or 9 hours of sleep. The less sleep you get, the smaller window you’ll get to wake up right.

You can also note that the normal span said to be good for adults, 8-9 hours is entirely within a section of the sleep cycle where you will be in deeper sleep! Unless you plan on sleeping 9 hours, you are likely to feel more refreshed and less tired if you sleep 7 and a half hours than you are if you sleep 8 hours or more.

Snooze

The explanation above on sleep cycles also explains why snooze is so bad. When you wake up from REM sleep or a micro-awakening, your mind will be in a state ready to go. If you get up at this point, you will feel full of energy. If you wake up from a deeper sleep, you won’t feel as great.

It is easy to fall to the reasoning that “a few more minutes” will make the morning better, especially if you woke up in the wrong part of the sleep cycle. Consider what snoozing does: it re-starts the sleep cycle, letting your mind quickly descend into the deeper sleep phases again. This guarantees that the next time you wake up, you wont feel any bit better at all. And snoozing again just repeats the whole thing.

Unless you have 45 minutes or so to spare, there is no better way of getting less tired than getting up. If you do have 45 minutes — re-set your alarm clock for that new time. Snoozing repeatedly for 30 minutes is just a waste of 30 minutes — it’s not going to make you feel less tired, and you lose 30 minutes in the process.

I have found it best to not even let my body have a moment to doubt — I place my alarm clock slightly longer than an arm’s length from my bed, and when it rings I immediately slip out of bed and switch it off. The best way to feel good about the bad mornings is to accept that as soon as you wake up, you have lost your shot at a better morning. Snoozing is not going to improve things, it will just waste time.

Gadgets

There are various technological gadgets that can actually help you wake up better. I can’t comment on all of them, but I will comment on the two I have tried:

The first gadget is the Dawn Simulator alarm clocks: These alarm clocks are available in different shapes and from different manufacturers. I have tried the Philips one, which is really good during winters when mornings here are dark as midnight. They simulate a sunrise by fading a light up.

This works because our bodies have become used to activate with light. A sunrise-light light switching on 30 minutes before you’re due to get up is a signal to your body to enter the later stages of sleep, making it easier for you to wake up (the chance is higher you’ll be in REM sleep). I recommend these if you have a hard time getting up in winter mornings.

The second product I have tried is the Sleeptracker Wake Up Monitor series of alarm clock wrist watches. These watches are somewhat bulky wrist watches that you wear as you go to bed. You set a window of time where you want to wake up, and the watch actually measures your sleeping stages and tries to wake you up during a micro-awakening.

In general, this works brilliantly well. It is the only somewhat reliable way I have found of waking up during a micro-awakening, and the experience is almost surreal — you wake up, and then the alarm clock beeps, not the other way around. My only problems with this is its bulkiness and its lack of a vibration mode — though apparently a vibration mode has been added in later models. Getting used to going to bed with a wrist watch was actually less of a problem than I thought it would be.

In addition to all the tips I have given above, these are definitely a recommended purchase if you care about feeling rested.

Listening to your body

Despite my experiences with the gadgets above, I believe that no gadget can ever help your sleep quality or tiredness if you don’t learn to listen to your body. Using caffeine to numb your feeling of sleepiness is a good example of how to not listen to your body. After I stopped using caffeine, I definitely got more sleepy — but it turns out that I am mostly sleepy when I really need to sleep.

You don’t even need to stop caffeine completely to get the effect. Don’t use caffeine as a way to stay awake when you’re getting sleepy, and you have taken a fair few steps on the road to a more rested and balanced lifestyle.

Getting into this more positive pattern of sleep lets me take my body’s request for sleep more seriously, since I’m no longer sleepy or tired all the time.

My results

I now wake up early, and immediately get up. I usually aim for going to bed at 10:30, and my alarm is usually set for 6, where it used to be set to 7 or 7:30 — and I never snooze. I get out of bed immediately, take a shower and get ready for work. Normally I’m one of the first people to arrive at the office. I very rarely have mornings where I feel like I don’t want to get up, and I’m always clear-headed and feeling full of energy.

This has unexpectedly freed up my afternoons, since I now leave work much earlier and feel much less tired when I do. A more important long-term result is that I no longer regularly get ill, and the one time I got a cold since starting my changes, it passed much quicker than my colds previously did and was much milder.

I generally aim for sleeping 7 hours and 30 minutes, but sometimes reduce it to 6 hours if I’ve got a lot going on. I have learned to hit the mark so well I very rarely wake up in a bad part of my sleep cycle any more. I have also fixed most of my problems sleeping by eating and going to bed at the same times most nights, and most importantly I don’t regularly drink anything with caffeine in it anymore.

The end result is that I feel rested and full of energy in a way that is incredible — without actually sleeping much more every night.