Setting up a good sleep schedule you can follow every night is a major step in beating chronic insomnia for good.
Why is it so important to go to bed at the same time at night and wake up at the same time every morning?
Because the body needs consistency. The body likes a routine. It thrives on habit.
This might be hard for some people to accept. Especially if you are a creative Night Owl or if you’re easily bored, or if you thrive on change and excitement.
That’s all fine. But when it comes to sleep, your body still likes consistency. If you want to sleep better, you will heed the physical realities of your body.
The sleep schedule is part of what is often called “sleep hygiene,” a strange term to be sure, but it simply means a collection of routines, habits, and patterns that have proven to help insomniacs sleep better. It is not necessary to understand the exact scientific details of why your body likes a consistent sleep schedule. But it is something you must accept and put into practice if you want to cure your chronic insomnia.
So what exactly does this involve? Well, first, you establish a specific bedtime and a specific wake-up time.
Step One: Setting Up Your Bedtime
When is the best time to go to bed? If you work a typical day job, 8 to 5, consider a bedtime between 10:00 and 12:00. Some people think this is a good 2-hour window based on cyclical body rhythms. But if it isn’t practical for you because you work late hours, or would be too big of a change from your current schedule, go for the most reasonable time for your hours.
Remember you can also choose half-hours and quarter hours. Of course, if you are an early riser and are already accustomed to turning in at 9:00, that’s good too.
The important thing is not so much the exact time but that once you establish your bedtime, you stick with it every night.
Step Two: Setting Your Wake-up Time
Your wake-up time depends on several factors. One is how much sleep you think you need. If you give yourself seven hours, and you establish a bedtime of 10:30, then set your wake-up time for 5:30. If you want to give yourself a full eight hours, go for 6:30. If that’s too late, then move up your bedtime to 10:00 and get up at 6:00. You see how this works.
In the beginning, however, it is best to give yourself less time in bed than you think you need. I discuss why this is so shortly under the heading “Limiting your time in bed.”
Once you have your sleep schedule down on paper, you must stick to it. That means you go to bed when you say you will, and you get out of bed when you say you will. Whatever is down on that paper, that’s what you do. No matter how little sleep you get, or even if you get no sleep at all, you still get up at your usual time.
Side Note: What About Sleeping Later If You Haven’t Slept All Night
OK, here’s the tricky part. Let’s say you don’t have to be at work one day – perhaps it’s a weekend or whatever – and you haven’t slept a wink all night. It is now 6:00 AM, and your wake-up time is set for 6:30. You are just getting relaxed and think to yourself, “I could sleep now and since I don’t have to get up for work, I could just stay in bed as long as I have to.”
Should you try to get a couple hours of shuteye and miss your wake-up time?
A strict sleep expert would say no. You must get up and out of bed in order to keep your sleep schedule. You are trying to establish a sleep schedule, a consistent pattern for your body to accept, and it’s important to resist the urge to go past your set wake-up time. You must get up.
But as a former insomniac who has tried every method in every book available, I can be more lenient than a sleep doctor. I can say, sure, go ahead and see if you can fall asleep. One hour of sleep in the early morning has gotten me through many days and I’ve been thankful for it. One hour is still, in my book, better than nothing.
However, it’s not wise to stay in bed too long. If you go back to sleep, you probably won’t sleep very long, especially if you have plenty of morning light in your room. After an hour of sleep, if you can get it, go on and get out of bed. That hour will see you through the day quite nicely.
Step Three: Limiting Your Time In Bed
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of establishing a consistent sleep schedule and sticking to it, you should know about a specific technique that sleep experts often recommend: limiting your time in bed.
It goes like this: if you have been averaging somewhere between zero and three hours of sleep a night for the past several weeks or months (welcome to the world of chronic insomnia), allow yourself only between five and six hours of bedtime per night.
That means you either go to bed later than usual or you get up earlier than usual. You choose.
Either way, by purposely limiting your time in bed and depriving yourself the opportunity to toss and turn in the dark and drive yourself nuts for a full eight hours, you will “teach” your body that it’s not only OK to get less sleep than you think you need – but it’s actually desirable!
This is a behavioral method that can be very effective for some insomniacs.
If you want to read a full write up of how this method works, try the book, Desperately Seeking Snoozin. The author, John Weidman, gives the full details of his own sleep regimen that cured him of not only months, but of many years, of chronic insomnia. It is an entertaining book to read as well.
This method did not work for me because I suffered a serious case of sleep anxiety. When I stayed up late, I actually became more anxious and had to quit after several days. However, it works great for people who do not have much anxiety about sleep.
WHY Sleep Limitation and Sleep Schedules Work
The simplified science behind the importance of a strict sleep schedule is this: You need a certain amount of AWAKE time each day in order to sleep at night. This is a reversal of how we usually think. Instead of thinking how much SLEEP you need, think of how much AWAKE time you need in order to fall asleep again.
If this time is not long enough, you will not be able to fall asleep. Your goal is to keep this time awake as long as it needs to be.
So if you get up at 7:00, and you need at least 17 hours of awake time in order to sleep again, then you will not fall sleep until midnight.
If you keep pushing your wake-up time later and later, in an effort to get more sleep (because you can’t fall asleep until hours after you get into bed – if at all), then you will also be pushing the end of your awake time further and further ahead.
Look at it this way: your awake time is simply the time between your morning wake-up time and your nighttime fall-asleep time.
Your AWAKE time has nothing to do with how much sleep you actually got.
So by sleeping later in your effort to get more sleep, you are continually pushing your AWAKE time to end later and later… Causing you to stay awake longer and longer at night… and if you sleep later in the morning to “catch up”… it becomes a cycle that shifts further and further into that 24-hour cycle that we call DAY on planet Earth.
If you decide to try limiting your time in bed in the beginning, or if you never needed that much sleep even when you didn’t have insomnia, use the left columns to determine wake-up times.
If you decide to stick with a longer sleep schedule, use the right columns. While this chart is simple, sometimes it helps to have something visual and on paper.
Note: If you work odd hours, with a constantly changing schedule, you will naturally have more difficulty establishing a consistent sleep schedule, but try the best you can.
Remember, while this step is important, and most sleep experts emphasize it, it is not the only method for becoming insomnia free. But it is certainly a big help.
If you haven’t yet downloaded my handy sleep schedule chart in PDF, you can do it now.