If you have ever traveled somewhere that is in a different time zone—whether it an hour ahead or 12 hours behind what you’re used to—you may have experienced jet lag. You probably felt sleepy, groggy and all around, off for a few days.
You feel like this because your trip interfered with your circadian rhythm, your internal clock that is responsible for your wake and sleep cycles. In a different time zone (with different weather and sunlight exposure), your internal clock was confused, which probably effected your sleep patterns. Not to mention, while you adjust to your new time zone, when you get to your destination or once you get back home, you may have trouble getting good sleep. Don’t worry, you’ll get good rest again when your internal clock regulates itself.
This is how sleep schedules work and come into play, not only when you’re traveling but in everyday life. Maintaining a sleep schedule can help you fall asleep quicker, stay asleep longer and overall, improve your sleep quality.
What is a Sleep Schedule?
A sleep schedule is a cycle or habit of sleep where you purposely wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Other than your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, your sleep and wake cycles are directly affected by sunlight and external temperatures. This is why you wake up every morning when the sun comes up and feel sleepy at night when the sun goes down. It’s also why you may consistently be tired around the same time every day (maybe you hit that 3 p.m. wall) and why you may feel more tired during cold-weather months.
Don’t let scientific terms like circadian rhythm scare you off—sleep schedules aren’t overly complicated. For the most part, yes, even on a sleep schedule you will go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning (unless you work the night shift). However, by training your internal clock on a sleep schedule, you can control your exact sleep and wake times and get better sleep as a result.
Benefits of Maintaining a Sleep Schedule
Maintaining a sleep schedule has many benefits. One of the biggest being that creating a sleep schedule can help you get better rest. By training your internal clock on a cycle to sleep and wake at certain times, you will be able to fall asleep faster and get deeper, better quality sleep. Having a sleep cycle can also help you treat symptoms of insomnia by creating a routine that helps you wind down and get in the right mindset for sleep.
Creating a sleep schedule that you stick to can also help you organize and prioritize the rest of your day. If you have a set wakeup time and a set bedtime, you’ll be able to schedule the rest of your day better, too. If you get home from work at 6 p.m. and you know you need to be in bed by 10 p.m., it may keep you from procrastinating, so you can get things done. A workout is a much more productive way to spend 30 minutes before dinner than scrolling through Instagram.
Tips to Create a Good Sleep Schedule
Consistency is Key
If you want to train yourself to sleep and wake on a sleep schedule, you need to start by thinking about your ideal schedule. Let’s say you decide on a 7:00 a.m. wakeup and a 10 p.m. bedtime. Lock it in and stick to it—that’s how you train your internal clock. Of course, we know that sometimes it’s hard to stick to a sleep schedule, especially with the chaos and spontaneity of kids, work and your social life. But we didn’t say getting on a sleep schedule would be easy. Straying from your schedule every now and then is OK (and it’s bound to happen), but for the most part, you’ll have to be strict with yourself.
Tip: If your body naturally wakes up at the same time every morning (as many people’s do), you may need to adjust your sleep schedule, particularly when it comes to your bedtime. If you know your body naturally wakes up around 6:30 a.m., you need to adjust your bedtime to at least 11:30 p.m. so that you get the sleep you need to feel rested and recharged.
You can’t expect to choose a sleep schedule and immediately reap the benefits. It takes about 21 days to form a habit. That’s 21 nights of going to bed at the same time and 21 mornings of getting up at the same time (without hitting snooze). If the sleep schedule you’d like to be on is drastically different from your current routine, you may have to ease into it. For example, if your sleep schedule bedtime is 10 p.m., but you’re used to being up past midnight, you may have to scale back slowly.
It’s important to remember that as an adult, you should be getting at least 7 hours of sleep at night. So, if you adjust your wakeup time, you need to take into account that you’ll have to go to bed earlier to get the sleep you need.
Control the Light in Your Room
A huge factor that effects your circadian rhythm is light—sunlight, lamps, nightlights, as well as the light from your phone, computer or TV. Your internal clock is sensitive to any form of light, so keep that in mind when you’re trying to go to bed and when you want to wake up in the morning. The darker your room is, the easier you’ll fall asleep at night. This can be helpful to know if you’re trying to move your bedtime up but are used to be being up late. Darkness triggers your brain to release melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. (You can also introduce melatonin to your body in the form of pills, patches and sprays if you need more help getting to sleep.) The opposite is true for light in the morning. When your alarm goes off, turn on your lamp and open the curtains. Light—both artificial and natural—can help you wake up and get going.
Keep a Regular Schedule Throughout the Day
We understand that you have a lot going on during the day but keeping some sort of regular schedule can help you establish and stick to a sleep schedule, too. If you’re just starting out, your meals are a great thing to schedule. Try to eat breakfast at the same time every morning. Same thing with dinner. Your body will get used to eating at the same scheduled times, just like it will adjust to your new sleep schedule. If you always eat dinner at 7 p.m. and aim to be in bed by 10:30 p.m., it will eventually become routine.
Tip: Just be careful that you’re not eating too close to bedtime (and if you are, be careful what it is you’re eating). Going to bed stuffed can have negative side effects for some people.
Just like your meals, exercise can impact your sleep schedule (and sleep in general). If you do cardio late in the day, endorphins stimulate your brain and can keep you awake when it’s time for bed, much like the way caffeine does. Everyone is different, so what affects you may not affect your partner or best friend when it comes to exercise. If you have trouble sleeping after a late cardio session, save cardio for the morning.
Signs that Your Sleep Schedule isn’t Working for You
If you’re already on a sleep schedule, make sure it’s allowing you to get your best rest. Wondering if you’re getting enough sleep in general? Here are a few signs that your current sleep routine isn’t cutting it:
- Feeling groggy, grumpy and off in the morning? Then, you’re not getting enough sleep at night. This can lead to chronic lack of sleep, which can have serious side effects.
- There are physical signs that your body needs more sleep, too: puffy eyes, dark circles under your eyes, breakouts, weight gain, and feeling moody or depressed. Some of these symptoms may be signs of a more serious issue, so check in with your doctor, too.
- If you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, this may be a sign that you could benefit from a sleep schedule. By creating a nighttime routine that you stick to, you can help train your body to be tired at bedtime.
Tip: Also make sure that external factors aren’t negatively impacting your sleep. Make sure it’s as dark as possible in your room, knock the temperature down a few degrees at night, and don’t have caffeine or do an intense cardio workout too close to bedtime. These are just a few things that may be keeping you awake.
Adjust Your Sleep Schedule: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Decide on your sleep schedule. This may be dictated by your work schedule, child’s schedule or some other factor. For example, if you need to adjust your sleep schedule because you’re changing shifts at work, that will dictate the times you need to adjust to.
- Make sure that your adjusted sleep and wake times will allow you at least 7 hours of sleep every night. (That’s the recommended amount of sleep for adults.)
- Be strict with yourself while you’re getting used to your sleep schedule. It might be hard at first, but eventually your internal clock will become used to it.
Tip: If you’re having trouble sticking to your routine, have an accountability buddy. Whether that’s your partner in bed next to you, a coworker who also needs to be up early or a gym friend who’s expecting you to show up for your workout.
Some sleep experts say to make the change to your sleep schedule all at once. So, if you’re used to getting up at 7:30 a.m. but need to start getting up earlier, let’s say at 6 a.m., just do it. Set an alarm for 6 a.m. and get your day started. Others recommend adjusting your sleep schedule gradually. Instead of going straight for the 6 a.m. wakeup call, try 7:15, then 7, then 6:45, and so on until you get to a 6 a.m. alarm. Find the method that’s right for you and start regulating your sleep.