Whether you struggle to fall asleep, you experience overnight awakenings, or you wake up too early, unable to fall back asleep, sleep struggles can be a frustration, especially when they happen night after night. After all, the sleep we get each night directly affects the way we feel the next day. So whether you’re looking to change bad bedtime habits (hello, doomscrolling) or simply improve the score on your sleep tracker, you may need some help getting back on track. Here are some of the best tips for fixing your sleep schedule and resuming your restful habits.
Identify the issue with your sleep
“A night of ‘inadequate sleep’ can be defined as [sleeping] about four hours or so because something prevented you from sleeping, like your job, travel, etc.,” says Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, Sleep.com advisor, and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.” “Just one day of inadequate sleep often derails [the] sleep schedule and performance.”
Dr. Funke Afolabi-Brown, sleep medicine physician and founder of Restful Sleep MD agrees, noting that a single night of inadequate sleep can lead to changes in mood and motivation. “Fatigue can set in, and this impact is seen right away in our energy level, focus, and performance,” Afolabi-Brown says. “Everyone is different, but subtle changes occur with just one night of poor sleep. As the number of poor sleep days increase[s], there is a proportional decline in daytime function as well as negative health effects. For instance, studies have shown that within one night of complete sleep deprivation, people who are drowsy while driving are as impaired as persons who are legally drunk.”
While we may be able to quantify “inadequate” sleep, it’s tougher to define “poor” sleep, since there are so many reasons our sleep schedules can be thrown off and the issue is so specific to the individual. The solution can change dramatically depending on the cause. For example, if a person is choosing to not get enough sleep because they’re up playing video games, “they should sleep more and game less,” Winter says. “Do they have sleep apnea? They should get a sleep study and get the condition treated. Are they interpreting a perfectly normal night as being a ‘poor’ night? They should stop worrying about it. Is the night poor because of drinking, a noisy spouse, etc.?”
Depending on the severity of your sleep issues and the frequency of your problematic nights, you may want to see a doctor. But if you’ve simply had an off night or a rough week, you probably just need to get back to your routine. As Winter told Sleep.com last year, “Having a bad night of sleep every now and then is part of the human condition.” So don’t freak out — but do take action.
How to recover from bad sleep
While it may be tempting to chug caffeine and worry about all the things on your to-do list, Winter says there are three things to avoid when it comes to getting your sleep back on track: “energy drinks, sleeping pills, and panicking.”
So as tough as it may be to power through the day following inadequate sleep, it’s best to wake up according to your regular schedule, accomplish what you can, and know that your sleep deprivation should make it easier to get some rest the following night — if you give yourself the time and space to do so.
“I recommend against sleeping in,” Afolabi-Brown agrees. “This decreases our sleep pressure [the biological drive to sleep] and makes it harder to fall asleep the next night. If you have trouble sleeping at nighttime due to insomnia, you may want to avoid taking naps for the same reasons.”
If insomnia isn’t your issue, however, naps can be a great way to get you back on track as long as they’re short and no more than 30 minutes. If you want to really power nap like a pro (which, according to research, is a NASA astronaut), you’ll want to keep your nap duration between 10 and 20 minutes. Scientists found that these “power naps” actually boosted NASA’s pilots’ performance by 34% and improved alertness by up to 54%. Don’t trust yourself to wake up after a 15-minute snooze? Try a “coffee nap,” which involves sipping caffeine before hitting the sack.
While a power nap may help you get through the day, it’s not a long-term solution for an off-kilter sleep schedule. Rather than spot-treating the issue, you’ll want to get back to your routine ASAP for sustained sleep success.
How to get your sleep schedule back on track
When it comes to fixing your sleep schedule, fixate on making it a schedule.
“Consistency is key,” Afolabi-Brown says. “No matter how bad the night of sleep is, the best way to get a better night’s sleep is to wake up at the same time the next morning, ensure light exposure, stay hydrated, and [be] physically active. When you do this, you are more likely to have a higher sleep drive, which will promote better sleep.”
To help solidify that consistency, write yourself a schedule to follow each night. Studies show that good sleep hygiene — the habits you follow involving your sleep each night — truly do improve the duration and quality of your sleep. This means eliminating bad habits before bed, including blue light, alcohol, and stressful or physically exerting activities, and sticking to the same bedtime and wake time.
To fix your individual sleep challenges, it’s also worth assessing what your sleep issues are and making sure you are addressing them. If, for example, your sleep schedule is broken because you awaken at 3 a.m. with anxious thoughts, it’s worth keeping a bedside journal in which you can record any pressing issues or to-do items before bed.
“Have a bedtime routine — it seems simple but can bring about a lot of improvement in your sleep,” Afolabi-Brown says. “Find what can cue your body for sleep and stick to it.”
If you set a new sleep schedule and your sleep still hasn’t improved, it may be time to rule out a clinical issue. “If this becomes a pattern, it may be a sign for you to see a sleep specialist for any underlying sleep disorder,” says Afolabi-Brown. With the right medical guidance, which could include a sleep study, you’ll be well on your way to fixing your sleep schedule and getting the rest you deserve.