How a Sleep Diary Can Help You Uncover the Secret to Better Sleep

Was it the coffee, nap, or skipped exercise? Here's how logging your habits and sleep patterns can help pinpoint what’s spoiling your slumber.

Man with beard drinking coffee and writing in his sleep diary
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Your days of “Dear diary” may be behind you, but a sleep diary is less a confessional and more of a careful record of your sleep and your sleep-related habits. It’s a tool that sleep doctors regularly recommend to their weary patients to help identify the behaviors that might be sabotaging their slumber. Keeping a sleep diary may be one of the best ways to learn why you’re slogging through your days and feeling so darn groggy.

“As a sleep specialist, I consider a sleep diary essential,” says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who is board-certified in clinical sleep disorders and the author of “The Power of When.”

Sleep diaries aren’t only for the chronically sleep deprived. If you wake up on some mornings ready to take on the world, and other mornings barely able to tackle your teapot, monitoring your sleep can lead you to make small changes to your daily habits that will help you consistently get your best sleep.

Benefits of a Sleep Diary

A sleep diary doesn’t need to be a nightly novella. You can commit to a detailed sleep journal or something more like a quick sleep log. The difference depends on how detailed you want to be when tracking habits or lifestyle factors. Depending on your preference, you can be minimal, such as tracking only the times you go to sleep and wake up, or get more detailed, such as tallying caffeine consumption, exercise minutes, or even naps.

“By tracking lifestyle factors such as how much you exercised, how much caffeine you consumed, and what you ate, and then comparing these to your sleep patterns, you can see what actions impact your sleep, or lack of it,” says Breus.

One of the biggest benefits of a do-it-yourself sleep audit, according to neurologist and Sleep.com advisor Dr. Chris Winter, author of “The Sleep Solution,” is how a sleep diary can help cut down on unnecessary worry. Sometimes a sleep diary can provide evidence that you’re getting more shut eye than you thought.

“People often exaggerate how little sleep they’re getting,” Winter says. “They’ll focus on the poor four nights of sleep they may have during a month, rather than the 27 nights of solid sleep. Then, they get into bed thinking, ‘Oh, all is lost, I can’t sleep.’ So, it’s their distorted perception that actually keeps them awake. A sleep diary helps separate fact from fiction and that can be very therapeutic.”

What Should You Include in Your Sleep Diary?

Minimalist Sleep Log Template

At the bare minimum, a sleep diary will have you jot down when you went to bed and the time you woke up. This minimalistic template is great for children and beginners who just want to get familiar with the habit of logging sleep time.

If you’re new to sleep diaries, you can start with the example below, which tracks times, hours slept, and general wellness notes (optional).

Date Bed time (last night)Wake timeHours slept Notes 
5/24 Mon. 10:30 p.m.7:30 a.m.9 
5/25 Tues. 12:00 a.m.8 a.m. 8 
5/26 Wednes. 10:30 p.m. 7:30 a.m. 9 

When logging times becomes an intuitive part of your day, we suggest:

  • being more precise with your sleep time vs. bed time  
  • writing more detailed notes about your day, mood, or habits 
  • creating a rating system to track energy levels 

Basic Sleep Diary Template

In addition to time and hours slept, a more updated version would include:

  • how long it took you to fall asleep or wake up (and how easily) 
  • quality of sleep  
  • how energetic you feel  

For example:

Day  Bedtime  (last night)Wake time  Hours slept Sleep quality  Energy level Notes 
5/24 Mon.10:30 p.m. 7:00 a.m. ** Woke up 1x to pee 
5/25 Tues.12:00 a.m. 8:30 a.m.  10  *** Didn’t wake up 
5/26 Wednes.10:30 p.m. 6:30 a.m. 6 ½  ****  

Comprehensive Sleep Journal Template

Winter believes that if you’ve got the motivation, maintaining a more detailed sleep diary, like the one we provided below, allows for a much more holistic examination of your sleep. Details that examine a wide range of lifestyle behavior, including exercise, diet, caffeine, and alcohol consumption, can help fine tune your gut instinct when it comes to zeroing in on what’s interfering with your sleep.

Whether it’s the HIIT workout you’re doing an hour before bedtime, the 4 p.m. nap, or the post-dinner cocktail, these details, when tracked in a comprehensive sleep journal, can help you assess patterns and navigate treatment plans with your doctor.

For example:

  Day: Response:
Got into bed at:   
Turned off the lights at:  
Approximate time to fall asleep:    
Woke up for good at:   
Got out of bed at:   
Woke up this many times:    
How long did it take to fall back asleep:   
What disrupted your sleep?  
How did you feel at wakeup:   
The amount of sleep felt (rate from worst to ideal):   
Sleep quality overnight was:  
Bedtime routine:   
Number caffeinated beverages yesterday:   
Time of last caffeinated beverage:   
List any food/drink consumed in the two-three hours before bed:   
What did you do for exercise (when and for how long)?   
Number of naps yesterday (both planned and unplanned):    
Nap duration (total time):  
Last nap of the day was at: 
Throughout the day, energy level was...  

Diary Do’s and Don’ts

Woman writing in her morning sleep diary
NickyLloyd/Getty Images

To make your diary a tool for better sleep, and not a source of stress that keeps you awake, follow these tips.

  • Don’t keep your sleep diary in the bedroom. Keeping your sleep log near your bed could trigger anxiety about tracking each middle-of-the-night wakeup. “You don’t want to be worried about filling out your diary in the middle of the night,” says Winter. Instead, leave it in your kitchen, to tackle over breakfast the next morning. You can guesstimate how many times you woke up during the night and how long it took you to fall back asleep. “Your diary doesn’t have to be a perfect recollection of your sleep,” Winter says. “Your imprecise perceptions are valuable.” 
  • Set aside time in the evening and morning to fill out the diary. Creating structure close to the event will help you fill out the questions as accurately as possible. Try completing the diary’s questions about the day in the evening before you turn off the lights. Then, in the morning, fill in the information about how you slept.  
  • Maintain your diary for a minimum of two weeks before making any assumptions or changing up your routine. This will help you get a sense of your sleep patterns over time. 
  • Note both planned and unplanned naps. If you fell asleep reading a book in the afternoon or during Stephen Colbert’s monologue, that counts as a nap.  
  • If you have a fitness tracker that also tracks your sleep, wear it to bed. Be sure not to look at it during the night. In fact, if you can resist, don’t look at the information at all during your first round of keeping a sleep diary.  

How to Interpret Your Sleep Diary

After two to three weeks, scan your sleep diary for patterns.

If you’ve been wearing a sleep tracker to bed, compare the data with what you’ve written down. How accurately has the tracker been assessing your sleep? Does the tracker’s sleep time align with what you tracked? If not, it’s worth speaking with your doctor to assess possible issues that are undermining your sleep.

In fact, if there are any insights that don’t add up from your tracking, bring it up with your wellness provider. Not only will your doctor be glad you have this data, but they’ll be able to look over your findings and help make health recommendations to improve your sleep.

“We’re not trained to figure out the amount of sleep that’s right for us,” Winter says. “A sleep diary can help you do that.”

Here are things to look out for when reading through your log:

  • How much time are you spending in bed, versus actually sleeping?  
  • Are you falling asleep and waking up at consistent times?  
  • Are there certain patterns you can see on days when you get less sleep? 
  • How much sleep do you get before days when you feel most energetic?  
  • Do your bed partners affect your quality of sleep?  
  • How do assorted nighttime routines impact your sleep (eg: reading or watching TV)? 
  • Does nighttime meditation boost your slumber?  
  • On days you wake up better, what common factors can you note? 
  • On days you fall asleep easier, what common factors can you note?   

Use Your Sleep Diary to Improve Your Sleep Habits

Once you’ve analyzed your diary and identified some potential sleep spoilers — the late-night chocolate bar, the after-dinner run, watching the new season of American Horror Story right before you hit the hay — you might notice that there are many habits that ricochet your bedtime between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. But don't attempt to alter all these habits at once.

Instead, we recommend going the tortoise route: slow and steady, one step at a time — because sleep is not a race. To see what really enhances your sleep, pick one strategy to adopt for the next two weeks and continue updating your sleep diary to see how that’s affecting your sleep.

“I tell people never to change more than one variable at a time,” Winter says. “Maybe you begin doing 30 minutes of cardio in the morning and you find your sleeping has really improved. When you’re certain something is working, you’re much more likely to stick with it.”

You can choose any of these sleep hygiene tips to adopt and adapt into your bedtime routine, including:

  • Turn off blue-light devices, such as your phone, tablets, and television screens, one to two hours before bed.  
  • Quit caffeine by 2 p.m.  
  • Practice mindful, calming activities before bed, such as yoga or bedtime stories

And be patient, Winter adds. After ditching the 5 p.m. cappuccino and swapping Facebook scrolling for writing in a gratitude journal, you might still wake up four times a night for the next couple of weeks but the duration of time you spend tossing and turning before dozing off again will begin to diminish. “After a while,” Winter says, “you’re falling right back asleep when you wake up in the middle of the night and, after another few weeks, you’re only waking up once or twice a night.”

Remember, change doesn’t happen overnight. Not even when it comes to sleep.

Interested in other ways of tracking your way to better sleep? We’ve got the details on dream journaling, WHOOP and Apple fitness trackers, and pillow-like sleep robots.

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