How Important is Sticking to a Sleep Schedule, Really?

Maintaining a regular bedtime and wake-up time is great for your sleep. But what happens when sticking to it is impossible? We asked the experts.

Happy woman stretches in bed as she wakes up from her sleep schedule.
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You’ve probably heard about the importance of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. But with changes to your weekly calendar — early work calls here, doctor’s appointments there, not to mention weekends when you can actually sleep in — it can be tough to go to sleep and wake up at the same time day after day.

So, how important is it really to stick to a strict sleep schedule? And what should you do if you stray? To find out, we asked experts to weigh in. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why Is Having a Sleep Schedule so Important?

Research suggests that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help you get better quality rest (and more of it). The practice is also associated with healthier body composition (especially in elderly individuals) and a lower risk of heart disease. Why?

One reason: A consistent sleep schedule helps to maintain the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, says sleep medicine physician Dr. Carolina Marcus, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. And “heart rate, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular functions follow circadian patterns.”

When people experience chronic sleep deprivation, it can also inhibit the secretion of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps build lean muscle mass and burn fat, explains Dr. Marcus. “When people are chronically sleep-deprived, they tend to get less slow-wave sleep, the restful stage of sleep when your body naturally produces HGH,” she says. This can lead to a slower metabolism and weight gain.

Creating a solid sleep schedule — whether it’s strict or not — invites better quality rest, which then leads to better overall health. Those who get adequate shuteye tend to have improved learning, an easier time making decisions, better emotional well-being, boosted moods, lower risk of diseases, better immune function, and increased performance compared to those with sleep deficiencies, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

What’s the Best Sleep Schedule?

The schedule that works best for you and your body is based on your chronotype, or biological preference for mornings or evenings, says clinical psychologist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., author of “The Power of When" and founder of TheSleepDoctor.com.

In other words, being a “morning person” or a “night owl” is basically in your DNA. “Even if you’re at the wrong chrono-typical schedule, but you’re consistent, it’s better than being wildly inconsistent,” Breus says. (If you don’t already know, you can figure out your chronotype by taking Breus’ online quiz, or if you’ve done genetic tests like 23andMe, the report may discuss your preference toward mornings or evenings.)

This chronotype-dependent schedule is also based on when you naturally produce more of the hormone melatonin, which gets you into rest mode, and less of the hormone cortisol, which can disrupt sleep, Breus adds.

Research on chronotypes backs up the influence it can have on sleep quality and how it can change with age. Some studies show that those who prefer evenings tend to create a sleep deficit during the week, thanks to constraints with work schedules and social engagements. If you’re a night owl who has to get up early for work or family obligations it might take some time to get into a new sleep routine (see below), but that’s why consistency is key, as Breus notes.

Does the Specific Bedtime and Wake-up Time Matter?

Not really. “The two most important elements of good sleep are consistent hours and a sufficient duration of sleep,” Dr. Marcus says. “If you go to bed consistently at 1 a.m. and wake up at 9 a.m., feeling well-rested, there is no problem.”

In fact, Breus says, it might actually be healthier to maintain super-late or super-early hours, rather than force yourself to go to bed and wake up at a time that doesn’t feel natural to you.

However, for many of us, work dictates what time we wake up — not our chronotype. In this case, to find your ideal bedtime, it can be helpful to work backward, based on how many hours of sleep you know you need to feel at your best (experts recommend adults get 7 to 9 hours a night).

For more information, read What’s the Best Bedtime for Adults?

How Strict Does a Sleep Schedule Need to Be?

When it comes to how closely you must stick to a sleep schedule, you have some wiggle room, says Dr. Cinthya Peña Orbea, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center. If you vary from the schedule by about an hour once a week, it’s not a big deal. But if your schedule shifts by multiple hours, multiple times a week, then that’s when you want to pay more attention.

And, if it’s affecting your everyday life, it could be time to see a doctor.

What to Do if You’re Not Tired at Your Designated Bedtime

The thing about a consistent sleep schedule is that it should make your eyes heavy come your typical bedtime. But you don’t want to force yourself to go to sleep if you’re not tired. In fact, that might cause you to spend too much time in bed without actually sleeping — a habit you want to avoid, Dr. Peña Orbea says. “If you can’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, you should go outside the room and do something relaxing, like listening to calming music,” she says.

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The Most Relaxing Song for Sleep

Monitoring your sleep (whether you keep a sleep journal or use a tracker like WHOOP or SleepScore Max) can help you uncover how much time you’re spending in bed, too, which is important information if you’re going to bed at 10 p.m. but not actually falling asleep until midnight.

“A lot of people get into bed just because they’re done with their day and they want their day over," says Breus. “Then they’re watching TV or kind of doing nothing in bed." Instead, stay up and out of bed until you’re ready to go to sleep.

Also, research shows that more time in bed doesn’t necessarily equate to better sleep. A study, examining more than 8,000 people in Italy during COVID-19 lockdowns, found that while most people spent more time in bed, they reported lower sleep quality.

What to Do if You Feel Like You Need Extra Rest in the Morning

First off, if you’re consistently waking up groggy, you’re probably not getting great sleep.

“Gauging how you feel when you wake up in the morning is one of the best ways to assess your quality of sleep,” Dr. Marcus says. If you wake up exhausted almost every day, it could be a sign of an underlying sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, or a side effect of certain medications, as well as alcohol and recreational drugs, she adds.

As long as there’s not an underlying issue, sleeping in a little here and there won’t ruin your future Zzz’s or your health.

The goal is to only vary your sleep and wake times by 30 minutes or up to an hour, even on the weekends, says Orbea. “You can have some days that are exceptions, but as long as it’s not routine, it’s not going to change your biological clock,” she says.

A sleep schedule that works for you should eventually mean waking up without an alarm, Breus says. But even if you rely on that buzzer, try to avoid hitting snooze. It might give you an extra 10 minutes of sleep, but it won’t be the beneficial deep sleep you need, so it’s not worth it, he says.

7 Steps to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

Woman wearing Luminette light-therapy glasses
SleepScore found that regular use of these light-therapy glasses helped wearers sleep better.

If you feel like you have a messed-up sleep schedule, don’t despair. Getting on a better sleep schedule doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible and it’s not hard.

Sleep experts share seven tips to change your sleep schedule.

  • Work in half-hour increments. If you need to shift your sleep schedule for work purposes or to better fit your natural tendencies, start by moving your bedtime or wake time up or down by 30 minutes every three to four days, Breus suggests.
  • Stick to a routine all day. Having a regular timetable for your entire day outside of a bedtime and wake-up time can help you better stick to a sleep schedule. This includes maintaining consistent eating times or even when you have sex, Breus says.
  • Track what’s happening. If you’re having trouble sticking to a routine, write down what you do at night and in the morning to figure out where your roadblocks lie so you can fix them, says Dr. Peña Orbea.
  • Create a wind-down routine. Do a relaxing activity before bed that doesn’t require your devices, like reading a book or meditating, Dr. Marcus suggests. It also helps to examine what you’re doing before bed on nights you can’t sleep so you can adjustments based on that insight, says Dr. Peña Orbea.
  • See the light in the a.m. Exposure to daylight first thing in the morning can get you out of bed, so open your windows to let the bright light in when you wake up, Dr. Marcus says, or use a light therapy lamp or glasses, such as these Luminette Glasses, which which SleepScore found improved sleep in users with just 20 minutes of daily use, and were especially helpful in combatting winter blues, time changes, jetlag and other sleep issues.
  • Avoid the usual sleep-disturbing suspects. Caffeine close to bed, naps after 3 p.m., exposure to blue light from your devices can all mess with your sleep quality, so limit them as much as possible, say experts. If you do need to check your devices, wear blue-light-blocking glasses such as these orange-lensed Henley glasses.
  • Check in with your partner. If you share a bed with someone, Breus suggests discussing your bedtimes and wake-up times so you’re not disturbing each other’s rest.

How Long Does it Take to Adjust to a New Sleep Schedule?

It can take seven to 10 days to reset your sleep schedule, says Breus. So, if you’re not feeling as tired at night or bright-eyed in the morning as you’d like to, take heart in knowing that it’s normal to go through an adjustment period.

A better sleep schedule — and higher quality rest — is on the way.

Read Next: How to Resist Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

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