Once upon a time — a very long time — I used to sleep well. After too many restless nights, I decided something needed to be done. I changed my diet, my exercise routine, and a lot more to try and figure out the problem, but without any hard data it was all speculation. A few key pieces of technology helped me figure out what I was doing right and wrong, and how pretty much anyone can do it, too, for practically no money.There are plenty of opinions about how you can sleep better, and most of them are probably right for someone, but it's hard to know which ones are right for you with all the variables in the mix. You could pay to spend a night or two at a sleep clinic, but that's going to cost you quite a bit and it'll never feel like you're sleeping at home. Seeing as you can't watch yourself sleep, however, that was pretty much your only option until recently. Now there are a few sleep tracking tools that actually provide you with a pretty good picture of what's happening while you're unconscious. While these tools may not be as detailed as a sleep clinic, they can give you a good overview of how restful the night was and you can use this information to figure out what causes sleep problems for you and how you can have a more restful night. I tested four different sleep tracking products that ranged from free to almost $US200, all of which are sufficient for the task. I'm going to walk through how they worked for me and what I learned, and then we'll talk about using them to figure out how you can sleep better.
The Sleep Tracking Tech
I tried four different sleep trackers which can be split into two pairs: smartphone apps and dedicated sleep tracking gadgets.
The Cheap Method: Sleep Tracking Apps
I looked at two sleep tracking apps: Sleep Cycle for iOS ($0.99) and Sleep Bot Tracker for Android (Free). Both work by setting an alarm and placing your smartphone (or tablet, if you want to go there) under your pillow. The apps track your movement while you're asleep and use that information to figure out the phase of sleep you're in. When you're in a light phase and it's time to wake up, the apps will gradually fade in an alarm until you tell them to stop. In my use these apps seemed to be a little less accurate than the gadgets we'll talk about next, and they don't offer as much analysis either, but they do give you enough information about your nights that you should be able to figure out how to sleep better.
While the apps don't differ much, Sleep Bot Tracker offers slightly more analysis than Sleep Cycle (like sleep debt calculations) and a few added features (such as a homescreen widget and multiple alarms). Sleep Bot Tracker can also completely silence your phone while in use, which is a big help. (Trust me, it's not fun waking up to a vibrating pillow.) That said, they both get the job done for either no money or hardly any at all.
In the gadget department, I tried the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach ($US190) and the Wakemate ($US60). While the products attempt to do pretty much the same thing, there are some significant differences between them.
The Wakemate is the cheaper of the two because you're essentially paying for a wristband and nothing else. To use all the functionality it provides, you need an Android phone or tablet, Blackberry, iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. You wear it around your wrist at night, set an alarm on your phone (if you want to), and sync up the data in the morning. It's very easy to use and you only have to charge the battery (via USB) every few days. When you sync your data with your smartphone or tablet, the free Wakemate app uploads that data to their servers where you can log in and view a detailed analysis of your sleep.
The Zeo is more expensive (by $US130) because you get everything in the box. It comes with a very nice alarm clock that also charges the sleep tracking headband you wear at night. The clock saves your sleep data on an SD card automatically and you can use the included card reader to transfer the information to your computer for further processing. When you wake up in the morning and take the headband off, you can just place it on top of the clock and magnets will hold it on the charging platform.
Both devices offer alarms that attempt to wake you up when its sensors detect you're in a lighter phase of sleep, track your motion and activity during the night, and provide a detailed analysis of that data through their web site. The difference that mattered the most to me — and what I think will matter most for the majority of people — is that the Wakemate is worn on your wrist and not around your head. While the Zeo is more comfortable than you'd expect, you can only be so comfortable with a plastic device strapped to your head. The Wakemate sits around your wrist and I found very pleasant to wear at night. It was the first sleep tracker I tested and I continued to wear it while testing the others because, after a while, I felt like something was missing when it wasn't there. The Wakemate also transferred its data wirelessly to my phone, which is a device I already knew how to use. While the Zeo isn't complicated, it still has a slight learning curve. You also probably don't want to take a large clock with you when travelling. The Wakemate will fit in your pocket.
While both devices were perfectly serviceable, the Wakemate was more comfortable, a little easier to use, and a lot cheaper.
How to Actually Use Tech to Improve Your Sleep
These devices will give you a good overview of how you slept but they can only tell you so much about how to improve. You have to be proactive in using the data to figure out what's working for you and what isn't. I tried a lot of different things and was surprised by what I learned.
What actually impacted my sleep came down to three factors: environment, light, and time. I live in Los Angeles, where the air quality is famous for its unfriendliness to human health, and so it wasn't surprising to find that my sleep score went up quite a bit when I was in Minnesota. I even slept on a couch, in one of the hottest summers to date with no air conditioning, and that change bumped my sleep score up by about 30%. I also learned that I'm very sensitive to changes in light, and move less when I sleep if there is little to no light in the room. Finally, I found that when I slept had practically no impact on the quality of sleep. I've lived my entire life assuming that if I went to bed after 1:00 AM I'd be tired all day. As it turns out I can go to bed at 4:00 AM, wake up at noon, and I will sleep just as well.
How can you figure out what you need to do?
Tag Your Sleep
I discovered what I need to do by testing popular suspected causes of poor sleep and keeping track of how they impacted me, personally. It's very easy for you to do the same thing with any of the tools previously mentioned. Overall, the Wakemate makes this easier to do because you can add tags to each day before (and after) you go to bed. You can add a tag for your location, how stressed out you feel, whether you ate too much, too little, or just poorly, and so on. Once you've tagged all your data, you can sort it on the Wakemate site and see which tags are most commonly in the good nights and the bad nights. (In my case I learned that I need blackout shades and, probably, an air purifier.) If you're not using the Wakemate, you can still track your progress this way by keeping a simple tag log in a text file. It only takes a few seconds and is the best way to determine what's working and what isn't.
Figuring Out What Tests To Try
Find problems in your life and change them for a period of time so you can see if those improvements help you sleep better or not. Does your diet suck? Try cutting out sugar for a month or eating foods that aid in sleep. Do you work a sedentary job and don't have much time for physical activity? Work a few simple exercises into your daily routine. If you're having common sleep problems and want to try suggested solutions, tracking your sleep while you do is a very good way to figure out if those solutions are actually working for you. If you find that you're waking up during the night, remember to take a moment to figure out why. Is there light? Noise? Do you have to use the bathroom? Whatever the case may be, look for a common answer and then try to eliminate that problem. Your sleep tracking tool of choice will be able to tell you if that tactic is working or not.
The important thing is that you put in the (minimal) effort to track your efforts and try many different things — even things that may seem irrelevant, like altering the temperature in your bedroom. While I'm still continuing to collect more data to find the perfect environment and situation for my perfect night sleep, I've already learned a lot of useful information in the past five weeks. It takes patience and a bit of work, you can use these tools to help solve your sleep problems so long as you're willing to take the time.