I’ve never had trouble waking up in the morning. When the alarm goes off, I’m up and ready to work — but falling asleep was always another matter. If it feels like it takes you hours of tossing and turning before you actually fall asleep, there are a few things you can do to help.
We’ve talked in the past about perfecting your morning routine to start your day, but having a good evening routine is just as important. If you find that you don’t fall asleep as easily as you’d like, the text below lays out what you can do during the day, followed by how to craft a better evening routine that’ll help get you off to sleep faster.
What you can do during the day
It may seem silly to think about falling asleep during the day, but if you’re as annoyed by insomnia as I am — not to mention the exhaustion it can cause the next day — it’s worth giving a bit of thought. Here’s what you’ll want to keep in mind during the day for better sleep at night.
Eat meals earlier
Plan your day so that dinner time falls earlier in the evening. Heavier foods can take a lot of work for your stomach to digest, which might make it harder to sleep well, so don’t eat heavy within two hours of bed time (and stay away from spicy and junk food if you want to keep the nightmares away). If you get too hungry as bed time creeps around, there are a few foods that are ok to eat before bed, and can even help you sleep — like bananas, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread, to name a few.
Get up and do something after you eat
The desire to nap after a meal can be overwhelming, especially during a tiring day, but you want to avoid this, since it’ll make it harder to fall asleep that night. After you eat, get up and do something a bit more active — even if it’s just washing dishes or taking out the trash. It’ll avoid that post-meal drowsiness, and it’s a great time to have a 10-minute cleaning burst.
Avoid napping (at least for now)
Napping during the day can be useful, but as you start getting the hang of this new routine, avoid napping during the day. As Health.com explains, napping can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night:
“Even just a little bit of a power nap reduces your nighttime sleep drive,” says Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Loma Linda University Medical Centre in California. “The nap becomes nothing more than another episode of fragmented sleep.”
If, after you’ve thoroughly tested your evening routine and gotten better sleep, you still feel drowsy, you can try adding a power nap to your day, preferably during the early afternoon. But as you start out, be aware that it has the potential to do more harm than good.
Getting in a regular workout can help you sleep better at night, even if your workout takes place in the morning. CNN explains:
An active lifestyle might also mean a more restful sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that exercise in the afternoon can help deepen shut-eye and cut the time it takes for you to fall into dreamland. But, they caution, vigorous exercise leading up to bedtime can actually have the reverse effects.
A 2003 study, however, found that a morning fitness regime was key to a better snooze. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre concluded that postmenopausal women who exercised 30 minutes every morning had less trouble falling asleep than those who were less active. The women who worked out in the evening hours saw little or no improvement in their sleep patterns.
Find some time in your day when you can sneak in some activity. If you aren’t sure where to start, the Lifehacker Workout is a simple regimen that won’t take too long and doesn’t require equipment.
What your evening routine should include
Once night rolls around, it’s time to start thinking about your pre-bed routine. Any pre-bed routine is a good thing — it tells your body that sleep time is coming, in traditional Pavlovian fashion — but these particular things will make your evening routine even more effective.
Leave your work alone
As you wind down the work day, take some time to prepare your first task for the next morning. It can be hard not to think about work during the night — especially if there’s something important the next day — but the more prepared you are the day before, the more you’ll be able to relax and fall asleep that night.
Find the perfect bedtime
You want to go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning — even on weekends. To find the perfect time to go to sleep, count back seven and a half hours from the time you usually wake up. This ensures you wake up at the optimal moment during your sleep cycle. You generally want to wake up 10 minutes before your alarm goes off. You can adjust this by 15 minute intervals to find the perfect bed time for you. If you have trouble sticking to this schedule, put it on your calendar or set a bedtime notification on your smartphone.
Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol
We already know what caffeine and alcohol do to your brain, and neither of them are good sleep aids. Caffeine is obvious; you want to stay away from it as much as possible in the hours before sleep — or even in the afternoon, if you can help it. And while alcohol may seem like it helps you fall asleep, it won’t give you the kind of deep sleep your body needs. If you drink, do it a few hours away from your bedtime for a better night’s rest.
Find a relaxing activity (that doesn’t involve a screen)
Choose something low-key to do before bed, like reading a book. Bright screens like the ones on your TV or computer emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin, the hormone that encourages your body to sleep. Read a physical book or use an e-ink based reader rather than reading on an iPad or your laptop. If you absolutely must use a screen (like if you’re a big fan of digital comics), at least use something like the cross-platform Flux to keep the blue light to a minimum.
Lower your body temperature
You may have noticed it’s much easier to sleep when it’s cool out, and that’s because your body temperature naturally goes down at night when it’s time to sleep. Lowering your body temperature is easy when it’s cold outside, but if opening the window won’t cut it, a hot bath can do wonders:
Two hours before bed, soak in the tub for 20 or 30 minutes, recommends Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine. “If you raise your temperature a degree or two with a bath, the steeper drop at bedtime is more likely to put you in a deep sleep,” she says. A shower is less effective but can work, as well.
You could even do the aforementioned reading in the bath and kill two birds with one stone. We’ve also mentioned a number of ways to cool your body and your brain at night, as well as a few DIY air conditioners that should help keep your room a little cooler.
Don’t lie awake in bed
If you find that you’ve been in bed for 15 minutes and aren’t feeling tired, get up and do something else. Go back to reading that book, or doing something else that won’t make your body think it’s time to wake up. You want your body to associate your bed with sleep and nothing else (except perhaps sex), once again working our Pavlovian tendencies to get us sleeping when our head hits the pillow.
While you can tweak your schedule to fit your specific tastes or needs, these tricks should get you started into overhauling your evening into a much more sleep-conducive routine.
This story was original published in November 2011 and was updated on December 7, 2021 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.