Everything to Know About Sleep Schedules: How to Keep Yours on Track

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD
May 2, 20228 min read
Man viewing stars at night

Getting enough sleep is important for physical and mental health. It can boost your immune system, protect against chronic health conditions such as heart disease, and help you think more clearly. [1]

For better sleep, you will want to consider creating a consistent sleep schedule — a pattern of waking up at the same time each day. When your sleep schedule changes from day to day, you are more likely to have poorer quality sleep. [2] Improving an erratic sleep schedule to make it more regular can help you sleep longer each night and feel less tired during the day. [3], [4]

Starting a Routine is the Way to Change Your Sleep Schedule

Nearly half of the actions we take every day are a result of habit. [5] If you’re trying to get better sleep, building a routine that you naturally follow each morning and evening will be easier than trying to motivate yourself to make beneficial decisions on a daily basis. Additionally, once your body has followed your new schedule for long enough, there will be physical cues that deepen this schedule, leading to more reliable and more restorative rest.

There are several steps you can take to get your sleep schedule back on track. Practice these each day to feel better rested.

Pick a Wind Down Time

It's hard to go from full work mode into sleep mode. Pick a time each night to start winding down for sleep. Try to keep the same time for both weekdays and weekends.

Unwinding is crucial for a good night’s sleep. Put your phone on airplane mode 1-2 hours before getting into bed to make sure your brain has switched off from work and has entered relaxation mode.

Before bedtime, start calming your brain and body with an activity like reading, listening to your favorite music, meditation, or taking a warm bath. Make sure the activity is something you like — getting ready for bed shouldn’t be yet another chore! Pick an activity you’ll look forward to and is also soothing.

Follow the Same Steps Each Night

Scientific studies tell us that habits are formed through “chunking” — that is, we tend to perform routines in which multiple actions are habitually performed together, in the same order. [7]

You likely go through several behaviors while getting ready for bed, such as putting on pajamas, brushing your teeth, and washing your face. Write down each of these steps and perform them in the same order each night, starting at the same time. This will help you build a routine that signals to your brain that it’s time for sleep.

Get up at the Same Time Every Day

It is tempting to sleep in when we don’t have to get up, especially if we have been struggling with sleep. Try getting up within the same 15 minute window of time every single day, no matter what time you went to bed or how well you slept.

Get Sunlight First Thing in the Morning

Your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) is synchronized with natural sunlight and electric lights are often ineffective in supporting these rhythms.8 Try stepping outside for a bit when you first wake up, or eating breakfast next to a window, in order to better signal sleeping and waking hours to your body. If you must use artificial lighting, invest in a bulb or lamp that mimics daylight.

Example of Sleep Schedules

When building your sleep schedule, plan to get at least seven hours of sleep per night — the amount recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.9 For someone working a typical “9-to-5” schedule, this may look like going to bed by 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. and waking up by 6:00 a.m. This means you would start your wind-down routine between 8:00 and 9:00pm.

Starting a routine that works well may be trickier if you have a more irregular schedule for work or school. However, it’s still possible to get enough sleep! For example, a 12-hour night shift sleep schedule for someone working from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. might include going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. and sleeping until 4:00 p.m.

Finding the Motivation to Stay on Track

Staying motivated with your newly-created bedtime routine isn’t always easy at first, but will become less difficult over time. To help yourself stick to your new habits, you may want to turn to a psychological tool — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is effective at helping people live better lives. The foundation of CBT can be thought of as a triangle, with three different key factors: [10]

  • Thoughts — The things you believe about yourself, your circumstances, and the people around you
  • Behaviors — The things you do and the way you act
  • Feelings — The emotions you have surrounding a particular situation

The CBT model has lots of research about how these three factors are all connected. Your thought patterns and the way you behave on a daily basis help shape each other, and also influence the way you feel. Your feelings, in turn, influence your beliefs and actions. [10]

A specific form of CBT called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia or CBT-I can help people with sleeping problems. Scientific studies have shown that this type of treatment is very effective. It addresses the underlying causes of insomnia instead of just relieving symptoms.

Why Is the CBT Triangle Effective?

CBT-I uses the CBT triangle to connect your thoughts, behavior, and feelings. It helps reprogram your subconscious and create new habits that are more in line with your goals.

When using CBT-I to build a better sleep schedule, you may work to change certain thought patterns, such as: [10], [11]

  • Learning more about how sleep works, so that you can get rid of incorrect beliefs
  • Using problem-solving skills to attack the specific issues that are keeping you awake
  • Addressing negative thoughts that keep you up at night

This program will also challenge you to change certain behaviors in your sleep schedule. For example, you may need to avoid napping, change your bedroom environment, and only spend time in your bedroom while sleeping. [11], [12]

Is CBT-I a good fit for your own needs? Learn more by filling out our simple questionnaire.

Conclusion

Hoping for a better night’s rest? You’re already on the right track by looking for information that can help improve your sleep. To hear more about another person’s struggles with insomnia — and their eventual recovery — read An Anxious Sleeper’s Guide to Better Sleep.

Building a consistent sleep schedule is possible if you work to align your thoughts and feelings with your behaviors. If you’re interested in learning more about CBT-I, check out Dawn’s many resources, articles, and tools geared towards curing sleep problems.

References

  1. National Institutes of Health. (2013, April). The Benefits of Slumber: Why You Need a Good Night’s Sleep. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/04/benefits-slumber
  2. Irish, L. A., Kline, C. E., Gunn, H. E., Buysse, D. J., & Hall, M. H. (2015). The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence. Sleep medicine reviews, 22, 23–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.001
  3. Paterson, J. L., Reynolds, A. C., & Dawson, D. (2018). Sleep Schedule Regularity Is Associated with Sleep Duration in Older Australian Adults: Implications for Improving the Sleep Health and Wellbeing of Our Aging Population. Clinical gerontologist, 41(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1080/07317115.2017.1358790
  4. Manber, R., Bootzin, R. R., Acebo, C., & Carskadon, M. A. (1996). The effects of regularizing sleep-wake schedules on daytime sleepiness. Sleep, 19(5), 432–441. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/19.5.432
  5. Mendelsohn A. I. (2019). Creatures of Habit: The Neuroscience of Habit and Purposeful Behavior. Biological psychiatry, 85(11), e49–e51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.03.978
  6. Smith, K. S., & Graybiel, A. M. (2016). Habit formation. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 18(1), 33–43. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2016.18.1/ksmith
  7. Wright, K. P., Jr, McHill, A. W., Birks, B. R., Griffin, B. R., Rusterholz, T., & Chinoy, E. D. (2013). Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current biology : CB, 23(16), 1554–1558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039
  8. Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O'Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., Ware, J. C., & Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep health, 1(1), 40–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010
  9. InformedHealth.org. (2016, September 8). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279297/
  10. American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral
  11. Mayo Clinic. (2016, September 28). Insomnia Treatment: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Instead of Sleeping Pills. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/insomnia-treatment/art-20046677




Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

It’s time to stop blaming the night monsters.

Let’s work together to transform your sleep for the better.