This Wednesday: Sixteen tips for getting good sleep.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Sixteen tips for getting good sleep.

There’s a lot of advice out there about getting good sleep — it’s VERY important. We quickly adjust to being sleep-deprived, and don’t notice that we aren’t functioning at a normal level, but lack of sleep really affects us. If you’re feeling blue or listless, try going to sleep thirty minutes earlier for a week. It can really help.

Here are tips that have helped me get good sleep:

Good habits for good sleep:
1. Exercise most days, even if it’s just to take a walk.

2. No caffeine after 7:00 p.m.

3. An hour before bedtime, avoid doing any kind of work that takes alert thinking. Addressing envelopes—okay. Analyzing an article—nope.

4. Adjust your bedroom temperature to be slightly chilly.

5. Keep your bedroom dark. Studies show that even the tiny light from a digital alarm clock can disrupt a sleep cycle. We have about six devices in our room that glow bright green; it’s like sleeping in a mad scientist’s lab. The Big Man has a new pet, a Roomba (yes, he loves his robot vacuum) that gives out so much light that I have to cover it with a pillow before bed.

6. Keep the bedroom as tidy as possible. It’s not restful to fight through chaos into bed.

If sleep won’t come:
7. Breathe deeply and slowly until you can’t stand it anymore.

8. If your mind is racing (you’re planning a trip, a move; you’re worried about a medical diagnosis), write down what’s on your mind. This technique really works for me.

9. Slather yourself with body lotion. This feels good and also, if you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re hot, it cools you down.

10. If your feet are cold, put on socks.

11. Stretch your whole body.

12. Have a warm drink. Supposedly warm milk contains melatonin and trytophan and so helps induce sleep, but in fact, a glass of milk doesn’t contain enough to have any effect. But it’s still a soothing drink. My nighttime favorite: 1/3 mug of milk, add boiling water, one packet of Equal, and a dash of vanilla. A real nursery treat.

13. Yawn.

14. Stretch your toes up and down several times.

15. Tell yourself, “I have to get up now.” Imagine that you just hit the snooze alarm and in a minute, you’re going to be marching through the morning routine. Often this is an exhausting enough prospect to make me fall asleep.

16. If you still can’t sleep, re-frame: re-frame your sleeplessness as a welcome opportunity to snatch some extra time out of your day. I get up and tackle mundane chores, like paying bills, organizing books, or tidying up. Then I start the day with a wonderful feeling of having accomplished something even before 6:45 am.

What am I missing? Are there some more great sleep-inducing strategies out there?

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • DT

    Nice list! I would adjust #2 to no caffeine after 3pm, but maybe that’s just my sensitivity. And one more:
    If you can’t sleep after doing all of the above, give up. Accept that you are not going to get a good night’s sleep. Remember that nothing truly terrible is going to happen. You’ll probably be a little grouchy and a little less productive the next day. That’s okay. Insomnia isn’t fatal unless you have an incredibly rare genetic disease (and you’d know if you did), so don’t worry about it.
    I had insomnia for about 2 years, and being able to accept that there would be good nights and bad nights helped me tremendously. I still have insomnia once in a while. When that happens, I read a book and watch the sun rise in the morning.

  • Those are definitely some really good tips and suggestions. I know that I often grab a book and just start reading when I can’t sleep. In college, I’d grab the books that I hated to read for class because they’d typically make me fall asleep (and if they didn’t, then sweet! I’m done with that reading).

  • Debi

    I will definitely have to try the “snooze-alarm fake-out” as a mental trick. It’s true – it’s never so easy to sleep deeply as once I’ve hit the snooze alarm.
    I second DTs comment – I can’t have caffeine after 2 p.m. or it delays my getting to sleep.
    I have so much trouble getting my mind to stop racing that I’ve resorted to herbal supplements to get to sleep. The formula I use, “Revitalizing Sleep Formula,” has valerian root and several other herbs that do an amazing job of turning off my internal voice and encouraging sleep without making me feel as though I’m being drugged.

  • I find that wearing earplugs when I’m trying to fall asleep helps a lot. I tend to wake up at some point and take them out, but being able to block out noise in that crucial getting-to-sleep period makes a big difference.
    Also helpful if I’m having trouble sleeping because I’m tense or keyed up: while laying on my back, start at my toes and consciously relax each body part individually (toes, feet, ankles, lower leg, knees, etc.).

  • Good advice, as always. I have no caffeine after 2 pm and it helps. I found a book called “Say Goodnight to Insomnia” by a guy at Harvard who has a drug-free program on insomnia. This is not a plug, but it is a great book. The habits you have when you are awake are the things which are keeping you from sleeping.

  • Lunette

    With racing thoughts, I find it helpful to just mentally repeat “be quiet, be quiet, be quiet” to get them to stop. Sometimes mentally repeating “sleep sleep sleep” will help me get to sleep.
    I go through periods where my eyes seem to pop open and it wakes me up. During those times, I wear a blindfold to bed and it helps a lot.

  • His wife

    When my husband can’t sleep I start discussing relationship issues. This puts him to sleep immediately.
    Yes. Sad but true. Luckily, after 20+ years we simply chuckle about it and I discuss anything I want him to HEAR while we are seated and wide awake! (Driving is always a good time!)

  • 1) Read a boring book. Or a book you’ve read so many times you don’t need to invest any thought in it.
    2) Tell yourself stories in your head about fictional characters you make up.
    3) Count backwards from 100, visualizing each number in a different font or color or pattern (to help you count slowly).
    4) Have an orgasm.
    5) Earplugs and/or a white noise generator can help.
    Good list, BTW – as a former chronic insomniac, I’ve tried them all, and even though nothing works some nights, occasionally a trick is the difference between rest and anxious wakefulness.

  • maya

    ummm…don’t have kids? especially kids of the variety that don’t ever seem to sleep.

  • Suzyn

    I used to have terrible trouble falling asleep – it would regularly take me an hour or more, after lights out, to fall asleep. Then I started to take really high-quality vitamins – that did the trick.

  • jodi

    Take a warm shower — I find this one very helpful!

  • @Gretchen, you might want to get rid of all these devices. It not only saves power, but will make your sleeping room a lot quieter (both percieved and non-percieved like lower EM emissions).
    When I’m going to sleep, the only active devices in my whole flat are the fridge and a radio-controlled clock in my bedroom which only emits light if I press a button. I don’t actually use the clock, I use the alarm of my mobile which is turned off and lies beside my bed (so it’s some kind of active as well).
    I also found it useful to do a meditation. I’m often lying on my back, just focusing my whole body, perceiving how it feels. It only takes a few minutes and it get’s pretty warm. I consciously relax.
    Unfortunately, often my mind gets pretty clear and sharp, while my body relaxes. Hm, I need to work on that. 🙂 But I always had a good time and I often felt very rested the next day even though I didn’t sleep very long.

  • I usually just sit in bed with a small lamp on, and stare at the wall – and think. Srsly. Not deep thinking, just sort of letting them “roll off” of my mind. Before I know it, my eyes are heavy and I turn off the light.
    Since I have sinus issues, I think I sleep more deeply if I get my breathing going with this exercise:
    That’s an interesting idea about imagining getting up. I think after awhile you start to have a Pavlovian response to the sound of your alarm. What if you were to crank a music box every time you went to bed? I would guess the song would eventually have an effect of making you sleepy.

  • As a lifelong insomniac for whom nothing works all the time–including sleeping pills–there is one thing that I’ve found very helpful: audiobooks on the ipod (or ohter mp3 device). You don’t have to turn on a light, as you do when you’re reading; you can set a sleep timer so it turns itself off when you doze off; and you can close your eyes and relax while someone speaks soothingly in your ear. It’s just enough of a distraction to quiet the racing mind. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more useful than most other things I’ve tried.
    Just make it a soothing audiobook. No thrillers or mysteries or romances. 😉

  • Don’t display any clocks, digital or otherwise. Knowing the time can make you panic – you start focusing on how little sleep you’ll get.
    I agree with the exercise tip, and something I’m working on – losing weight. Better health means more energy during the day to help counter those nights when sleep won’t come.

  • Excellent list…and I love everybody’s comments.
    Reframing works great for me. One caution, though. I’ve found it has to be something that doesn’t involve a lot of energy, and which I can easily put down when the sleep urge hits. Tidying the house doesn’t work, because there’s always one more thing and I just keep going, plus it requires physical exercise and wakes me up. Often, just re-doing the bedtime routine works, and that’s what I’ve taught my kids (preteens) to do…and not to worry about it.

  • adora

    They sell Roomba “clothes” at this site. Very cool. “Sooshi the Goldfish” is super cool!
    It also helps if you dim the lights several hours before bed. Our body produce melatonin, a sleep induce hormone, when it is dark.

  • Zyada

    These are the suggestions I usually pass out. I find that #5 one of the most effective tricks I’ve ever tried.
    I had a bad problem with insomnia for many years, and did some research on it. Here are the things I’ve found that help the most.
    1. Don’t take the sleeping pills. Although they are not addictive in the way we tend to think (you won’t jones for them if you miss taking them) they are addictive in the sense that once you have taken them for a while, you will have to take them to get to sleep, but they won’t have the same effect they used too. This is because you tend to not get the necessary REM sleep you need to be rested. If you must take a sleeping pill, take it well before you go to sleep. For instance, I prefer to take sleeping pills 2 hours before I go to sleep, so that the pill can get into my system and make me drowsy before I get into bed, then get out of my system (hopefully) early enough that I get some normal sleep.
    2. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night. You have some wiggle room on this, but if you stay out on Saturday night till 3, it’ll be harder to go to sleep at 10PM Sunday.
    (Which somewhat contradicts:)
    3. If possible, don’t go to bed if you’re not sleepy. Note – one thing I have read and found to be true is that you have to be awake for 12 hours before you can go back to sleep. So if you sleep till noon, again, you won’t be sleepy at 10PM.
    4. Don’t spend more than 15-30 minutes trying to get to sleep. If you notice that you’ve been in bed more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and do something for a while. Make sure what you do isn’t going to make you more hyper; e.g. no exercising or energetic music or writing posts to online debates.
    5. When you go to bed, choose a chore or some other task that you do not want to do and tell yourself that if you are still awake in thirty minutes you will do that task. Then, if you are still awake, get up and do your chosen task. This is my favorite suggestion, as it has worked nearly every time I’ve used it. .
    Those are the most useful suggestions I have. Other things you can try:
    Before you start getting ready for sleep, turn off high energy music and turn the lights down. I love R&R music, but I went through a period where I had to turn the radio off every night about an hour before I went to bed, or I would be too wired to sleep. And our bodies react to reduced light by producing melatonin which puts us to sleep.
    Get plenty of exercise, but not right before bed. (Unless you’re weird like me – exercise right before bed just puts me to sleep)
    Another suggestion that might work is to relax your body, consciously, one area at a time, starting from your feet. You think about the ball of your left foot and relax it, then the ball of your right foot, then the arch of your left foot, etc. You have to concentrate (pretty hard) on what you are doing

    • MN2013

      The sleeping pill one is such a good idea. I take this anxiety medicine that relaxes me to the point of falling asleep, but it takes such a long time to wear off that I am groggy until 3pm in the afternoon the next day. I am going to start taking it earlier to it wears off sooner. THANKS!

  • Ben

    I see you list it as #1, but it’s just way more important than any of the others and cannot be understated.
    No amount of magic potions, foot lotion or pills are going to help you as much as getting exercise during the day.

  • I apparently have a major resistance to caffeine: my espresso habit does not prevent sleep as far as I can tell… I do find that meditating, focussing on my breathing and letting the thoughts come and go as they please is a quick path to relaxation and sleep.

  • Grant

    To calm the racing thoughts, I try very hard to keep my mind out of the recent past and the near future. No rehearsing what didn’t go right in the day that’s past, no fretting over all the stuff I’ve got to do the next day. Instead, I spend my drifting off to sleep time reminiscing about the distant past or the far future — at least a couple years off in either direction works well for me.
    Aside from that, I second the suggestion of an orgasm. Works fast, most every time.

  • Helen

    My husband loves to talk about trucks, something that drives me crazy because I’m in no way interested in trucks. I then realized that snuggling up to him in bed and asking him to tell me the latest on trucks was the perfect way to bring on sleep for me. Unfortunately, he realized what I was doing and I lost my quick fix for sleep! Who knew that talking about trucks got him jazzed and he wouldn’t be able to sleep after a good truck conversation? Anyway, my point is that sometimes our sleep problems might relate to how we are relating to our sleep partners. In these cases “identify the problem” is a necessary strategy.

  • Helen

    My husband loves to talk about trucks, something that drives me crazy because I’m in no way interested in trucks. I then realized that snuggling up to him in bed and asking him to tell me the latest on trucks was the perfect way to bring on sleep for me. Unfortunately, he realized what I was doing and I lost my quick fix for sleep! Who knew that talking about trucks got him jazzed and he wouldn’t be able to sleep after a good truck conversation? Anyway, my point is that sometimes our sleep problems might relate to how we are relating to our sleep partners. In these cases “identify the problem” is a necessary strategy.

  • One thing that has really helped me recently is establishing a bed-time routine. I put some water on to boil for a bedtime blend of herbal tea that I keep exclusively for bedtime (in the hope my brain will start to associate sleep with the flavour!), water my plants with the bucket we keep in the shower while it boils, make the tea and take it to bed, write five points in my Gratitude Journal for the day and put some clothes out for tomorrow while it cools, drink the tea, brush my teeth and fall asleep. (Well sometimes, I read a little first!) Establishing a pre-sleep ritual has had a really positive impact on my insomnia.
    I’m totally with your husband on the Roomba love, by the way!

  • Wendy Bussell

    I have trained myself to enjoy reading in the living room. When I go to bed, and start to read I have a hard time staying awake.
    My biggest problem is staying asleep. So I switch venues. Sleep on the sofa,read blogs until the sand in the eye effect happens, clean house, pay bills, do mundane things until sleep happens.
    If I am too tired the next day, I am great with power naps.

  • Your tip #16 is the one that works for me. If I lay in bed and try to force myself to sleep it just gets more difficult. If I get up and do something at least I don’t feel like the time is wasted. Also, doing something relatively easy also distracts me and then I find that I can fall asleep.

  • dgm

    I take my magnesium supplement at night, about an hour before bed. Since I started doing this about 2 years ago, I’ve been sleeping like a baby (a sleeping baby, not one of those babies that gets up every few hours).
    I can’t stand to wear socks to bed, but I have heard this really helps insomnia. Perhaps relatedly, I read somewhere else that if your child experiences night terrors, keep their feet uncovered during sleep. Maybe covered, cozy feet bring one to a deep level of sleep?
    If I find I cannot sleep (because, for example, I’ve had caffeine after 3:30 pm), I find the deep breathing works really well, as does this trick where I squeeze my eyes really tightly for 5 seconds, then open them. It tires my eyes out and pretty soon I’m sawing logs “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

  • When my mind is restless I go over the events of the day BACKWARDS. (“I pulled the covers over me. Before that I checked the alarm. Before that I drank some water. Etc.”) Something about the concentration required to do this puts me to sleep.

  • Brooklynchick

    My white noise machine is a life-saver – just the sounds tells my brain its sleep time. On the advice of my doctor, I also don’t look at the computer or watch tv for at least a half hour before bed.

  • KCCC

    I do something similar to the audiobooks suggestion above… I download “zencasts” and other meditations from iTunes, but often don’t have time to listen to them. So I’ll put one on… There’s a particular speaker I like, who has a very gentle voice. Either I go to sleep, or I get to listen to something good for my spirit that I have been wanting to hear. Either way, I win! (If I go to sleep, I usually hear just enough for me to FIND time to listen when I’m awake…)
    Listening to someone else quiets my own racing mind…

  • Jaydee

    A really good book seems to be what cues sleepiness but saying prayers put me to sleep as well….I hardly ever finish them. I used to feel really guilty about that but a priest friend said to just accept it as a gift from God…He knows what your prayers were about!

  • Nancy Kroll

    Two things work well in helping me to relax and fall asleep – sometimes I think of things I really hate doing or places I do not want to be and try to be so content that I am not at these places doing these things that I fall asleep. Also – I think of my favorite city (in this case Rome, Italy) and mentally take longs walks in the various neighborhoods at different periods of history – a different one every night. A walk in the Forum of the 2nd century, a walk in the baths of Diocletian just after construction or that same place in the 17th century – thsi one always works for me.

  • Helen’s story is hilarious.
    One more: soft sheets. This seems obvious, but I bought these “1,000-count sheets” on sale thinking I’d pamper myself, and sure they may be dense, but they are the cardboardiest things in the world. I don’t even look forward to climbing in when I’m really tired. I’m going to wash them a few hundred times, but I guess the type of cotton is more important than thread count. Get sheets that already feel smooth and nice in the store. My favorite sheets of all time are these “sueded cotton” sheets I got from Sears 7 years ago. They’re only like 200-count, but are incredibly soft and inviting. I haven’t been able to find them since.

  • I read the post and comments with great interest, having had trouble sleeping for a good many years.
    Several of the good and trusted tips work for me a lot of the time, but one I didn’t see on the list is this:
    Put a drop of Lavender Oil on your heals before you go to bed. The smell of lavender has an immensely calming effect. I’ve been surprised at the effect.
    Unfortunately, some of the best tips only work if you live alone or don’t care whether you wake up the family…

  • Great article with a lot of very good suggestions. Enjoyed your site,and your writing style.
    I stumbled on your site while searching through technorati.

  • Ed
  • I haven’t had problems recently, but I find concentrating on relaxing every part of my body individually, from the toes up, helps. By the time I reach my head I’ve either forgotten I couldn’t sleep, or fallen asleep.

  • I NEED a notebook by my bed so, when I wake up frazzled by a sudden UH OH I FORGOT TO XXX (notice I didnt say IF :)), I can write the thang down and move on/back to sleeping!

  • When I can’t fall asleep, I list all the presidents in order from 1 to 43, in my head. (If I did it aloud, then my husband wouldn’t be able to fall asleep either and that isn’t fair)
    I find that usually if I can’t sleep, it is because of my mind rather than my body, so I try to focus my mind on a singular thing (like listing all the presidents). This keeps me from doing that weird random stream of consciousness that is often what’s keeping me from sleeping.

  • Okay, after reading your warm milk thing, I had to jump up and try it. I control my poisons pretty religiously, so I don’t use artificial sweeteners, but I did try your recipe with this natural agave sweetener I have and it was bliss in a cup. I smells wonderful! I think I like it as much as tea. Thanks for the wonderful recipe. It really doesn’t take much milk for a milky flavor which is nice since I’m lactose intolerant.

  • I have found listening to music can be a help in getting you off to sleep. The 2nd movement (Scene by the Brook) from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No 6, may be a help.

  • Kay

    I have insomnina off and on for years, and I have a trick that works for me.
    Pick three random numbers and visually line them up side by side in your head. Next, add each number to the one next to it for a total. Then add the first two numbers to the third number for another total. Then add the first number to the last two numbers for another total. Add all three totals together for another total. Then do the same process with subtraction, then multiplication. By the time you get to the fourth step of the first process you will likely be dozing off.
    If not and you finish the process, you can start over again by choosing three different numbers. The amount of calculations are endless. It really works and doesn’t take long at all! Good luck!

  • Rachel

    You’ve listed all my personal strategies, but reading your post reminded me of another on the same topic that I read earlier this week.
    Timothy Ferriss has a post on his blog called “5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep,” in which he offers some advice I will probably never try (have an ice bath!) and some that sound like a good idea (eat a small quantity of carbs).
    The whole thing is here:

  • One more tip – reserve the bedroom for sleeping, clothing, and sex. That’s it. No computer, no television, no project corner, just sleeping, clothing, and sex. I have an entire apartment to live in. I don’t hang out in my bedroom, so my brain and body associate it with sleeping.
    And I know people are very attached to their televisions, but honestly – I got rid of the bedroom tv back in 1996, and I haven’t missed it at all.

  • Jenn

    I find on nights where I am really desperate, lots of tossing and turning etc, that getting up and moving to the couch or the bedroom can be extremely effective. The change of location helps me start fresh and let go of the frustration of tossing and turning. It also lets my body go through the getting into bed routine freshly. I often fall asleep very quickly once I am starting over in a new place.

  • ob2il

    I personally like suggestion #16. I keep small tidying tasks for those nights when I either can’t fall asleep, or fall asleep and wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. Usually there’s something going on in my mind, so firsly I sit and write in my “sort of diary” where I note down all sorts of stuff that I’m pleased about, or that I’m worried about; what I’d like to be able to do, what I think about etc. Then I tidy something – this week one night I tidied my cosmetic shelf and threw out all the old eyeshadow that I’m never going to use again; last night I tidied the freezer – also throwing out the items which, hidden in the back behind everything else, had passed their “use by” date. The tidying calms me down and I go back to bed feeling tranquil and good about my newly tidy whatever – and fall asleep almost immediately. I choose things to tidy that aren’t going to take more than about 20 mins. to half an hour, and definitely not something where the decision what to keep and what to throw will frazzle me. Looking at the newly tidy shelf or drawer (or freezer) makes me happy for many days.

  • Paul Durkin

    Love the article, very well written and some great tips – Particularly about keeping the bedroom slightly chilly before going to bed. I’ll actually try this one tonight to see if it helps 🙂

    I’ve just publish an infographic on my blog about The British Secret for a Good Night’s Sleep – I’d love to know what you think about it.