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Sleep More, Study Less: 20 Ways to Improve Sleep

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

This is immediately controversial for the simple reason that many college students forgo sleep. It is also reported that Americans in general are sleep deprived. If Albert Einstein slept for 10 hours a day, and he solved some of the most important quagmires in theoretical physics, then maybe you should follow suit and get more sleep.

Why it is important

Memories are stored and processed during theta wave activation, which occurs during sleep and deep meditation. Studies that compare participants who sleep for 4 compared to those who sleep for 8 score much lower on intelligence tests.

Sleep will not only benefit your grades/learning, but it will benefit your mental and physical health as well. Let’s take a looks at the list of things lack of sleep can do:

  • Impaired memory

  • Increased risk of anxiety and depression

  • Increased risk of high blood pressure

  • Weakened immune system

  • Increased risk of diabetes

  • Increased risk of heart disease

  • Increased risk of stroke

  • Impaired judgment

  • Impaired quality of life

It goes without saying, I’m a big advocate of sleep. I’m taken into a dreamy fairyland when I go to sleep, I wake up ready to tackle the day, and I hope the same for you. I never understood the unhealthy self denialism in the hustle culture. The mantra is “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “sleep 8 hours in 4”. I would rather say prioritize your tasks so you get more time to sleep or find a way to work faster during the day so you have more time to sleep at night.

The paradox of all-nighters

This is why I don’t suggest all-nighters. They do precisely the opposite of what students intend them to do. The goal of an all-nighter is to cram as much information as possible for an exam, but what ends up happening is that nothing gets encoded and memory recall is greatly diminished at the time of the exam. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

I never pulled an all-nighter in college unless it was to finish writing a paper. Even then, the quality of the papers was complete trash.

Sleep optimization

There are a lot of factors that go into your quality of sleep that many are unaware of.

1: Exercise

Tired people fall asleep better, exercise makes you tired, therefore exercise helps you sleep better. I don’t need to go further than that!

2: Cool temperature

The body naturally cools down at night, so this should be reflected in the temperature of your room before going to sleep. I remember when I slept with roommates how it would be really difficult to fall asleep and sometimes I’d even be sweaty from how hot the room was before falling asleep. Experiment with different temperatures and see what works for you!

If you have roommates, the temperature should be adjusted to whoever requires the lowest temperature to sleep because the vents can simply be closed for those who need it to be warmer (in many houses)

3: Ambient light

The harsh white or yellow lights - especially those in college dorms - are great for seeing the objects in your room and to keep you alert, but not very relaxing. In addition, the human body for thousands of years didn’t have artificial light in the evening. This ambient light confuses the circadian rhythm. I suggest using more dim and calm lighting. I personally hang Christmas lights in my room, but you could also look into getting LED strips and hang them on the corners of your walls. Some even come with brightness adjustments.

4: Prioritize your bed time rather than awake time

Being consistent about your bed time is more important than being consistent about your wake time for the simple fact that sleep starts when your head first hits the pillow, and then follows a (hopefully) 7 - 9 hours process of restoration. Waking up only takes a minute.

If you stay up 2 hours past your intended bedtime, then there’s no way to get those 2 hours back, and it sets up a vicious cycle of further sleep deprivation because now you won’t feel as tired at the same time. In addition, if you go really far with the procrastinating on your bedtime, then you are more likely to crash during the day and not only is that not good for productivity but if you nap for long enough, your circadian rhythm will get completely out of tune.

5: Get rid of your alarm clock

I don’t use an alarm clock anymore. I would only use it if I needed to force my circadian rhythm back to a certain schedule, or if I had to wake up at an earlier time than I do naturally. Let your body wake you up naturally. The body goes through REM cycles during sleep and that alarm clock could very well be waking you up in the middle of a deep stage 4 sleep cycle. You’ll wake up, but you’ll feel sluggish and slow. When you wake up naturally, you won’t have that problem.

Even then, some alarm clocks are better than others. I recommend using an alarm clock that wakes you up gradually or has a light mechanism that glows brighter and brighter as your awake time approaches.

Getting rid of your alarm clock also let’s you calibrate how much sleep you ACTUALLY need. Some people believe that they only need 6 hours of sleep, after forcing themselves to sleep for 6 hours for years, but may actually be sleep deprived. Indeed, one of the symptoms of sleep deprivation is impaired judgment around whether or not one is sleep deprived (paradoxically). Sleeping without an alarm clock and seeing when your body naturally wakes up will be a litmus test for you!

6: Time in bed does not equal hours of sleep

Some people think that if they lie in a bed and cover themselves with their sheets and put their head on a pillow at 10AM and set an alarm at 6AM that they will get 8 hours of sleep. Unless you fall asleep the instant your head hits the pillow (in which case, I’m either excited or worried about you) then you need to factor in that time it takes for you to actually fall asleep, which can be anywhere from 5 minutes, to 1 hour (if your sleep hygiene hasn’t been good). Therefore, allocate more time in bed to insure you get adequate hours of sleep!

7: Comfortable bed and pillow

Your mattress might be too soft, or it might be too firm. Experiment with adding a memory foam topper, or sleeping on a different mattress.

In addition, your pillows might be causing you neck discomfort when you sleep at night. There are companies that have developed pillows meant to cradle your neck so it is properly aligned with your spine. I’ve heard that the pillow cube was designed for side sleepers since the distance between the head and shoulder is large and can cause the neck to be uncomfortably positioned.

8: Eliminate blue light

Blue light is emitted from electronics and screens. This is the light that makes you awake and alert. Avoid looking at your TV, phone, or computer screen ideally for two hours before going to sleep. If you have to look at your screen before going to bed, you can also install a blue light filter on your phone and laptop. I have a PC and I use f.lux. For my phone, I use Twilight (I have an Android).

Yet another solution you could implement is wearing shades or blue light blocking glasses while looking at your screens before beds. And you’ll get extra points for fashion!

9: Eliminate ambient light

Ambient light will make it harder to sleep. Our ancestors lived in caves and there were no street lights, charger lights, battery lights, etc. Put tape of those pesky little lights if necessary. If the curtains don’t block enough light from lamps outside, consider covering your window with a bedsheet.

Consider a sleep mask if it’s too hard to avoid ambient light while you sleep.

10: Avoid overstimulation leading up to your bedtime

Overstimulation can take many forms.

The first obvious one is exercise. Don’t workout close to your bedtime. How long before your bedtime exactly? I’ve worked out from 7 - 830PM and went to sleep at 1130PM without much issue. Of course, every body is different and experimentation is crucial to figuring out what works best for you.

Next is food. If your body is busy digesting, that will take awake from the functions it performs during sleep. In addition, laying down with a full stomach can lead to heartburn (also known as acid reflux). That is when your extremely acidic stomach acid touches the unprotected bottom part of your esophagus. The stomach is coated with mucus that protects it from its own acid, but not the esophagus.

Also try to avoid drinking a lot of water before bed. If you have to get up at night to use the bathroom, you are obviously disrupting your sleep.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t drink coffee before bed, but timing is more significant for this one than the aforementioned activities. Caffeine has a half life of 5 hours, so if you down a 300mg espresso at 5PM and go to sleep at 10PM, don’t think you’re out of the woods. 150mg of that will still be in your system before going to bed, and 75mg in the middle of the night! The rule I hear a lot is to avoid caffeine before noon.

11: Follow the sun

Human beings were meant to be awake during the day, and asleep at night. Chemicals and hormones in the body match with sunrise and sunset. It is well known that people who work night shifts for a long time suffer from adverse health effects.

I think that the majority of teenagers overestimate how much of a “night owl” they are. There have been studies showing that the circadian rhythms of teenagers are shifted forward, meaning they are more likely to stay up late. For many, however, the reality is that they are overstimulated and overexposed to blue light at a time when they can kick back and play video games or facetime with their friends. If they did all of the things I outlined here, they would become morning people in no time.

12: Have a night routine

This point is really a continuation of the last one. Over stimulation of the mind is also a major disruptor of sleep. This could be related to worry about work, or other invasive/negative thoughts. That’s why it is important to have a relaxing night routine. In addition to avoiding blue light, food, exercise, etc. it is also important to become relaxed.

Sometimes work and obligations get the best of us and we have to burn the midnight oil, but try to focus on other activities before going to bed. Here are some ideas:

  • Watch a (non stimulating) movie or TV show

  • Read a physical book

  • Talk with friends/family

  • Play an instrument

  • Journal

  • Meditate

Notice I didn’t put play video games or read the news. Both of these activities tend to make your mind race, especially if current events are particularly worrisome or you are losing at the game you are playing.

13: The #1 sleep supplement

It’s not melatonin, it’s reading. Reading a relaxing fiction book will most definitely make your eyes heavy, especially if it’s somewhat dense. Try it out and see for yourself! I often drift away to sleep while I still have a book in my hands trying to read it.

14: Avoid sleep drugs

These have numerous unhealthy side effects and are just a band aid for underlying issues. I used to be a big fan of cherry flavored melatonins my sophomore and junior year of college but after cleaning up my sleep hygiene I’ve never had to use them.

15: Count backwards from 99 OR think about calming things

I mentioned earlier how overstimulation can disrupt your sleep, and this includes negative or worrisome thoughts.

One way around this is, similar to counting sheep, to count backwards form 99, and preferably in a different language. Every time I have tried this, I have never been able to reach 1.

Another way is to think about things you like, things you find relaxing, or hobbies. I like to think about food, for instance.

16: Silence

I’m not sure if this affects most people, but if there is any TV blaring in the background, talking, plans overhead, or cars zipping past at night, I can’t sleep. I get homicidally mad especially if I hear talking.

If noise is an issue, try using good quality ear plugs. You could also try a white noise machine! This will muffle out outside noise and is (hopefully) calm and relaxing so you won’t mind it playing in your room before falling asleep.

17: Don’t snooze

You won’t need to snooze if you followed my advice above to wake up without an alarm clock. When you snooze, you are momentarily forcing your body to go back into a deep sleep, only to jolt yourself out of it shortly thereafter. This will make you sluggish and make it harder to wake up. Those extra five minutes are backfiring, in other words.

18: Wake up at the same time

This includes on the weekends. Having regular sleep patterns is essential to your sleep hygiene. Don’t sleep at 12PM one day, 2AM the next, and 9PM the next because you were tired from school or work. Commit to a bed time and wake up time and stick to it. It’ll be easier to fall asleep if you do and you’ll be able to get in enough hours of shuteye.

19: Wake up to light

I mentioned this earlier in my section on alarm clocks. Ideally, you should be going to sleep in the pitch dark, but waking up to natural light coming through your window. Sleep with your window open if there isn’t excessive ambient light from the outside, in other words.

20: Consider a sleep therapist

The majority of people would get a great boost to their sleep quality if they took all the aforementioned suggestions. Some folk may have underlying issues like illness that prevents them from getting restful sleep no matter what they do. You might also want to do everything possible to optimize your sleep. Doing a sleep study with a therapist can reveal if you have any issues while you are asleep like irregular or difficult breathing.