How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

Numerous things can throw off your sleep schedule, from the mundane (shift work and jet lag) to the stressful (sleep disorders and recent life upheavals). When it happens, we might find ourselves staying up until 4 a.m. and waking up at noon.

Once our biological clocks are thrown off, it takes time and effort to get them realigned. It’s possible, though, to recalibrate your clock by planning out your day and sticking vigilantly to a sleep schedule.

How Do We Sleep and How Much Is Enough?

We get sleepy at night because of the interaction between two processes, circadian timing and a sleep drive. Circadian timing follows the light-dark cycle, prompting us to wake up at dawn and to fall asleep after dark. The sleep drive tracks sleep propensity allowing us to sleep through the night.

“Our sleep-wake cycle is a rhythm in light and darkness,” says Dr. Nayantara Santhi, Ph.D. “Did you know that light is one of the strongest time signals for our body clock? Hence, besides vision, light serves an important non-visual function for us.”

During sleep, we cycle through four different stages, starting with non-REM (non-rapid eye movement sleep) sleep and moving to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. As the night continues, we spend more time in the REM sleep stage.

The first stage consists of light sleep. During this time, our heartbeat, breathing, and muscles start to relax. In the second stage, our brain activity continues to slow and our body temperature drops.

The third stage of deep sleep refreshes our body and brain for the next day. It is thought to have a restorative function, involved in body repair and tissue regrowth, bones and muscles augmentation, and reinforcement of the immune system. This stage also plays a role in memory consolidation and learning.

The fourth stage of sleep is the REM stage, where our eyes move rapidly side to side, and our brain activity, breathing, and heart rate levels spike. This is the stage where we have the most vivid dreams.

Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. However, the results of a 2011 study suggest that athletes may benefit from sleeping more than the average person, with subjects sleeping at least 10 hours.

You may also need more sleep if your rest is interrupted. Or in other words, being awakened at night can lead to increased sleep time.

Set Up A Consistent Sleep Schedule

You can’t fix your sleep schedule if you don’t have one. Start going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. You should stick to your regular schedule even on the weekends, as sleeping in can throw off your internal clock.

Try to avoid doing too much in the evenings, as it may overly energize you. Keep your evening activities to two or three things—try tackling your chores in the morning or during the day, to better unwind at night.

A bedtime routine can make it easier to fall asleep. Turn off your electronics an hour or two before bed, as the blue light can trick your body clock into thinking it’s day—some devices include a night-time mode that reduces blue light, but we recommend a complete shut-down.

Spend the last hour or so before bed doing soothing activities—take a warm bath, read a print book, or write in a journal about your day.

Try to avoid napping throughout the day. If you must nap, keep it under 30 minutes and avoid naps past early afternoon to minimize sleep problems at bedtime. The exception is if you’re an athlete—a 2018 study found long naps can help athletes get the extra sleep they need.

Get Some Sun

As we explained earlier, your sleep patterns are influenced by the presence of sunlight. Our brains stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin when we’re exposed to light and begin production again when it’s dark to induce sleepiness.

This light effect is also why we recommend shutting off electronics in the evening, as the light from these devices suppress melatonin production, preventing you from falling asleep.

Getting sunlight first thing in the morning wakes you up. Open the curtains or go for a walk after you get out of bed.

Consider a weekend of camping with your smartphone shut off to maximize your exposure to natural light and get your biological clock in sync. A 2013 study found that a week of camping without electronics improved the sleep habits of participants, as they went to bed earlier and woke up earlier.

Getting enough natural sunlight can be difficult if you often work night shifts. Try to spend some time outside before the sun sets and wear sunglasses when you get off work to trick your brain into thinking it’s dark out. You can use blackout curtains to keep your bedroom dark and light bulbs designed to mimic sunlight when it’s time to wake up.

Set Up Your Bedroom for Quality Sleep

Try to reserve your bedroom for sleep only. If you often exercise, watch TV, or catch up on work in your bedroom, then thoughts of these tasks may preoccupy you when you try to sleep.

Set your bedroom thermostat to between 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit—you may have to do a little experimenting to find your perfect temperature. Use breathable bedding and ensure your room is well ventilated.

Keep your bedroom dark with blackout curtains, or use an eye mask to block out light. Consider turning your alarm clock away from you, both so the LED lights don’t disturb you, and so you don’t become an anxious clock watcher.

Place your alarm clock away from your bed, so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Moving your alarm prevents you from just hitting the snooze button, and once you’re out of bed, you’ll find it easier to get up.

If noises bother you as you try to sleep, wear a pair of earplugs to bed—but check that you won’t snooze through your alarm. Make sure you can still hear it or use an alarm that doesn’t require sound, like one that mimics sunrise or vibrates to wake you up.

Your mattress can keep you from a good night’s rest if it’s in poor condition. If your bed feels lumpy or if you sink into the middle, it’s time to replace your mattress.

Your pillow might need replacing as well, particularly if you wake up with neck pain or headaches from poor support. The best pillows mold around your head and neck to support both.

Watch Your Diet

Give yourself at least two to three hours between meal times and bedtime, so your food has time to digest.

If you need to adjust your sleep patterns, consider fasting. Our circadian rhythms are partially determined by when we eat, with the act of eating and digesting a meal waking us up. Fasting resets our circadian rhythms, according to a Harvard study.

However, going to bed hungry can also keep you awake, so if you need a light snack before bed, go ahead and munch.

Cut down on caffeine as well. Don’t consume any soda, coffee, tea, or even chocolate six hours before bed, as that may keep you from a good night’s sleep.

Exercise Regularly

Scientific evidence suggests that regular exercise can improve your quantity and quality of sleep. What time works best for you as a time to exercise depends on your diurnal preference or chronotype. A little experimentation may be needed to find your most efficient workout time. However, because circadian rhythms of alertness peak in the late afternoon to early evening, you may find you perform well during an after-work session.

Conversely, you may also want to try to save your intense workouts for earlier in the day—light evening exercise can help you fall asleep, but strenuous workouts an hour before bed may leave you struggling to sleep.

What If I Can’t Sleep?

We all have nights when sleep escapes us, and you may find it difficult to fall asleep at your set bedtime the first couple nights of adjusting your nightly routine.

It’s important not to stress when you can’t fall asleep, as that will only wake you up. Instead, give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep, then get out of bed to do a calming activity—reading a print book, drinking a cup of warm milk or herbal tea, or a few gentle stretches to release tension. Avoid turning on too many bright lights, as it may prevent you from falling asleep.

Return to bed when you start to feel sleepy.

Speak With a Doctor

It’s normal to have occasional sleep problems, but if you frequently have trouble falling asleep and changing your habits isn’t improving your sleep quality, you should speak to your doctor or a sleep specialist. You may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can it take for your sleep cycle to reset?

It may take a few days to a couple of weeks. Be patient, as sometimes slow, gradual steps are the best way to make a lasting change.

Does waking up to use the restroom ruin sleep?

It can, particularly if you’re getting up more than once a night. If you find yourself waking up multiple times a night to empty your bladder, you may have nocturia and should speak to a doctor about it.

Did We Help?

Good sleep habits are the best way to fix a disordered sleep routine. Avoid electronics at least an hour or before bed, set up a bedtime routine, and make sure you’re sleeping on the best mattress for you. If problems persist, talk to your doctor to discuss potential diagnoses and treatment options.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Andrew Russell, Wellness Writer Andrew Russell

Andrew Russell is a part-time writer and full-time sleep enthusiast. At Zoma, Andrew lends his sleep expertise and writes many of our “better sleep” guides. Outside of Zoma, Andrew puts his advice to the test, always trying new ways to get deeper, more restorative sleep. We appreciate Andrew because he doesn’t give advice that he doesn’t follow himself, so you can feel confident his solutions for better sleep really do the trick. Andrew's work has been featured on Ladders, Bright Side, and several other publications.

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