Don’t let poor sleep ruin your life

How to build the perfect wind-down routine

There’s a lot you can do to improve your sleep. Some of the easiest improvements to make include:

  • Making good dietary choices
  • Taking regular exercise
  • Ensuring your bedroom is well set up for a comfortable night
  • Working towards addressing any underlying clinical conditions (e.g. insomnia) through appropriate treatment
  • Building a wind-down routine

Wind-down routines can be effective because there is a link between reducing physical and mental stimulation before bed and getting better sleep. However, we’re all different so, what some people find relaxing, others will find rather stimulating.

Why you should plan ahead

Plan tomorrow’s work today. Although most of us can simply physically disconnect from work by packing up and leaving the office for the day, this isn’t enough of a disconnection to enable better sleep.

It can be very easy for us to spend some of our non-work time thinking about the work day’s ups and downs, as well as what tomorrow might bring. This can lead to a state of psychological arousal which can affect the quality of our sleep1.

You might be able to reduce the impact that thinking about work has on your sleep by setting some time aside, either at the end of the work day or in the evening to plan for the following day or week, depending on what’s appropriate.

While developing a planning strategy may not be as direct as other methods of improving sleep, such as altering your caffeine or alcohol intake or improving your sleep environment, it has nevertheless been shown to improve sleep quality along with feelings of wellbeing and vitality upon waking2.

There are many planning methods available, from a simple to-do list, through to more comprehensive approaches such as “Getting Things Done” or “The Eisenhower Approach.” A useful list of planning systems can be found on Wikipedia if you’d like to learn more3.

Pencils and paper on a table

Think about what you drink

The link between caffeine, alcohol consumption and sleep quality is rather complex. Your usage history (light, moderate, heavy) will affect the impact that having caffeinated or alcoholic drinks will have on your sleep.

For instance, for a habitual coffee drinker, having a mild cup of tea or coffee before bedtime won’t cause as much of a sleep disruption as it would to someone who drinks coffee rarely, if ever.

With that said, it seems that reducing caffeine intake sometime between 3 and 7 hours before bed should lead to fewer sleep problems for most people4.

Interestingly, sugary soft drinks may also have an effect on sleep, although the reasons for this are, as yet, unclear. So, it might be wise to reduce your intake of these drinks too5.

What about alcohol?

The situation is somewhat different with alcohol. At low doses, alcohol can help you fall quickly into a deep sleep, but this is balanced by more waking events during the night and lighter sleep as the alcohol is metabolised. This means that alcohol consumption usually harms sleep.

For a heavier drinker, these effects aren’t as marked and in fact, reducing alcohol intake for those people can worsen sleep quality4.

So, while it’s probably better to reduce your alcohol intake, this will vary according to your individual circumstance. If you drink a lot, and find reducing alcohol intake causes worse sleep for you, it might be worth seeking specialist help.

Pencils and paper on a table

Get smart with your phone

With our increased reliance on connected devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, it’s no surprise that we spend a lot of time on them. Whether we’re catching up with friends on social media, doing our online shopping or something else, the average time spent on these devices seems to be increasing.

Most people will spend hours a day using their smartphone or similar device. While this doesn’t affect sleep on its own, the pattern of usage has the potential to do so, since we often use them in less busy times of the day such as just after waking, or before going to bed.

The type of light that these screens emit can lead to a drop in the body’s production of sleep hormones, especially when these devices are used shortly before bed6.

As a result, it’s a good move to stop using electronic devices altogether at least 2 hours before bed to increase your chances of falling asleep. Instead, read or do something else away from a screen. This may not be easy or even possible for many of us, so if it’s too much to commit to right away, you might consider the following:

  • Install and use something called a blue light filter on the devices you typically use. These will reduce the amount of blue light that a screen emits over the course of the day. Some examples are the Windows 10 Night light feature, or f.lux for Mac, Linux and smartphone platforms.
  • Instead of using active and screen-based entertainment like browsing the web, use more passive entertainment such as watching TV or listening to the radio to minimise psychological arousal.

Consider your exercise

Exercise can contribute to better sleep through altering the body’s hormonal profile in addition to reducing core body temperature.

Although results are mixed, bouts of exercise around 4-8 hours before your bedtime of more than an hour in length appear to give the best sleep improvements 4. Although walking7 and yoga have been shown to be effective at improving sleep, the form of exercise isn’t as important as simply doing some, so pick something you enjoy!

Find your way to relax

Returning to the importance of psychological arousal, it’s been shown that practices such as mindfulness and meditation can lead to better quality sleep48.

Briefly, mindfulness is the practice of bringing yourself to be “in” the present and not worrying about the past or the future in doing so. This can be difficult for some people and so courses to guide you through the practice may help.

If you also act as a caregiver (e.g. a parent or a carer), part of this relaxation practice may be reducing psychological arousal by putting aside those responsibilities for the day1. Just how you do this will vary widely depending on the nature of those responsibilities, e.g. putting the kids to bed early to give yourself a little more “me” time if you’re a parent, or something more complex if you’re a full time carer, but is worth giving this some thought all the same.

Everyone is different, so make sure to make time for the things that you find relaxing as part of your wind-down routine. For you it could be knitting, reading, tinkering in your garage, doing a crossword, or listening to rock music. Even though there may not be any scientific evidence for its effect, that doesn’t mean that what you find relaxing won’t help you sleep because relaxation is personal.

Flowers and a cup of tea on a table

Find the scent of sleep

As strange as it may sound, exposure to scents such as lavender may also improve sleep9, either by spraying some on your pillow, burning a lavender candle once every few days or using an air infuser.

Since the studies on this are somewhat limited, it might be worth trying other scents that are relaxing to you if you don’t find the scent of lavender pleasant.

Wrapping it all up

We’ve covered a number of ways that you could alter your pre-sleep routine to improve the sleep you get. Feel free to mix and match, to find what works for you:

  • Planning the following day’s tasks
  • Thinking about reducing your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugary soft drinks
  • Reconsidering your use of electronic equipment before bed
  • Using the power of exercise
  • Incorporating relaxation techniques
  • Triggering the potential of scents to enhance sleep

Remember, a wind-down routine is very individual, so feel free to experiment and change things if something isn’t working.

With that said, these methods all have varying degrees of success and may not be all that effective for those living with insomnia10. For those people, a more thorough sleep improvement programme may be required. These programmes tend to incorporate a wind-down routine alongside other interventions and techniques to resolve sleep problems.

If you’re having trouble sleeping and using some of these methods simply isn’t helping, it might be time to try a more concrete, integrated treatment plan from Sleepstation.

References


  • Charlotte Fritz and Tori Crain. Recovery from Work and Employee Sleep. In Julian Barling, Christopher M. Barnes,

  • Erica Carleton, and David T. Wagner, editors, Work and Sleep, pages 55–76. Oxford University Press, June 2016. ISBN 978-0-19-021766-2. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217662.003.0004.

  • Anne Casper and Sabine Sonnentag. Feeling exhausted or vigorous in anticipation of high workload? The role of worry and planning during the evening. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 93(1):215–242,March 2020. ISSN 0963-1798, 2044-8325. doi: 10.1111/joop.12290.

  • Leah A. Irish, Christopher E. Kline, Heather E. Gunn, Daniel J. Buysse, and Martica H. Hall. The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 22:23–36, August 2015. ISSN 10870792. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.001.

  • Aric A. Prather, Cindy W. Leung, Nancy E. Adler, Lorrene Ritchie, Barbara Laraia, and Elissa S. Epel. Short and sweet: Associations between self-reported sleep duration and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among adults in the United States. Sleep Health, 2(4):272–276, December 2016. ISSN 23527218. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2016.09.007.

  • Xiaohui Zhao, Xue Feng, Rahul Garg, and Kimberly M. Kelly. Reducing late evening bedtime electronic device intentions and use among young adults. Sleep Health, 5(4):401–408, August 2019. ISSN 23527218. doi: 10.1016/j.sleh.2019.02.005.

  • Alycia N. Sullivan Bisson, Stephanie A. Robinson, and Margie E. Lachman. Walk to a better night of sleep: Testing the relationship between physical activity and sleep. Sleep Health, 5(5):487–494, October 2019. ISSN 23527218. doi: 10.1016/j.sleh.2019.06.003.

  • Andrew J. Howell, Nancy L. Digdon, Karen Buro, and Amanda R. Sheptycki. Relations among mindfulness, wellbeing, and sleep. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(8):773–777, December 2008. ISSN 01918869. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.005.

  • Kate Louise Fismer and Karen Pilkington. Lavender and sleep: A systematic review of the evidence. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 4(4):e436–e447, December 2012. ISSN 18763820. doi: 10.1016/j.eujim.2012.08.001.

  • Linda Harvey, Stephanie J. Inglis, and Colin A. Espie. Insomniacs’ reported use of CBT components and relationship to long-term clinical outcome. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(1):75–83, January 2002. ISSN 00057967. doi:10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00004-3.

Further information