How to reset your sleep schedule

Keen to reset your sleep schedule? Recent research shows lockdown has altered our sleeping patterns, with later bedtimes and longer lie-ins more common.

While a return to ‘normal life’ is undoubtedly exciting, for many of us this means adding a commute back into our routine.
Concerned how your sleep cycle will be impacted? We spoke to sleep expert Heather Darwall-Smith and Kathryn Pinkham, founder of The Insomnia Clinic, about safely shifting your body clock.

Why is a healthy sleeping routine important?

A poor sleep routine doesn’t just leave you feeling tired and low. Sleep deprivation can also be highly detrimental to your physical and mental wellbeing. From diabetes to heart disease, regular poor sleep is a factor for several serious medical conditions.

As sleep plays a key role in emotional regulation, disordered sleeping may also put you at greater risk of mental health conditions like depression, with poorer sleep linked to higher levels of anxiety too.

By contrast, getting sufficient shut-eye can support your immune system, speed up wound healing and maintain your metabolism, to name but a few.

As Kathryn explains, “It’s clear that good quality sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.”

How has lockdown changed our sleeping habits?

The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted how we sleep. According to a recent survey, 53% of UK residents experienced changes to their routine, with 33% getting fewer hours sleep.

The added stress and anxiety also caused a surge in sleep-related concerns, with clinical insomnia cases rising by around 37%.

However, it isn’t all bad – particularly if you’re a night owl, as 20% of people actually reported sleeping more! According to Heather, not having to commute allowed some of us to sync up with our internal rhythms better.

“Lockdown’s been a bit of a gift to night owls because they’ve been able to shift and live a much more natural pattern,” she explains.

This makes sense given our sleep routines are largely dictated by factors outside of our control, including social norms and the typical working day.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people aren’t actually ‘larks’ (early birds) or ‘owls’ but ‘intermediates.’ This means their natural wake-up and bedtime falls somewhere between these extremes.

Interestingly, research suggests most of us would choose very different schedules if we could. Although an estimated 85% of people follow an early bird schedule, only 22% would willingly choose this, with a strong preference for rising after 7.45am. Lockdown definitely seems to have confirmed these inclinations!

How to safely shift your sleep routine

Regardless of how your sleep schedule has changed, knowing how to reset it safely will keep you in good stead ahead of a return to the office.

Think about your individual sleep needs

Per Heather’s advice, the first step towards resetting your sleep schedule is working out your natural sleep need.

Although seven to nine hours of quality sleep is the amount typically recommended for adults, these figures are really just there to provide general guidance. Many of us immediately assume we should aim for eight, since that’s in the middle, but according to Heather, that’s not right.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach at all,” she says. “People saying ‘I need eight hours of sleep,’ is one of the biggest problems. You may not need it. There is no fixed amount.”

Identifying your natural wake-up time will help you figure out the hours you need, and how to re-adjust your schedule accordingly.

“If you’re able to get up without an alarm clock, that tends to be a quite good indicator of what your wake-up time is. Then work backwards from there,” says Heather.

Believe in your body

It’s easier said than done, but trusting your body is a must. Although trying to reset your sleep schedule might cause a few rough nights at first, the natural mechanisms will quickly kick in.

Thankfully, the body is biologically programmed to sleep. You’ve probably heard of melatonin, AKA the sleepy hormone, already. Well, the body also has adenosine up its sleeve!

Also referred to as ‘sleep pressure’ or ‘sleep drive,’ this biochemical encourages sleep by regulating wakefulness. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine builds up.

“So, if you’ve had a bad night, the likelihood is the next night you’re going to have a lot of sleep pressure in the body – and that will send you to sleep,” explains Heather. “It’s like breathing. The body will take what it needs if you let it.”

Read more in Heather’s upcoming book, The Science of Sleep: Stop Chasing a Good Night’s Sleep and Let it Find You.

Slow and steady wins the race

Gotten used to a later wake-up time than your commute will allow? Moving your sleep timeframe back in short increments will help you settle into it gently. Heather recommends doing so at a maximum of half an hour per day, or even 15 minutes if preferred, so that it’s a very imperceptible movement.

“If you’re looking to move your clock, do it slowly,” she says.

Tempted to pull an all-nighter to fix your sleep cycle? Proceed with caution. Although planned sleep deprivation can effectively reset your clock, it isn’t for everyone. Plus, it’s likely to create anxiety, which could end up keeping you awake.

“That really is a very individual thing. To people with families, it’s a pretty brutal sledgehammer to crack,” explains Heather. “What I do not want is someone developing any form of anxiety. Sleep is about letting go.”

Kathryn likewise advises against completely depriving yourself of sleep. Instead, she suggests keeping to a ‘shorter sleep window’ for a period of time.

“For example, sleep from 12am to 5am, then get up for the day. Repeat this for a period of time, and this will soon encourage a stronger sleep drive,” she explains.

Keep it consistent

Once you’ve worked backwards to your desired timings, your best bet at establishing your new routine is to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Yes, even weekends!

“You really have to prioritise getting up at the same time every day – seven days a week – because that’s setting a line in the sand. The body likes routine, it likes to know where it stands,” explains Heather.

This was also one of Kathryn’s top tips. “Set an alarm every day – and I mean every day. Even if you have no plans, getting up at the same time each day kickstarts your natural sleep drive,” she says.

It might be tempting to sneak in a few more minutes but it won’t help you in the long run. The longer you linger in bed, the more your sleep appetite will reduce – leaving you wide awake later.

Likewise, even if you’re shattered from sleeping poorly the night before, you shouldn’t go to bed excessively early either.

Don’t watch the clock

Checking the time is always tempting when you can’t sleep – and especially when you’re trying to wean yourself onto a new schedule. Trust us, though, it will only make things worse. Obsessively counting the minutes of sleep between you and your alarm may seem harmless, but that’s not the case.

“All this does is increase the pressure to go back to sleep and make us worry how little sleep we’re going to get overall,” explains Kathryn.

Plus, anything that triggers performance anxiety around sleep should be avoided at all costs.

As soon as you entertain concerns like ‘I’m not going to be able to get to sleep,’ or ‘I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow,’ it will become much harder to switch off. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to have those thoughts!

Can’t get to sleep? Regroup!

It seems counterintuitive but getting out of bed may be the best thing you can do to help reset your sleep cycle, especially if you’re someone who gets anxious about sleep.

“There is absolutely no point lying in bed and crying or getting angry or frustrated. It is much better to do something nice,” says Heather.

She suggests having a cup of non-caffeinated tea, doing a jigsaw, or reading a book. However, if you really need the distraction, even watching TV is okay.

“Worst case scenario, I don’t have a problem with someone watching TV. If you just accept you’re going to have a couple of bumpy nights, then the body will take back what it needs.”

Don’t leave the de-stressing until the evening

To effectively reset your sleep schedule, you need to be proactive during your day too. Incorporating activities that help you de-stress well before bed are a must.

As Heather explains, it helps to imagine the body as a bottle of fizzy drink that’s been really shaken up.

“If you see what’s shaken up as the stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – imagine the pressure in that bottle,” she says. “It comes to bedtime and you open the bottle and it’s carnage. So, I ask ‘How do we open that bottle throughout the day?’”

For example, this might look like taking five to 10 minutes to go outside and stare at the sky between Zoom calls. Going for a walk before and after work can also be effective.

“You work on sleep during the day. It’s all about steady bit-by-bit. We’re not good at that, because humans like to go full tilt – but if we can pause, we’re letting that pressure out,” says Heather.

Kathryn also recommends journaling as a pre-emptive measure against bedtime stress. Make sure to use pen and paper, not your phone, though.

“I always advise clients to allocate a 20-minute window of time to write down everything they’re worried about. Once this is up, move on, do something you enjoy and if any thoughts or worries pop up, simply make a note of them,” she says.

“This technique will teach your mind to be more proactive about when you worry, so the worries aren’t constantly intruding.”

Good sleep hygiene still applies

Although resetting your sleep schedule requires different steps to getting a good night’s sleep, don’t neglect the basics. This means ensuring you get enough light in the morning to reset your circadian rhythm, and limiting bright light at night to kickstart melatonin production.

Exercise, a balanced diet and peaceful sleep environment – dark, quiet and calm – will also go a long way. Read more tips here.

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Words: Tilly Alexander