A Simple Tactic for Improving Sleep That 84% of People Miss

As the famous management consultant Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Most of us intuitively understand the power of measurement. We would never start a diet without tracking what we ate, or try to lose weight without ever stepping on a scale, or implement a budget without tracking our spending.

Yet, when it comes to improving an area of our lives in which one out of three people admits they’re falling short, we take a much less scientific approach.

I’m talking about sleep.

Why You Should Be Tracking Your Sleep

One in three adults doesn’t get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And anecdotally, even that feels like a low estimate. Almost everyone I know will admit to wanting more shut-eye if the topic arises.

We all want more sleep because we know that it’s important to our health and well being. Consistently good sleep improves brain function, reduces chronic pain, gives you more energy, improves your mood, and makes you less likely to get sick. If you could bottle and sell the benefits of a good night’s rest, you’d be a very wealthy person.

Despite all this, a recent survey showed that only 16% of people track their sleep. Remember, we can only improve what we measure! So if we want better health and more energy, it makes sense to get serious about tracking our sleep. In the same way that assessing a credit card statement can help you zero in on problems with your budget, assessing your sleep can help you figure out how to get better rest.

How to Track Your Sleep With the Sleep Cycle App

There are six key areas recognized by the Mayo Clinic as having outsized effects on the quality and quantity of our sleep: Sticking to a sleep schedule, paying attention to what you eat and drink, creating a restful environment, limiting daytime naps, exercising, and managing stress.

Each of these areas can be tracked, and their effects on sleep analyzed. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is with an app for my smartphone called Sleep Cycle.

Sleep Cycle works by analyzing your movements to determine which of the three stages of sleep you are in (light, deep, or REM). Your brain naturally cycles through these stages while you sleep, and each stage is characterized by different movement patterns.

To use Sleep Cycle, all you need to do is place your phone in the corner of your bed before going to sleep. In the morning, the app produces a graph that looks like this:

screen shot of sleep cycle sleep tracker

That’s cool and all, but the real fun starts when you maximize the use of that little section called “Sleep Notes.” This part of the app allows you to input what you did during the day. The example above, which only lists one activity, is clearly not from the phone of a dyed-in-the-wool biohacker like myself. I like to get a lot more granular.

A typical night of notes for me would read like this: Exercised past 8:00 p.m., ate a big lunch, coffee after 12:00 p.m., stressful day at the office, meditated, ate cheese, bedroom was hot, wore an eye mask to bed, got 30+ minutes of fresh air in the morning.

Sleep Cycle does the hard work of mapping all those notes onto the sleep data and crunching the numbers. You can then see a bar graph which displays how different behaviors and situations impacted your sleep, positively or negatively. Here are the top five things that increase my sleep quality:

tracking sleep cycle notes

I now have over 1,000 nights of data from Sleep Cycle, and I’ve learned some interesting things.

For one, having caffeine in the afternoon doesn’t affect my sleep quality as much as I thought it would. I can’t pound a whole pot of coffee at 6:00 p.m. and expect to sleep well, but a cup at 3:00 p.m. doesn’t seem to do much to me. This is counterintuitive, as most sleep experts highly frown on drinking caffeine late in the day.

On the other hand, I now know that intensive exercise late at night, such as playing basketball, has a detrimental effect on my sleep quality. I fall asleep fast and hard, but then my REM cycles are a little screwy. I don’t know why this is the case, but I’m happy that I can make use of this information. I try to set my schedule so that my hardest workouts are during the day on a weekend, as opposed to after work on a weeknight.

Each of us is bound to have our own unique quirks that affect how we sleep. It’s only through tracking, analyzing, and adjusting that can make our sleep maximally efficient.

Other Ways to Track Your Sleep

There are many other devices that track sleep, such as the Fitbit or the Apple Watch. While they don’t yet incorporate sleep notes like Sleep Cycle does, they can still be valuable tools. They’ve already surpassed Sleep Cycle in being able to tell you, with precision, which stages of sleep you’re in, and even when you woke up during the night. I also use my Fitbit to crosscheck sleep data with Sleep Cycle.

Up to this point, I’ve been discussing cutting edge technology, but there are ways of tracking your sleep that don’t require any apps, bands, or watches.

For instance, you can manually write down the time you went to bed, when you got up, and how you felt in the morning. If you compare your entries week by week, you might start to see some patterns. Just this act can be very helpful, as keeping a consistent bedtime is important to getting optimal sleep.

But you can get as detailed as you want in search of bigger insights, describing anything from your day that might impact your sleep (such as exercise or stress), or noting in the morning whether you woke up in the middle of the night or felt like you were tossing and turning.

Similarly, you could keep a sleep journal where you write down just one food that you think might be giving you problems. You can make note of the days you eat that food, and see if it affects how you feel when you wake up in the morning.

After all, what really matters isn’t some number that your phone spits out, but how you really feel. You can notice that all on your own, and start to make changes for the better. If you want more guidance, The Better Sleep Project offers robust online tools to help you make a customized sleep diary.

Summing Up

I don’t have kids and I have a lot of control over my schedule (if you have kids who complicated your sleep schedule, this guide might help). I understand that I’m in an ideal position to try to optimize this aspect of my life. I empathize with the millions of people who are in more challenging circumstances.

That being said, I firmly believe that everyone can do something. Even one small action can lead you down a healthier path. For instance If you choose to go to bed earlier whenever it’s practical to do so, and you actively notice that decision makes you feel better, it can start a positive feedback loop. You’ll want those good feelings every morning, which might make you think twice about watching one more episode of that Netflix show at 1:00 a.m.

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Drew Housman


Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.