If you have trouble sleeping and want to get a full night’s sleep, it makes sense to at least spend eight or more hours in bed, even if you’re not sleeping, right? Wrong!
One of the most common mistakes I come across when working with insomnia sufferers is spending too much time in bed. This is understandable — after all, if you are struggling to sleep, it’s reasonable to think that spending more time in bed will give you more opportunity to sleep. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
When people with sleep issues spend more time in bed, they tend to spend more time awake in bed. This happens for several reasons:
- It strengthens the mental link between being in bed and wakefulness
- It weakens the mental link between being in bed and sleep
- It increases the amount of time spent tossing, turning, and worrying about sleep
If you only do one thing to improve your sleep, try reducing the amount of time you spend in bed. It’s important to bear in mind that you won’t be depriving yourself of any sleep by reducing the amount of time you spend in bed if you follow the steps outlined below.
How much time should I spend in bed?
Start by keeping a record of your sleep routine for one week. For each night, write down the following:
- The time you went to bed
- The time you got out of bed in the morning
- Your total sleep duration for the night
At the end of the week, figure out how much time you allotted for sleep each night by calculating the amount of time between your bedtime and final wake time in the morning. For example, if you went to bed at 10 p.m. and got out of bed at 6 a.m., you allotted eight hours for sleep.
After you calculate the amount of time you allotted for sleep each night, add up the total for the week and divide by seven to get an average. You will now know how much time you tend to allot for sleep each night.
Now, add up your sleep duration for each night of the week and divide the total by seven to get your average sleep duration.
You want the amount of time you allot for sleep each night to be no more than one hour in addition to your average sleep duration.
For example, if you discover that you allot eight hours for sleep but you only average five hours of sleep each night, you can see that you are spending too much time in bed at night. In this case, because your average sleep duration is five hours, you should be spending no more than six hours in bed (which would be your average sleep duration plus one hour).
One caveat here — you don’t want to allot too little time for sleep! At the very least, you want to allot between 5 ½ and 6 hours for sleep so you have the opportunity to get a minimal amount of sleep. In my experience, most insomnia sufferers spend too much time in bed rather than too little time in bed, so this shouldn’t be much of a concern. And if your sleep improves and your average sleep duration increases, you can increase the time you allot for sleep accordingly.
Get out of bed when you wake during the night
As I explain in my free insomnia sleep training course, it’s essential to break the association between the bed and wakefulness. In addition to making sure you are not allotting too much time for sleep at night, you also need to avoid lying awake in bed for long periods of time during the night.
If you wake during the night and find that you don’t fall back to sleep within a half-hour, you should get out of bed and do something calming like reading a book (no tablets or backlit e-readers). After a half-hour, get back into bed and see if you are able to fall back to sleep. If you don’t fall back to sleep within roughly a half-hour, repeat the process.
This technique will help stop your mind from associating the bed with wakefulness. It also helps prevent the endless tossing, turning, worrying, and frustration that comes with being unable to sleep at night.
In my experience, limiting the amount of time spent in bed is one of the most effective techniques insomniacs can use to improve their sleep. Although it may sound counterintuitive, reducing the time you allot for sleep to more closely match the amount of time you actually spend asleep will increase your sleep efficiency and help reduce the stress, worry, and anxiety that is often associated with insomnia.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.