What Is 'Sleep Hygiene,' Anyway?

To accomplish the things you set out to do each day, you need to give your body and brain enough rest to function. As a result, the most effective way to set yourself up for a good semester is to invest in your sleep hygiene.

By Ceanna Hayes Daniels — December 13, 2023

What Is 'Sleep Hygiene,' Anyway?

As the new academic year begins, students everywhere are reading articles and watching videos on topics like time blocking and ideal morning routines. The content they read will encourage them to seize the day and move into the new semester with boundless energy, lofty goals, and packed calendars. They'll prepare ambitious study schedules, sign up for a variety of extracurricular activities, apply for jobs on or near campus, connect with old friends, and eagerly set about meeting new ones.

But with the focus primarily on what you can fit into your days, it can be easy to ignore the other half of the equation: the importance of sleep and an intentional evening routine. However, in order to actually accomplish the things, you set out to do each day, you need to give your body and brain enough rest that they can function. As a result, the most effective way to set yourself up for a good semester is to invest in your sleep hygiene.

What Is Sleep Hygiene?

"Sleep hygiene" refers to both the quality of your sleep and the habits you build up around your sleep to improve that quality. Developing good sleep hygiene doesn't just mean changing the total amount of time you spend asleep, but also addressing the time you head to bed, the amount of light in your room when you're trying to sleep, the anxieties keeping you from falling asleep when you want to, and more.

Why Should I Care?

Sleep is essential to human functioning — just ask anyone struggling their way through the day after an all-nighter! — so making changes to your sleep hygiene has a significant impact on your energy levels, physical health, mental health, and overall well-being. Luckily, it's easy to see significant improvement to your sleep hygiene, even after only a few small changes, so start small and build your way up to a routine that works well for you!

How Do I Develop It? (Daytime Edition)

Build Backwards.
Deciding what time you want to wake up is the first step of developing good sleep hygiene. Once you know what time you want to start your day, you can count backwards by roughly eight hours to set the time you want to be asleep by, then count out another hour to set the time you'll begin your evening routine. (You may want to set aside more than an hour — depending on the amount of time you'd like to spend preparing for the following morning, winding down from the day, and getting ready to sleep — but if you start out with an hour, it will be easy to make adjustments from there.)
Plan Realistically.
While it can feel exciting to put together an ambitious plan for your daily schedule, you aren't likely to stick to that schedule for long if it's unrealistic. Planning realistically for the time you'll be able to go to sleep and wake up will be more effective at building good sleep hygiene in the long run than a too-ambitious plan you abandon after a few days.
Be Consistent.
Consistency in the time you go to sleep will help your body to wake up at a reliable time each morning, and consistency in the time you wake up will help your body to begin getting tired at a reliable time each night. Because they're mutually reinforcing like this, you can start to build good sleep hygiene by working on one and allowing the other to follow! (Generally, it's best to focus on the time you go to sleep. Because you won't often be able to sleep in to make up for lost time, going to sleep when you mean to each evening is the only reliable way to get enough rest.)
Choose Decaf in the Afternoon and Evening.
Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which means that half of the caffeine you consume will still be active six hours after you finish that coffee. Try swapping to decaf options to meet your afternoon coffee craving, and consider choosing caffeine-free options like herbal teas in the evening.

How Do I Develop It? (Evening Edition)

Block out Noise and Light.
Depending on how late your roommate goes to sleep, your dorm room might be brighter and louder than you'd like it to be as you're trying to wind down. In order to protect yourself from disrupted sleep - which will have a dramatic impact on its quality and, as a result, your energy levels and overall health — consider bringing ear plugs and an eye mask to campus with you. If you and your roommate have similar schedules, or if you have your own room, try to block out as much light as possible from places you might not think of, like the hallway, as well as more obvious sources like the window, to improve your sleep hygiene.
Turn off Electronics Half an Hour Before Bed.
While scrolling through your phone before heading to bed may seem relaxing at first, it often makes it harder to sleep. While most of us know that blue light should be avoided before bed because it tricks your brain by simulating daylight, not everyone knows that the content on the screen is often just as destructive as the light from the screen is to good sleep hygiene. Scrolling through social media can often encourage comparison, negative self-image, and anxiety, all of which make it more difficult to relax and fall asleep. Similarly, watching movies or shows you're emotionally invested in can keep you wide awake from adrenaline. If you're going to spend time on electronics before you go to sleep, turn on a blue light filter and avoid both social media and streaming apps so you have time to wind down and ready your mind for rest.
Implement a Leisure Activity.
In its original sense, leisure didn't have the connotations it does today. It didn't mean sitting around without doing anything strenuous or energy-intensive; it meant engaging with a creative or intellectual activity that moved the soul. Curling up with a good book, writing poetry, reading something philosophical, creating a piece of art, or journaling are all good examples of this.

Why is this is important for your sleep hygiene, you might ask? Because "rest" isn't just physical — and even if it was, it isn't enough on its own. You need to recharge in addition to resting, so that you aren't forcing yourself to operate on empty. Just like your body needs to rest by stopping movement for a while, then recharge by sleeping, your mind and emotions need to rest by taking a break in silence, then recharge by engaging with something that feels rejuvenating to you.

Build a Consistent Routine.
One of the best ways to improve your sleep hygiene is to build and maintain a consistent evening routine. After repeating the routine for a while, your brain will begin to associate the specific steps of that routine with heading to sleep and start to make you tired automatically. Over time, this will help you to get to sleep faster. For example, if every night you turn off your overhead lights and switch to a less aggressive lamp, listen to a particular song while brushing your teeth, then head to sleep, your brain will be cued by the lamplight and song to begin slowing down and getting ready to rest. You'll be ready to fall asleep before you even get in bed.
Focus on Making Your Routine Efficient, Not Elaborate.
Your routine doesn't have to be elaborate to be successful — in fact, it's easier to be consistent if the routine is minimal enough to do even when you're tired. As you begin thinking through how to structure your evening routine, emphasize efficiency over length or intricacy. You don't need a seven-step skincare routine, five-step yoga routine, and three-step journaling routine for a "good" routine — you just need to finish the tasks absolutely necessary to ready yourself for sleep and the next day. Maybe that means showering, setting out your outfit and books for the morning, and journaling for a few minutes before you sleep; maybe it just means swapping over to pajamas and hitting the lights. Focus on what works for you now, and set aside some time a few weeks or months from now to analyze your routine for anything that needs adjustment or improvement.
Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels is freelance writer and editor. In 2022, she graduated Hillsdale College summa cum laude with a degree in politics. In her free time, she continues to enjoy studying philosophy, political theory, and literature. She and her husband live in Michigan, where the two enjoy perusing bookstores together for new books and old records.
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