On getting better sleep

Over the last year or so I’ve been researching sleep for some projects I was working on. I put together some notes to share which I hope is helpful. This is a pretty basic intro, and I’m thinking about putting together some more in depth material if there's demand. Shoot me a tweet to let me know what you think.


Sleep is foundational. Getting it right has positive effects on nearly every aspect of life, and getting it wrong has negative effects on nearly every aspect of life.

Our bodies need sleep. Recent discoveries in science have shown that the brain builds up toxicity while we are awake that needs to literally be washed away to avoid toxic build up. If we continually get poor sleep, this toxicity keeps building up. This means that multiple nights of poor sleep will quickly add up to the same effect as staying up for days.

Leaving our brains in a toxic state causes problems. Getting less than 6.5 hours of sleep a night is predictive of dementia, impaired immune system function, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep is the one thing we can do to reduce risk for all of these! When we don’t get proper sleep, there is damage being done that we can’t detect ourselves immediately, but it’s absolutely detectable by doctors and scientists, and it adds up.

The first part of our brain function that is affected when sleep deprived is the frontal cortex - the CEO of your brain. In this state, command is assumed by the amygdala which is the emotional center of our brain. This isn't our efficient and productive self that we want to show up to life as.

There is so much more that could be said in an intro to getting better sleep, but hopefully you’re on board that sleep is absolutely essential.

A framework for getting better sleep

To get better sleep I think about optimizing these three categories:

1. Environment 2. Body 3. Mind
Bedroom Circadian rhythm Mood
Technology Nutrition Thoughts

The basics

We’ll focus on the basics first that span across categories (low hanging fruit, if you will). These are 3 steps you can take right now that will have a high return on your effort:

1. Charge your phone outside your bedroom

It takes 30 seconds to unplug your charger and move it to a different room, and it has many benefits that will result in better sleep quality!

Why this works

By charging outside of your bedroom, you’ll be able to consciously unplug each night. This will help you get to bed earlier by eliminating distracting text and notifications. It will help your mood by giving you time to relax and decompress. It will also reduce your blue light exposure before bed which helps your circadian rhythm.

If you sleep with a partner, you’ll also enjoy more closeness, connection, and better conversations before you fall asleep.

Note: for this to work, you also need to remove iPads, tablets, and computers from your bedroom too! Don’t get any ideas about replacing your phone with some other screen...

Common “buts” 🍑

But my phone is my alarm clock, I need it next to me so I can wake up.

Buy an alarm clock! I recommend an Echo dot or Google Home Mini, which allows you to set alarms with your voice, and does not have a distracting/blue light emitting screen. Or of you're old-school just use an old-school alarm clock.

But I use my phone to track my sleep.

Good on you for putting in the effort to track your sleep. If you care a lot about your sleep data I recommend upgrading to a wearable sleep tracker so you can realize the benefits of taking your phone outside of your room at night. I use a Garmin to track my sleep, but they're all fairly accurate these days.

But I use a white noise app on my phone while I sleep.

White noise has been proven to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. I recommend upgrading to a physical white noise machine so you can realize the benefits of taking your phone outside your room. Here's the white noise machine I use.

But I use my phone as a baby monitor while I sleep.

I don't have a recommended option for this one yet (if you have one let me know!) but I do think it’s worth looking into a baby monitor that doesn't come with hundreds of distracting notifications, shiny Instagram posts, and lots of other stuff that can suck you in.

Show me the science!

Overnight smartphone use: A new public health challenge? A novel study design based on high-resolution smartphone data

Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children

Did you try it?

Let me know how it worked for you! Or if you didn’t try it, tell me why not.

2. Schedule Night Shift (Apple) or Night Mode (Android) to go on 2 hours before bed time on full orange

Take 30 seconds to pull out your phone and schedule Night Shift (iOS) or Night Light (Android 10). If you're typically on your computer or tablet at night, set it up there too. This one action will help you get better sleep day after day by reducing your blue light consumption at night.

Why this works

It’s been scientifically proven that getting exposure to blue light at the wrong times of the day disrupts our circadian rhythm (our internal clocks). Basically it tricks our body into thinking that it’s not time for bed yet, and as a result it won’t start producing melatonin. These features don’t eliminate blue light, but they do reduce it. Another reason it works is that Instagram just isn’t quite as fun when everything has an orange tint, so you might just decide to unplug earlier in the night.

Common "buts" 🍑

But I don’t know where to find it in settings

Most phones have a “search” function in settings now. Try that! And if it fails, google it. And if google doesn’t have the answer, you can text me.

But it’s so ugly, I hate it.

Give it some time! It takes a little getting used to, and it’s worth testing out to see how it improves your sleep quality. And who knows, maybe orange will become the new black again!

Show me the science!

Systematic review of light exposure impact on human circadian rhythm

Did you try it?

Let me know how it worked for you! Or if you didn’t try it, tell me why.

3. Schedule “do not disturb” to turn on 1-hour before bed time (or earlier for bonus points!)

This simple step seems obvious, but few people actually do it. It only takes 30 seconds to create a “do not disturb” schedule which will help you get better sleep night after night.

Why this works

Similar to charging your phone outside of your bedroom, this also helps reduce the chance that you’ll get sucked into instagram (or email, or anything else) and miss your bedtime routine. It also gives you some peaceful time where you can focus on winding down and processing the day. This will help avoid those nights where you are staring at the ceiling while your mind races.

Common "buts" 🍑

But I need to be available to [insert loved one or VIP]

First, think about if there is really a situation where you absolutely must be reached by this person. If there is, and you want to give them the power to interrupt your evening you can use the “Allow calls from favorites” feature on iPhone or “Allow calls from starred contacts” on Android.

Show me the science

Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes

Did you try it?

Let me know how it worked for you! Or if you didn’t try it, tell me why.

Wrap up

I hope you'll give one or all of these steps a shot if you haven't already and let me know how it goes! These are pretty basic steps that don't seem like much on the surface, but I do believe they can produce a high return in terms of sleep quality. Have a good night 💤!

Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear your comments and feedback.

©2021 Seth Ferguson