Most people aren’t getting enough sleep, plain and simple. But—and this is the important thing to realize—we don’t recognize that we are sleep deprived. In my article on the science of sleep and in my comprehensive sleep guide, I covered this problem, discussed how sleep works, and shared a variety of practical ways to improve the quality of your sleep. If you’re looking for a primer on how to sleep better, check out those two resources.
However, if you want to improve your sleep, there are actually some very simple and practical ways to go about it. I call these strategies the 3 Levers of Sleep.
Here’s how the 3 Levers of Sleep work…
If you want to improve the quality of your sleep and boost your performance there are 3 levers you can “pull” to give yourself a boost.
Intensity refers to how well you sleep. As I described in detail in my sleep guide, there are different phases of sleep. Two of these phases are particularly important: Slow-wave sleep (also known as deep sleep) and REM sleep. The percentage of sleeping time you spend in these two phases largely determines the quality of your sleep each night.
Timing refers to when you go to sleep. What time do you go to bed? This factor is important for two reasons. First, if you get in bed around the same time each night, it is easier for your body to develop good sleep habits. Second, the time you go to sleep should be in accordance with your circadian rhythm, which I also describe in detail in my previous science of sleep article.
Duration refers to how long you sleep. This one is simple: how much time do you spend sleeping each night? 6 hours? 8 hours? It can be easy to convince yourself that duration isn’t very important, but it is critical to your growth, performance, and recovery. Professional athletes often sleep over 10 hours per night. If you’re taxing your body and mind, then duration is crucial for you as well. (Read more about how much sleep you need here.)
How can you use these 3 levers to improve your sleep?
When it comes to intensity, the truth is that there isn’t much you can do. Your body largely manages the intensity of your sleep cycle (how much time you spend in slow wave sleep and REM sleep) for you. It adjusts automatically based on what you need and how much time you are spending asleep. Exercising consistently and getting proper nutrition will help, but these actions only indirectly improve sleep intensity.
This is actually good news because it simplifies things for you. Because your body manages the quality of your sleep on its own, you only need to focus on two factors: timing (when you go to bed) and duration (how long you’re in bed).
If we make another assumption, then we can simplify the situation even further. That assumption is this: You wake up at approximately the same time each day.
If you wake up at about the same time each day, then your sleep duration is basically determined by when you go to bed. Generally speaking, if you get into bed earlier, then you’ll end up sleeping more. Improve the timing and you’ll improve the duration as well.
And that brings us to this practical punchline…
If you’re focused on how to sleep better, timing is perhaps the most important of the 3 levers of sleep. The intensity of your sleep is managed automatically by your body. The duration of your sleep is largely dependent on when you get into bed (assuming you wake up around the same time each morning). And that means getting to bed at an earlier, more consistent time is critical for improving the quality and duration of your sleep.
For more ideas on how to sleep better and optimize your pre-bedtime routine, read my Beginner’s Guide to Sleep.