The Ultimate Guide to Sleep
29 expert tools and tips to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up more refreshed
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 people suffer from insomnia-related problems.
I myself have struggled with insomnia for as long as I can remember.
Even in elementary school I struggled to fall asleep before midnight, and for my entire teenage and adult life I was constantly late to work or school because I was up past 2AM, waking up about 5 minutes after I would’ve needed to leave to be on time.
Pretty much everyone, including doctors, thought I was exaggerating or lazy or would grow out of it but it actually got worse over time. At age 29 I discovered that I have a rare genetic disorder (less than 0.2% of population) called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder that causes my sleep cycle to happen significantly later than most (I naturally sleep after 3AM) and also not have a consistent 24-hour rhythm.
By this time though, I’d already spent more-than-a-degree’s worth of time reading sleep experts and experimenting with just about every strategy under the sun—er, moon—to solve it.
Below I’ll be sharing 29 of the best and most widely applicable expert strategies, tips, and tools I learned over more than a decade of research and struggle.
To improve readability I’ve broken the guide in to 5 sections—Environmental, Cognitive, Physiological, Behavioral, and Other Stuff—as well as bolded all the most important bits.
PS: I’ll be linking to sources and further reading when appropriate/when I can easily find them to give you plenty of rabbit holes to pursue yourself, if you feel so inclined.
Section 1: Environmental
Reduce Blue Light At Night
For 99.9% of human history, the only source of blue wavelength light we saw was from the sun. As a result, our brains actually use blue light as an indicator to up our energy and alertness hormones (and its absence to relax us and prepare us for sleep).
In the modern world however we are bombarded with the blue light of digital screens 16+ hours a day and it messes up our sleep hormone regulation.
Using blue light blocking apps at night can greatly reduce this problem.
Schedule these to be as red shifted as you find comfortable during the night hours to reduce the amount of blue light stimulation you receive.
If you watch TV in the late evening, make a custom color profile with the blue light turned way down.
And If you often use other blue-light-emitting devices that cannot be red shifted, consider blue light filter glasses.
Increase Blue Light During The Day
In companion to the previous tip, getting more blue light during the day will also help regulate your sleep. The sooner and more intense, the better.
The easiest way is to use the original king of blue light— the sun. Get 5 to 30 minutes of sun as soon as possible in the morning.
Further, actually look at the sun for <1 second a few times first thing in the morning (This might sound crazy, but it is actually one of the most powerful tips in this guide, recommended by one of the world’s leading sleep experts, Michael Breus, PhD).
Obviously, medical disclaimer, staring at the sun will damage your eyes. Don't be a doofus. Just swipe your eyes past it a few times for <1 second.
Reduce Light And Noise Pollution In Bedroom
Have you ever gone camping, where it’s so unbelievably dark that it’s freaky? Yeah, this is how we slept for 99.9% of human history and what our body is designed for. Recreate this as much as possible.
Make your bedroom as dark as you can.
Remove, cover, or hide all light emitting devices. If you can’t live without one (like an alarm clock or bathroom night light), make sure they are as dim and red shifted as possible. Red is best, orange is second, yellow is third.
Also, make sure street lights or similar are not shining through your window. Get blackout curtains if needed.
Get a white noise machine—usually a big-bladed fan (smaller blades are higher pitched and may impede relaxation) will do the trick but some special white noise machines also exist.
Invest In Better Bedding
Many of us half ass our bed setup—crappy mattresses, one pillow, one blanket, etc. But tossing and turning in discomfort is not conducive to good sleep.
Buy a good bed that you love and feel super comfortable in. Get a bunch of pillows or even a weighted blanket. Do whatever you can to make your sleeping experience more comfortable and something you look forward to.
I understand that beds are expensive, but think of it as an investment:
With corrected sleep you will get at minimum one extra hour of productivity per day. That’s 20+ extra hours per month. At that rate, even making minimum wage can pay back a high quality bed in only a few months.
Further, most modern mattress manufacturers provide 0% financing and often up to a year of a no-questions-asked return policy.
Set The Right Temperature
According to doctors, the best temperature for sleep is somewhere between 65 and 72 degrees.
Following from above: be willing to invest a few extra dollars a month in electricity for a fan/AC/heater to make sure your sleep temperature is optimal. It will pay itself back in dividends over time.
Use Your Bed Only For Sleep
Humans, for all our cool thinky bits and gadgets, are still animals. And, like other animals, we are largely driven by behavioral conditioning.
Meaning: we associate certain feelings, states, and mindsets with certain behaviors, locations, and activities.
It's important to make sure your brain understands that bed is for sleep. Not for thinking, or watching TV, or Redditing, or playing on your phone, or eating ice cream. Sleep.
Having one exception is fine (you know the one), but other wise you should avoid ever being in your bed unless it's time to hit the hay.
Keep Electronics Away From Bed
Digital screens not only disrupt sleep due to blue light but also because modern apps are designed to trigger as much dopamine—a stimulating neurotransmitter associated with motivation, focus, and energy—release as possible.
At minimum, keep your big electronics in another room and charge your phone out of arm’s reach. If you can swing it, charge your phone in another room entirely.
Expect sleep to come no sooner than an hour from the last time you used an electronic device and plan your schedule accordingly.
Find Somewhere New To Sleep
If you've spent years using your bed carelessly, consider changing where you sleep for a while to break the association faster.
Sleep in another room, on the couch, or even on the floor (I love sleeping on the floor but I'm a freak) for a while to help break the link.
When I notice I am consistently finding it hard to relax because I’ve habitualized bed = thinking time, I switch where I sleep and often can pass out quickly (at least until I associate that new place with thinking. Then I switch back).
Speaking of thinking...
Section 2: Cognitive
If your primary inhibitor to sleep is due to thinking, rumination, or anxiety, this section is for you.
Find Someplace New To Think
Many who struggle to fall asleep have one major culprit: thinking.
In fact, we’ve trained ourselves that bed is the place to think. As soon as we lie down, our brain says "ah, all day I've been waiting! Time to think!"
This is not gonna’ fly if you want to fall asleep faster. Find a new place that is similarly quiet, relaxing, and far-from-stimulation to do your thinking.
Some options: In the shower, in the bath, on a walk, while driving to/from work, or a comfortable spot in your living room/yard/balcony/porch/etc.
Do as much of your thinking here as possible. If you can't sleep because you're busy thinking, go here.
Bonus: this also has the added benefit of becoming your Problem Solving Palace that you can go to anytime you’re stuck on a problem. Personally, mine is in the bath, and whenever I am stuck, I go here, and every time I come up with a solution.
Find Sometime New To Think
Having a new thinking-place is great, but it doesn't work if you never make time to use it.
We all need time to process our days, some more than others—it's critical that you allocate some to think, process, and decompress before bed.
Personally I’ve learned that I need an hour of no-light, eyes-closed, silence to do this before I can sleep (and at least 3 hours of alone time doing whatever I feel like before that).
It's unlikely you'll need as much as I do but figure out how much you do need and habitualize making time to go to your thinking-place in the evening and process your day.
Your brain will happily shut down at bedtime. But only after it feels confident it's categorized, integrated, and prioritized all the thoughts of the day.
Some people find that there is so much to think about, that even having a specific place and time to think and process isn’t enough—they could stay there for hours and only get stuck going in circles.
If this sounds like you, journaling is a great addition to make more progress.
Prior to sleep, journal a minimum of one page. Personally, my internal monologue provides several pages of writing before it will relax, but if you need some help, try these questions out:
What am I thinking about?
What am I worrying about?
Why am I worried about it?
Am I being effective with my time or just spiraling unhelpfully?
What will happen if I don’t solve this? How big of a deal is that? Do I need to solve this right now? Is there a first step I can take right now to make sure this gets worked on, so that you’ll let me go to sleep? If not, can I make of note of a step I can make tomorrow so we can solve it then?
Pro tip: Add the date, day, and time to your journal entries. It will be cool to look back on your growth years later.
Schedule Your Thinking Time
If you don’t have time to journal, or it just isn’t really your thing, another great strategy is scheduling your problem solving for some time in the future.
Our brains aren’t always the best at determining whether something important needs to get solved right now or can wait, resulting in us trying to solve big, long term problems when it’s time for bed.
Have a conversation with yourself and schedule when you will work on this problem. Brain won’t let it go unless it’s confident this will eventually get solved, so the more concrete the better. Have a system for logging thoughts or to do’s (phone or journal are great).
Anytime you notice yourself thinking about it again remind Brain, “yes, I agree, it is important. It’s written down to work on or schedule tomorrow” and Brain will go “oh, good, okay.” and calm back down.
Note: This habit can take months or years to master and even then Brain won’t always believe you the first time. Be patient and keep at it. Slowly over time you can retrain yourself.
Identify And Mitigate Emotional Triggers
Have you ever been all relaxed in bed on your way toward sleep and then just casually check your email to find some emergency that needs to get taken care of “ASAP”?
This used to happen to me all the time. And while I often knew it could wait until the morning, I would now be hyper stimulated, ruminating about how I will solve it.
Identify the behaviors, situations, or activities that commonly stimulate you out of sleep mode and figure out how to mitigate or remove them entirely.
This can be low stimulation things like apps on your phone or high stimulation things like reactive relationships or jobs.
In my situation: I became overstimulated due to random work emails so often that I just made a rule that I am not allowed to check email after 10PM. I occasionally broke it but it was reduced by 80% just by doing this.
Use The 15 Minute Technique
Keeping #6 (use bed only for sleep) in mind, it’s important to spend as little time lying in bed while not sleeping as possible.
The common timing recommended by experts is to get up after 15 minutes of being unable to sleep, to go do some other activity for 15 minutes before trying again.
Ideally this should be something low in stimulation, but if you’re really wired, you might as well be productive and get things done.
Give Up On Sleeping Entirely
For some people however, being cognizant of time can actually make insomnia worse.
Have you ever laid in bed, hyper aware of every hour that you are losing by staying awake, becoming more and more concerned with how little sleep you will get or how hard it will be to wake up?
Sometimes our fixation on getting sleep, is the biggest thing preventing us from actually doing it—the pressure of trying to sleep being the primary stimulation keeping us up. Practicing acceptance can often relieve this pressure enough to let us crash.
It can also help to remind yourself: “I’ve made it through many days on minimal sleep. It’s not ideal, but it’s really not as bad as I’m worrying it will be. Absolute worst case, I can come in late, or take a sick day, or leave early.”
Sometimes I have even taken it as far to saying: “okay fine, I’m just going to stay up” which of course leads my anti-authority self to now all of the sudden decide he’s completely exhausted.
Maybe Sleep Trouble Is Only A Symptom
If much of this section resonated with you, it’s possible that sleep trouble is only a symptom of a deeper underlying issue: anxiety.
I could easily write another mega guide like this on anxiety, but for now: if you suspect an anxiety disorder refer to the final tip in this guide.
Section 3: Physiological
Now that we’ve taken a deep dive in to environment and cognitive tools, let’s take a look at the physiological.
Limit Chemical Stimulants
This one is kind of obvious but so few of us actually heed it that its worth reiterating.
Caffeine turns off the receptors in your brain that accept tired-ness chemicals, meanwhile ramping up your energy hormones. When you drink it all day you not only make it harder to fall sleep, but also harder to stay asleep.
Avoid caffeine and similar stimulating substances for at least 6 hours before bed.
If even considering reducing caffeine sounds like a hard no, let me just say:
I get it. you’re addicted. But you’re an addict because you need it in the morning and you need it in the morning because you’re tired and you’re tired because you didn’t get enough sleep and you didn’t get enough sleep because you were so hopped up on caffeine that you were up all night. It’s a self perpetuating cycle.
Side note: Consider doing a 30 day caffeine detox to see if its actually harming you more than helping you. Contrary to popular opinion, caffeine can not only harm your sleep, but also your health (mental and physical), and productivity.
Avoid Alcohol And Other Common Relaxers
Alcohol can help us fall asleep, but it actually disrupts deep sleep, resulting in waking up in the middle of the night or sleeping through it but poorly. Avoid using alcohol as a crutch for falling asleep, as it will actually make the problem worse.
Similarly, over the counter sleep aids like Nyquil are known to induce sleep when used rarely, but actually can increase insomnia when used over time.
Instead, try some of the sleep supplements below.
There are many effective sleep supplements worth trying. Below is a list of the most commonly successful.
Reminder: Do your own research (links included). I am not a doctor. this is not medical advice. Consult your doctor before trying and especially combining sleep supplements or medications.
Tim Ferris’ ACV bedtime cocktail (doesn’t work for me but works for many)
L-Theanine (side effects mild and rare)
GABA (side effects mild and rare)
Melatonin (side effects rare but problematic)
5-HTP (side effects rare but severe)
Bohemian Revolution Sleep Tea (My favorite. Has most of these ingredients all in one).
Tip 1: Only try one supplement at a time, use it for at least a few weeks before making any changes to ensure you can effectively identify and handle side effects.
Tip 2: take any for the first time on a day where it doesn’t matter if you don’t get much sleep, just in case you have adverse effects (the most common being that they wake you up rather than make you tired).
Tip 3: Find a few of these that work, and then cycle them as you develop a tolerance. Eg use GABA for a month, then when it starts working less, use Sleepytime tea for a month, then switch to Melatonin, etc.
Have you ever had it happen where you catch a smell and it triggers a memory of some time years earlier, even eliciting it’s mood and emotional state like it was yesterday?
Perhaps the smell of fresh cookies fills you with warmth and comfort, as your mother used to bake them.
Or the smell of gasoline fills you with anxiety, as it is reminiscent of a car accident you got in to many years ago.
The anchor will take a bit to create, but once it’s set it can be one of the best techniques on this list.
Pick a smell you want to anchor. Personally I use these. Whatever it is, it should be something with an intense smell that you can access and use on-demand. Essential oils or Pillow sprays are a good back up choice but will linger which may reduce the anchor’s strength.
Pick the state you want to anchor. In our case, it’s tiredness.
Whenever you feel the state, smell the smell. Next time you feel really tired, pull out your smell and take a big whiff.
Do this every day for a week, the more powerful and more often the better. Keep this by your bed so you can smell it when you’re seconds away from dosing to increase the power of the association.
After a week flip the behavior — smell the smell to elicit tiredness. If you’ve anchored successfuly, you should immediately feel very tired.
Do anchor maintenance. You’ll need to redo this process periodically— especially if there is a lot of emotional noise when setting or using the anchor. Whenever you’re already tired, smell the smell to strengthen the association.
Important: Be careful with this technique. Doing it wrong can actually make your problem worse.
Years ago, I tried to anchor confidence to a physical sensation (touching my thumbs together) but I was really anxious when I set it, and even years later, pressing these two fingers together gives me anxiety.
If you “ruin” an anchor like I did: hey, great job you successfully anchored! Now that you know it works, pick a new smell and try again.
Section 4: Behavioral
Get More Exercise
For 99.9% of human history, we spent hours every day physically laboring. Our bodies are designed to run, lift, jump, fight, and wrestle; being a couch potato harms far more than our weight.
Breaking a sweat for a bare minimum of 30 minutes a day will greatly increase your tiredness in the evening (and also several studies suggest it is as effective as anti-depressants for depression. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
The absolute best thing you can do is strength training (nothing is more exhausting than a 5x5 of max weight squats or deadlifts) but even going on a walk in better than nothing.
Important: do something you can maintain consistently 5+ days a week rather than something that will beget huge results right now. Once you develop the habit, you can start increasing difficulty and duration.
Reading is a relaxing and beneficial activity, and reading fiction especially is a great habit to implement for improved sleep.
Reading fiction will draw your focus away from thinking about your infinite list of unsolved problems, meanwhile engaging your visual processing centers which are linked to positive mood and relaxation.
It is generally recommended to avoid reading thrillers or non-fiction, as both can result in stimulation, however I find that really boring nonfiction actually works quite well for me—nothing makes me more tired than to do something as terribly useless and boring as studying.
Boil The Frog
If you are anything like me—biologically built to be a night owl—your problem may be less that you can’t sleep and more than you have no interest in sleeping. There is so much fun and rewarding mischief one can do deep into the night!
When I end up deviating from my sleep routine and staying up until the sun comes up, it’s most often because I’m busy working on some project or deep in to an awesome video game.
Boiling the frog is a trick I learned and have recently applied to sleep with great success.
If you’re not familiar with the old adage: put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly increase the temperature over hours and the frog will never jump out —even to the point of it boiling alive.
This is because the temperature increase is so subtle that the frog never notices any change.
You can use this same methodology by slowly tapering down stimulation over hours, rather than being forced to choose between staying up and having fun VS boringly going to bed.
3 hours before bed: Stop doing your favorite super stimulating thing and replace it with something 25% less stimulating (ex: you have to get off your computer, but you can still watch TV or go on your phone).
2 Hours before bed: Stop doing that thing and replace it with one 25% less stimulating. (ex: you can stay on your phone but no more social media or games and must be in your PJ’s with the lights down).
1 Hours before bed: Again (ex: replace phone with airplane mode ipad, kindle, or hardcopy book and only read fiction in the dark).
Do this right, and you can often transition in to bed without any FOMO of fun night time activities.
Our breathe is deeply linked with our energetic state—when we are alert, our breath is shallow and short, and when we are relaxed, it is deep and long. We can use this link to trick ourselves into relaxation with deep breathing.
Deep breaths in
Deep breaths out
With belly instead of chest*
*breathe as low as possible, at least your belly or even into your pelvis. The lower the breathe, the more pressure you put on your Vagus nerve, which will engage your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system in control of relaxation).
My personal favorite for sleep is a tweaked Navy Seal method, as follows:
Breathe in through nose for 5 seconds, pulling into belly button, as deeply as I can, and then taking 2 more “sips” to fully fill lungs.
Hold for 10 seconds, pushing the breath deeply in to pelvis.
breathe all the way out through nose for 5 seconds, pushing until I am completely out of air.
Do this 5-10 times.
If you want to do even better than breathing, you can add in meditation.
Meditation not only causes relaxation now but has been shown to change your brain chemistry over time to reduce anxiety and depression meanwhile increasing productivity and focus.
If you are just starting out, I strongly recommend using a guided meditation.
Personally, I don’t like either of them but love Headspace’s very first “sleeping” meditation (it’s a little hard to find, here’s what it looks like).
~60 sec Deep breaths
~120 sec Making a note of every hour of your day
~180 sec doing a body scan, and releasing tension from each part of your body
Ends with counting down from 1000 and reorienting yourself back to the countdown as you get distracted
Even on my worst nights, I’ve never made it in to the 700’s.
Build A Sleep Routine
Personally, probably due my to non-24 hour circadian rhythm, every sleep routine I make ends up being a burden rather than a help after a few weeks, but for most a consistent sleep routine can be a great behavioral anchor to help.
Take all the cool stuff I’ve talked about above, and anything else you can think off that’s consistent and relaxingly enjoyable, and add it to your nightly routine.
Even if you break it, you at least have a system you can go back to you when you decide you want to prioritize hitting the sack early again.
Section 5: Other Stuff
Learn Your Chronotype And Use Its Schedule
Have you ever noticed being consistently energized at certain hours of the day, and tired at others, regardless of when you went to sleep or how many hours you slept?
This is because we all have unique hard coded biological rhythms, called our chronotype, that sets our energy levels irrespective of our sleep or wake time.
Chronotypes are so important and useful that I’ve already written extensively about them in the past. Knowing yours may be one of the most useful things you get from this article so definitely check out: Waking Up At 4AM Won’t Make You More Productive (But This Schedule Will!
The TLDR is: while you may not have a circadian rhythm as odd as mine, only 50% of people actually have a “normal” one. 20% have a minor delayed sleep phase cycle (night owls), 20% have a minor advanced sleep phase cycle (early risers), and 10% have an incomplete sleep phase cycle (inconsistent and very light sleepers who sleep <6 hours a night consistently).
Take the test and learn yours and try out the schedule. For me, learning I was a “wolf” (night owl) was a god send, and the first time I learned that my sleep schedule may be less a defect than I’ve been lead to believe.
Take Drastic Schedule Measures
If you find that conforming to your innate sleep cycle isn’t viable due to your schedule (most likely the case for wolves/night owls), consider seeing what you can do to change it.
Can you take a different shift at work? Can you come in later and stay later? If self-employed, can you change your business hours to better suit what works for you without harming your revenue/clients?
Personally, getting to sleep by 12AM or 1AM was an ungodly amount of work for most of my life and I always joked that the hardest part of my job was being there by 8.
And most everything I’d learned to be able do it became obsolete as soon as I was self employed and had control of my own schedule—able to follow my natural sleep cycle of sleeping 4AM to 12PM.
I don’t expect yours to be this drastic, but it’s entirely possible if not likely, that you can get rid of your sleep problem entirely by simply finding or building a schedule more suitable to who you are.
Seek Professional Help
I saved this for last, partly because it’s something everyone already knows, but also because the best I’ve ever seen from most doctors—whether it be my personal experience or other’s I know with sleep issues—is to just slap on some expensive and addictive sleeping pills with serious side effects and call the problem solved without any regard for potential underlying issues or the patient’s long term wellbeing.
However, if you’ve tried everything in this article and still are severely struggling, it’s worth giving it a shot.
To improve your chances of actually getting a good solution: find a doctor who specializes in sleep and has good reviews online.
There are several cool up and coming treatments like light therapy that have been shown to greatly improve even the worst sleep disorders, and I’m sure specialists have plenty more up that even I—internet researcher turbo sperg extraordinaire—have not found.
Well that’s about everything I can think of.
I know how frustrating struggling to sleep can be, but if my experience is indicative of anything, its that you can massively improve your sleep if you have the right knowledge and are willing to put in the work.
Do also know that you will fall of the wagon every once in a while. Life happens. That’s okay. Don’t expect perfection. Just notice when you’re starting to struggle and make an effort to get back on track. Feel free to come back and re-read any time and try something new that you haven’t yet.
That’s all I got. All the best. Take care and sleep well my friends.
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Catch you next time,