Of all the things to obsess over—diet, exercise, meditation—getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do to preserve your health and wellness. Yet many people are oblivious to just how much the quantity and quality of their sleep influences their day-to-day lives. Enter sleep tracking, the simple tool that can drastically improve your life by giving you the insights you need to sleep better.
Why Sleep Tracking Matters
We’ve all heard about the benefits of good sleep, but it’s far more important than we realize. In kids and teens, sleep is crucial for healthy physical and mental development. In adults, it maintains physical and mental health. But it’s not just about what sleep does for you; it’s also what a lack of sleep can do to you.
According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic sleep deprivation is linked to many issues, including depression, suicide, and other chronic health problems. Shockingly, an NIH study even found that sleep deprivation can impair cognitive and motor skills as much as having a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.05%. That makes sleep deprivation a nuisance at the very least and fatal at worst.
If you want to care for your body and mind, getting good sleep should be a major priority. That said, we’re all living in the real world. With hectic schedules and a million things to do, getting more shut-eye can easily fall by the wayside—unless you have a way to keep it top of mind. That’s where sleep tracking comes in.
What Does Sleep Tracking Do?
The best way to improve your sleep is to understand what factors are affecting it and how you can change them. That's where sleep tracking comes in. By collecting data about your sleep and sleep-related behavior, you can see where you're succeeding or struggling, identify your sleep patterns, and extract the insights you need to make smarter sleep choices.
What type of data does that include? It’s usually things like:
- Sleep and wake times
- Sleep duration
- Non-REM or REM sleep
- Heart rate
In recent years, sleep tracking has grown in popularity, thanks to new tools and technologies that do everything from monitor breathing to brain wave activity. If you want to start sleep tracking, there are several options available:
- Manual tracking: This requires manual data input and tracking via print logs, bullet journals, or other pen-and-paper options, such as our sleep tracking poster. To maintain the data, you need to be intentional about your sleep tracking practice. Manual tracking takes a little more work, but it's nice because you can plot and visualize the data, helping you more easily identify patterns.
- Digital apps: Phone apps monitor sleep patterns through sound and movement. They're usually placed on your nightstand. The benefit is that they track data automatically, without you having to think about it.
- Wearables: This includes wearable tech like Fitbits or sleep headbands, which can track heart rate and even brain activity.
- Mattress trackers: These devices go under your mattress and collect data on things like, breathing, snoring, heart rate, room temperature, etc.
A caveat about digital trackers: Sleep scientists note that these technologies aren’t the most intimate or accurate read on your sleep compared to a thorough medical sleep study, nor will they diagnose serious sleep disorders. In fact, interacting with more tech/screens before bed can make it harder to fall asleep. And if you’re obsessively stressing about your data, that can disrupt your sleep, too. Still, if you use them as a general guide, and take them with a grain of salt, they can be helpful.
How to Use Sleep Tracking to Improve Your Sleep
There are many things that can affect your sleep, including medication, stress, diet, biology, etc. Some things you don’t have control over, but there are many you do. Sleep tracking sheds light on those factors and helps you become more conscious and intentional about your sleep rituals.
Many people who do use sleep trackers (particularly digital ones) may be interested in the data collected, but they might not know what it means or how to use it to improve their sleep. If you’re new to sleep tracking, there are three main things that paint the picture of your sleep life. Depending on how detailed your tracker is, you can use the data collected to help you improve in the following areas:
1) Going to sleep at the right time. One of the best things you can do is regulate your bedtime and wake time. The more consistent you are, the more your body will naturally acclimate and make you sleepy enough to go to bed. Sleep tracking lets you see how your sleep and wake times vary—and better pinpoint ways to regulate them. For example, are you staying up too late after book club on Wednesday nights? You might want to start it sooner.
2) Getting enough sleep. By monitoring the duration of your sleep, you can spot trends and identify how your lifestyle or behavioral choices may be limiting your ability to get enough sleep. Do you sleep less when you have wine before bed? Do you consistently get less sleep Sunday nights because you’re worried about going to your stressful job on Monday? Sleep tracking can make these things clearer.
3) Getting enough of each stage of sleep. In essence, your sleep time is divided between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM cycles. When you sleep, you cycle through these stages 4-5 times a night. If data shows you are fitful and restless throughout the night, consider how you can change your environment or behaviors to improve your quality of sleep. For example, you might:
- Reduce light. The brighter your environment, the harder it is to fall asleep.
- Avoid screens, tech, and TV an hour before bed. Try to wind down and avoid consuming content through screens (especially stressful content, which spikes your cortisol).
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and huge meals right before bed. These stimulants can affect you even hours after you’ve had them.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can help you sleep better (although studies show doing a hard workout right before bed can keep you up).
Think of Sleep Tracking As a Helpful Friend
Although sleep tracking isn’t an exact science, it is a useful tool to remind you what your priorities are. As you strive for a healthier, more balanced life, think of it as less of a prescription and more of a motivation to make tomorrow a better, more rested day.