If you’re in college or grad school and your New Year’s resolutions include plans like “earn higher grades,” “complete more work on time,” or even just “be more productive,” there’s one more resolution you should add to your list: get more sleep. It might sound counterintuitive—how do you get more done by making a resolution to spend more time doing nothing? But there are solid economic, medical, and social arguments that you’ll do better in school if you commit to eight hours a night, every night. Better yet, a spike in sleep research from all academic disciplines in the past few years means that the best advice for how you should sleep has gotten much better than just telling you to cut out the coffee.
Why You Should Go to Sleep (even if you still have homework)
I’ll start with the quantitative arguments for why you should sleep more: higher productivity and better health. Super-CEO Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, has written an entire book on the value of sleep for productivity and happiness at work. Huffington argues that taking a regular nightly break from “today's fast-paced, always-connected, perpetually-harried and sleep-deprived world” is a necessity—as do the French workers who no longer have to monitor their email outside of work hours. For more on the complex relationship between sleep and economic success, check out Freakonomics’ two-part podcast on sleep. One of their experts reports that “permanently increasing sleep by an hour per week for everybody in a city increases the wages in that location by about 4.5%.”
Along with promoting productivity at school and work, getting enough sleep also gives you a better chance at good health over both the short and long term. Although we’ve long known that cutting your sleep hours short can reduce your immune system’s function and increase your susceptibility to viruses, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker has now shown that sleep deprivation may increase the likelihood of dementia and lower your number of cancer-fighting cells. You can take Walker’s own advice: “I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night.” So if you’ve ever gotten less studying done than you wanted to because you had a bad cold or you just couldn’t focus, maybe too little sleep was to blame.
How to Make Sleep Happen
Sleep, like any other habit, works best if you make it a routine. While people in other time periods and cultures have practiced a variety of sleep schedules, including pre-industrial sleepers who woke in the middle of the night for a brief dorveille before returning to bed, most experts now recommend eight straight hours a night at the same time every night. Matthew Walker has more to add on this point: “If there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what.” In other words, apply your time management skills until you can fit all your daytime activities into sixteen hours—so you can block the remaining eight off for sleep.
Of course, it is also a good idea to cut out coffee and other sources of caffeine in the afternoons and evenings and to reduce your exposure to bright lights in the last couple hours before bedtime. Apps like Flux and the iPhone’s Night Shift can reduce the brightness of your computer and phone screen in the evenings, although the very best option would be to keep screens out of your bedroom entirely and read on paper at night.
What to Do If You Can’t Sleep
Of course, making a resolution to sleep more is one thing—and actually falling and staying asleep is another. The classic advice for nights when you can’t fall asleep is to get up, go to another, darkened room, and sit in a chair until you feel tired. You can read if you want, but no checking screens or clocks. The goal is to stop tossing and turning in bed (which keeps you awake) but not engage with any stimulating activities (which will wake you up further).
If you want a higher-tech solution, you might get your phone involved—not for checking email or social media, but for sounds that can soothe you to sleep. Meditation apps like Buddhify offer guided meditations for falling asleep, while podcasts like Sleep with Me offer a more creative approach, promising to tell you a story that’s just interesting enough to focus your mind but just dull enough to let you drift off peacefully. Finally, if you think you might be experiencing insomnia or another sleep disorder, you should of course seek medical advice.
Why You Should Start Now
Because college is a busy time where services like 24-hour libraries and all-night dining halls encourage you to stay awake, you may be thinking that you can wait until later in life to develop good sleeping habits. In response, I give you one more point from Dr. Walker: “An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention.” And it’s not only your physical health that benefits from a regular sleep schedule. Norman E. Rosenthal, an expert on seasonal affective disorder (SAD), has argued that college students’ erratic sleep schedules can actually increase their likelihood of experiencing SAD because they sleep through valuable early morning light exposure.
So try making this January your “Get to Bed On Time!” month—and watch as your semester gets off to a strong start.
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