Sleep debt sucks, but you can repay yourself with a bit of work.

If I had a quarter for every time someone thought they were screwed for life because of sleep debt, I’d have about $100 by now. So what is sleep debt?

a photo of a brick wall that say 'until debt tear us apart'.

Sleep debt is when you lose sleep and ‘the balance’ carries over to the next day1. So let’s say your optimal amount of sleep is 8 hours but you sleep for 6, you have a sleep debt of 2 hours. If you don’t sleep well for a few nights, it compounds. For example, if you sleep 6 hours for three nights in a row, you now have 6 hours of sleep debt. 

Sleep debt is paid off by sleeping an extra hour or two per night until you’ve paid off your debt2. Depending on how long you have been carrying sleep debt around, it may take days, weeks or months to repay. 

There is a big misconception that if you didn’t sleep well for a few nights a few years ago, you have been carrying around sleep debt ever since. But if you have been sleeping fine ever since, you are not carrying around any sleep debt. 

What Sleep Debt Means for Insomnia

Here’s the deal with sleep debt, and the specifics around how to ‘repay’ while having insomnia.

As someone with insomnia, you will not be able to pay it off right away. The reason for this is you need a regular schedule first (as outlined in the sleep restriction section). By doing this, yes, you will accumulate debt. But it’s an investment that will grow with well-being dividends. 

Here’s what I mean – as you are recovering from insomnia and trying to get a sleep schedule, it isn’t recommended that you suddenly go from an erratic schedule to aiming for 9 or 10 hours per night. There are necessary steps in between. 

It’s kind of like training for a marathon.

You don’t go from not running at all to suddenly running 42.2 kilometers. You train to run 5k, 10k, a half marathon, etc. before you tackle the whole thing. 

Just as you’d probably fracture your shins if you went from 0 to a whole marathon, you would be remiss to go from an erratic sleep schedule to thinking you should sleep 10 hours straight per night. There’s some mental and physical work that needs to be done in between for that to even be possible.

How an Insomniac Repays Sleep Debt

Here are the steps you need to ultimately get a healthy sleep schedule:

  1. Sleep in one solid block of time in accordance with sleep restriction guidelines
  2. Once you are sleeping a solid block for one week straight, you add 15 minutes to that block of time do that for one week
  3. Continue adding 15 minutes to your sleep time until you reach at least 7 hours of sleep OR you begin to feel rested on most days. So if you don’t feel rested on 7 hours per night, keep adding 15 minutes per week until you do feel rested.
  4. Do a gut check. As I mentioned above, repaying sleep debt means sleeping an extra hour or two sometimes. If you play with your schedule too soon (before you dissociate from negative emotions around sleep), this will set you back and throw off the progress you’ve made. So do not repay your sleep debt until you have a relaxed attitude around sleep.
  5. Now that you’re relaxed and sleep isn’t a major issue in your life, repay your debt. By this point, you are regularly sleeping 7+ hours per night in one block AND your attitude has shifted around sleep. You can now begin sleeping in or going to bed earlier as needed without dramatically throwing off your following night. 
  6. Once your debt is repaid, you will gradually decrease the amount of time you need to sleep and settle into your natural sleep pattern that is just right for you.

Unlike training for a marathon which normally takes one year if you’re a beginner, it won’t take you as long to repair your sleep debt once you have a regular schedule. It may take a few months, but you can undo literally years of sleep debt.

Some people do this by booking a holiday and doing nothing. Literally nothing. Like, don’t book a European vacation and plan full days of sightseeing and wine tours. Book a secluded cabin in the woods where there’s not much to do other than enjoy being surrounded by nature. 

Emerald lake lodge in Yoho National Park in Canada is a great place to try to pay off your sleep debt.

Emerald Lake Lodge. Photo by Jody Robbins

The goal is to sleep and wake up when you want, and have your day contain no stress whatsoever.

I did this twice – once while camping for a week on Canada’s west coast, and 10 days in Iceland in April. The camping was great because there were no devices. I went to sleep when it got dark (around 10pm) and didn’t wake up until 8 or 9am. Iceland was awesome too because it was so dead and cold in April that there wasn’t much to do other than sit in a hot tub and watch the northern lights and relax.

If you’re thinking, “I can’t do that – I have rowdy kids or too much to do!”

Listen. You need to make time for yourself. You don’t need to go anywhere – send the kids to grandma’s, cancel all plans, and lounge around all day for a weekend. Order food so there’s no dishes. Do all the cleaning leading up to your weekend if a mess bothers you.  Better yet, hire a professional cleaner if you can. This isn’t the time to check off your to-do list. The only thing you should be doing is whatever the hell you feel like and sleeping.

It’s not selfish to take a bit of time for yourself. It’s necessary self-care. And not in the indulgent “I’m going to shirk all my responsibilities and have the time of my life while other people are having a hard time” kind of way. If you do your due diligence, no one else suffers when you take time. The kids are fine. Responsibilities can wait, or be done beforehand. 

What I’m talking about is necessary maintenance to your wellbeing. Your health is the most important thing in your life. Your mental and physical health, which sleep is a fundamental part of, are literally the backbone to everything else in your life.

Repaid Sleep Debt

A funny thing happens once you repay your debt. When you miss sleep again, you’ll feel way more tired than you would have on the same amount of sleep as an insomniac. So what that means is when you sleep 6 hours as an insomniac, it doesn’t affect you very much. But once you top up that sleep piggy bank, 6 hours will make you feel groggier than hell. There’s no actual difference in the effect, other than sleep deprivation being more noticeable.

Can I Stock Up on Sleep!?

If only, right? Smartasses telling parents-to-be to “SleEp WhiLe YoU cAn” would actually have a point. But alas, they are wrong. Dead wrong. Here’s why:

In short, think of your sleep health as a piggy bank like this:

a white piggy bank with a red bow as someone puts a penny in the top

There is a limited amount of space, so it can only get so full. Your goal is to always keep it topped up, because there is no room for extra savings. Once the piggy is full, it actually can’t handle anymore.

When you have sleep debt, you’re withdrawing from the bank account. It’s ok when this happens every once in a while, because it’s easy enough to top up if it’s still relatively full. It’s harder to get those first few pennies back once it’s depleted.

However, just like it can only get so full, it can only get so empty too. So you won’t have an infinite list of IOU’s to repay, you just need to prioritise savings for a while.