milky way on mountains. Image on article talking about sleep restriction.

📢 Sleep restriction is the critical first step in overcoming insomnia for good. It is the backbone of everything that follows in this program, so please take special note of this section.

What is Sleep Restriction?

Sleep restriction, also known as sleep compression, is when you purposefully sleep less and spend less time in bed. By doing so, your sleep patterns more closely match your current sleep/wake cycle and help you fall asleep more easily at a consistent time. The goal of sleep restriction is to gradually extend the amount of time you sleep per night so you eventually sleep a full night (7-9 hours, depending on your needs).

So remember that sleep diary aka sleep restriction calculator I told you to fill in last week?

>>Here is the sleep diary/sleep restriction calculator again if you didn’t download it<<

Here is where that data comes in.

Step 1

In column ‘O’, you’ll find your average number of hours you in one week. Round up to the nearest half hour. 

That average number of hours you slept will be your aim for number of hours every night.

So for example, your average 5 hours per night in one week. This might mean you slept 2 hours in one night, and 8 hours the next. It doesn’t matter – take your average.

Your aim is to sleep a solid 5 hours per night for at least one week straight. 

If you’re thinking “well that doesn’t sound very good”, I’ll tell you right now it’s not the ideal. But it’s WORLDS better than an erratic sleep schedule. And you’ll keep building on it so you can one day (soon) sleep a full night.

Step 2

With this information, you need to find your new wake time. 

Your wake time will be the driver for creating a regular routine.

This is because your wake time is the only constant you can control with insomnia. 

Let’s say you have to be up for work at 7am. With that in mind, you will be waking up at 7am every day, including weekends. You can get by with 30 extra minutes, but try not to sleep in.

There may be some truly awful days where you don’t fall asleep until 5am, but you still need to wake up at 7am. If you feel like you absolutely need to sleep in after a bad night, limit yourself to one extra hour. And don’t do this for more than twice per week. 

Even doing this can throw off your schedule as you’re trying to establish your new routine. Because when you sleep in, you delay the rise in body temperature in the morning. This is necessary for you to fall asleep1. So stick with your new schedule as best as you can. 

It’s also important to get out of bed right after you wake up. Don’t go on your phone, or just lay there – get up. Again the idea is to associate your bed with sleep, so if you’re awake for the day, get up.

A Word About Naps While Doing Sleep Restriction

Puppy sleeping outside on a white blanket

Napping should be limited to only when you absolutely need it. It should never be longer than 45 minutes, and never past 3pm.

If you sleep for longer, you fall into the deeper stages of sleep and essentially ‘borrow’ from the night to come2. So you end up weakening your deep sleep that should be happening at night. And when you sleep later than 3pm, it will mess with your body rhythms. This makes it much more difficult to fall asleep at night. 

Step 3

Find your new bedtime.

In this example where the average is 5 hours per night, and the person has to wake up at 7am. Their new goal is to go to sleep at 2am. 

Now add one additional hour to your bedtime and that is the EARLIEST you should go to bed. So in this example, 1am is the earliest you should lay down in bed.

You don’t have to go to bed at this time. You can lay down any time between 1am-1:45am (I recommend giving yourself 15 minutes before your sleep time to settle). This is just the earliest you should even try going to bed. 

By doing sleep restriction (aka going to bed later and waking up at the same time every day) it more closely matches your average sleep time.

This will give you better sleep efficiency. Which if you remember, helps ingrain the idea that your bed = sleep.

So in this instance, someone who sleeps an average of 5 hours should give themselves a maximum of 6 hours in bed. If all goes according to plan, your sleep efficiency will hover around 85% which is wonderful. 

If you sleep an average of 6 hours, give yourself a maximum amount of time in bed of 7 hours. 

The only stipulation is that if your average is less than 5 hours, you should still give yourself at least 5 hours and 30 minutes in bed. So if your average is 4, 3, or even an ungodly 2 or 1, still give yourself 5 hours and 30 minutes in bed. 

The 20/30 Rule

Last week I told you to get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes.

I want to reiterate how important this is to do during this transitional period of sleep restriction.

Now, you won’t know if it’s exactly 20-30 minutes because you won’t be checking any clocks (I’ll get into that in the next article). However, if you are not getting tired after a few minutes of laying down and start tossing and turning, this is when you should move to a different room.

Remember – the reason that you should move rooms if you can’t sleep is because chronic insomnia is a conditioned response.  Somewhere along the line, you started to associate your bed with not sleeping.

If you only go to your bed when you are sleepy, you will then recondition your mind to associate your bed with sleep, rather than restlessness and stress. Move to another room for a few minutes and do something relaxing if you can’t sleep. Only return to your bed when you become sleepy. If you return to your bed and still cannot sleep, repeat the process. 

Step 4

Do NOT go to bed earlier than your new bed time.

Raise your hand if you’ve tried going to bed early to catch up on sleep. Only to find you’re up ‘til the wee hours anyway.

This is a common coping strategy amongst insomniacs. However, it’s counterintuitive when it comes to actually solving insomnia because it makes insomnia worse3. That’s right, say it with me – going to bed earlier makes insomnia worse

This is because of our wake cycle and the buildup of that sleep neurotransmitter adenosine I mentioned previously. The earlier you go to bed, the more you reduce prior wakefulness. In turn, you reduce the amount of time for sleep pressure to kick in and create adenosine. So only go to bed at your new bedtime (in this example, 1am). 

Step 5

Establish your first building block.

The goal here isn’t to suddenly go from an erratic schedule to a blissful 8 hours. It’s to go from an erratic schedule to a consistent, manageable schedule that you can build upon. 

In this example, the goal is to go to bed at earliest 1am and sleep from 2am-7am for one week straight. If you don’t achieve this right away, keep trying until you do. 

If you stay consistent, your body should catch on within a matter of weeks. For reference when I started, each week got progressively better. But it took me about four weeks to have one week straight of 5 hours per night. I was still tired, but mentally I felt like a million bucks because I could fall asleep within minutes and sleep in one solid block of time. 

⮞ Once you sleep a consistent 5 hours (or whatever you average is) per night for one week straight, add 15 minutes to your bedtime. 

In this example, the person would move their bed time up to 1:45am and go to bed at earliest 12:45am (from 2am/1am).

⮞ Once you are sleeping 5.25 hours for one week, you add another 15 minutes. Now you have a bed time of 1:30am and go to bed at earliest 12:30am.  

In the grand scheme of things, someone who sleeps an average of 5 hours per night should reasonably be able to get a solid 7 hour block of sleep per night in 8-12 weeks.

How does that sound?

If you are thinking that is a long time, just remember how long you’ve been dealing with chronic insomnia already. You have survived many sleepless nights before, you’ll survive this. Plus I hope it’s an easier pill to swallow when you know there’s an end date. 

I’ll say it again, there is an end date to your insomnia. This is the home stretch where you have to put in the hard work, but it pays off immensely.

Here’s the ‘Why’ of Sleep Restriction

I will tell you right now, sleep restriction is easily the best thing you can do to overcome insomnia. When you more closely align your average sleep with the amount of time you spend in bed, your sleep efficiency will go up significantly. If you need a quick recap of sleep efficiency, it means you’ll spend most of your time in bed sleeping rather than tossing, turning, and just being awake. 

As mentioned previously, if the only time you spend in bed is when you are sleeping, you are now creating a new association that bed = sleep, and breaking the association that bed = anxiety + stress. 

Additionally, you take pressure off of yourself that you “have” to get to bed early because you didn’t sleep well the night before. I don’t know about you, but just taking the pressure off that I “should” or “have to be” in bed by 11pm or whatever made a world of difference for my stress around sleep.

The most important factor is your wake time. Because the more you strengthen that sleep/wake cycle, the easier it’ll be for sleep to come naturally. Again, that cycle will be driven by your consistent wake time.

But what if sleep restriction doesn’t work for me?

You will have nights while restricting where you won’t fall asleep at your prescribed time. This isn’t failure – this just means you have to keep trying. Keep waking up at the same time, every single day, even weekends, and your body WILL catch on.

Sleep restriction rarely fails. If it does, it’s likely because you are finding a workaround like sleeping in on weekends, taking too long of naps, trying to go to bed earlier than your scheduled time, or any other number of reasons. 

If, for some reason, you are one of the few who follows their sleep restriction schedule and it still doesn’t work after 6 weeks, you have to find a way to exhaust yourself during the day. When I say “doesn’t work”, I mean that you honestly followed the directions to a T and still have three or more nights of not sleeping in one solid block of time. 

If you are restricting and have a bad night here and there, that’s ok. Try again the next night.

Go for a long hike. Run. Punch a punching bag for 2 hours. Whatever it takes, just get yourself so tired that your body has to comply.

📍Quest #2

Find your new bedtime and wake time. Start your new schedule tonight.