How to fall asleep

NOTE: I'm using Amazon Affiliate links for some of the product recommendations in this post, which means that if you buy something using that link I might get money. But everything I recommend are actual products that I own and use and no one paid me or gave me anything to recommend these specific products.

The title of this post isn't a clever metaphor – this is just my advice on how to fall asleep. I'm not a doctor or an expert on sleep. I'm just a person who's struggled to fall asleep for most of my life and only figured out how to reliably fall asleep at a reasonable hour relatively recently (in the last few years). For most of my life I would lie awake for hours in bed unable to fall asleep. But now that I've discovered this system, I consistently fall asleep within 15 minutes of when my head hits the pillow. And if I go to bed when I'm supposed to I often wake up naturally before my alarm goes off. I've always thought of myself as a night-person, but I've trained myself to become a morning person.

Also, if your issue is staying asleep, this post isn't going to help you. I've never had a problem staying asleep, so you'll need to look elsewhere for advice on that.

Rules for sleeping

Later on I'll explain the actual process I follow to fall asleep, but first I want to cover some general rules I follow for good sleep hygiene.

Only go to bed when you're tired

This is a tip I got from reading other lists online on tricks for sleeping. The rationale is that you want to classically condition your brain to associate your bed with sleeping. Lying in bed not sleeping messes with that association, so you should always wait until you're actually tired before getting in bed.

This advice sounds obvious to me when I say it, but it's actually not what I did for the majority of my life. When I was a kid I went to bed when my parents told me it was bed time. I carried this idea of "going to bed at bed time" into adulthood but it just doesn't work. I used to think that if I just went to bed at a reasonable hour I would get enough sleep, but you'll get more hours of sleep if you wait until you get tired first then go to bed.

Don't bring your phone to bed

This is another common tip you'll see online. People say that the light from your phone's screen will confuse your brain into think it's daytime or something. They usually blame the blue light from your screen, which has led to phones adding modes like Night Shift that filter out blue light and give your display a yellowish hue. I can't say for sure whether or not those night modes make a difference, but I know that I have trouble falling asleep if I'm on my phone in bed even with Night Shift on.

I used to bring my phone to bed with me and play on my phone (read news articles, etc.) until I got tired and fell asleep. But this usually took 2+ hours, which meant significantly fewer hours of sleep each night.

I know a lot of people use their phone as an alarm, so keeping your phone out of the bedroom may not be an option. As a compromise, at least make sure your phone is out of reach from your bed. I actually use my Apple Watch as my alarm, which I'll discuss later.

At the end of the day though (pun?), what really matters is just that you're not using your phone in bed or just before bed. I personally don't have the discipline to not use my phone if it's near me, but maybe that's not a problem for you.

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule

If you're reading this article, you've probably heard of circadian rhythms. I'm not going to offer a technical definition of what that means, but the basic idea is that your body likes to follow natural cycles for when to do things like sleeping.

The important thing is just that you try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.

(Optional) Avoid caffeine

I'm very sensitive to caffeine and if I have anything with caffeine in it after 10am, there's a good chance I'll have a hard time sleeping that night. This is abnormal though and most people I know drink coffee every day (even late in the day) and have no problem falling asleep. But if you're having trouble falling asleep, it might be because of caffeine or having caffeine too late in the day.

Personally I don't have any caffeine at all unless I'm really, really tired or hungover on a work day. If you are tired during the day, I've found that a 20 minute nap has the same effect as a cup of coffee without interfering with my sleep that night (assuming taking a nap is an option for you).

How I fall asleep

Step 0: Creating a sleep schedule and setting up my alarm

I work Monday-Friday from 9-5, but I work out before work three days a week. So on days when I work out I need to wake up at 6:30am. However, I sleep better when I stick to a consistent sleep schedule so I try to wake up at 6:30 even on weekdays when I'm not working out. I've found that I need 8 hours of sleep to feel well rested the next day, which means that I need to be asleep (asleep, not just in bed) by 10:30pm. It takes me about 15 minutes to fall asleep so my goal is to be in bed by 10pm (but I don't go to bed until I'm tired, see above). On weekends I'm usually going out and staying up much later (I go to bed between 12-3am) so I let myself sleep in on Saturday and Sunday.

Based on all this, the sleep schedule I've come up with is: On M-F start preparing to go to sleep at 9pm, go to bed at 10pm, alarm goes off at 6:30am, snooze 0-2 times, wake up and get out of bed. On weekends I go to bed whenever I want and don't set an alarm.

You might think there wouldn't be much to say about setting an alarm, but I actually have a pretty complicated alarm system configured on my iPhone. Since iOS 14 iPhones have had a feature called Sleep that includes an alarm for waking you up, a reminder when it's time to go to sleep, and sleep tracking through your Apple Watch.

You can read how to set it up here.

This is the sleep schedule I have configured through the Health app:

Screenshot of my sleep schedule in the Sleep section of the Health app. Days Active is Monday-Friday, Bedtime is 10:00 PM, and Wake Up is 6:30 AM.

My Sleep Goal is 8 hrs and I have Wind Down set to 1 hr, which will remind me to go to sleep at 9pm every week night. I also have it set up so all notifications on my phone are silenced while my phone is in Sleep mode, except for Slack notifications which are important for my job.

Another feature I love in Sleep is the ability to skip my alarm for one day. In the old days if I wanted to sleep in the next day I would turn off my alarm altogether, but then inevitably I'd forget to turn it back on later and would be late for work. With Sleep you can either skip your alarm for the next day, or set it to wake you up at a different time the next day only. It will automatically go back to its original time the following day.

Step 1: Take a melatonin one hour before I want to go to sleep

My goal is to go to sleep at 10pm, so I take a melatonin pill every weeknight at 9pm. It takes about an hour to kick in, so a little earlier than 9pm is fine for me, but if I don't take it until 9:30 I probably won't be sleepy until 10:30. I use the Wind Down notification on my iPhone as my reminder that it's time to take a melatonin pill.

I'm not a doctor, so I can't tell you what dose you should take, but I think it's common sense that you should take the lowest dose that's effective for you. For me, that's 3 mg but you may be fine with a lower dose or need a higher dose. I recommend starting with a low dose and only upping the dose if necessary. I've found that with higher doses I'll have weird dreams, which is apparently a side-effect of melatonin for some people. I don't have any weird dreams when I take 3 mg though.

I don't know if there's any difference between different brands of melatonin, but this is what I buy.

Step 2: Watch anime until I get sleepy

Sometimes (read: often), I'm already watching anime before 9pm, but regardless of what I'm doing I always start/continue watching anime at 9pm. Starting at 9pm I'll binge watch whatever anime TV show I'm watching at the moment until I start feeling sleepy. Each episode is ~20 minutes, so it usually works out to 2-4 episodes. When I feel my eyelids getting heavy, I notice I'm drifting in and out of sleep, or I'm pausing the episode to figure out how much time is left in the episode, it's time to go to bed. If I go to bed after I've reached this state I can reliably fall asleep within 15 minutes.

Ok, so you're probably wondering why anime. Or if there's something special about anime that induces sleep. No, I don't think there's anything special about anime. The goal of this step is to relax and stop thinking. If I was good at meditation that would probably work even better. But I'm not, so I use anime to get me into a pseudo-meditative state.

If meditation works for you, great, do that. But if you're not good at meditation and don't want to learn, I think there are other ways to relax and stop thinking somewhat. Other types of TV shows may work better for you, so just choose whatever you think will work best for you.

The reason why anime works better for me than other TV genres is because (don't hurt me 😳) it's repetitive, predictable, and has enough padding that you're not missing much if you close your eyes for a few minutes. Don't get me wrong, I love anime, but even the most action-packed animes usually have a ton of slow parts. I imagine binge watching reality-TV would work well too, but I'm not enough of a masochist to binge watch reality-TV. Cool, I think I've offended everyone now 😌

Step 3: Using a white noise generator

This step is the most optional, but I find it helpful. Over the summer I use a desk fan pointed at my bed to stay cool (see next step), and when it got colder and I stopped using the fan I found it was harder for me to fall asleep. At first I assumed it was a temperature thing, but then I thought maybe the constant noise of the fan was helping me fall asleep.

I bought a white noise machine on Amazon and thought I would try it to see if it made a difference. This is the one I bought. That's what The Wirecutter was recommending when I bought it, but now they recommend a newer model that's a bit cheaper, so maybe get that one instead.

At first using it felt kind of silly, and I found the noise a little annoying to be honest. But after using it for a week I got used to it. Now I use it every night it's hard for me to sleep without it. I'm not sure why background noise makes it easier to sleep, but it seems to work. Also, I think now I'm classically conditioned to associate the sound with sleeping, so it now acts a cue for my brain telling me to sleep.

One critique you may hear about white noise machines is that although they may help you fall asleep, the constant noise throughout the night actually lowers the overall quality of your sleep. I don't know if this is legit or not, but the white noise machine I bought has a setting that makes the noise automatically fade out after one hour. If you get the same one I bought, you just press the top of the leftmost button to turn it on, then press the bottom of that same button to set it to fade out and turn off after one hour.

Step 4: Getting comfortable

If you're not comfortable, it's going to be harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. I have some more tips on this in the next section, but I think the most important and hardest thing is getting your body to the right temperature. If any part of your body is too hot or too cold, sleeping can be a challenge.

Everyone's needs in this regard is unique so I'll just tell you what works for me, because it's kind of weird. For me to be comfortable I need to have a blanket or sheet covering my torso. But if I just put a full blanket over my whole body I get too hot and I can't sleep. So I'll either fold up the bottom corner of the blanket so my legs are exposed or rotate the whole blanket by 30° so my torso is covered but my legs are exposed. This seems like as good as time as any to mention that I currently don't share my bed with anyone, which, if you do, can definitely complicate some of these things 😅

I also only sleep in boxers (unless it's really cold), and I hate when the sheets are tucked under the mattress. I'm a back sleeper, so the tucked in sheets put too much pressure on my feet.

Anyway, that's a lot of random information that's highly specific to me and probably not what you should be doing. The point I'm trying to get across is that everyone's needs are different and may be very specific. Just figure out what's comfortable for you, don't be afraid to experiment, and don't worry if what's most comfortable for you sounds weird to other people.

Other stuff I find helpful for sleeping

A good mattress

I have the Saatva Classic. I'm happy with it, but I don't have strong opinions on mattresses. You can see what The Wirecutter recommends here.

A good pillow

I went through a phase where I tried a bunch of different pillows. Someday maybe I'll write a blog post on all the pillows I tried. Until then, I'll just say that I'm a back-sleeper and I'm really like the Ecosa Pillow. More recommendations from The Wirecutter here.

Earplugs

I live in a city and it can get pretty loud in the morning with trucks and construction. I don't sleep with earplugs in, but I do keep a pair of earplugs on my nightstand that I can pop-in on particularly noisy mornings.

A water bottle next to my bed

I have trouble breathing through my nose, so I breathe through my mouth when I sleep. Because my mouth is open most of the night it dries out and I get thirsty. Obviously any water bottle will do, but I prefer a bottle that can hold a lot of water so it last through the night and one with a sport top so I don't have to fight with a cap when I'm half asleep. Recently I splurged on a 32 oz Hydro Flask with the Straw Lid and a matching Bottle Boot which protects my nightstand if I put my bottle down too hard. $50 is a lot to spend on a water bottle, but I use it a lot so it's worth it for me.

Final Thoughts

Sleep is really important. Something I picked up on recently is that on days when I feel depressed, I'm usually just tired. Since I started sleeping 8 hours a day I've had a lot more energy and have been a lot more positive and upbeat. I hope this guide was helpful. Good luck!


Footnotes

  1. Throughout this post I use terminology implying that you go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. But if you work a night shift then you may be going to sleep in the morning and waking up at night. I've never worked nights so I don't know if my advice is applicable to a nocturnal schedule.
  2. Obviously taking a nap may not always be an option. I've been working from home since February 2020 and my favorite thing about working from home is being able to take quick naps between meetings that keep me energized for the rest of the work day.
  3. Because I'm so used to waking up at 6:30am, on weekends I'll usually wake up at around 7:30am even without an alarm. This can be problematic because if I went to bed at 3am the night before but wake up at 7:30am, that's only 4.5 hrs of sleep which may not be enough to get me through the day let alone the following night if I'm going out again. So I'll usually try to nap during the day to make up for it. It would obviously be better for my sleep health if I went to bed earlier on weekends, but that's not worth it to me and I can usually get back on a normal sleep schedule by Monday or Tuesday.
  4. Earlier versions of iOS had a feature called Bedtime which was similar to Sleep but with a different interface and fewer features.
  5. This isn't as bad as it sounds because I have a Do Not Disturb schedule configured in Slack that prevents all Slack notifications outside of my working hours. But when I'm on-call I'll turn off my Do Not Disturb schedule which will allow notifications to get through 24x7 since I make an exception for Slack notifications in my Sleep Focus settings.
  6. In the summer I just often use only a top sheet while in the winter I use a top sheet and duvet/comforter. If I'm just sleeping under a sheet I'll cover my torso with the sheet and leave my legs or feet exposed to the air. If I'm using a sheet and duvet I'll cover my full body with the sheet and position the duvet so it's only covering my torso.

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